The “Quest” alluded to in the title of this post refers to my company’s pursuit for the most flavorful, succulent beef: an adventure arising out of a conversation with my friend Ben and recounted in the previous post (please see “The Quest Begins [Part I]“).
Our first stop was to be at a small but thriving family ranch in Monument, CO, just northwest of Colorado Springs. The meeting was tentatively for the following Tuesday or Wednesday, but first we would spend the days leading up to the visit with friends and loved ones in the area (I lived in Colorado for seven years prior to moving back to Michigan). Driving into Colorado Springs late Saturday afternoon, June 23, we were greeting by a portentous omen: a great plume of thick smoke rising just behind the ridge line. This was Day One of the Waldo Canyon Fire, and we were en route to the wedding of a former student of mine. The wedding took place amongst the Ponderosa Pine of Black Forest, CO, in the courtyard of what felt like an old Spanish mission. Nuptials were exchanged under an archway that opened onto the forest. Pikes Peak formed an impressive backdrop to the event that was now unfolding. In fact, two dramas were unfolding before our eyes: the one, the drama of marriage, and the other, what would become the “most destructive fire in Colorado history.”
The next morning, Sunday, my wife and I walked to the grounds of the Broadmoor Hotel and Resort: a lush, green oasis in the foothills of the front range of the Colorado Rockies, a terrain best described as a high desert with its arid climate and intense sun (and, yes, tumble weeds). The air was tinged with smoke, as if from an innocent campfire, and light ashes peacefully fell now and then. Two deer, weary and mangy, emerged from the side of the road in search of food and water, refugees from the flames. Our plans to camp that night were scrapped (prudently so) in favor of an afternoon hike in the mountains safely south of Waldo Canyon. We were staying with the aforementioned Ben (and his wife), who had just migrated to Colorado and were living in a bungalow on a mountain stream and in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain. Throughout our stay with them, the sound of rushing water filled the air: greeting us when we awoke each morning, forming the backdrop to our conversations, and then lulling us to sleep at night.
Monday: a day to celebrate my wife’s birthday, a day of horseback riding on a wilderness safari high in the mountains, with buffalo sunning themselves in the afternoon light, and a day ending with a bbq in the company of good friends (friends that I miss very much indeed). For the event, we drove to our friends’ (Tyler and Jamie) new home in the glow of a strange, orange light, created as the setting sun was obscured by the smoke bellowing from the firewall. Among those gathered there were two old roommates (Aaron and P.J.) with whom I had shared not only a town home in Colorado Springs but some of the best years of life. In conversation with them, I allowed certain memories from those days to present themselves: of a trip to the Tetons using a weather-worn Land Rover; of Superbowl parties after a game of football with friends and neighbors; of many and various conversations that carried into the night over drinks. It was during my time with them that I cooked one of my first steaks, choosing as a recipe Rib-eye Steaks with Brandy, Mushrooms, and Blue Cheese. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, that dinner in our little town home near the foothills of the front range was a seminal moment. Something was discovered over that meal, in the transcendence of the moment: something about what it is that I so love in life and about what makes me come alive. Thinking about all of this–and with no small amount of nostalgia–what those years in Colorado taught me was the truth that no man is truly himself outside of relationship with others: in the best friendships one discovers himself and becomes more of himself.
Tuesday began with a breakfast at Adam’s Mountain Cafe in historic Manitou Springs. This town, which lays at the base of Pike’s Pike and is normally bustling with tourists, was a virtual ghost town: it had received an evacuation notice by fire officials three days prior and, though the evacuation had since been lifted, it was slow to recover its economic vitality. Nevertheless, we had most of the cafe to ourselves, a cafe which has the feel of a Victorian parlor, circa the early 1900s. Here, in this cafe, time slows down in total keeping with the philosophy of the place which espouses the spirit of the Slow Food movement, whose “Manifesto” appears on their menu and their website’s hompage (it’s really worth a read). After a breakfast of grilled polenta topped with white cheddar and red chili (the Red Mountain Falls), another exotic discovery: the Mate Factor, a coffee and tea house that, once inside, transports one to a hut in the rainforests or even the mountains of South America.
With our time in Colorado Springs beginning to draw to a close, and with my mind turning to the meeting that was to take place the following day at the ranch in Monument, CO, fate took a dramatic turn. Just hours after visiting friends for lunch in the neighborhood where I used to live, gale-force winds blew the Waldo Canyon Fire over a gully, placing the neighborhood in its direct path. Friends were evacuated and, later that night, as we were staying with friends outside the city, we were able to look back on the scene through binoculars. What we saw: homes acting as little more than kindling as the fire line, making a V-shape, advanced down the mountain–appearing, from my vantage point, as lava from a volcano. In a brief conversation that night with the rancher in Monument, he relayed that he had spent the day loading up his livestock for evacuation. Our meeting had to be cancelled. (The meeting, in fact, would never take place as we had to begin heading back to the Midwest on Thursday for a family reunion.)
Before leaving Colorado Springs on Wednesday afternoon to spend one last night in Denver, CO, we helped our hosts pack up their most prized possessions (family photos) in the event that they, too, were put on evacuation notice. One powerful scene stays with me from that morning. It occurred in the midst of the preparations, in a moment of calm intentionality. It concerned a family heirloom: a piano imported from Krakow, Poland, which–of course–would need to stay behind. In a moment of rest from the activity of packing, our hostess plucked out the melody of an old hymn whose lyrics included these lines:
“When I look down
From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook
And feel the gentle breeze;
Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee
How great thou art
How great thou art…”
As she played I saw, in my mind, one of the final episodes from the 1998 film Titanic in which, on the deck of the sinking ocean liner, a tiny ensemble of musicians–a remnant, if you will–play on stringed instruments the haunting melody “Nearer My God To Thee” (and, as a way of truly entering the scene, you’ll want to click on the link). The scene is one of utter tranquility amidst chaos. And so it was in this home of this family, at least, in the Summer of 2012 amidst Colorado’s greatest natural disaster…
“The Quest Begins” will conclude with an Epilogue to follow. In it, I will “sing of farms and a man”–to parody Virgil’s famous opening of The Aeneid: “arma virumque cano [I sing of arms and a man]“. In it,
I will tell of the silver lining, or better yet, of the phoenix arising out of the ashes of our ill-fated adventure to the state of Colorado.