November 3, 2005
Most people from Aspen spend the offseason traveling to warmer climates, places like Mexico or SoCal or the Arizona desert. I decided to go to Alma.
Yes, I’m talking about Alma, Colo. At an elevation of 10,578 feet, Alma is the highest incorporated township in the United States (no, it’s not Leadville), a claim to fame the former mayor took a little too literally when he was busted speeding down one of the main roads in Frisco with six pounds of marijuana about six months ago. It’s also windy, cold and desolate.
The ridiculous thing about being a writer is, as my friend Karl so cleverly pointed out, my imagination can sometimes work against me. I don’t know if it’s that I’m delusional, idealistic or just plain crazy, but the line between interpreting reality and creating it is a fuzzy one at best.
There’s always this tendency to think writing will be easier if I do it somewhere else. So I went online and found a little one-bedroom A-frame in Placer Valley, where Bross, Lincoln, Democrat and Cameron form a 14,000-foot skyline, a barrier between me and the problems I’d hoped to forget. The owner rented it to me for half the amount she advertised, grateful for some lunatic who actually wanted to be there in the off-season. When I told my friend Hope my plans to hole up in a cabin in the woods, she said, “Don’t forget, you take yourself with you wherever you go,” but anyone who thinks you can’t run away from your problems has never been to Alma.
Seventeen miles south of Breckenridge on Highway 9, it’s a tiny hamlet on the valley floor sandwiched between the Continental Divide and the wind-scoured peaks of the Mosquito Range. Many of Alma’s downtown buildings are ramshackle, neglected and worn by weather and wind, paint chipping, wood peeling, like a comfy old pair of jeans with holes. There’s a health-food store, a coffee shop and two bars, even though Alma’s Only Bar kept its name after the South Park Saloon opened two doors down. Walk into either of these local establishments at any given time of day or night and you’ll likely find the same six guys seated at the bar with their long beards and work clothes covered in dust or paint, their oversized shaggy dogs lying around out front.
It snowed 2 1/2 half feet the night I arrived. It was so deep and heavy even my Jeep wouldn’t make it up the long, steep driveway (I almost cried over that one). I called Heather, the owner, who as it turns out, is five months pregnant. She came to my rescue in her big ol’ Suburban and proceeded to dig out the deck, chop wood and show me how to get a good fire going in the wood-burning furnace. Her 4-year-old son, Nathan, gave me instructions on how to make it up the driveway on my second try. “You have to drive weally, weally fast and you can’t stop AT ALL!” he said. Clearly this 4-year-old knew more about driving in snow than I did.
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She made chopping wood look so easy I was a little shocked when I tried it myself and got the blade stuck about a quarter inch deep into the log on my first try. I decided to swing harder. I drew the ax up above my head and somehow managed to miss the log altogether, landing face first in the snow. I decided to quit while I still had both my legs.
Fine! Forget splitting wood. I would just take a hot bath and wrap myself up in a wool scarf and hat and wear my down jacket to bed. Whoever said I’m not adaptable has no idea what they’re talking about.
After two days at 11,000 feet, my knuckles were cracked and bleeding. My daily jog consisted of bracing myself against an ice-cold headwind as I hobbled along with numb feet, lungs and legs burning for more oxygen. Almost everything I ate made me feel sick, at which point I decided you could blame almost anything on the altitude. Desperate for contact with the outside world, I drove around downtown Alma with my laptop turned on, searching for a wireless network. I found a signal in front of the little purple house on Second Street. The network was named “Leanne,” and I hoped she wouldn’t take advantage of the “Make my day law” and shoot me while I was sitting parked out in front of her house, poaching her Internet while I ferociously checked my e-mail each afternoon. My cell phone worked fine, but since I told everyone I was running away to be alone and write, nobody called me.
But when I woke up on that first morning, I could see the massive face of Mount Bross through my bedroom window. The rising sun illuminated its flanks in warm shades of pink and orange like he was waking up, too. I looked out on the stark, snow-filled valley and realized that for the first time since I can remember, I had room in my mind to think. Instead of being cluttered with my usual thoughts and worries, my consciousness felt blank, as empty and wide as this high valley, wind gusting snow straight up these massive peaks into the sky like sea spray on a wave. My head began to fill with the story I’d hoped to create, a world where my imagination worked for me and not against me.
Maybe it was because I had nothing better to do, or maybe it was because I finally felt inspired, but I wrote. Who needs warm sand and sunny beaches? I was living the high life in Alma.
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