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WESTERN TRAVEL | DRIVES

The woods of her childhood

A return visit to Colorado's Boulder Valley, where autumn is beautiful but fleeting, awakens memories of small pleasures.

October 01, 2006|Francine Orr | Times Staff Writer

Ward, Colo. — "PEOPLE seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of its beauty."

Those were the words of Chief Niwot, whose band of Arapaho Indians inhabited Colorado's Boulder Valley when the gold miners, soldiers and settlers began to arrive in the 19th century. Those who live here today have reinterpreted "Niwot's Curse" into something positive: that anyone who experiences the region's beauty is destined to return.

I grew up in Colorado in the 1970s and '80s, and in the summers I would run around these woods and meadows, picking flowers with my aunt, throwing berries at my cousins. These are the trails where I discovered the poetry in nature and later dreamed of becoming a photographer.

I was drawn back in mid-September, just as the last petals dropped from the summer flowers and the aspen leaves began to turn. I was reminded how autumn is delicate when pressed up against the Continental Divide, easily trammeled by an early winter at this elevation.

The little town of Ward is home to about 150 people -- and maybe more dogs -- including radical poets, bohemian PhDs and troubled woodsmen. They're kind people, but most decamped to 9,253 feet to be left alone. It's not a place to linger.

I stayed down a dirt road east of Ward, at the Gold Lake Mountain Resort & Spa -- and it was lovely, even though the words "spa" and "Ward" seemed odd sharing a sentence. After dark, I floated in the resort's hot springs under a star-filled sky.

During the day, I drove north to Estes Park to seek the bugling elk, until one chased me back to my car. Another day I went to Red Rock Lake just west of Ward. Storm clouds roiled overhead, but the winds fell silent and the water was perfectly still. My feet sank into the marsh at the lake's edge as I watched the rain arrive.

The area's beauty is not yet undone. And Niwot's curse? For me, it was a blessing.

francine.orr@latimes.com. See more photos at latimes.com/ward.

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