Woman to lecture on solitude at Glenwood Springs Library
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Years ago, when Karen Chamberlain lived in Aspen, fellow townies would take such exotic vacations. They’d leave for Jamaica, Mexico, some other warm beach somewhere.
But not Chamberlain.
“I’d go to Horsethief,” she laughed, “a little dried up place in Utah.”
For her, isolated Horsethief Ranch was quite a destination. Thirty dusty miles west of Moab, the rustic homestead was at first a kind of sanctuary for the writer. Later, as she moved into the role of caretaker, it became her home.
In Chamberlain’s 2006 memoir, “Desert of the Heart: Sojourn in a Community of Solitudes,” she describes her simple ranch life without electricity, telephones or neighbors. During an upcoming local lecture, she will also speak of all that Horsethief history that preceded her.
“It was probably the most interesting experience, of many interesting experiences, that I had in my life,” she said of her time there.
She then gave a taste of the place’s history. It was officially settled in 1929, she said, in the midst of range wars. It has been a stop-over on the “horse thief route,” where stolen horses from the Southwest were herded north and sold in Canada. Butch Cassidy and his bunch even hid out there. Since 1981, Michael Behrendt, who would later hire Chamberlain on, has owned it. While the exact size of the original ranch is unknown, it now sits on 14,000 acres of mostly unfenced desert, leased from government.
Chamberlain said all this concisely, with ease. When the subject came to her, however, she preferred to be more inexact. She was somewhere in her 40s when she started there, she said, and that was sometime in the last two decades. Other than that, she didn’t want to date the experience. To her, it’s timeless.
“I fell in love with the desert,” she said. “I just fell in love with that particular landscape.”
She wanted to live as those who came before her had, she said, and she delved into a life most can’t imagine. She tended a huge garden and looked after the many horses. She kept the ranch vehicles in order and cleaned the house and her bunk quarters. She took care of the numerous fruit trees and grape vines that grew around the place. At night, she chronicled her experiences on legal pads.
In her second year, she had solar panels installed. They gave her just enough electricity for a single light bulb and more importantly, her computer. With no Internet connection, she was still cut off from the rest of the world, however. Every once and a while, she’d travel to town to get her phone messages, check her mail. In good weather, maybe a friend of hers or the owner’s would pay a visit to the property. Most of the time, though, she was the only person around for 20 miles.
In her words, “I had more solitude than I think any human being has a right to.”
How could she deal with being so lonesome?
When asked this, Chamberlain replied quickly. Obviously, she’d answered it many times before. She was calm, and she was emphatic.
“It wasn’t lonely,” she said.
“Solitude is when you’re at peace with yourself, and the place where you are,” she explained. “Loneliness is when you’re not at peace with yourself and the place where you are.”
For her, loneliness was living in Aspen, where she worked two jobs and returned tired to her condo every night. Loneliness wasn’t living in that “little oasis” with space and sky, wildlife and her dog. Ever since she was little, she said, she has loved animals and nature. As a youngster, she was shy and preferred to write more than talk. Somehow, her personality had already prepared her for the unpeopled, work-intensive world of the ranch.
While so many admired her, she said, most people she met knew they weren’t up to the same task.
“I would love to do what you’re doing,” they would say, “But I couldn’t stand the solitude.”
Chamberlain feels she wrote her book for them.
She doesn’t know why her personality is as “particular” as it is, she said, why she can stand things others can’t. It’s just who she is. These days, she lives up in the mountains around Glenwood Springs. As an author, she said, she never feels writer’s block, and she’s now putting together a book of poetry and a novel for young adults. She’s busy with friends and projects but, yes, she still misses her old desert home.
“It was a lot of work,” she admitted. “But there was a beauty about it I don’t think I’ll find anywhere else.”
Her voice was twinged with nostalgia then, yet she didn’t seem sad. She simply sounded lucky ” and happy to share.
Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111
What: “Seduced by a Canyon Oasis or the History of a Non-Working Ranch,” a lecture by Karen Chamberlain. The local author penned “Desert of the Heart: Sojourn in a Community of Solitudes,” a finalist for last year’s Colorado Book Award. The memoir chronicles her time as caretaker on the secluded Horsethief Ranch in Utah. During the talk, she will discuss the place’s past while she draws from her own work as well as an oral history created by the ranch’s current owner, Michael Behrendt. The evening is sponsored by the Frontier Historical Society and the Friends of the Glenwood Springs Library as part of their annual Winter Lecture Series.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Glenwood Springs Branch Library, 413 Ninth St.
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