La porte. The words are French for “the door” or “the gate,” and LaPorte, Colorado, is the portal I went out of and then went right back into, as if caught up in a circular revolving door. I grew up there, moved away, and returned home again as soon as possible, shutting the metaphorical door for good, because I knew then, and know now, this town is where I wanted to live and belong.
LaPorte got its name from French trappers, who prized this valley because it rested near an entryway into the Rocky Mountains—an entryway carved by a river named Cache la Poudre, which means “hide the powder.” In one story, American Indians attacked a caravan of trappers and travelers, who needed to bury their powder. In another, the travelers simply needed to lighten the load. In either case, legend has it, they buried their extra guns and gunpowder somewhere around here, and we locals have been looking for that cache ever since.
And where the river tumbles out of the mountains, slows its pace, spreads out—there is LaPorte. The word encompasses a gateway to the mountainous region north of the South Platte River that extends from the Plains to the Continental Divide. But for most, the word LaPorte means a cluster of stores and bars. Many people who wish to enter the mountains pass through this particular town. To the left, they will see the Bar SS and the post office, and then a hardware store, vet clinic, and small grocery store; to the right is a gas station, a restaurant. They’ll see snow-covered fields in winter, hay balers putzing down swaths of cut grass in late summer. They’ll see a farmhouse with a silo, misty air puffing from horses’ nostrils, tall grass dipping in the wind. This is all they’d have seen 30 years ago. Now they’ll see all this, mixed in with subdivisions and traffic.
Still, in some sense this town is smaller now than it was in the 1860s, when there were four saloons, a brewery, a butcher shop, a shoe shop, two blacksmith shops, a store, and a hotel. The town housed trappers, traders, Indians, the military, an Overland Stage station, the county courthouse. LaPorte was the biggest settlement north of Denver.
Now there’s a smattering of stores and still a lot of traffic along the main road, Overland Trail. Only now LaPorte’s not a gathering place; it’s not even a real town—rather, it’s an unincorporated entity, a community under county jurisdiction, a place in limbo, a secret place that is home to people who like it that way.
My family’s ranch is in LaPorte, and like all ranch families we call the pastures by name: Big North, Seep Field, Big South, Pond Pasture, The Hill, Back Valley. The place is cut in half by an abandoned railroad track, paralleled by a rutted dirt road with a snake of grass in the middle. On one side the ranch is bordered by the Cache la Poudre River, on the other by an old pioneer cemetery. It is a stretch of grasslands resting just below the first foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The pastures all have their lures. Pond Pasture has ponds for ice skating in the winter and swimming in the summer. Big South houses a bunch of gnarled trees, each with twisted trunks forming caves and niches for hiding. The Hill has an old mysterious stone something to explore—a game run, the experts say. My favorite place, though, is at the western edge of the property. If I walk down the abandoned railroad track past the fields, past the irrigation ditches, past the bridge, there is an area where rock was blasted to make a passageway for the railroad tracks. Here the ranch is most wild. It is home to black bears, bobcats, raccoons, snakes. I have to press aside bushes and duck under branches, and when I emerge I am covered in seeds and wisps of plant life and whispers from the past.
Surprisingly little has changed in LaPorte since I was a girl. There used to be a dirt lot that housed a flea market on Saturdays; now the market has moved up the road. The general store, built in the 1860s, has been torn down. Some big houses got built in the foothills. There are fewer pickup trucks and more Subarus. There are more bicycles than horses on the road, though you still see the latter, too. And one great sadness: The city of Greeley plans to put a water pipeline through my family’s ranch in the next few years, right through my favorite hiding spot, through the historic railway, through these fields, and I can already imagine the bulldozers scaring away bears and the wildness itself.
By and large, though, LaPorte feels like the same small place. And the people like it that way—I’ve come to believe that LaPortians have a secret pride that their town attracts and holds more than its fair share of the quirky. There’s the man who defied law and had a funeral pyre; there’s another who drives an old ambulance now called the Wormbulance, and who raises a herd of worms and promotes composting. There are survivalists, hippies, beekeepers, people on the very far religious right and the very liberal left, lots of people with their own gardens, lots of people who work with their hands, and most with tendencies toward anti-change and anti-intrusion. In LaPorte, there are a lot of people who love LaPorte and who want to keep it the way it is.
The ranch, too, is very much the same. The river course has changed a bit, as it should, and water levels are significantly lower year-round, now that water is diverted upstream. The cattle are gone, and the developers call more frequently. There are still the same cycles of work that I sometimes return to: driving the pickup for haying in the summer; irrigating in the spring and summer; harvesting apples and wild plums; mending fences.
La porte. The door to the mountains. Here’s what I hope: that some future person will walk through town and feel a little in love. She might wonder about who came before and who loved it, too. She will see that when the sun sets, the water in the river sparkles, the grass takes on a reddish hue, a blue heron flies to an outcrop of rock. And she will hear a phone ring, a child yell, the grumble of traffic on Overland Trail, a route that carried so many other travelers, and she will be aware of this place as a door into the beyond and be glad to have found herself here on her journey. m
Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor to 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].