BY ANDREW TRAVERS
We were a mile or so into a hike through the red clay cliffs behind Owl Farm, Athena and I. We found one of those rare vantage points where a snowless Woody Creek lays splayed out before you all at once: tractor-groomed acres of green; pasture fields peppered with ranch houses, horses, llamas, stacked bales of hay and pick-up trucks; the Christmas tree farm draping through the valley in semi-perfect rows; the lush north face of the canyon diving steeply into the Roaring Fork River; wild plateaus holding hidden homesteads you couldn’t see from anywhere else; the Elk Mountains rising white-capped and regal in the distance with vultures and magpies vying for airspace against a cloudless blue sky.
My breath already taken away by the view and the hike up, I didn’t know how to react when Athena came to me whimpering.
She had found an elk skull amid the branches, bramble and bare cottonwoods on this hilltop. The skull was sun-caked white and missing its tower jaw, with an un-cracked cranium and a wide snout that still held fat white teeth but eye sockets filled only with cobwebs.
For mountain natives and long-time residents who have co-existed with the creatures of Woody Creek — and gotten accustomed to the idea that in your backyard an elk might lay down, die, rot and let the sun bake its bones into pure white artifacts fit for a museum wall before you find it — this would be no wondrous occasion.
But for me — a Jersey-bred boy who grew up in the clustered sprawl across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and spent his adult life amid the bewitching asphalt, wrought iron and urban decay of New Orleans — the elk skull was a shock.
Until I moved to Woody Creek this summer, at 26, I had never seen the stunning laziness of a grazing elk or felt the confident curious stare of a llama or witnessed the peaceful languor of a mama black bear and her cubs sleeping in the branches of a pine tree. I hadn’t known what it was like to hear roosters crow — and peacocks squawk — at the break of day. . . or to hear coyotes howl at dusk.
Likewise, the menace of nature was something I’d thought about only when reading Jack London or Jon Krakauer until I heard the concerned whispers from Woody Creek neighbors that we should keep our pets and wits about us — mountain lions and wolves are afoot this winter.
So it has been with an odd sense of pride, in my first months here, that I’ve heard the term “Woody Creature” applied to the few hundred residents of the unincorporated burg that spawned our magazine. Sometimes it has been uttered with disdain from collagen-puffed lips below the upturned noses of Aspen’s Gulfstream glitterati, other times it has been muttered with pride over Flying Dog ales at the Tavern.
Either way, the hollow trappings of cosmopolitanism and the chic preening of life among urban masses seem downright silly in a place like this — a place where you’re forced to recognize your stature as a creature among creatures. Or, if you’re lucky, Woody Creatures.