In the boom-bust cycle of the 1970s through the 1990s, the Grand Valley of Colorado saw landscaping become a burgeoning arm of the broader growth trade of construction. This business was especially robust in the higher elevations of the valley, a watershed spectacularly carved from the Rocky Mountains’ Western Slope by the Colorado River and its tributaries. There was money in this easternmost part of the Valley, at the nexus of liberal politics, wilderness, recreation, and celebrity. The town of Aspen is famous for its ski resorts but also for its dormant silver mines, intellectual symposia, festivals, iconoclasts, cosmic property values. (The median home price in Pitkin County is $1.1 million, according to Zillow.)
The regional economy was driven by mineral extraction and development, industries which at once abut, cavort with, and stick in the craw of a thriving tourist and ski trade. The latter concerns had for decades drawn an influx of upper-class property holders to Aspen and Vail. Wealthy seasonal homeowners — including famous personalities like Hunter S. Thompson, Kevin Costner, Don Johnson, and Madeline Albright — wanted places to stay in the West that reflected the spirit of American individualism. Laborers and machines rent raw materials for this industry from forests, hillsides, reservoirs, and quarries throughout the West.
One material, an aesthetic element that imbued these estates with a particular Western quality, was propagated through black-market channels from obscure but relatively nearby public lands overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This ingredient was a lichen-covered flagstone, which adorned patios, walking trails, and retaining walls that flanked mountain compounds. Couple this with knotty wooden railings, quaky stands, beaver ponds, and you had a halcyon way of harmlessly inserting yourself into a what is otherwise a brutal, high-elevation environment.
It was easy to see the appeal of this rock; brought to life by algae and cyanobacteria, its surfaces danced with deep color — lavender, burgundy, aquamarine. A call to arms for the extraction of these large flat rocks sounded through local masonry circles. Dad would develop an affinity for the stuff because for two years it would supply his income; he would come to affectionately call it “moss-rock” (a misnomer — lichens are not moss).
But before moss-rock, there was concrete, derived from gravel quarries and limestone and clay deposits. This, along with the toxic asphalt concrete with which laborers and machines surfaced the mountain highways, was the stuff of infrastructure. Without this infrastructure, the landscaping business in the Roaring Fork and Grand valleys would not have become what it was.
Dad was one contractor of hundreds who for decades laid this material, making the region comfortable. He and Mom had moved from Denver to the Valley in the 1970s, when the area was still wild. They sold cocaine from a bar they owned, and dad hunted and fished in his off time. He sometimes brags of having subsisted multiple years solely by these methods. But when the construction trade was booming, he worked for concrete contractors. Notably, he helped build the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel that connects the state’s ends in a massive artificial artery that plunges through the Continental Divide, a milestone in conquering natural barriers to Western commerce and economic growth.
The bar-owning, drug-dealing, fair-weather-laboring lifestyle proved too rock-and-roll, so Mom and Dad got saved and Dad started the concrete company, which would help create housing and community infrastructure for incoming Valley dwellers and a huge labor network of local and migrant workers, who enlarged the artifice.
Dad’s relationship with Jesus did not relieve his stress, which had replaced the spiritual bankruptcy of dealing drugs. To manage his work, he traveled up and down the Roaring Fork Valley between Aspen and Glenwood Springs several times every day, scheduling concrete trucks, straightening out unruly laborers, smoothing over relations with unhappy customers. Ahead of the advent of cell phones, he would spend between $10 and $20 every day at pay phones coordinating business. The busier it got, the less he slept, the more he drank, often treating himself to lunchtime margaritas at a local Mexican restaurant. Sometimes, the drinking was so bad that he’d avoid my Mom after getting home so she wouldn’t smell the alcohol on his breath.
Slow times weren’t much better. When the oil industry went bust, as extractive trades do, or when bad weather prevented pouring concrete, he’d have less work and resort to poaching firewood to sell at below its market value or do odd handyman projects.
On top of this, he held the alcoholic’s resentments, one of which was for wealthy liberals who pretentiously parachuted into summer homes in the glitter gulch. At family gatherings, he’d regale attendees about how sheltered and out-of-touch the privileged were. He’d mock their gullibility at locals’ pranks — a favorite tale was the “snow snake,” which Dad insisted he convinced many a tourist skier would hide in moguls and, when you skied through, “bite you in the ass and freeze you to death.” He often told a story about a woman whose driveway he poured according to the schematics. She had not understood the plan and complained when the concrete was down, “I didn’t want concrete there! Can you move it?”
Come the 1990s, the Grand Valley was no longer wild. Developers cleared huge tracts of dark timber Dad once hunted, making way for chic strip malls and suburban housing complexes. The iron-rich red of the Valley’s slopes became more exposed, and Mount Sopris, an iconic upvalley peak, a landmark for locals, and an object of wonder for tourists, started going through parts of the summers without its long ivory cap. Dad doesn’t believe in climate change, but he noticed. The anxieties of running a company in an industrial culture polluted by too much government scrutiny — OSHA regulations, bookkeeping audits — had become too much. The place was changing.
“I’ll never be happy here again,” he proclaimed to Mom in our modest double-wide. Dad needed a bigger, emptier frontier.
In the late 1990s, Dad decided to bequeath his concrete company in Colorado’s Grand Valley to a mentee because he’d tired of the boom’s stress and the bust’s drudgery. Occupational health and safety inspectors were an unwelcome but increasing presence. He’d run the concrete company for three decades and finally needed to abandon an industry he saw flagging to pompous elite whimsy and the oppressive regulatory edicts of liberal bureaucrats.
So we moved northwest to Dinosaur, Colorado, three miles from Utah. The town had long before prospered with the trucking economy of Highway 40, the main thoroughfare through the state until the early 1990s. But it flourished no more when the final stage of Interstate 70 was completed (which threads the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnel), redirecting the region’s economic lifeline through Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. Businesses in Dinosaur folded, and that town’s population shrunk to three hundred and twenty-five. The town was so small and under-resourced that it found difficulty employing a police officer and shuttered its public elementary school. It was the perfect environment to accommodate Dad’s hostility for Valley elites and, more broadly, the company of social institutions.
Dad wished to be primitive, but he was beholden to the trade-based mores of American society. We needed an initial way to make a living, which presented itself in the moss-rock harvest. The cult elder who owned the forty-acre tract of land in Skull Creek — the same one who told me he could feel the spirit of the Lord coursing through me and interrogated me about my pornography consumption — had a plan.
This forty acres was cut by a jagged ravine whose sides were lined with rough slabs the size of a kitchen table of sandstone, covered in green, red, and purple lichens. Having shrewdly observed the moss-rock demand to his southeast, the wheeling-and-dealing elder procured a backhoe, some wooden pallets, and industrial rolls of shrink wrap. Our families got to work harvesting, turning up the rocks with sledge hammers and crowbars, rolling them up the ravine slopes and into the backhoe’s main bucket. Soon, we had fifteen pallets stacked chest-high, wrapped in plastic cocoons, a total, we estimated, of thirty tons.
We shipped it on an eighteen-wheeler to a landscaping depot in the small town of Basalt, near Aspen, for around $6,000, out of which would be divided a modest wage for the family workers and life’s overhead. We did a few more rounds. But after several truckloads of moss-rock, the ravine was picked clean.
“Give it a couple of years and the moss will grow back,” said the elder, no worrier for his land (for it was God’s land) or scientist, who had noticed my horrified reaction at how quickly we stripped the slopes.
In the interim, he had a plan. An intrepid explorer of the region, the elder knew of granite-covered expanses directly north near the Powder Wash Basin, in Wyoming. This rock and the lichens it grew were more durable and valuable to Valley masons than the sandstone. These rolling desert hills were a seeming Dr. Seuss vivarium, lichen colors bright, visible hundreds of yards away even through dusty truck windows far superior to the rocks that existed on the elder’s private tract.
Like the Onceler, we scouted, spotting color on the outcroppings; we strategized, went to work.
We camped at a nearby ranch for two weeks at a time, making forays into the fields to harvest usually four eighteen-wheeler-loads of the stuff. We couldn’t haul the backhoe all over these hills, so we overloaded three tons of rock or so at a time onto three old beater pickup trucks and drove them to a remote location in a stand of pinyon trees like the hideout of a nineteenth-century bandit. We did this two or three times a day. The fields were on BLM tracts, making the venture’s legality questionable; Dad and the elder were always looking out for federal land managers. (I don’t remember ever seeing one.)
At first, the rock was easily accessible. But as time progressed, we had to reverse the trucks farther up hills into more precarious spots. The pattern was recalled from the elder’s land; the resource was being depleted. We had to roll rocks — good ones ranged between eighty and one hundred and fifty pounds — farther distances. We frequently got stuck in bad places and had to pull one truck out with another. Abused, the trucks started breaking down. In two years, we ruined two of the pickups and had to retire them. The trade took a toll on human bodies. Pulling up a large rock, I once scraped so much flesh between the first and second knuckle of my pinky and ring fingers that I could see their bones.
The rock supply dwindled. We adapted our methods, but nature had slower designs than ours; the lichens did not replenish as quickly as we removed the rock. Simultaneously, demand slipped; another type of flagstone, which landscapers had shipped in from Oklahoma quarries, was now the fickle vogue among property owners in ski country.
The landscape, meantime, changed. On hillsides for miles, our tire scars marked the hills, and the escarpments became barren and ugly, the dusty under-layers of rock now exposed. Our truckloads became smaller, less attractive. Dad and the elder had a falling out over conflicting work philosophies, and the project disintegrated. Dad went back to concrete contracting, this time in Vernal, Utah, about thirty miles west of Dinosaur.
Lichens, depending on the kind, can take many years, often decades, to fully grow back. Some Arctic lichens are believed to be among the most ancient living organisms on earth, at more than 8,500 years old. The land we left will be scarred for ages.
Note: This is part of my master’s thesis, which I am slowly dissecting and publishing here.