I swung down off the levy, across the gravel of his driveway, and clicked out of my pedals suddenly toe-to-toe with a very red-faced cowboy.
“I said, this is private property!” He was right up in my face. “You’re trespassing!” His can of chew made a circular outline in his breast pocket.
“OK,” I replied, “don’t get your knickers in a bunch.”
Before the words had left my mouth, I regretted them. They sounded flippant at best. And I didn’t want to create an incident. But the man’s anger, the vein bulging in his neck, hadn’t seemed to fit my crime, whatever it was. I was trying to defuse the moment rather than incite.
There we were standing beside a modest, late-model farmhouse at the extreme eastern edge of Montrose, where the snaking South Canal defines the irrigated, green valley on one side and the dry adobes on the other.
He was hatless, in a long-sleeved shirt and boots. I was wearing a helmet, padded bike shorts and fingerless gloves. We could have modeled for a cartoon depicting the cultural divide separating Telluride and Montrose, recreation and animal husbandry, New West and Old.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
I told him I was hoping to follow the canal north until I came to the new hydro generating plant, just opened with much fanfare by the local electric co-op.
“You can’t get there this way.”
I told him I figured, since the plant was built on the canal, the canal road would get me there. More impudence.
“This is private property. There’s no public access. Didn’t you see the sign? You rode right past it. Or did you come to ask permission to cross?”
Ah, a note of sarcasm. I said, honestly, no, that had not been my intention.
Later (natch) I wished I’d had the presence of mind to ask him if he knew why the canal road south of Kinikin, just about all the way to where it dumps into the Uncompahgre River, is open to traffic: bikes, cars, horses, whatever.
I didn’t ask. I didn’t think of it, and I didn’t want to be any more argumentative than I’d been.
I suppose in hindsight, had I not made the “knickers” crack, I might have asked his name, offered mine, tried for a kind of détente. But it was too late. And it probably wouldn’t have worked. He was too wound up.
I could have shared with him the fact that I was a fellow Montrovian, from down in the south end of the county. That I’d lived on the Western Slope for a good long time, maybe even longer than he’d been alive. It was hard to tell, the way rage transformed his face, but he was actually a youngish man, probably younger than either of my daughters, who were born in Montrose.
I know, standing on longevity is a weak argument. Used by people who can’t think of anything else to bolster their cred. But it does come to mind, maybe to both of us standing there on a hot June morning, when we are both feeling unfairly characterized. He thinking I’m an arrogant newcomer oblivious, or insensitive, to the way things have been done. Me thinking he’s an off-the-rails reactionary, clinging to a pioneer past that may never have existed.
I came here for the skiing. His meat, I assume, is growing hay. Although you could say it might be otherwise, that is the irreducible gap between us. That and probably political affiliation, and guns, and ATVs, and most likely religion, too.
I just finished reading an article about Mali by Jon Lee Anderson, on how difficult it is to keep a nation together when the people in the north, in Timbuktu, are light-skinned Arabs who mistrust the people in the south, in the capital Bamako, who are mostly black Africans, with their own language, music, and resentments. There is a history, quite recent after all, of those Arabs owning black slaves.
And here we all are on the Western Slope of Colorado – red county, blue county – speaking the same language, coming from more or less the same democratic, ostensibly tolerant national cosmology. Can’t we all, as Rodney King asked, “just get along?”
The answer, at least in this instance, was no.
“I guess I’ll go find another route then,” I said, turning my bike beneath me.
“I appreciate it,” he said, biting off a piece of rote politeness from the trailing edge of our tension.