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Excerpt: 'There and Then'

by James Salter
Dec 12, 2005

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James Salter

Book critic Alan Cheuse includes this collection of travel writing by "one of our finest living prose writers" in his roundup of holiday books for All Things Considered.

Excerpt: Immortal Days

A few summers ago, searching for dinosaur excavations, we stopped in a little town named DeBeque in western Colorado. There was a grocery store, an old garage, a post office, and a bar. No one seemed to know anything about dinosaurs although they had an alleged forty-million-year-old tortoise fossil, turned up during road construction, in the garage. "Why don't you go and talk to Armand DeBeque?" they said.

Armand DeBeque lived in a well-kept house at the edge of town but he wasn't there. We found him at the high school where he taught journalism. He was working on the yearbook. He was sixty-eight and the son of a man who had founded DeBeque as part of a land grant given out after the Civil War. His father had fought in that war. Your grandfather, I suggested. No, his father, he said. His father had been born in 1840 and was seventy-two years old at the birth of his son. In one leap the entire history of the state, almost of the West, was spanned.

Colorado lies in two parts. The eastern half is flat, part of the great, fertile heartland that feeds the nation. Denver is the last city of the plains. From its hotel windows, to the west, the mountains rise like a wall. These are the Rockies. Beneath the mountains lies the great reef of silver upon which the mining towns were built. Almost everything was done by hand in these remote locations—trees felled, tunnels dug, shafts and galleries timbered. Sometimes you find the remains of mines with weathered piles of tailings deep in the wilderness. On the way to Crested Butte from Aspen, over the mountains, there are several. It is difficult to imagine such backbreaking labors far from any road or town, but then one remembers the purity of the ore and the size of the nuggets that were sometimes found: in one celebrated case, almost twenty-one hundred pounds of pure silver.

Walking to Crested Butte takes a day. The path at the beginning, in the early morning, is narrow but defined. Gradually it begins to fade and finally, above timberline, to wander aimlessly through high meadows, though the final rocky trail over the pass is plain. The air is thin at this height. One's eyes feel dry; the skin itches. All around is wilderness and fever-blue sky. A friend of mine once encountered two women walking with difficulty toward him near the top of the pass. Jehovah's Witnesses, they were wearing high heels. They wanted to know if this was the way to town.

Beyond the Rockies, at the end of the state, are the shale oil lands, the mesas that run into Utah and north to Wyoming. Hundreds of miles of gorgeously colored, arid earth with occasional farm communities like Fruita and Palisade. Through this runs the Colorado River, which forms the Grand Canyon and carries water finally into Mexico and the Gulf of California. Water is the most precious thing in the West, more valuable than gold or silver. The minerals can be taken away and the land will remain, but if the water goes, there is nothing. Land comes with water rights out here and they are carefully defined and often fought over.

Yes, it is beautiful. It is still beautiful because it is young. It is open, vast, and not spoiled in the ordinary way. Things have been built on it but they are not overwhelming, the land keeps its dignity.

Until recently, about fifty years ago, it was a rather isolated place, provincial and more or less honest. I knew an old judge in Aspen who had lived there all his life. He had seen it change from a ruined mining town to a legendary resort. He wore old-fashioned clothes, lived in a plain house, and was rich from having bought up a lot of property for back taxes when it was very cheap. There was a woman who used to sidle up to him on the street in tweed pants and say, "I'm not like you. I've lived. I've had ten husbands, I've run a whorehouse, I've lived in different places and seen every side of life."

Colorado is like that. It has never been anywhere but it is wealthy and now the world is coming to it.

*

All summer, it seems, we have been outdoors. Days in the woods, days up Hunter or Maroon Creek, afternoons by the Roaring Fork. There is hiking in every state, and forests and streams, but the scale here is different. This country will not fit in your pocket. The mountains soar up from the streams; the architecture is vast. You can walk for days and never see another human being or even a campsite. You can stand alone on the edge of lakes and in lost graveyards where the stones, less than a century old, are already leaning and half-erased. The weather is perfect, as it is all year, even in winter. A great mildness, the earth dry, the trees sighing. We lie in the shade in the soft, piney drifts and fall asleep, face down. We walk to the creek to fish. A brown snake, perfect and slim, withdraws in cool haste, coiling between rock and underbrush. It hesitates and, as we step closer to look, disappears like smoke.

The sun is going down, the tremendous sun of the West, the sun that whitens New Mexico and Arizona, that is worshipped in California, the sacred sun towards which even the sperm whales, as they are dying, turn.

An hour of coolness, an hour of slanting light. The yellow road machines are parked along the shoulders. The irrigation water, silver, is shooting into the air. We are driving. The road is smooth and black. A colt is galloping with its mother through the darkened fields. The green of the hills is fading, the meadows become like ponds. The mountains are blue and there is a gentleness and grandeur that fills one with awe.

This is the country where Oscar Wilde once toured, standing on the opera house stages in a velvet suit and reading The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini to the miners. They were more impressed by his ability to drink them under the table. They wanted him to come back next year and bring Cellini with him. He couldn't, Wilde explained, Cellini was dead.

"Who shot him?" they wanted to know.

Copyright 2005 (c) James Salter from There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter. Reprinted by permission of Shoemaker & Hoard.

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