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Finding winter peace at a ranch in the mountains outside Colorado Springs

March 13, 2017 Updated: March 14, 2017 at 7:12 am
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Lauren Johnson, 26, looks on at Elk Glade Ranch on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. Johnson is the first of her family in over 50 years to winter at the ranch, a remote area of land on the South Slope that has been owned by her family since the 1920s. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

The horses, the cattle - they are nowhere in sight. Somewhere out in the vast mountainous valley, they are wandering.

It's another cold day on the remote land of Lauren Johnson's ancestors, reached after an hour's drive up a dirt road that rises with the red and granite canyons above Colorado Springs. And as most days have gone during her solo sojourn here this winter, Johnson, 26, begins by searching.

It's not that she's worried for the animals that belong to her father, a Denver businessman who resides there with the rest of the family during these cold months. Those hooves are doing good, Lauren says; they are trampling the underbrush that could serve as fuel for forest fires in the hilly wilderness surrounding the 2,000-acre ranch, where her great-grandfather settled nearly 90 years ago. The Johnsons hold on to the hope that the East Beaver Valley will remain forever pristine, forever free from development and devastation, and sometimes that means letting nature do as nature does. The wandering is just fine.

But on this morning, Johnson sets out on foot for the seven horses and 16 cows, her boots crunching in the snowy meadow between high rock outcrops, and she's carrying a pail of alfalfa sprouts that she might use to guide them back - "Just so they know where there's food and where there's shelter," she says.

The ranch house at Elk Glade Ranch on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. Johnson is the first of her family in over 50 years to winter at the ranch, a remote area of land on the South Slope that has been owned by her family since the 1920s. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

That is at the century-old barn beside the century-old shingled house where she has stayed alone this winter. She's the first to do so since 1969, according to her grandmother, Margaret Stone. The man was a ranch hand, Stone says, a man with nowhere else to go but stay in the valley, where homesteads sit ruined with the barns and slaughterhouses, the cellars and the liquor stills, where rumors remain of lost treasure.

Stone, 89, wishes to be buried here where her father homesteaded. The place in her memories is lush, stretching endlessly green with the stream. She'd spend summers here as a child, riding horseback in with her family accompanied by a pack burro.

"The most beautiful place in the state of Colorado," she calls it. She adds of those days: "I benefited from it in so many ways, because you had to find a way to live, you had to support yourself and do everything yourself. I'm a very fortunate person for that."

Like her grandmother, Lauren grew up spending summers at the ranch. But this year, she wanted to experience the land as it changed, as it went from deep green to aspen gold, to bare and bitter. She wanted to be alone, out of cell range.

Lauren Johnson, 26, sits on the porch at Elk Glade Ranch on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. Johnson is the first of her family in over 50 years to winter at the ranch, a remote area of land on the South Slope that has been owned by her family since the 1920s. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

"She's always been very introspective," says her father, Jim Johnson, recalling her years at Denver's Cherry Creek High School, where she developed her interest in art and flourished as a lacrosse player. "She always drove herself intensely, sometimes I think to a harmful extent. Very, very hard on herself."

She got a scholarship to play at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated four years ago. She dropped the sport beforehand as she focused on interests beyond the field: post-impressionistic art and the Dutch Golden Age. She also became fascinated by Mormonism.

"I saw all this drinking and drugs around me, and I thought there had to be something more than this," she says of her draw to the religion.

She found meaning in it until she didn't. Out of college, she spent two years in impoverished Midwest towns, visiting people with dirt-floor homes and kids with full diapers, helping to baptize them. "Some of the things I didn't agree with," she says, "so telling them they should believe in this, it was hard pushing that."

She went on to bounce from California to Minnesota to Brooklyn to Seattle, finding jobs at art museums while following her longtime boyfriend.

The breakup was hard on her. She sought the solitude of the mountains.

Cows wander over to Lauren Johnson, 26, at Elk Glade Ranch on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. Johnson is the first of her family in over 50 years to winter at the ranch, a remote area of land on the South Slope that has been owned by her family since the 1920s. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

"So I've been working through that," she says while roaming the valley. She has also struggled with religion: "That's something really important to me, finding truth. But sometimes when I get in that mindset, I just, I don't know, I get melancholic. I battle with that.

"Sometimes," she continues, "it's just realizing it's OK. You might not ever figure it out, and that's just fine."

She has been reading and writing a lot at the ranch, mostly at night beside the stove that warms the house from the wood she chops. There's a generator powering electricity, but she tends to leave it off, preferring the dark and quiet.

She typically wakes around 8 a.m. to make tea and wait for the sun to splash over the valley. Then she goes to the creek - using an ax to crack the ice if necessary - to retrieve water in a bucket that she heats and uses for showers.

The days have been for exploring. She hikes the hills, keeping an eye out for the herd. She might be out for hours upon hours before she finds the roamers.

And she does now: Cattle are in view up the valley. On her way to them, she points out a favorite spot, a high rock. It is a steep but rewarding climb.

"Up there," she says, "you can see everything."

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