It’s four o’clock in the afternoon when we hit Slumgullion summit, and we’re so close to home I can almost taste it. Behind us the highest peaks of the San Juan Mountains cast long shadows across the big blue afternoon–Handies Peak, Uncompaghre Peak, and the Wetterhorn–while in front of us Spring Creek Pass marks the place where the continent divides the waters, where the first few trickles pool and start to tumble into a channel that a few miles downstream, when it snakes around my property, will already be called the Rio Grande.
We left Sacramento last night at nine, and it’s been a long haul across the Great Basin, but the Milky Way stretched itself thick and white across Nevada, and Venus rose just before the sun over Utah, and I’m so excited to be back in the high country I haven’t even suggested we stop for food.
With me in the 4Runner is my Irish Wolfhound, Dante, and a man I’ve promised myself I’ll love like no other before him. Our love is new, but so strong it feels like it’s got something you might call God behind it, and this is the first time he will see this place, these mountains, my home. I’m working an equation in my head that’s got to do with land and home and love and the mystery in the moments like this one where they all come together, but I don’t have all the details yet.
Dante and I have been at sea level for eight weeks and it’s not our natural habitat. In the six years I’ve owned my ranch in Colorado, I’ve never been away for that long. Dante hasn’t either, and he’s beside himself with longing, knowing he’s about to be reunited with his best canine friend Sally, knowing he’s about to get to go chase his horses around the pasture, knowing he’ll be able to sleep on his front porch with the sound of the river in his ears and the smell of the prairie grass in his nose–no more diesel fumes and car alarms–for the first time in two months, not a worry in the world.
For the last couple of hours the smells have been such that Dante can tell we’re almost home, and he’s been sitting at attention behind me drooling onto my shoulder. I’m feeling somewhat Pavlovian myself, though I can’t tell if it’s the sharp smell of the ponderosa needles, or the dusky scent of the aspen bark, or just breathing the high thin air with this good man beside me and this good dog at my back. What I do know is I’m as giddy and grateful at this moment as I’ve ever been in my life. Were it not for the seat belt, I might go spiraling out the sunroof for joy.
We’ve crossed Spring Creek Pass now, and the valley that holds the ranch stretches before us. The Rio Grande makes its big lazy horseshoe bend and the Divide follows it around. The ranch sits protected in the deepest part of the horseshoe, while behind it Red Mountain rises to almost thirteen thousand feet. The man is quiet, awed by the beauty, the sheer dimension of this landscape, as any thinking person would be. I realize as we turn onto the dirt road, my road–the home stretch of the home stretch–how important it is to me that he love this place, too.
When I go away I can pretend not to miss it. When I go away I can talk about how much I value the things the world at sea level offers, culture and produce for example, and more than our thirty frost-free nights a year, but every time I come home it hits me deep in my guts: There is no place on earth that makes me as happy as this one.
We pull into the driveway and Sally comes flying out the door and over the fence to meet us. Dante’s out the window, and they’re chasing rabbits before the man I love can get the gate open. He latches it open and then stops and stares at Red Mountain with appropriate wonder. I’m driving through the gate when I solve the equation: This piece of ground, this log house, this faded barn, these acres of grass dotted with paintbrush and lupine, this land has taught me more about love than any person or place that came before it. A red-tailed hawk dives for the river, and we hear its cry echo across the pasture. At this moment I have everything I ever wanted.