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Former Aspenite shares tales of the desert

Stina Sieg
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Karen Chamberlain will give a lecture on the history of Horsethief Ranch, 30 miles outside of Moab, Utah, on Thursday in Glenwood Springs. (Contributed photo)
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GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Years ago, when Karen Chamberlain lived in Aspen, fellow townies would take off on exotic vacations, leaving for Jamaica, Mexico, or some other balmy beach setting.

But not Chamberlain.

“I’d go to Horsethief ” a little dried up place in Utah,” she recalled with a laugh.



Isolated Horsethief Ranch is 30 dusty miles west of Moab. The rustic homestead was, at first, a kind of sanctuary for the writer. Later, when she moved into the role of caretaker, it became her home.

In Chamberlain’s 2006 memoir, “Desert of the Heart: Sojourn in a Community of Solitudes” “a finalist for last year’s Colorado Book Award ” she describes her simple ranch life without electricity, telephones or neighbors. In a lecture on Thursday in Glenwood Springs, she’ll relate the history of Horsethief Ranch as well as her own, memorable experiences there.




The ranch was officially settled in 1929, she said, in the midst of range wars. It had been a stop-over on the “horse thief route,” where stolen horses from the Southwest were herded north and sold in Canada. Butch Cassidy and his bunch even hid out there. Since 1981, Michael Behrendt, who would later hire Chamberlain on, has owned it. While the exact size of the original ranch is unknown, it now sits on 14,000 acres of mostly unfenced desert, leased from government.

“I fell in love with the desert,” she said. “I just fell in love with that particular landscape.”

She wanted to live at the ranch as those who came before her had, she said, and she delved into a life most can’t imagine. She tended a huge garden and looked after the many horses. She kept the ranch vehicles in order and cleaned the house and her bunk quarters. She took care of the numerous fruit trees and grape vines that grew around the place. At night, she chronicled her experiences on legal pads.

In her second year there, she had solar panels installed. They gave her just enough electricity to power a single light bulb and, more importantly, her computer. With no Internet connection, she was still cut off from the rest of the world, but she’d occasionally head into town to get her phone messages, check her mail. In good weather, a friend or the property’s owner might pay a visit, but most of the time, Chamberlain said, there wasn’t another soul around for 20 miles.

“I had more solitude than I think any human being has a right to.”

“It wasn’t lonely,” Chamberlain said. “Solitude is when you’re at peace with yourself, and the place where you are. Loneliness is when you’re not at peace with yourself and the place where you are.”

These days, Chamberlain resides in the mountains near Glenwood Springs and is at work on a book of poetry and a novel for young adults.

Though she’s busy with projects and friends, she admits she still misses her old desert home.

“It was a lot of work,” she conceded. “But there was a beauty about it I don’t think I’ll find anywhere else.”