Vail Daily column: The road back to State Bridge
Highway 131 out of Wolcott rose north, twisted, then sank and there it was, the Colorado River, slipping through the valley like Father Time, silvery with sun twinkle and quiet as forgotten memories until I dropped the window and the babble and gush and chill rushed in.
I eased my pickup truck over the bridge then turned right, slowly crunching down the dirt road once home to State Bridge Lodge. The old structure was long gone now, burned down nearly a decade prior by forces undetermined, foul play suspected.
I remember well, in the morning after that fire of 2007, when the old bordello turned riverside oasis was but a pile of smoldering embers. The news arrived across the various electronic feeds of the time and in that moment more than just a building vanished. I can’t speak to what went down in that glorious establishment for most of its hundred-plus-year existence, but for a stretch in 1996 a collection of people and spirit came together with such a fine energy the residual electricity still lingers in that river valley long after the structure is gone. It was one of those special intersections of both time and space that come along maybe once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, and I feel eternally lucky to have been a part of it.
Now, with my window dropped, I stare out at a ghostly apparition of what once was, a vague outline of where the epochal structure once perched and sheltered us while simultaneously opening our eyes. Most who happen by this desolate intersection just don’t seem to get it. How could they? This dilapidated stretch of barren riverside wasteland bears little in the way of appeal to the immediate senses. But, to have been there during that special stretch was to unearth a different type of sense and beauty, one of something not transcendent but of that same intimation in the real and material world.
The bottom line was the place kicked ass in every sense of the word.
Had it not been for my stint at State Bridge Lodge, amid the chevrons of warm sunshine and cold moonlight, I might never have learned to river raft, trout fish, train hop, stargaze, hula hoop, moon Amtrak trains from inflatable duckies, or jam through six-string sing-alongs under the wet confluence of tall whiskeys, cold beers, and shots of Colorado’s lifeblood, Grand Marnier. Every Sunday, a portion of the outside world ascended from the Vail and Beaver Creek valleys on Harleys, road bikes, trikes, school buses, VW bugs and anything else with wheels. The motivation for those weekly migrations was to sing, to laugh, to dance, to carry on to the likes of Al Green, Keller Williams, String Cheese Incident, Purple School Bus and Leftover Salmon, to name a few that I recall getting loud and loose on the outdoor stage. Then, as the music tapered away and the gig gear was stowed, the visitors would all fade back into the surrounding scrub oak and sagebrush amid the peaks and valleys, leaving a handful of us full-timers to tend to those sorts of various late night shenanigans that even if I could recall I’d probably keep a secret.
But, with the lodge no longer standing, the heartbeat of that glorious and eccentric valley has shifted a mile or two down the windy and dusty road to Rancho del Rio. And the caretaker of that heartbeat, the godmother of that sublime valley both then and now, is KK of KK’s Barbeque, a joint that, to my knowledge, is the only the open-air eatery strategically positioned at the center of the universe.
I zip the truck window back into place then trundle that way, pull in, park, and belly-up for some spicy pickles and Colorado Kool-Aid. KK emerges from the collection of wigwams, campers, tents and cabins that constitute the community, humming as she shuttles across the mud-slicked riverbank, the day cold and misty. As she approaches, I say hello, call her by name, and wait a moment as she measures me up, wonders if she recognizes me. I tell her she just might, but it’s been a long road to everywhere since we were last within shouting distance. Then I mention a few names from the good ol’ days — Byron, Vicki, Teepee Steve — and, recognition or not, she gives me that same beautiful smile she gave me no less than a hundred times 18 years before.
In an instant, I am home, I am family, just as I was for that stretch in 1996 with the rest who’d somehow hiked, biked, boated, floated or hitched their way here. An old picture hangs on my office wall which I get lost in from time to time. There are 13 of us and at least three dogs in that particular photo, posing on the lodge’s front porch where we’d sit nearly every morning drinking coffee, nursing hangovers and watching the rafting outfits roll on down the road to launches like Pumphouse and Radium. Vicki, the State Bridge Lodge owner at the time, and to whom we are all forever indebted, poses in the middle of that still frame, and those of us who orbited around her and her establishment during that fine stretch of life are mugging for the camera in a way that makes me wish I could remember who pressed the shutter button capturing that moment.
Was it one of us, some name I’ve forgotten? Or was it simply a stranger passing by? Whoever it was, there’s no way they could’ve ever known what that picture would one day represent … at least to me, anyways.
The old State Bridge Lodge is long gone now, and from the grumblings I hear the new establishment is a mere shadow of the old, resembling what it once was only in namesake. But my memories from that fine little intersection of people, road and river will be with me forever, cropping into mind’s eye when I least expect it and curling my lips in ways that make me wish I could somehow ride the tongue of that river right on back to 1996.
Gregory Dew is a novelist who lives in Orlando, Florida.
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