Driving on Colorado 150 in the San Luis Valley on an October afternoon, I could hardly keep my eyes on the road. Blanca Peak pulled them skyward to the right. The Sangre de Cristo foothills below were speckled green and flaming gold with stands of changing aspens. Up ahead, my gaze climbed the Crestone Needles, swept the shimmering, shadowy Sand Dunes at their feet. The Needles’ knife edges were already dusted with snow. At the turn for Zapata, I could see the San Juans towering in the distance through the sunbleached, bony trunks of giant cottonwoods. Outside the car, I filled my lungs with warm horse- and sage-scented air.
The lodge smelled of woodsmoke, old pine, and a comforting kitchen, like bacon leftover from breakfast and coffee still hot on the stove. Each breath took me to my grandparents’ sage green log cabin in Allenspark, where similar cowboy paintings and photographs of mountain peaks used to hang above the fireplace. Being in this place reminded me of the first horse I ever rode, a white mare from the stable down the dirt road from my grandparents’ house. The owner handed my mom the lead rope and said to be back whenever.
This is the thing about memory and place: they braid and weave and blend, and for me, a Colorado girl, that mix is often carried on the wind like woodsmoke wafting through pine trees.
As I felt my boots soften with each day of riding, I remembered the red ones my grandmother wore. I remembered the scratchy red wool of my grandpa’s plaid shirt and the pitcher of bug juice he stirred, how he’d hold Grandma’s hand in their side-by-side easy chairs. I remembered sparks of Indian paintbrush lighting up the grass in their yard and the red shag carpet in the loft. All this red makes sense, really: red is the color of love.
When my grandmother began to lose her memory, I scolded myself for not asking more questions before. What was it like, I should have asked, living through the Dust Bowl in Kansas, when thick clouds of dirt blackened the sky and extinguished the sun? How did you make it through the Depression that rolled in on the heels of the dust? I imagine she would have answered with a wink and a smile, as if it were easy.
One thing I don’t wonder about is why she made Colorado her home. I’ve felt that same pull west, to the mountains, my whole life.
When my grandmother passed away three weeks before I came to Zapata, I worried her memories were lost. I wanted to return them, put them back in place, keep them somewhere I could see them. I could feel them slipping through my fingers like sand. I would come across articles about dementia and devour them like they were lifelines, like they might contain the answers I’d been searching for or the feelings I hadn’t been able to articulate. Some of the best lines I’d save, reading them over and over or even copying them in my notebook like I was collecting evidence to support a thesis, gathering answers to questions I wasn’t sure how to ask. The academic in me felt some reassurance in treating my grief and this disease like problems I could solve with close reading. But the writer in me knows that scholarly pursuits often don’t account for emotion, don’t care to dwell on unanswerable questions. Trying to navigate this liminal, uncertain place wore me down like the constant scrape of sand on skin. It felt like a place I couldn’t stay long without deteriorating.
The magic of Zapata–a place at the confluence of valley and mountain and dune, and also a convergence of women writers and riders–helped me see a way out of that painful, unanswerable space. At the Dunes, riding horseback on mountains of sand, I felt the heaviness I’d been carrying spill out of me, and I felt open, filled with this place. Writing beside other women in a cottonwood grove with moody clouds and autumn aspens draped over the mountains like a multi-color quilt, I felt something new building with each word we put on the page, spoke aloud, or sent to the sky. Listening to the sand swishing underneath my horse’s hooves, and to the exhilarating thunder of a dozen women riders leaving clouds of dust billowing behind as we ran together, I could hear older stories, mightier questions, ones that made me feel small, but not lost. This place put me, and my memories, back together.
Zebulon Pike wrote that the Sand Dunes looked like the sea in a storm except for the color. Growing up in Boulder, in the foothills of the Rockies, I grew up singing songs about Pike, and other old, white guy colonists, in elementary school. Now I know he was wrong, about more than just the Sand Dunes. Being there myself, I saw something else. A stormy sea has none of the calmness of this place. The shadows on these dunes shimmer rather than surge. Sand builds; waves break.
A handful of the valley’s sandy soil feels barren, lifeless, but when the grains slip through your fingers, they rush back to a vast grassland full of life even in the driest part of fall: yellow rabbitbrush and greasewood, sage and scrub oak, even a few cacti holding onto late summer blooms. Enough grows here to sustain herds of wild elk and bison, porcupines, migrating sandhill cranes, great horned owls, and of course the horses and cattle on the conservation-focused ranch. With sand in between my fingers and wind in my hair, I felt this place inviting me in, nourishing me, reminding me of things I forgot, making a space for me to grow, too. The memories I had been looking for, trying to hold onto, are like the almost-invisible grains of sand that hitch a ride in the smallest crevices and folds, scattered everywhere. But together, swirling and swelling, they make mountains.
This is the thing about memory: it loves to dwell in the hardest-to-reach places, and it builds, even when you can’t see its work. Memory is a slow burn, heat glowing deep red inside old logs, sending up sparks when you least expect them, spiraling stories into the air. Memories don’t live only in the brain, and dementia can’t touch the heart.
By Amanda Knopf Rauhauser. Rauhauser spent a week at Zapata Ranch in October 2021 as a participant of Pam Houston’s writing workshop, where she began this essay.