Margaret Wilson Reckling’s views of Woody Creek
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Poison hemlock thrives here, and cellphone signals die. Where the narrow asphalt road finally surrenders to a red dirt lane, hopes and dreams can easily get buried in winter’s seven-month snowpack, and there is plenty of time to contemplate one’s life journey. For a nature-loving introvert like me, it’s heaven on Earth.
Other than random flurries of gunfire, it’s a quiet place where the whisper of the wind is the language spoken, and the occasional scream of a hawk pierces the air. The night music is a chorus of howling coyotes, hooting owls, trumpeted elk bugles and the soft gurgle of Woody Creek.
In Woody Creek Canyon, great blue herons choose to build their rookeries and bald eagles come to fish the creek and beaver ponds. Numerous wild and wooded gullies out of the White River National Forest and off of Vagneur Mountain make the canyon floor where I live a main winter corridor for hundreds of elk and smaller groups of deer. Black bears, mountain lions and coyotes are regulars.
The color palette of this mountain enclave changes dramatically with the seasons, making the landscape an artist’s dream. Muted, monochromatic shades of late fall and winter give way to an explosion of greens in spring before the summer transition into the fall; it is a sensory overload and such a blessing to bear witness to these miracles of change.
Here, sunsets often kindle a religious experience, and the sunrises can be downright poetic. Nighttime offers a magical observatory for contemplating the moon and its loyal cycle against a backdrop of black heavens, truly infinite with their glittering stars. And on moonless nights, detecting your hand in front of your face is impossible.
In my years here, I’ve discovered that time does not exist as humanity has attempted to define it, nor do the priorities of my former urban life. Their meaning has been carried away on the northwest winds. The decision to live in this spot that seems so remote to some but so central to my existence could be attributed to fate, but I consider it destiny.
During my childhood and teenage years, my parents brought me and my three older brothers to Aspen to ski in the winter and to spend long summer days exploring the mountains. Summers meant riding horses to the Woody Creek Store (now the Woody Creek Tavern) for a sweet treat, to the iron-ore dump, up to McLain Flats for the annual W/J Rodeo. We even rode into Aspen to overnight at my family’s home on Red Mountain.
But the real highlights of my summer rides were the pack trips we made to the Vagneur cow camp, situated high in the backcountry and nestled in a small valley chock full of emerald evergreens. An aspen tree-covered mountainside rises high above and a sweet creek runs right behind the cabin.
So dearly do I treasure these times that I’m in a state of eternal gratefulness to have now arrived at a life in Woody Creek. I’ve been blessed with a soul-enriching gift. With a sense of true wonderment I appreciate the beauty of these mountains — no matter how harsh the constant changes in weather.
The surrounding forest provides a constant flow of varied wildlife, and I follow the struggles of all these creatures as they hunt, eat, procreate, weaken and die. Long winters of deep snows intensify their plight, and observing their lives leaves me with a deeper appreciation for my own comfortable existence.
This rugged country also instills in me a profound respect for the early homesteaders here. I am awed by their inspiring perseverance. I find myself often wondering, “How did the early inhabitants cope with these conditions that I’m experiencing and actually thrive?”
My home, originally the headquarters of the Elkhorn Ranch that Jeremie Vagneur homesteaded in the 1880s, has me walking in the footsteps of some of these early inhabitants. As I manage and work the same irrigation ditches that they dug and toiled over or slip into my farmhouse — built in the late 1880s by their skilled hands — I feel the spirits of the pioneering souls who came before me. When I find an old tool in the dirt or an antique potato basket protruding from the ground, I’ll wonder, “Who held this when it was new? What was their life like?”
Their hard work has motivated me to restore my own place, now a much smaller ranch, after years of neglect and inactivity. I aspire to nurture this land into its fullest productivity and beauty.
Restoring this homestead honors the spirit of these ranchers, and I treasure the occasional artifacts unearthed in the process.
Since I was a young girl I’ve been inspired by the experiences this area offers and the impressions it makes, and I have written poetry. More recently, I have been swept up in photography and plein air painting, all in an effort to capture the timeless glory and wild splendor of Woody Creek. With these images, I hope to convey the reverence I have for this place that has shaped my life and brought me peace. •
Margaret Wilson Reckling is an award-winning photographer and former Aspen Times columnist. She has spent the last five years managing and restoring a Woody Creek homestead ranch. Her book of photographs and reflections, “Woody Creek: Views from a Homestead,” will be published Oct. 1. Early copies will be available at book-signings with Reckling at Skye Gallery (Saturday, June 29 from noon to 6 p.m.), Explore Booksellers (Tuesday, July 9, 5:30 p.m.) and Aspen Historical Society (Thursday, Aug. 1, 4-6 p.m.).
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.