The Grand Mesa presides over the western slope, misty blue in the distance, an imminent presence. Traveling along the northern slope of the Sneffels range it is impossible to ignore, a massive flat terrain dominating the landscape, various mountain ranges clustered like subjects at its feet.
After years of declaring a desire to experience the legendary ski slopes of Grand Mesa, but stuck with home obligations and busy doing other cool stuff, one Saturday in late March saw us turn our backs on the trail local ski area and finally heading north, Nordic gear loaded into the truck. A stop at the car wash proved cathartic, a winter’s worth of magnetic chloride, mud, mud and inertia washed away, and we proceeded with clean undercarriage and renewed vigor.
The boss had found a neat B&B outside of Cedaredge and had planned a pleasantly overbooked weekend. The first stop was at Eagle Rock Shelter, an alcove containing ancient ruins and rock art, overlooking the Gunnison River east of Delta. A few miles down a dirt road through dusty scrubland, we came upon an indescribable trailhead, a narrow path winding through grasses and prickly pears and descending into a small canyon.
It was a short hike, about 20 minutes, along the drainage of a small canyon, 50 foot high walls, but it was a thrill to be on dry dirt, in shorts, bathed by a afternoon which was in fact hot, a primal instinct awakened. The mouth of our side canyon opened into a large park containing irrigated vineyards, hemmed in by the wider slopes of the main canyon where the river makes a big bend.
The bottom comprised a small private world, sheltered from the wind, out of sight of the plateau above. It was here that people chose to live for almost thirteen thousand years, the oldest habitation, according to archaeologists, found in North America – so far. It was our private world for much of a spring afternoon.
Lunch by the river, Little wading through the water and eventually jumping in, a lazy half-nap – an all-too-rare indulgence – in the sand among the cobblestones, baseball cap pulled over his face, the whispers of the water moving over the rocks and a choppy wind across the hill, and the afternoon slipped away, the sun heavy and yellow above the edge of the canyon.
Our next stop was the Fruit Growers Reservoir for bird watching. We had the place to ourselves, until a few Junction birders showed up, informing us that the sandhill cranes were late this year, possibly due to the March we had been enjoying. Three cranes swooped in for a landing on the water just before sunset, joining the mergansers, ducks and geese already there, watched by the resident great blue herons from their nests atop a large stand of cottonwood the other side of the lake.
In the evening, we bid farewell to our new friends, our zeal for dinner outweighing the excitement of waiting for new cranes to arrive. Before reloading, I took the dog to the water’s edge to wash off a pile of poop she had rolled around in. Goose shit, we think. We hope.
Saved by Dr. Bronner, we continued into Cedaredge with rumbling stomachs, only to find the sidewalks rolled up. We returned to Delta’s Italian joint for marinara ravioli and fettuccine alfredo with sausage, washed down with a lovely chianti. Bellissima. Ultimately, we follow our bellies through life, just like everyone else.
Columns of smoke spiraled in the morning along the Uncompahgre Valley as farmers burned their ditches. The air smelled faintly of burnt sugar, and details in the distance were obscured by the curtain of fires, except for the instantly recognizable rectangular shape of Lizard Head Rock, which bears no resemblance to a lizard or a head, spied through a breach in the Wilson Range from our vantage point halfway up the mesa. The road led out of spring, freshly turned fields, blooming tulips, and back into winter.
The frosting at the top of the mesa was blindingly white and inviting. Getting ready, we chose a trail through the shady woods, the day quickly warming up. Plunging in and out of the creek drains, the skis sang, sighed in sun-softened stretches, slapping on the strange piece of frozen crust, the miles ticking by.
With no jagged peaks to obstruct the view, we were swept up into a huge, impossibly blue sky, the Western Slope below, San Juans to the south, the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west, Bookcliffs to the north. The Grand Mesa acts as a great bulkhead, separating northern Colorado from the south. When facing west from Lands’ End, it’s hippies on the left, hicks on the right.
Until the 1960s, cowpokes tending their herds here spent summers without telephones or electricity, a primitive world apart, much like natives at the bottom of rivers, centuries passing like clouds without a care. little industrious creatures below. And we worked hard, taking turns towing the little one to the start of the trail, once she announced in a distant place, as usual, her fatigue and imminent death in the form of broken knees and falling of his legs.
The rolling terrain was a lifesaver, the climbs short and reasonably painless, the groomed trails skirting the edges of frozen lakes. With the brainstorming of the two pulling at the same time – a two-mule cart – life became incredibly luxurious, and we flew down the track, the little one holding a pole basket in each hand, laughing, periodically asking why we didn’t couldn’t go any faster. Passing skiers were amused.
By mid-afternoon the snow had rotted and we descended into the underworld, the ditch fires dwindling to a blanket of ground fog, confident that our bellies would find a good place to eat on the way back.
Sean can be contacted at [email protected]