When Fury finally dies, he picks a back pasture on my parents’ Colorado ranch to rest his old horse body. The neighbor across the fence calls to tell my mother this, that he can see a dead horse from his kitchen window. This neighbor is not well liked. He is new. His house is new. His house is big. My mother is not sympathetic.
He asks what she plans on doing with the
horse; she says she’ll let him be. He demands that she move
the carcass; she says she will not.
He says she will.
She says she will not.
He says she will.
She tells him to move it himself. They hang up on each
He calls again; this time they are calmer. She
tells him the rendering guy can’t get to the horse, since the
horse chose to die in a pasture past two irrigation canals, and the
bridges across them are rickety and old. She tells him the carcass
can’t be buried, either, because a backhoe can’t get
back there and the ground is sheer rock underneath the topsoil.
He says, Something has got to be done
— the smell, the rotting, bloating carcass!
says, Look, we don’t owe you a view. Besides, she says,
looking at a dead horse is better than having to look at your
He says, Are you comparing my beautiful house to a
No, she says, your house is far worse. The
horse will be gone in a few weeks, but your house is up there,
ruining the view forever.
He hangs up.
fight escalates. The neighbor calls the Health Department, but the
officials there tell him that a decaying horse on a rancher’s
property next door does not constitute a health hazard. The
neighbor writes a letter to my mother, accusing her of various
atrocities. Neighbors watch, amused. They start to take sides.
Within a few weeks, there’s not much left of Fury.
Some animals chewed on him, but mostly it was the maggots. The only
thing left was the skull, which my brother salvaged sometime during
the decaying process. He plopped it into my mother’s garden,
where it keeps company with deer antlers, cow skulls, fox jaws, an
old signal from a long-deserted railroad track, the tail of a fox
hanging from a stick, a red marble tombstone for an old beloved
This spring, my mother will garden around
Fury’s skull; I suppose the vegetables she brings to my house
will have flourished around the bones of our old horse. And
probably we will chuckle over the fact that Fury, so calm in life,
finally lived up to his name in the end.
Bellvue: Two little towns, tucked side-by-side, below the first
foothills in northern Colorado. This is the place where I grew up,
the place to which I returned — and one of the things I love
about it is the local fights. Not the fights themselves, but the
way they’re conducted. There’s just an odd way of
arguing around here.
For example, up the road from me,
there’s a sign painted on an old white milk truck parked in a
field: JESUS SAVE OUR PEACEFUL VALLEY FROM THE DEVELOPER. This is a
direct message to the people across the street, the new residents,
the ones who live in this area’s first gated community. The
truck was parked there right after the development went in. So when
the new residents drive through their fancy gate, they have a
greeting card of sorts, designed especially for them.
This is how you voice an objection around here: You put a milk
truck in a field.
A couple of years back, a man spurned
by a lover paid for a letter to be delivered to every single P.O.
box, telling all the residents of the woman’s wicked ways.
Then there was the woman whose ex refused to pay child support: She
Xeroxed photos of his face and plastered them on every light post
in town; across his forehead, she wrote something along the lines
of "Why doesn’t this man love his children?" There was the
time the newcomers complained about goats "fornicating" in
people’s front lawns. And of course there’s the
continuing battle over the county spraying weedkiller along the
roads: the signs proclaiming "DO NOT SPRAY" and the opposing signs
that read "SPRAY LIKE HELL."
LaPorte is the main town:
It’s got two bars, a grocery store, a gas station, a vet
clinic (owned by my brother Andy and his wife), and a couple of
other small business ventures. The word itself — LaPorte
— is French for "the door," or "behold the gate." It’s
a good name, because the Cache la Poudre River has carved a canyon
in the valley below the foothills, and this canyon makes a door to
This town is a door in another sense, too.
Everything south of here is development — a long line
stretching all along the Front Range. To the north is mostly open
space, spreading into Wyoming. LaPorte is a holdout, a community in
transition; it is a door that will swing one way or the other. On
one side of the door is the Developed West, on the other is the
Rural West. My little towns, LaPorte and Bellvue, are fighting to
Opinions fly around this valley, along with more
than a fair share of quirkiness. People here fight about all sorts
of things: dead horses, big houses, proposed campsites and
developments. We’ve got survivalists, hippies, beekeepers,
people on the very far religious right and on the very liberal
left. Lots of people tend their own gardens, lots of people work
with their hands, and most everyone tends to dislike changes and
intrusion. There are lots of people who love this place, who want
to protect it. And we like to fight about it.
LaPorte "master plan" meeting, I am given a sheet of circle-shaped
stickers. I’m supposed to vote on certain topics, outlined on
large papers hung on the wall: Should the bike path be extended,
yes or no? Should new houses be allowed on 10-acre ranchettes, or
be clustered so that there’s room for open space? Should
there be a town center, with some commercial development?
Certain guidelines have already been established in previous
meetings: Locals want the town to preserve its rural atmosphere and
maintain its "small town" core. They want to protect surrounding
open space, and keep the town separate from nearby burgeoning Fort
Collins. A big poster describes codes and development standards
that would enhance the town’s rural character, honor the
rights of private-property owners, limit pavement and respect the
But change is coming,
nonetheless. Fields turn into housing developments, a new town
center is in the works, a large gravel pit operation is planned.
There is a call for new sidewalks, bigger streets; the population
I wander around the room, looking at shoes.
There are lots of roper boots (real cowboy boots, the kind you can
work in) covered in manure, work boots slathered with mud, hiking
boots, snow boots. Representatives from the city of Fort Collins
wear dress shoes.
I lean against the wall, watching
people. Two guys in ballcaps and flannel shirts come up beside me,
arms crossed, conferring about the need to leave LaPorte and
Bellvue alone, goddamnit, all these rich people are coming in.
Given an opening — a few beers, a venue — I
believe these two guys in flannel might get into a good-natured
fight with those two representatives from the city. But this is a
subdued moment in a school gymnasium. Everyone mills around,
mumbling quietly. We all know that LaPorte is experiencing a
painful transition, and that we are caught up in this moment of
On my way out, I stop to count some votes and
read comments, written in red marker. Mostly, there is agreement:
People decided, 54 to 19, that they’d like to limit strip
commercial development along the road leading into town.
There’s disagreement, too: "We have chosen LaPorte because of
its low density – not interested in mini-malls, chain
restaurants, dense developments!!!!" is answered by "It is
ridiculous to think we can avoid any development in LaPorte." "We
need a public pool," is countered by, "We do not need a pool! There
is one in Fort Collins!" Mostly, though, there is a lot of "Keep
LaPorte the way it is" and "This is LaPorte, not the Fort!" I am
grateful for this desire for limits, grateful for the spunkiness
and the fury in this place. The West is the most rapidly changing
region in this country, and the pace and degree of the changes have
left us Westerners gasping for breath — city councils,
planning commissions, citizens, all of us are unprepared for wise
planning. Colorado’s population has increased by 1.2 million
in the last 10 years, and another 4 million are expected by 2050.
We’re losing an acre of agricultural land to development
every four minutes. It often seems to me, as I drive around and see
how the landscape has changed, that we just haven’t had
enough time yet to understand what this will mean.
was not the best-trained horse in the world. But he was calm, and
that’s why he was the only horse I’d ride after I got
smart enough to realize that some horses, like some people, can be
trusted and loved above all others. He was born when I was 6, so I
have hazy memories of the beginning of our relationship. But once
he was broke and I was old enough to swing myself into the saddle,
we became a pair, even though I was never too adept at riding, and
he was never too adept at being ridden.
Fury did not obey
my commands regularly, but even his defiance was of the considerate
sort. Instead of bucking me off or scraping me against a tree,
he’d simply decide to walk home and stand by the barn, and
keep on standing there, waiting for me to give in and get off his
back. It was that simple: When he was done with this riding
business, he was done. When I pulled the reins back, he stood. When
I kicked him in the ribs, he stood. When I got off to lead him away
from the barn, he stood. He illustrated the obvious — that he
was stronger than I — and he stood. He withstood my begging,
cussing, bribery, tantrums.
Maybe tomorrow, I’d
He’d shift his weight, slap his tail against
the flies, nuzzle my jeans pocket with the hopes of finding a sugar
You don’t deserve a thing, I’d say, and
hold out a treat for him anyway. And so it went. The only time our
relationship changed was when my brother Andy rode alongside, on
another horse. Then we became the rider and horse I wanted us to
be. Fury galloped alongside Andy’s horse in figure-eight
patterns across the pasture, and I leaned down close to the
horse’s neck and felt the intense joy and fear that comes
with moving at a full run. I remember how time and breath were
suspended whenever the horses jumped an irrigation ditch, and how
normal life was reentered a moment later, when the hooves came
Sometimes, Andy and I would ride the horses off the
ranch, down Overland Trail, alongside the Cache la Poudre River,
all around the towns of LaPorte and Bellvue.
So it was
from Fury’s back that I learned to love this place. I learned
its history: That in the 1860s, there were four saloons, a brewery,
a butcher shop, a shoe shop, two blacksmith shops, and a hotel. The
town housed trappers, traders, Indians, the military, the Overland
Trail Stage Station, the County Courthouse; LaPorte was the biggest
settlement north of Denver.
From Fury’s back I
learned the names of blue grama and orchard and timothy grasses. I
learned the names of neighbors. I learned the geography of hogbacks
and the Rocky Mountains and the river that created this door,
LaPorte. I fell in love with the view, of the hayfields and silos,
of the blue mountains, of yucca plants, of a small town at the edge
of the foothills. Because it was on Fury’s back that I was
the most brave, and most fighting-alive myself.