A View from the Hill
I’m walking up the hill behind our house. Colona Hill some people call it. Or Colona Mountain. Though that may be too exalted a word for a remnant shale knob 7,100 feet above sea level in plain view of the saw-tooth Cimarron Ridge and the still-snowy San Juans to the south.
Painted Mountain is the name preferred by the people who own the hill. And indeed, on certain evenings a low sun brings out the hill’s various clays: from blue-gray to pink to a very dry kind of peach yellow.
Decomposing shales are also known hereabouts as adobe. And ‘dobe elicits a love/hate response. You could fashion adobe bricks with it, I guess, but try walking on it after a thunderstorm and your boots will become four-inch platform shoes. Try walking up the steep spines of the hill after a spring snow and you will mudslide backwards. It’s like pancake batter. You will not get up the hill. Unless you are equipped with sharp, two-toed hooves like the deer and elk.
Anyway, this day it is dry. And I am sitting under a twisting juniper near the top of the hill in a cot-sized bed of needles and soft dirt shaped by generations of sleeping ungulates. Below, on both sides of the hill, irrigated hay fields have turned emerald green. The little drainage to the south is Onion Creek, one of the first places in the Uncompahgre Valley to be settled by white people. Folks named Smith, from eastern Canada originally, bought 160 acres on the Uncompahgre here for $1.75 an acre in 1879. This was two years before the Ute Indians were marched out of the valley to a new reservation in Utah.
(The Uncompahgre Utes, led by the accommodating Chief Ouray, were entirely blameless in the so-called Meeker Massacre up north, which was perpetrated by a band of frustrated White River Utes. But the “uprising” so angered Coloradoans that Ouray and his bunch—about 2,700 Indians—were required to leave as well.)
Another ranching family named Collin—reputedly related to Admiral Lord Nelson, he of the victorious English fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar, 1805—settled on Onion Creek at around the same time. Descendants are still there four generations on, some of them still ranching. You can’t help but admire their wisdom of place: ponds, ditches, draws, trails, weather, seasons, cows and calves, bulls and steers. According to Montrose genealogist Dona Freeman, in a family history titled Smith Ranch, Colona, Colorado 1879-1992, Richard Collin came up with the name Colona. He was a big fan apparently of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 blockbuster novel Ramona and attached his name, commingled with Ramona’s, to the nascent settlement.
On the north side of the hill I’m looking down on checkerboard fields in the Beaton Creek drainage: some grass, some oats, some recently tilled. I don’t know who Beaton was. His (or her) namesake creek is seasonal, and that season is pretty short most years. (It’s dry now, in June.) So, the farming here has always been limited. There’s one sizable ranch occupying the head of the valley. It was purchased recently by people from Texas who have invested considerable money and effort in upgrading the place: two new houses on the valley floor, new perimeter fencing, lots of grading and rock removal in the fields. From my perch I can hear the steady growl of a Bobcat smoothing a patch previously littered with room-sized boulders. I kind of liked the boulders—where did they come from? how did they get there?—but these people are serious about maximizing productivity; they’re serious ranchers.
We are not, obviously. We come from an entirely different land ethic. We retreated from the West Coast to western Colorado 34 years ago to ski and hike and watch movies in Telluride’s surprising Opera House. We moved to Colona Hill for the big open sunsets, and the coyote songs, and for the way wild critters walk by the house almost as if it weren’t there.
The ranchers know we are different—if not interlopers then at least a slightly alien life form able to make ends meet via modem, and email. We don’t raise animals or work the soil. I’m not up here on the hill chasing cows. I’m here for the exercise and because I’ve heard that yucca blooms make a nice, faintly spicy addition to a green salad. We do exchange one-finger waves with our neighbors as we pass, tractor to Saab, on Buckhorn Road.
Earlier, along a fence line, I came upon a barely decomposed coyote carcass flung across a boulder. The tawny fur was still lustrous. It made me think of those 19th century photographs in which varmints were displayed on a fence or hung on a barn wall. In their own minds, the shooters had good reason.