Guest post: My Plateau

Map: Colorado, setting of “My Plateau” by Beth Bates
This is a guest post from Beth Bates who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Colorado. Enjoy!

My heart cracks a little when I allow it to revisit the scene where my teenagers are babies and I am a cattleman-turned-lawyer’s wife in southwest Colorado.

We’re living in a one-story house on a one-acre lot among farms and ranches postage-stamped on an irrigated mesa 6,000 feet above sea level. In the field behind our homestead near the Black Canyon, Grand Mesa, San Juan Mountains, and the Uncompahgre Plateau, an amber sea of barley undulates in the September sun. In alternating years the crop is corn. Nearby farms yield onions, the earthy scent of which wafts our way on windy days.

Winters, on the land behind our Spring Creek Mesa house, cows take up residence to munch down stalks left behind from harvest. Heavy bovine rustling noises of milling over rutted rows; mooing, calving, and weaning wails become the soundtrack to my simple life. For four years of days and nights and nap-times, I immerse myself in the livestock sounds like songs I need to learn by heart. I am rapt in views out my kitchen window, over the sink where I bathe my baby girl, soak dishes, bottles, and sippy cups.

One October Saturday, my babes and I play in our pumpkin patch between brittle vines. Over the fence Mr. Brown, my next-door neighbor who still holds hands with his WWII bride, probes out of curiosity born of wisdom. “Where is your husband?” and “When do you two have time to be married?” Indeed. My cattleman-turned-attorney husband seems often to be missing evenings and weekends. Planning commission and fair board meetings, required and optional, eat up certain weeknights. For fun he judges FFA heifers, killing time at cattle auctions at the fairgrounds.

I don’t suspect another woman, but retreating into activities that reconnect him to his ranching youth (where meaning springs from barrel racing, livestock shows, and fair queens) creates distance. On my own becomes the norm, but my little boy and his baby sister are always near; and to the west I sense my plateau as a kindly divine presence watching over his children.

For occasional Sunday outings, we four pile into Daddy’s pickup to climb the one-lane, 4-WD drive road up to Yankee Boy Basin, where we hike along Sneffels Creek among an orange, purple, and blue carpet of Indian paintbrush, lupine, and columbine. Or we might swim in Ouray’s hot springs pools, or head down to Ridgway, where John Wayne filmed “True Grit” near Ralph Lauren’s ranch. After wearing out the kids with play we mosey over to the True Grit Saloon for chicken fingers and burgers. My tall, lumbering spouse always walks the boy or holds the baby so I can finish my meal, I’ll give him that.

How we ever mated remains a mystery. When I met him in downtown Denver, ennui from a recent breakup had numbed me to the point of blindness to our differences. Living in a LoDo highrise in the trendy neighborhood now occupied by Coors Field, he passed for my type. He was wearing a suit. He was tall. If he were a house on the market it could be said that he showed well. As it turns out, he was a real cowboy, having grown up on a small Charolais operation near Golden. He was novel.

Novel does not a happy marriage make, but two angels and a plateau help.

Framed by my kitchen window the Uncompahgre, a Ute word meaning “rocks that make water red,” fills a 10-and-2 field of vision, rising to over 10,000 feet at Horsefly Peak. My plateau begins each day as vivid as the eye can bear: the morning sun illuminates distinct trees and detectable-yet-inscrutable cliffs and crannies of canyons with names like Tabeguache, Escalante, and Unaweep. For two weeks every fall, bright yellow puffs of aspen groves glow against an evergreen backdrop; in winter, spring, and summer its colors come in every shade of pine and umber. In the hour before dusk I watch my plateau swell black as a vast, elevated, shadowy sea behind which the sun slips to shine on Vegas, California, Hawaii, Japan . . .

And every morning the Uncompahgre greets me, its nuances manifest again and friendly, granting me another day in this stunning spot on the planet. “Enjoy me while you are given the privilege of living within my view,” it seems to say. I drink it in while it warms and breaks my heart, unaware that years from now I’ll pine for this vista as one longs for a lost love; ignorant to the fact that ten years hence I’ll look back on toads kissed and princes married, and nearly married, and understand this: the great love of my life was not a person but a place.

Beth is an ardent mother and wife; a reader who writes, a writer who edits, creative nonfictioner; fan of walking outdoors; lover of fresh air, grass, plants, dirt, sand, waves, mountains and, in some cases, the Oxford comma. Being paid to be creative makes her feel like a lottery winner. Her favorite thing is to help other writers shape up their own work. You should try her. She blogs at Lit Salad and Tweets @bethbates.