A week in Paonia

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It’s been nearly a year since I left the Western Slope. In the interim, Kate left Denver for Seattle, then bounced back to Colorado to take an editorial intern position with the iconic Western environmental magazine High Country News. I first read HCN living in Tucson as a kid, and picked it up again when I moved out to Oregon for college. I can’t think of a publication that panders as nicely to my interests, with its resoundingly place-based coverage of science, environmental issues, culture, and politics, as well as its formidable cadre of regular essayists (anyone who hasn’t read Charles Bowden’s final essay for the magazine needs to do so, now).

Needless to say, I was enthusiastic about her job. Not in the least because it let me schedule a trip to visit her in between winter and spring quarters, right when the humid grey oppression of Seattle’s longest season most strongly demands an antidote of brilliant sunlight and thin air.

While lacking the in-your-face alpine tableau of Colorado’s resort towns, Paonia makes up for it with a subtler — but no less affecting — merging of landscapes. Here, the red sage-spotted vastness of the Colorado Plateau meets the Rockies. Fir and lodgepole meet scrub oak. Snowmelt rages down to the Gunnison, only miles from the shallow branching venation of bone-dry arroyos.

Lacking glamour, or any recreational economy to speak of, Paonia remains a real place. I visited, and while Kate worked, spent a wonderful five days skimming the surface of its many pleasures. And spending long hours on her front porch, watching the sky and the neighborhood kids putter about on scooters, doing nothing at all.

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Near McClure Pass, the Western Slope marches southwards. There is a painterly quality to light and line in this part of the world, a fineness quite unlike the contrast-enhancing verdure and jagged peaks of the Pacific Northwest.

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Mt. Lamborn (tall, center left) is Paonia’s sentinel, last of the West Elks.

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I miss tooling around the aspen groves near Gothic in early winter.

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The atmospherics on display every evening were a strong incentive to spend the last of the days light on the winding cattle trails just east of town.

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The aptly-named Raggeds from the slopes of Marcellina Mountain. Some summer or autumn yet to come I’ll start walking from the Brick on Elk Ave. in Crested Butte and end up here, spending a week or two loping through this beautiful and lonely country.

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I made it to the top of the portion of dog-leg chute visible from this perspective (“The Banana”) before feeling insecure without crampons, but was still a solid 1000′ short of the summit. Skiing down, my boots bust a rivet chattering over slide debris. I can only say that loud powder builds character.

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