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for people who care about the West



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 other.

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!

She 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 house.

He says, Are you comparing my beautiful house to a dead horse?

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.

The 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 dog.

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.

LaPorte and 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 the mountains.

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 hold on.

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.

At a 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 river’s floodplain.

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 is growing.

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 change.

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.

Fury 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 say.

He’d shift his weight, slap his tail against the flies, nuzzle my jeans pocket with the hopes of finding a sugar cube.

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 down.

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.

Laura Pritchett’s most recent book is Sky Bridge, a novel set on the ranchlands of southeast Colorado. Her short story collection, Hell’s Bottom Colorado, won the PEN USA Award and the Milkweed National Fiction prize. Her work has appeared in Orion, The Sun, Colorado Review, and other journals.