Society

Aspen memories are golden in fall

Iconic ‘quakers’ turned annual pilgrimage into spectacle

I’m in love with populus tremuloides.

Okay, this isn’t a gossip article. Populus tremuloides is a tree. In fact that’s the scientific name of the quaking aspen.

My wife Sue, step-daughter Kayla and I have just returned from the annual pilgrimage to our favorite place on earth. Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

(Okay, it’s the favorite place of Sue and I. Fifteen-year-old Kayla’s would be the makeup aisle at Walmart.)

We’ve been to the Silverton Ouray-Lake City-Telluride area many times but never in the fall.

We originally fell in love with the aspens when they were green each summer. But this time they had, to use an old but appropriate phrase, gone to glory.

It was family circumstances which dictated this year’s trip would be our first-ever in the fall.


Aspens turn entire mountainsides golden in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, with snow already dusting peaks above 11,000 feet. 
Reporter/Mike Brown Aspens turn entire mountainsides golden in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, with snow already dusting peaks above 11,000 feet. Reporter/Mike Brown As I frequently tell my wife, “I’m like Ronald Reagan, I’m a concept guy, not into details, I look at the big picture.”

And one of the “details” I overlooked when planning the trip was that leaves change in the fall.

That turned out to be the biggest picture of all.

THE GLOW—We began to see aspens—exciting, sort of like seeing the first robin in spring—at about 7,000 feet in the vicinity of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

They were still the summertime pale green. Aspens are distinctive trees with their white bark and “eyes,” stretch marks where the bark splits.

Of course the quaking part is what’s fascinating. I’ve heard that aspen stems are sort of at right angles to the leaf and that’s why the slightest breeze sets them dancing and shimmering.


High above timberline, in what’s known as the ‘arctic zone’ Sue Brown stays warm by thinking about Rockdale’s summer. High above timberline, in what’s known as the ‘arctic zone’ Sue Brown stays warm by thinking about Rockdale’s summer. On the road up to Coal Bank Pass at 10,000 feet those green leaves began to trend yellow, then golden and then, well it was like someone turned on a switch.

That’s what gets me the most about aspens in the fall. They glow. And they do it whether the sun is out or not.

I looked up a lot of information on aspens hoping something would explain about the glowing. Nothing did.

I think the problem is that all the stuff I looked up was science. With aspens you need a poet.

THE FACE—We stopped briefly in Silverton to find the summer season over and the long winter about to begin. No more band concerts, no more hummingbirds. Businesses advertising “we have a wood stove going.”


The sun isn’t doing this. Aspens glow in a way other trees don’t. The sun isn’t doing this. Aspens glow in a way other trees don’t. Back home in Rockdale that day it was 106.

Our destination was Ouray and our friend Gregg Pieper, who owns the two things you can’t believe anyone could own, history and wonder.

History is Gregg’s 120-yearold Western Hotel. You know those places that look exactly like something out of the past? Well, this isn’t one of those. It is the past.

The Western is the genuine article, with its own legends and aura from the days when Ouray was a genuine, and sometimes raw, frontier town.

And wonder? Look at that large picture on page 1B. That’s Gregg’s “office” of sorts, where he and his San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours make a living every day.


Gregg Pieper talks about the famous ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ in his 120-year-old hotel. This year he turned over that pre-Jeep trip lecture to a much less knowledgeable speaker, me! Gregg Pieper talks about the famous ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ in his 120-year-old hotel. This year he turned over that pre-Jeep trip lecture to a much less knowledgeable speaker, me! Gregg paid me the ultimate compliment this year. He always takes jeep tour participants on a tour of his hotel before we depart.

This year he had other pressing business—I think he was negotiating a tariff treaty between the U. S. and The Netherlands—and he turned over the tour honors to me and another gentleman.

I got to tell about the Western’s famous “ face on the barroom f loor,” a painting by Herndon Davis, who also famously drew the identical face on a floor in Central City, Colorado.

The portraits are based on Hugh D’Arcy’s legendary 1887 poem that has been made into two movies, one starring Charlie Chaplin, and even an opera.


It’s Sue and Kayla. It’s called ‘Oh Point.’ It’s in Colorado. It’s almost 13,000 feet high. It’s cold. It’s Sue and Kayla. It’s called ‘Oh Point.’ It’s in Colorado. It’s almost 13,000 feet high. It’s cold. IN A RUT—Our jeep ride was a day-long affair over Engineer Pass to Lake City, and back over Cinnamon Pass to Silverton, then Ouray.

The higher we climbed the more spectacular the aspens. As we reached the headwaters of Henson Creek, under 14,000-foot peaks Handies, Sunshine and Redcloud, entire mountainsides glistened with gold.

I noticed this year that Gregg was having more trouble getting the jeep around some of the rougher places on the trails.

In fact, there was one hanging shelf where we got out and walked as Gregg deemed it a bit dicey to take a fully-loaded jeep across the wet ledge.

It was a combination of a couple of factors. First, the proliferation of ATVs has altered trail dynamics.


My breath is short; in fact it’s gaspin’; when I behold the lovely aspen. My breath is short; in fact it’s gaspin’; when I behold the lovely aspen. Skilled jeep drivers, like Gregg, finesse their way over the rocky roads. It’s the nature of the ATV to just gun it once you’re stuck, freeing your wheels but making the hole deeper for the next traveler.

The other part of the equation is the complete lack of trail maintenance by Ouray County.

Come on, Ouray County commissioners, couldn’t you run a grader over the passes a couple of times a year? If you need drivers I’ll bet I know where you can find some.

MIRACLES—Coming home, Sue and I stopped again in our “adopted” town of Silverton.

And I did something I’ve always wanted to do. Three blocks off the main street sits an imposing three-story brick building.

(In Silverton three blocks from the main thoroughfare is on the edge of town.)

Until 1958 it was Silverton’s hospital. Today, much of it is vacant but if you trudge up the stairs to the third story—not an easy task at 9,318 feet above sea level—you’ll find the offices of The Silverton Standard.

Someone has heard me walking up the stairs, and probably also heard me breathing a little harder than when I walk into my Rockdale Reporter office at 474 feet above sea level.

He calls out and I go through an outer room, in which, obviously, much work has just been completed, into Mark Esper’s office.

Mark is the publisher. He’s also the editor. And the reporter, photographer, classified ad manager and circulation manager.

“And I’m also the janitor,” he smiles.

I’ve followed Mark’s work in The Standard online. He’s very good and the paper reflects his dedication.

The Standard is Silverton’s little miracle of a community newspaper. It’s a miracle in a couple of ways. Mark is the first miracle. The second is that The Standard is still here.

A few years ago it appeared Silverton’s paper was going to become just part of the town’s rich history. It had been purchased by a syndicate, who moved the offices to another city.

That’s usually the next step before shutting down a community newspaper. And sure, enough, the announcement was soon made that the paper would cease publication.

Silverton may be small—531 and the only town in San Juan County—but the people who live there love it a lot and they weren’t about to lose their newspaper if they had any say in the matter.

Mark midwifed an agreement between the owners and the San Juan County Historical Society in which the Society ended up owning the paper.

I don’t know anyone in that historical society, but after having seen a couple of them in a video, I get the feeling they are a lot like those I know in the Milam County Historical Society.

Committed, a force to reckoned with and probably easier to let them have what they are asking for than to oppose them.

DEADLINES—I had arrived on publication day. If there’s anyone who knows about newspaper deadlines I do, so I apologized and said I’d go.

He told me the paper was ready and handed me the PDF files he had just e-mailed to the printer down in Durango.

We visited briefly. I complemented his work and, without knowing he had already entered them in the upcoming Colorado Press Association contest, noted two of The Standard’s best photos of the past year.

It was newspaper talk until I looked out the very large glass window which dominated the opposite wall of Mark’s office, providing a stunning view.

“This was the operating room when the building was a hospital and they needed all the light they could get,” he said.

“Everyone who was born in Silverton before 1958 was born in this room,” Mark said. “Every once in a while I’ll have an oldtimer come up here just to see the room where they entered the world.”

Talk about being connected to your town! The Silverton Standard is a shining example of what we mean by “community newspaper.”

THE LAST LEAF— On the way back from Mark’s office to our van, to head home to Rockdale, I paused and looked up again at the cherished familiar view of Silverton’s peaks.

My gaze came down to rest on a tiny tree, not much higher than my head, doing its best to grab my attention as its golden leaves shimmered.

It was, of course, an aspen. My last.

For a while.

My breath is short, in fact it’s gaspin’

When I behold the lovely aspen.

In summer green and pale and fluttery,

By fall turns golden, amber, buttery.

Its bark is white, its stems are narrow,

Its beauty flows into my marrow.

I live with oaks and elms and hickory,

And desert plants, all points and stickery.

But once each year I pine for mountains,

Cool air, cascades and falls like fountains.

I wait each eve for night’s first star.

Tiny twinkler, so bright, so far.

Symbol of wonder, memory maker.

That’s how I feel with fall’s first quaker.

Stars leave each morn; must stay on high

Aspen, lowlanders must bid ‘good-bye.’

But I know where they live! there is no grief

My next year’s journey will bring re-leaf.—MB, 2011.


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2011-10-13 digital edition



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