What “The West” Has to Do With It

Snowy Range 2019; Photo by Tim Van Schmidt

Tim Van Schmidt


Land. Sky. Space.

Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that’s what I love about living in the American West.

I live in Fort Collins, now pretty much a big, bustling city. I think about what I have to do. I drive around to do my errands. I put my mask on, of course. I interact with people. I pay my bills. I follow the news online. I write. I take pictures. You get it — I’m a busy 21st Century person living in an urban area that is still on the way up.

In the course of days, weeks, and even months of this, I often am so focused on my business, that I forget what is all around my busy world. That is a much bigger world.

That became the stark realization for me recently when I visited Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, north of Fort Collins. Windswept hills full of low-lying prairie grass empty out into wide range-lands that give a sense of that bigger world just beyond our city hubbub.

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area: Photo by Tim Van Schmidt

The place is significant in that nearby is the famous Lindenmeier archeological site — and placards explain the ancient and recent history there. Soapstone is also the home of a bison herd and an attempt to reestablish the black-footed ferret. The lands are conserved thanks to sales tax ballot measures that were approved by voters in Fort Collins and Larimer County.

All of that aside, though, visiting Soapstone is a reminder of everything the city is not. The hills are the buildings. The birds and grasshoppers are the people. Maybe a couple of deer come through as the dry yellow grass flips back and forth in the breeze. There are no cars, no TV screens, no computers, not even good phone reception.

This world exists far outside all of that.

I get that feeling sometimes flying in a plane over vast areas of “The West” that have nothing to do with people. There’s a whole lot of wilderness in between our big cities.

However, I would rather be down in it, than above it, even if I wasn’t limiting travel due to the pandemic. 

But 2020 has been a difficult year for being “down in it” too.

Above all, my favorite outdoor destination in the region is The Snowy Range, west of Laramie in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The majesty of Sugarloaf Mountain and the brightness of the white rock make a gorgeous backdrop to the white caps stirred up on the chilly alpine lakes and the tufts of trees and bushes that survive between the cracks.

For many years, I would camp with friends in the Snowies on an annual basis, exploring the trails and letting the vistas work their magic. Unfortunately, the Mullen Fire stopped that this year.

My next favorite regional destination is the Emmaline Lake Trail in the Pingree Park area. My camping buddies and I would find a spot near the Tom Bennett Campground then hike up past the CSU Mountain Campus to the Cirque Meadow. The Cirque is an excellent destination in itself, but just up the trail — and I do mean up — is the top-of-the-world beauty of Emmaline Lake.

Cirque Meadow: Photo by Tim Van Schmidt

The Cameron Peak Fire stopped going there this year.

Especially this year, with virus restrictions keeping life in the city much more sedate, then wildfires, smoke, and ashes making the wilderness unsafe, I wanted to get out even more. So, my wife and I picked Soapstone as a doable destination, if for even one day.

The first time I visited Soapstone, it actually was an unnerving experience. I decided to go solo and when I arrived at the parking lot, the only other car there pulled out and left.

At first, I thought “How great, I have the place to myself,” but after getting a mile or so back into the hills, I realized that indeed I had “the place to myself” and questioned what would happen if I was injured without anybody in the area to help.

This also makes you aware of the awesome power of nature. Not only is the land, sky, and space beautiful, but it is also potentially hard and rough on naive, puny humans.

I was born in Illinois and for Thanksgiving, I’ll give extra thanks for my parents’ brave decision to move us to “The West.” 

If they did not, I might never have experienced the beauty of the desert at sunset in Arizona. Or the roaring lull of the ocean in California. Or the green, green, green freshness of the rainforests of Washington.

I found my own home in Colorado and have come to love the mountains on one side, the wide prairie on the other, and a sky you can almost reach out and touch.

I like my life, as busy as it is, but I must remember what is much bigger and all around me — “The West,” the land, sky, and space that I love.

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his Snowy Range photo gallery and hear musician interviews on his YouTube channel “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”

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