Alison Berkley Margo: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
“So they were trying to slaughter this sheep, and the guy was so wasted, he cut his own arm the same time he was cutting the sheep’s neck,” our bartender, Cat, is telling us.
It’s 10 p.m., and the bar has completely cleared out for the final improv show of the season at the Creede Repertory Theatre. We plan to do a big hike in the morning, so we opt out, even though the idea of going to an event like that in a town like this during off-season seems like the right one. One can only wonder what goes on in the belly of the San Juans when a population of 400 people gathers in one place with a stage and a microphone.
It’s our first anniversary, so we decided to celebrate by taking a little weekend trip down to Creede, a destination we chose somewhat randomly and also because it was a place in Colorado we’d never been.
Four hours in the Jeep seems like nothing with the fall foliage display to entertain us the entire way.
Somehow every year, I fall more in love with fall. It’s so beautiful it hurts. I feel this desperation to consume it, to preserve it or to deepen my experience of it. Like I wish I could eat it or run on it or jump in it. I take a million photos, but my camera never does it justice, unable to properly capture the essence of what I can see with my naked eye along with the smell of dry leaves mingling with sage and spruce, the wind on my cheeks, that hint of cold air, Old Man Winter giving me a tiny kiss on the cheek just because he wants to say hello.
Aspen groves intermingle with evergreens, orange and yellow and red woven through the hillsides like some exotic textile or fabric. I try to think of ways to describe it, staring at it intently as we drive by. Patchwork? Weaving? Tie-dye? That’s when I decide that true beauty is where all your senses meet. It’s sort of an all-or-nothing proposition. It forces you to be in the moment.
Creede is just north of South Fork past Wagon Wheel Gap on the headwaters of the Rio Grande deep in the heart of the San Juans. It’s a place that can only be reached by going around. Sheer granite cliff walls hover over downtown Creede like heavy, velvet curtains on a stage, as if they might sweep open at any given moment and reveal something spectacular.
“We forget they’re there,” a guy on the street said when we stopped to take a photo.
Creede is where Jesse James was killed and where “The Lone Ranger” was filmed and where Johnny Depp stayed while they were shooting the remake last summer. It has an award-winning repertory theater (speaking of velvet curtains), a rich mining history and a cute, historic downtown. The only thing missing from this otherwise utopian spot is a ski area.
We stop for espresso drinks at a place called Coffee on the Fly, which is also a fishing outfitter where Ryan wants to spend an hour looking at flies and chewing the poor owner’s ear off about how we live on the Fryingpan. After that, we head down Main Street to the Old Firehouse for a burrito with green chili and cheese. Then we pile into the Jeep and drive right through those big granite rock walls, past the fire station and community center that are built right into the earth up a steep dirt road. And that’s when the show begins.
The aspens light up the world like fireworks, punctuated by the sheer rock walls and old mining shafts that complete a picture I can only take with my mind. We bump and climb up to the Willow Creek trailhead at 11,500 feet. We head out with labored breath and short, deliberate steps, made aware of our wedding rings and our commitment – to this hike and to each other – as our hands swell into little paws. Time, place, and distance are completely suspended as we make the long approach to the base of San Luis, and then it’s up a never-ending scree field and a series of maddening false summits that you forget about as soon as you reach the top.
I’d read that this peak was as remote as it is unremarkable, but after climbing it I don’t see how those two things can mutually exist. There is nothing like a day tromping around above treeline to remind you of how very small you are.
People in Creede are super-friendly, and for some reason that takes me by surprise. Because of its remoteness and small size, it reminds me of Alaska or maybe the north shore of Kauai or Oahu, where the locals sort of skulk around trying to make you disappear with the glare in their eyes. Despite the historic Colorado mining-town kitsch, Creede feels really real. I wonder if the absence of a wicked-cool ski area has anything to do with that. The people seem genuine – and nice.
That’s the impression we’re getting from our new friend Cat, who is going on with the sheep-slaying story, past the point of small talk and into the realm of too much information.
“So the guy was so wasted, right? He’s got like, blood squirting out of his arm. So his buddy decides to cauterize it, so now he has like third-degree burns and he’s bleeding out of like, a major artery, so they finally take him to the hospital.”
We sit and nod and smile, happy our meal and six drinks cost less than 40 bucks, happy to be in a new place on an adventure – and happily ever after.
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