We're sitting in the living room, watching the early morning sun creep down the northeast face of McIntyre Peak. It's a mere bump by Rocky Mountain standards, but one that's noteworthy for the cliffs that expose a dozen or so strata of different colored rock near its summit. The colors of the rock are muted, however, because aspen dressed in all shades of green, gold, and even orange command the view. They spread in sweeping stripes, random patches, and single, startling trees over the mountain and in both directions along the side of the valley. As the sunlight hits them, they explode into brilliance against the deep green of the pine and spruce, and under the crystal-blue of the sky. A patch of red—kinnikinnik?—on a high scree slope and the white of yesterday's snow on the peak punctuate the scene.
Because our room is up on the hillside, we're also looking out over the treetops in the valley. Perched nearby at eye level on the top of a ponderosa pine, a magpie watches to see if we might offer breakfast. A few yellow leaves still cling to the elm, willow, and ash along the river, but most have fallen, leaving behind gray and tan skeletons standing brightly lit by the sun, in stark contrast to the shadowed valley wall. The provide a reminder of the winter to come, a reminder reinforced by smoke curling lazily down the valley from the wood stove in a cabin across the way, and by the frost on the corners of our windows.
As the morning matures, the little settlement that calls itself Horca begins to come to life. A group of guys in insulated overalls stands around in the parking lot of the restaurant, discussing strategy for the day—or, more likely, the scores from yesterday's NFL games. The occasional semi whizzes by on the highway. Because today is Monday, we probably won't see the parade of tour buses of yesterday, filled with aspen-gawkers, but there will still be some. And we'll see if our impressions are correct, that the main business of the place is people in pickup trucks hauling horses around. It seems as if every other vehicle tows a horse trailer of some size or other, empty or full, up or down the valley, with no apparent rhyme nor reason. If we hadn't seen the same thing happening when we were here in August, we'd assume that it was all in preparation for big-game hunting season, which starts later this week. The timing is why we're here now, so we can walk in the woods without getting shot at or having to wear fluorescent orange clothes.
This is in the San Juan Mountains of extreme south-central Colorado, a few miles from the New Mexico border, where the highway crosses the Conejos River before its winding climb up La Manga Pass to the south. From our window, we can see the road curving gently up the grade into the distance, disappearing into the aspen. We're about halfway between Antonito, Colorado, to the east and Chama, New Mexico, over the pass. There is history here, and, because our Spanish-English dictionary tells us that one definition of "horca" is "gallows," it may be dramatic.
From here, the Conejos Valley continues upward to the northwest. After about 25 miles, the gravel road along the river passes the settlement of Platoro before ascending Stunner Pass, the view from which lives up to its name. Sections of the Conejos River are among the few waters not stocked, so they are designated as "wild trout" water and the fishing is challenging. It's as if the trout can read the "Fly-Fishing Only" restriction signs and therefore know to assume that, no matter how tempting it looks, anything floating on the water isn't really food but instead a pointy imitation.
We're doing our part to help out the local economy by staying at the Mountain Home Lodge, in what is essentially an efficiency apartment unit that includes a kitchen. This is an important consideration here in Horca because what the local folks call "restaurants" qualify only marginally. But the Lodge is wonderfully civilized, the perfect base for day hikes into the mountainside aspen groves and short trips to stretches of the river that look to be full of hungry trout who haven't learned to read those signs yet. Best of all, this is only about 2½ hours from home. Santa Fe is a great place to live, but it's a city and this, emphatically is not. And as much as we enjoy the piñon-juniper woods that cover the foothills around our house, the forests covering these mountains nourish the soul in ways that we've come to depend on. New Mexico is lovely, but this is Colorado.