I know I’ve said it before, but Baker Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the whole world. Though I know I see it through rose-colored, child eye glasses, but come on—Rachelle and I drove through at sunset, listening to Eric Clapton too loud while we chased the dying late as it faded behind the mountains, and I don’t think you could put a soul in the position who wouldn’t look out the window and say wow. If you could—I don’t want to meet them. The valley spread out before us, still lush and many shades of green from spring (and irrigation systems, but that’s neither here nor there), and the mountains loomed dark blue on either side as we raced towards our family, continuing into the familiar. I think Rachelle and I had a piece of this place, a part of it, that Sam and Garrett never did—because we were here before them, and because we were here when we still had the old cabin. My earliest memories are without them and only of that little world of four, moving between the Pennywood house and the dry heat of the forest. Baker is a treasure to me, a sacred place, a place where very little changes and what seems like only our family and friends inhabit. This trip, more of a pilgrimage for our crew at this point, is no different. When we get out of the car, when it’s just starting to get really dark and the smell of the sagebrush wafts almost imperceptibly through the air, we immediately go to Barley Brown’s and see almost 30 people we know and love in the first two minutes of being there. Driving in, it’s as if all the familiar spots embrace you and welcome you—saying finally, you’re back! You made it! Here you are! Never mind that your home base is the Best Western Sunridge and the carpet has mysterious stains—we’re all still here, camped out on the patios in the courtyard and playing Colors in the pool.
Perhaps this is what I like best about Baker, it’s about the depth of memory. I tell Darren while we sit on the curb for the Crit, watching the peloton whip past, whirring and clicking, that I can’t help but be a kid here. I think it’s a sense of heady freedom that comes back the most, of being a kid in a small town, where everyone knows who you belong to so you can’t really go wrong. So much of the time we spent at Baker and at the cabin, before the race even, was spent wandering around. I remember feeling like I had a rock in my stomach the first time I walked away from my grandparents’ house without my mom or dad—we were with Brandon and Blaine and Kyle and Michael, and we were going to the Eltrym. But nervousness gave way to giddiness, we were on our own! Baker and the cabin were all play, all exploration, that we didn’t always get in the safe little enclave of our neighborhood at home.
This is total nostalgia of course—nothing is ever quite as it seems, especially not the way we remember it. But I think it counts for something that every time we come back and go do the things we used to do that I still have as much fun as I did at age 8 or 9, 11 or 12. We spend an hour waiting at the finish line for Dad to come in and the anticipation was the same as it was when I was 7—probably heightened by the uproar of the weather, but still. Lightening forked over the rolling hills Dad would be coming from, making the horses whinny and neigh at the neighboring farm. All around us the land was patchworked by fences and dotted by tiny white farmhouses, the straight lines butting up against the gentle gray brown curve of foothills and sagebrush. Stringy white clouds clung to the still snowy mountains, shot through with streaks of sun, and we huddled together and got splashed with mud along the gravel strip next to the road. Worth it though when Dad gets in, and it’s still the same joy and burst of pride when you see someone you love get done with something really hard. Apparently it hailed out there. You have to respect that.
Maybe that’s romanticized, but even the spaghetti feed had the same kind of collegial atmosphere it usually does, with the added layer of fun that comes with feeling like you’re breaking the rules by being in a school when it’s not in session. The hallowed halls of education feel even more hallowed when they’re emptied of children, filled with cyclists and your Uncle tells you the story of the time the school burned and shows you where they drove the bulldozer down senior hall to stop the fire.
We eat appetizers on the race course, we eat Mexican food at El Erradero (of course), we drink a lot of beer, we got the vending machine and hang out by the pool. We even go to the Interpretive Center, home to the world’s worst was mannequins but actually really informative. Everyone in attendance decides they might not make it as a pioneer—too much dust, too many layers of skirts, too much dysentery. The interpretive center is perched high enough to see out over the valley, and from there you can faintly see the outline of wagon wheel tracks etched into the dirt, a testament to the hardiness of the people we came from. The valley is wave after wave of rolling tan and light green, bunch grass and sagebrush, until it hits the ranches and farms, and then it’s the startling dark of plants growing green with the benefit of water.
On our last night we did something new though—we went to the pioneer cemetery, a place my Uncle knows. My Dad tells us that Uncle J probably knows the most about the surrounding areas around Baker, because he was the last one here and didn’t have the distraction of a family. We drive in the twilight out past increasingly large ranch houses, till we pull off on a side road close to the start of the mountains. Here, buried among overgrown sagebrush and shimmering in the waning light, are white marbled tombstones—the last remains of people who lived here hundreds of years ago, looked up at the same mountains and the same sagebrush and said, I’m home. The colors flicker from rusty oranges, lavenders, a light blue. Lichen crawls across the tombstones as we carefully step through the spread out cemetery, knowing that for every tombstone there are ten more graves that go unmarked. Everyone is quiet as we read, cringing at the unnamed babies, looking for any names we recognize. A doe stops by, sniffs the air and then turns tail. As it gets darker we turn to leave, but I take one last look at the now dark place, the sun sinking behind the mountains reminiscent of our drive in. And maybe this is the best thing—for a place so familiar, for all the time and memory here for us, there’s still so much left to explore.