Aspen Princess: Pig roast on the other side of mountain its own classic
The dead pig lay spread-eagle across a big table covered in a blue tarp, an apple stuffed into its mouth. The men circled around it like a swarm of bees as it was being butchered, eating the meat straight out of the gut and cackling with an almost maniacal glee.
It was a pig roast after all, though I’ll admit it was un-nerving to see an animal with its head and eyeballs still intact as people were eating from it. You could still see how cute it was, once. When I asked Jeff where he got the pig, he laughed and said, “I hit it with my car as it was crossing the road and loaded it onto the back of my truck.”
I guess that’s what you call Hotchkiss humor.
The pig roast was at a friend’s home above Hotchkiss in the hills of Lazear, where you can see the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the snow-capped peaks of the West Elk mountain range from the large hammock in the covered patio. Delta County is one of these places that feels very much in the middle. In the middle of Colorado, in the middle of the North Fork valley, in the middle of nowhere. This is big sky country, where you can see weather from 100 miles away, where there is more wilderness than people, where the population is in the hundreds instead of the thousands. It’s a place where watching the clouds form a watercolor painting on the canvas of the sky as they move and change colors with the silhouette of the jagged peaks in the background is way better than anything currently on TV (the new season of Big Little Lies notwithstanding).
We had been invited by Ryan’s friend Diane for a river trip down the Gunnison followed by a campout and cookout at their Hotchkiss home. I’m not a river rat — the idea of jumping into a rubber boat and hoping for the best in ice-cold water cascading over rocks makes me a little uneasy. I know, I know, it’s the best thing ever. I know I’ll have to get there eventually, between my husband and my son. I’m just not a water baby. I prefer the terra firma. Plus, unlike you crazy Aspenites who believe in taking your offspring everywhere, I was not about to put my 3-year-old into those kind of rapids during one of the rowdiest river conditions in recent history.
When we met up with everyone, they had the ruddy cheeks and wild hair of a day spent in the wilderness, eyes bright and smiles wide. They pulled up in their various rigs, vans and Toyota trucks with gear spilling out, wet suits draped over open doors, coolers and dry bags scattered across the driveway. We’d done little more than drive over from Basalt with our sleeping babe in the back seat, head flopped back and with spittle coming out the side of his open mouth, and I was a little envious of their shared adventure.
Still, there is something about just driving through this area that amazes me. As soon as we head south out of Carbondale toward Redstone, I can feel myself breathe a little easier. As Highway 133 tucks beneath the flanks of Mount Sopris along the mighty Crystal River and then gradually ascends McClure Pass, it feels as though these massive peaks envelop me, tucking me into the crook of the Earth’s elbow for a hug. This is country that, as the writer Pam Houston wrote in her latest novel “Deep Creek”: “It’s a place that literally and figuratively takes your breath away, a place where you might find yourself believing there is too much wild country to ever be destroyed.” I have often had similar thoughts driving through this particular part of Colorado: There’s no overcrowding here. There’s no pollution or ugly development or even cellphone reception. At least here it is still beautiful, still natural, still pristine.
When we descend the south side of McClure and into Gunnison County, the valley below cracks open like the flaps of a box when all four sides have been laid flat. This side of the Elks feels different. It’s more remote, more bucolic and more idyllic.
Maybe that’s why so many people from the Roaring Fork Valley eventually migrate to Paonia and Hotchkiss, to a place that still feels wild and remote, the way Colorado used to be, devoid of Starbucks.
At the pig roast, various pot luck dishes are deposited onto a long table draped in checkerboard cloth and adorned with fresh-picked sunflowers in ceramic vases. There are salads with wild berries, corn on the cob, and huge tins filled to the brim with smoked pork. Later there are pies with bright colored filling made from rhubarb and cherries. I don’t even like pies, but it just fit the mood; artfully handmade from scratch, local, fresh, bright and wholesome. Even though I avoid eating things like sugar, white flour and butter, I take a slice of every pie and douse it in whipped cream and it tastes just like everything here feels: simple and delicious.
The best part though, are the people. These people are our age or older, yet they are still living hard, their lives full of adventure and friends and good times. I fall asleep to the sound of their laughter, the bass thumping on the sound system as they dance late into the night. Over coffee and burritos the next morning, they share antics from the night before as if they were still in college, not pushing 60. It’s a far cry from the crowd just over the other side of these mountains at Food & Wine. In many ways, this is our own festival of food and wine — pork belly and all. Only here, it’s for real.
The Princess is going to try to make her first pie. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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