A refuge in the North Fork

Harvesting memories on Colorado’s Western Slope.

These photographs were taken between 2011 and 2018 on Colorado’s Western Slope, in a high-desert enclave of small-scale farms and wilderness. The locals in the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford refer to the surrounding river valley as “the North Fork.” For me, the North Fork is also a place in my imagination.

I first visited in 1992, when I was 7 years old. My dad took my brothers and me there to meet our aunt, uncle and their six kids, who at the time were living in a large tent at the base of a mountain. Their backyard had three ponds and a garden where they grew their own food. Beyond was a dense forest of scrub oak and juniper trees where I imagined coyotes, black bears and mountain lions lurked — and even farther out were troves of aspen and pine, guarding a seemingly infinite and unknowable expanse.


I marveled over my cousins’ world and envied their freedoms. I viewed their free-range way of life as an enduring vestige of the frontier, as if they were on a never-ending adventure that was at once exciting and terrifying. I was also mystified by their homegrown meals, especially my aunt’s macrobiotic dishes, which consisted of peculiar heirloom crops and other strange and colorful local foods I had never seen, smelled or tasted anywhere else.

Karen, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2014.
Trent Davis Bailey

In the years that followed, my dad and his brother had ongoing personal disputes, which ended with a breach of trust and led to a falling out between our families. I never again visited the valley as a child, but my memories of it remained.

And, almost 20 years later, I returned. I found my way back through an orchardist and vintner known as Justy, who let me camp on his land. He showed me his raspberry thickets and native cottonwoods, his compost piles, his chicken and turkey coop, his goat pen and apple orchard, and his rows of grapevines supported by trestles. We harvested garlic together, ate figs off a tree in his greenhouse, and swam naked in his friends’ pond. The North Fork was even more remarkable than I had remembered.


Left, Lilly (Picking Apricots), Paonia, Colorado, 2012. Right, James, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2016.
Trent Davis Bailey

Amaya, Paonia, Colorado, 2016.
Trent Davis Bailey

After several returns, as fate would have it, I bumped into my aunt at the Paonia food co-op. Awestruck, we embraced each other and exchanged stories. She told me that her family had left the valley in 1999, only to return in the early aughts. In the years since that chance encounter, I’ve rekindled ties with her and my North Fork cousins, and my fondness for them gives me all the more reason to keep coming back.

Awestruck, we embraced each other and exchanged stories. 


Angela, Lost Lake, Colorado, 2015.
Trent Davis Bailey

During my longest stay, two days before my 30th birthday, a friend from Paonia took me foraging for chanterelles and brought along another friend of hers named Emma. Almost unbelievably, we found more than 15 pounds of mushrooms. Come sundown, Emma and I washed and sorted our haul and devoured a sautéed helping of it with dinner and homemade mead. Afterward, we lay in the grass and talked late into the evening under a waxing crescent moon, beginning a long imagining of our own new constellations.

Scott (Watering), Paonia, Colorado, 2016.
Trent Davis Bailey

Farmhands, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2014.
Trent Davis Bailey


Emma and I are now married and raising a family of our own, growing crops, tending to a backyard perennial garden and living among century-old pines in a mountain community along Colorado’s Front Range. When I’m home, I’m reminded that the woods around us are related to the forest where we met. The North Fork, that uncanny refuge on the other side of the Continental Divide, has given me family in more ways than one.


Left, Austin (Suze’s Cherry Tree), Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2015. Right, Eggs, Paonia, Colorado, 2017.
Trent Davis Bailey
Left, Jars, Plums and Apples, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2012. Right, Bill, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2011.
Trent Davis Bailey


Ryan (Sunning), Paonia, Colorado, 2014.
Trent Davis Bailey

Fruit-picking Ladders, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2017.
Trent Davis Bailey

Lost Boy Ranch, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2012.
Trent Davis Bailey

Roundabout, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2013.
Trent Davis Bailey

The photographs featured here are from Trent Davis Bailey’s book, The North Fork, forthcoming in late summer 2023 from Trespasser, a Texas-based independent art book publisher. Bailey’s work is also the subject of an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum titled “Personal Geographies: Trent Davis Bailey | Brian Adams,” which will be on view from July 30, 2023, through  Feb. 11, 2024.

Editor’s note: “Karen,” who appears in the photos above, now works at High Country News.

Trent Davis Bailey is a photographer born and based in Colorado whose work pulls from personal resonances of loss, trauma, family and geography, particularly as they relate to ecology, place, memory and time. Instagram: @trentdavisbailey

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