An expedition through the Edgelands

This landscape isn’t always beautiful — but that’s what makes it loveable.

  • Leaving Paonia

    Diane Sylvain
  • Red Barn on Stewart Mesa

    Diane Sylvain
  • Winter River

    Diane Sylvain
  • Old Cottonwoods

    Diane Sylvain
  • View from Back River Road

    Diane Sylvain
  • Autumn

    Diane Sylvain

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

— John Muir

“I have traveled a good deal in Concord.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Very early one morning on the cold cusp of February, I leave my house in Paonia, Colorado, to tromp 10 miles to the next town, Hotchkiss. I do this maybe once a month, weather and health permitting: Walking for hours, then collapsing for the night at a motel. Next morning, I leave before sunrise, loving that long slow morning twilight, the way the light fills up the sky, like pale wine in a deep blue chalice.

My walkabout takes me some time; I’m not as young as I used to be, and I bear old injuries in my bones. I use crutches and sometimes need a lift. But mostly I just clomp along, one foot after another. I trudge through what I call the Edgelands: the scrubby, rumpled, ragged places that border the back roads of small rural towns. It is a landscape caught between the human and the wild — alpine and desert, farmland and town, with mesas rising into snow-capped mountains and a river wandering through it. Old gnarled cottonwoods and dry yellow grasses, bare fields enlivened by the reddish brushstrokes of low-growing willows.

The sky this morning is a high pale blue feathered with wispy clouds. In a downtown window, my reflection looks unnervingly like R2-D2: Short and squatty, two canes swinging like a droid’s long arms, woolen hat like a round little head. I beep cheerfully and trundle onward, in love with the world, entranced by the solid connection my boots make with it.

I walk the Back River Road, past century-old houses and modular homes separated by small orchards. Ravens tilt and twirl overhead, introducing themselves in Latin: “Corvus?” “Corax.” A rooster crows; some chickens squabble; dogs bark officiously at me. People I know drive past, waving.

Time for a sit-down stop on a handy roadside boulder. I love the distinctive shapes of the bare winter trees. Mole, in The Wind in the Willows, would agree: The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. … He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.

Wild geese unfurl overhead, honking in hoarse prehistoric voices, and settle on the fields. When a hawk swoops over, they scatter away from its shadow. The hawk lands nonchalantly in a tree, and the geese go back to work. It is not as cold this winter as it should be. Still, the longer I sit, the colder I feel. I stand up, creaking, nose running.

The road squiggles up to the top of a mesa, past barns and the unlit torches of tall bare poplars. Below, the valley is a tattered quilt, sewn together by the river. Before me, open land rolls and rises to the base of the two nearest mountains. The fields are covered with old frozen snow, sparkling like pinpoint diamonds where the sun catches crystals.

Up a long straight hill, and I’m on another mesa, looking north. It’s a wonderfully geometrical landscape, the blue sweep of Grand Mesa lapped by angled lower mesas and round adobe hills. I rest again by a row of huge old cottonwoods. Their stillness today seems oddly deliberate, as if the trees are holding their breath and watching. Every sound is sharp and distinct; the crunch of my teeth in an apple like an ax splitting wood. The occasional thin dry stirring of grass seems portentous, almost too much to bear.

I pass a pod of horses and mules, who regard me thoughtfully. The cows seem about as alive and alert as a field of rocks. Then one lifts great tragic eyes to you, like Desdemona pleading with Othello, and you feel guilty. My back and legs are starting to hurt. Time for another novena to St. Ibuprofen. Why did I think this walk was a good idea? Are we there yet?

The road tumbles on down to my least-favorite section, flat square pastures like old carpet remnants. In rainy springs, the view is lovely, as green and glad as Ireland. But now it’s bleached in tans and brown and the yellow of old chipped paint, blotched with patchy snow like lingering mange. Trees are fewer, trucks are faster, and the dogs sound meaner.

But that’s the thing about the Edgelands: They aren’t always beautiful. They can be sloppy and scabby and ragged and weedy, littered with fast-food wrappers and broken liquor bottles. This is not a landscape that cares about pleasing people. I wonder if I can keep going; everything hurts. But I flourish my crutches in joyous defiance and echo Gerard Manley Hopkins, declaiming at the top of my lungs to an uncaring quorum of cows:

These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Diane Sylvain is the copy editor at HCN. She also writes essays and creates artwork.

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