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Food, Friends, Politics, and Fall

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – November 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT WOULD BE FAIRLY EASY at this point to go on a rant about the presidential race, the new welfare for bankers program or the ongoing economic crisis, which only means some people with money now have a glimpse of the same black hole I’ve been staring down my entire adult life.

Frankly, I’d rather write about something that actually matters, like food, friends and this season of change we call fall, but in some way I suppose it all ties together.

A recent purchase of a bushel of organically raised Cubanelle red peppers seemed a bit extravagant at $40. But then considering that winter is on the way, along with the possibility of socioeconomic collapse, perhaps the peppers were a hedge against future uncertainties in the vegetable commodities market.

The Cubanelle variety was developed in Italy, but is also apparently favored in Caribbean cooking. It is nearly as fat as a bell pepper, but longer. It has an intense flavor, which tends toward sweet rather than hot.

The plan: Freeze most of the peppers, dry some, and eat as many as possible in the meantime in an attempt to dull the mind during a time when everything outside seems perfect but everything inside seems in a state of disarray. The flavor of the Cubanelle speaks fall in a way that can only be experienced through the smell of these peppers roasting or dehydrating in the oven.

It’s been one of the most beautiful autumns in memory. While the rest of the world has been wringing its hands over happenings on Wall Street and the presidential race, here in the Wet Mountains the aspen trees began to turn early, then hung onto their leaves for longer than usual.

Political candidates often are caught saying something, and then trying to backtrack out of it. Consider this: If the Colorado River Compact were to be renegotiated, what does that mean for the upper Arkansas River Valley, where on average about a third of the water in the river is transported from the Colorado River Basin, and a large portion of the economy is based on river-rafting, fishing and other tourism-related activities fed by the river.

What does the same thing mean for farmers and ranchers in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where much of this same water is used to irrigate crops? These farmers include my friends Doug and Kim Wiley, who grew the aforementioned Cubanelle peppers.

These are the questions that raise dark figurative storm clouds while in reality day after day of blue skies are punctuated scarcely by light, welcome rain showers. The snow and wind, for the most part, stayed at bay, and the idyllic fall weather also brought with it a stream of visitors.

MY FRIEND HECTOR MELENDEZ who lives just down the road has been visiting regularly, bringing with him a big bag of homegrown salad greens. In turn, I help him shovel loads of composted burro manure for his gardens into his pickup truck and we talk. Inevitably the conversation turns to politics, and we are shoveling manure with both our bodies and our minds.

Curtis Imrie was in the general area because “Chasing Tail,” the trailer for his independent film, was among a few short films screened in Pueblo at the Independence Film Festival. The 7-minute glimpse of his long-form documentary was made in the Arkansas Valley region, and features not only Imrie but other area residents as well. It is largely centered on Colorado’s only indigenous sport, pack-burro racing.

I’ve known Curtis well enough to have watched this film being made over the past three decades. It contains footage from his early adulthood, on through this past year, when a donkey he owns, Mordecai, was selected as the mascot for the Democratic National Convention held in Denver. It was this latest chapter that caught the attention of Denver-based videographer Viviana Madronero-Rivero of Gato Productions, who helped him sort through an ice chest full of footage.

“To many people, racing donkeys in remote mountain towns might seem like a joke. In the context of a human life, it is the direct antithesis of an average American life with a house in the suburbs, 2.5 kids and an all-consuming career aimed at financial and material acquisition. But for people like Curtis, it is a way of life that provides joy, clarity and happiness,” Viviana says.

CURTIS CALLED from a pay phone in Pueblo to say that he’d be arriving late. So I waited up. For all the years I’ve known him, Curtis has owned some less-than-dependable vehicles. So I had begun to wonder if perhaps he was cooling the overheated radiator of his ’80s vintage pickup somewhere in Hardscrabble Canyon when I finally saw headlights. Imagine my surprise when he drove up in a 2008 Chevrolet Duramax Diesel, 4-wheel-drive, extra-cab, longbed pickup truck still decked out with dealer plates.

In these troubled economic times the independent film business apparently pays better than the writing business.

The following weekend, Chris McGinnis visited Westcliffe to watch her son play football. The Buena Vista team of 9-year-olds was taking on Custer County at the park. Chris was the intrepid reporter at the Leadville Herald-Democrat when I was the editor and general manager there. She became editor when I left and went on to become the special editions editor at the Chaffee County Times in Buena Vista. Some of our discussion included politics and the political endorsements made by certain area newspapers.

Our friends Jeff and Elodia have a house nearby on Bear Basin Ranch that I keep an eye on in the winter months. They live in Florida most of the year but have learned that fall is the best time of the year to spend at their Colorado home. They also keep two horses here.

One morning during their visit I stopped by their place and Jeff and I decided to get outside. He brought his horse, and I my burro, and we headed to the Willow Creek/Adobe Peak area in the Wet Mountains east of here for some riding, hiking and jogging. It was one of those spectacular days that almost makes a winter of wind chill, followed by a spring of gale-force wind and a summer of lightning storms worthwhile. On the way down the mountain I was awed by one lone aspen tree that was not gold but bright red.

When Elodia cooks a traditional Mexican dinner, as she did the following evening, it is not something to be missed. She and Jeff bade goodbye to the neighborhood with a feast of carné asada, corn and flour tortillas, pico de gallo and guacamole.

A couple of days later Craig Schreiber, an old friend from Leadville, called to say he would be stopping in for an overnight visit with his son, Talus, who is a year younger than my son Harrison. Craig is a landscape architect who makes his living drawing and painting landscape perspectives. Talus and Harrison played as we caught up with Craig, who is recently divorced and sorting through some other midlife issues.

We rudely invited him along to dine with our neighbors Pete and Nancy Hedberg, who had invited us for a dinner of home-raised grassfed beef steaks. Doug had spiced up my pepper purchase with a small bag of roasted Cubanelles so I brought them along as a side dish to the steaks. We noted that almost everything on our plates had been raised within an hour’s drive.

Craig is a fanatical kayaker and knows every rapid on the Arkansas. He had an Obama sticker on his 1990 Volkswagen, so the next day I sent some Cubanelle peppers home to Leadville with him.

By all accounts this area of the Wet Mountains was a vibrant rural community back in the early 1900s. There was a working lead mine in the area. Potato farming was prevalent, as was ranching. The evidence of this former community is seen today only in the old rock foundations, stone-lined hand-dug wells, and ramshackle cabins such as the one along the small creek in the valley below my house.

SOMETHING HAPPENED with the economy, and the people simply left. I suspect some sort of economic downturn, probably coupled by a shortage or inability to secure or transport food, led to the exodus. The loneliest person was the last one to leave.

Only in recent years with higher standards of living, reliable vehicles, free-flowing fuel, supermarkets, superior methods of food storage, advances in housing — and ways to make money out of thin air — has it again become comfortable to live in such a remote area. Only time will tell if this lifestyle is sustainable.

One day recently there was a note of seriousness on the wind that said, “There’s some momentum behind this thing.” When you’ve lived here as long as I have you know deep inside that within two days the season’s first snow will fall. I bucked the wind to run past the falling-down cabin. Not far past there, two Wilson’s snipe flushed from the swampy creekbottom sounded their distinctive cry of alarm. They set their wings against a gust and disappeared on the wind of change.

Hal Walter received those visitors near the ghost town of Ilse in the Wet Mountains, where he cultivates prose and burros.