Room to Breathe
by Edie McRoberts
The earth unfolds in layers.
Up close, there are small particles, sandy red dirt and exposed rock. It has been worn away by ice and snow, millennia of battering, turning the dirt into sand.
Rooted in the sand: the dry grass. It blows in the wind, yellow-brown in the dead of winter. It is crisp and tough and adapted to the plains out here, open land and wind for miles. Buffalo grass, wheatgrass, wildrye.
Farther, there is a fence. Barbed-wire and gnarled wooden posts, made from driftwood found in the creek beds. Blackened by time and rough to the touch, hammered in by ranchers who came here with nothing.
The road is beyond that, winding along the curves of the land and the curves of the fence. Red dirt and rocks and wheel-ruts. It traces the washes and leads to the front door of an old house, red paint peeling off the wood siding.
Beyond that are the hills, rolling features that rise out of the plains to the east, heading west, building on each other, competing for space. Pale-yellow, grass covered, soft and subtle.
The hills roll into red buttes - carved stone. Red spires rise into the sky, purple in the cloudy afternoon haze. Chiseled by wind and water, erosion and degradation.
Farther still, the foothills rise. Tree-covered, green and brown, rounded but tall, a giant sleeping under a blanket of evergreen. It is a different environment up there; new animals - bears and mountain lions; new plants - fir and spruce.
And beyond that… the kings, the mountain peaks crowned with snow and clouds and ice. Today, they are veiled in fog, pure white with the promise of snow. White fingers of precipitation trail down the slopes, half-obscuring the rocky crags. It is snowing up there, everyone knows. If you live in the lap of the mountains, you know when it is snowing up there.
Down here, among the juniper and prickly pear, the wind is biting. It stings your skin and nips your nose, cheeks rosy and cold to the touch. It is bitter, and the wind smells of the storm rolling down the mountains. It smells like snow and winter. It smells like ice.
The wind seeps into the old red house through poorly-sealed windows. It creaks and groans with each gust. The elderly matriarch sits at the window, feeling the fingers of the storm reach through the window panes and the door frames, tickling her wrinkled skin.
Outside, the grass smells dry. She watches the road, muddy, rocks mixed with ice. Beyond the road, somewhere, are the cows.
The cows are hiding in the valleys of the hills and in the drainage ditches between the buttes, attempting to get out of the wind. The storm is coming and they are already out of sight. In the summer, they walk down the road. This land is open range for miles, nestled in the lowest trough of the hills. Her father had raised these cattle, driving them across the open plains. Slowly the fences had closed in, the roads had been built, and there was less room for the cows to roam. This was the land left — this old land onto which the cows were driven, onto which they ate their way to barren ground, onto which they brought their methane and their meat. Now, barbed-wire marks the boundaries. The fence follows the road from the cattle-guard all the way out to Highway 287.
And that road, that red dirt road, has a spirit all its own. It climbs the hills outside of the valley, ruggedly trudging past houses and farms, then winds down the hills, cutting west, always heading towards the mountains and the setting sun. It is rutted with tire tracks, wash boarded from trucks that come to feed the cattle, mend the fences, see the view. It rolls easily between the hills, sauntering like her father did across familiar ground.
The mountains filter the setting sun. In seasons of cold, every rock and crag, even the definition of the individual trees, can be seen from the road, coated in snow. In the purple haze of dusk, the foothills and the mountains turn into a pallet of cold hues.
The road is marked with the tire tracks of the county vehicles, the government-issued flatbeds that have come to scope out the old ranch, to take inventory of the open range that has watched the sun rise and set over the mountains for over a hundred and fifty years.
In northern Colorado in the late 1800s, there was only the grass and hills and mountains. There was no red dirt road. No fence posts and cattle guards to contain the open range. No wooden corner store down Highway 287 with time-washed wooden siding selling gas for $3.05 a gallon. Only the prairie, pronghorn, and a homestead act with a family who saw the mountain kings and the giant foothills and the red buttes and the rolling hills and the dry grass and thought of possibility. They built a little red house and dug into the sandy soil and put up a sign - Roberts Ranch, est. 1874.
Today the 92-year-old matriarch of the Roberts family sits at the cold window and watches the snow fall. Her property stretches far, protecting waterfalls formed by runoff and rattlesnakes that sun themselves on the tops of the hills.
Today is the day that it goes away.
A Larimer County pickup sits in the driveway, splattered with mud in that very distinct shade of red. The clouds darken and the wind picks up as the storm hits the foothills and snow begins to fall silently in the pine and spruce forest. The man from the county offices stands and shakes her hand.
The conservation easement, he says, will be part of the county’s efforts to preserve the land up here by the Wyoming border, and will help protect the land not only for its agricultural value, but also for its historical value. The county appreciates its natural history, you see, and this site contains several teepee rings, a portion of the Overland Trail, and a buffalo jump. In addition, the land will protect wildlife - pronghorn, jack rabbits, prairie dogs, coyotes - as part of the 14,000-acre county holdings used for migration, feeding, and nesting. He thanks her for her time and assures her that the family’s sustainable calf-cow operation can continue, and that the county purchased the land to ensure that its agricultural use continues in perpetuity.
The family watches from the kitchen. They watch the young man in muddy boots and a green vest stand and shake their grandmother’s hand. They can still ranch the land, they’ve been told that. But something feels stolen, like a governmental land-grab from the time of their great-great-grandfathers. Like when the tribes were forced to leave, or the immigrants told to pack-it-up. This is county land now - not open to the public, sure - but no longer theirs.
The matriarch sits in her chair and watches as the storm approaches. The wind is now racing over the open plains, blowing through the hills and down the dirt road. The grass bends over in the powerful gale. The clouds roll in, a sheet of white draped over the highway at the ends of the property. The wind howls.
They were the last ones willing to ranch this place. The last family-owned farm, down a dirt road surrounded on all sides by monoculture and feedlots and dairy farms that you can smell for miles when the wind blows just right. They had wanted to do ranch as their parents had. But the paved roads closed in and the fences along with them and now the money was tight and the herd dwindling.
She ignores her family’s quiet whispers in the kitchen. She watches the county truck back out of her driveway, spattering mud up from its tires as it mars tracks into the red dirt road. Heading west towards the mountains.
A place to breathe, a place to watch the sunset, the most beautiful view in the world. The smell of wet earth, of dry grass, of cow manure and sun on cowhide. Smells and sights from a childhood spent here, part of this land, preserving this land. She remembers it, horse-hide and leather and hay in her hair. Now it smells cold with the approaching storm. Now she can hear the asphalt highway in the distance, the hum of tires going 70 down into town.
She sits and watches the storm. The clouds close in, and softly, a faint snow begins to fall.
Edie McRoberts double majors in documentary studies and outdoor adventure leadership at Ithaca College.