Mile-High Library

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

AT THE TURN of the year, my husband and I bought a dilapidated house on eight acres in Podunk western Colorado. Weeks later, I read that my mountain paradise had already been established a few hours to the east. The Rocky Mountain Land Library, they called it, an old ranch in South Park that’s being transformed into a world-class environmental library for researchers, artists, and writers. I was curious and, it must be said, envious.

I made the trip to South Park a few months later. Jeff Lee, one of the two visionaries behind the project, greeted me on the building’s wide front porch. He pulled out two rocking chairs. “We want a place where people will run into books about landscape and nature all over campus,” he said.

He came out West thirty years ago for seasonal U.S. Geological Survey work, then landed in Denver, where he worked at a bookstore called The Tattered Cover and met Ann Martin. They bonded over their love of the land and environmental literature, and soon began building a collection of books. They had collected over six thousand books, on topics from dragonflies and beekeeping to cowboys and fly fishing, when they came up with the idea of a land library.

Jeff and Ann’s vision includes a river hut, which will host piles of books about rivers and freshwater, plus a small observatory with an astronomy library. The bunkhouse will include a western ranching collection. The property’s old horse bays, tucked into the hillside, will be studios for artists working in fabric, metal, paint, and book binding. The ranch will be abuzz with bookishness, a collection of hives, dens, and nests all bound snuggly between the thin mountain soil and thin mountain sky.

Where I sat on the front porch, though, I didn’t see a library. I saw the middle branch of the South Platte flooding just beyond the front-yard fence, a bluebird flitting up to an old telephone wire.

“This wasn’t like this when we were here last,” said Jeff, after we’d moved from the porch to the lambing barn, which would be an open-air conference space someday. The barn doors swung on damaged hinges, and a pack rat stared down from the rafters. We stood atop a foot of moldered lamb poop. Half the windowpanes were broken, their frames water-stained like the cabin of a ship.

Jeff led me to the empty bunkhouse and then to the maintenance shed. By the time we made it to the horse barn, I did not expect to find any books. That’s because the Rocky Mountain Land Library isn’t built yet. It exists primarily in Jeff and Ann’s mind’s eye, a dream home for landbased literature that is just now still a dream.

Jeff cautioned me before I climbed the steep ladder to the loft. The floor, strewn with uneaten hay, still included the open chutes to each pen below. I found a pile of feathers and bones where some little beast had fed on a pigeon.

“The engineers say the loft should be able to hold the weight of the main collection,” Jeff explained. I could see it, too, the huge space beneath the vaulted rough-hewn timbers full of books and dust motes, the hay chutes railed but still open, the unshuttered windows framing the great bowl of rangeland extending to the north.

“Our greatest asset is in storage,” Jeff told me. He was talking about the books. “I suppose it would be a great con if Ann and I didn’t really have the books—if we built this whole library and then said, ‘Surprise!’”

But Jeff and Ann do have the books, over thirty thousand of them, which, until 2012, they had stored in the basement of their apartment before they were forced to move. Friends and volunteers with the Rocky Mountain Land Library nonprofit helped move the entire collection to a storage unit in the city. “If we fell into a pot of money,” Jeff said, “the first priority would be to rent a space in Denver where we could process everything.”

In the meantime, though, Jeff and Ann have been working on an elaborate renovation with two Colorado-based architects. Without any large pots of money on the horizon, they plan to develop the project bit-by-bit. This summer, a HistoriCorps volunteer crew replaced the rotten cedar shingles.

“Everything’s ready,” said Jeff. “We just need the money.”

The readers, writers, and artists are ready, too. With increasing frequency, people are showing up unannounced, looking for the library.

The two of us returned alone to the main house with its musty orange carpet, wood-slatted walls, and dusty doorknobs. A sign on the toilet warned: do not use. Jeff didn’t bother flipping any switches. He gestured to the attic hatch with more joy than dread. “I bet there are some stories up there,” he said.

Alex Carr Johnson is a queer writer and conservationist living in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado.


  1. This is a powerful concept. Ever since I first heard about this, I’ve been thinking it would be wonderful to have an Appalachian Land Library as well. Every region should have such a place to tell its story.

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