One week of solitude
- Joy G. Virata () - August 20, 2006 - 12:00am
I sat at my little desk, in my little nook, in a little wooden cottage, in a little mining town in the American Midwest, pretending to be a writer.

From where I sat I could look out at the majestic San Juan Mountain Range, in the state of Colorado. Some of the dark, jagged peaks of the mountain tops were still painted with white patches of snow but most of the rocky, rolling mountainside was covered with pine forests rising and dipping as they followed the contour of hills and gullies. On the farthest mountain tops, dark pine trees were silhouetted against a clear, blue sky looking like the stiff bristles of a bottle brush. A portion of the mountain looked like someone had taken a great slice out of it, exposing layers of rock like the layers of a chocolate torte. Grass had begun to grow, covering much of the rocky terrain with thin patches of green – as if an old carpet had been set out in the sun to dry.

I snuggled in my woolen bathrobe, my cup of freshly brewed coffee warming my hands, occasionally taking sips that warmed my insides as well, savoring the contrasting taste of strong, bitter coffee and fresh, sweet cream, and watching the progress of the sunlight that had started at the peak of the mountains and, as the sun rose from behind the opposite mountain, was slowly spreading down into the valley as if someone was pouring liquid sunshine over the mountain range. It was very cold but I hadn’t turned on the heat and my windows were open. I didn’t want to miss one second of breathing the fresh, clean air that smelled so wonderfully of pine – the natural kind – not the kind that comes out of a spray can.

Every year I try to do something different, or to live out, for just a little while, an impossible dream. Many years ago I used to enroll in dance classes in New York in the summer so that I could walk down Broadway pretending I was a Broadway actress. I’ve been on a couple of cruises (with visions of Love Boat dancing in my head), making like the rich and famous – except that most of the passengers were neither rich nor famous being retirees who paid for their fares on installment – or so I was told by a Filipino cruise ship waiter. Also, my Love Boat partner thought it was ridiculous to sit frozen on the deck, hot cocoa spiked with orange liquor not withstanding, when we were paying very good money for a warm stateroom. Nevertheless, for seven days I could live in luxury. I’ve taken a five-day train ride alone across the United States for no reason except that it would be something different to do. I’ve gone to Ireland with the bit of Irish blood I possess providing the excuse to link with a past I created from old photographs.

This year, between visits to a son, a daughter, a sister and a couple of nieces, I decided to take a week off all by myself and make like a writer. I rationalized that the reason I couldn’t get the great Filipino novel (or even a short story) off the ground was that I needed to be in some beautiful, secluded place, free from distractions, so that I could discover my creative genius.

So I went on the Internet. I looked for one of those writers’ conferences or workshops held in beautiful, exotic places that I saw advertised in Writer’s Digest. There was none in May, and May was my only window of opportunity. However, I found a couple of writers’ retreats – places writers could go to finish a project or start one. There were no workshops but one retreat offered opportunities for walks in the woods and trail riding in the mountains on horseback and since a childhood experience has left me with a secret desire to be a cowgirl ( I loved Brokeback Mountain), I wrote saying I was working on a couple of projects, which was not exactly a lie, just a slight exaggeration, since I had been working on them for years albeit without much progress. They wrote back saying they had room and so, after a long plane ride from New York to Denver, a bumpy ride in a small, propeller-driven plane over the great Rocky Mountains from Denver to Montrose, which is the nearest airport, and a 40-minute ride in a pick-up, I found myself in the town of Ouray in Colorado – elevation 7,721 feet, population 832 – which bills itself "The Switzerland of America."

I was met in Montrose by Paul and Becky McCreary, who own a bed-and-breakfast in Ouray, which they turn into a writers’ retreat in May before the summer season starts. The agreement does not include an airport pick-up service but since there is no bus service to Ouray and I freaked out at the thought of driving alone in the mountains (I am directionally impaired and have gotten hopelessly lost – twice – driving from Pasig to Magallanes Village), they had no choice. Fortunately they were warm, generous and truly wonderful people.

The McCrearys are writers. Paul was a teacher of learning-impaired children until he retired at 42 to become a professional photographer, to write, and to run a bed and breakfast. Becky was a housewife who decided she wanted to write poetry. He and Becky have definite political ideas and did not hesitate to discuss them with me. Suffice it to say they are not very happy about current events. Their children are grown and they live alone in Ouray but travel in the winter when the town closes down. They are articulate, intelligent, and truly interested in history and world events. We had some long conversations about the Philippines and while I was there Paul went on the Internet to find out as much about the Philippines as he could. I promised to send him a couple of O.D. Corpuz’s books.

Ouray is a little ex-mining town in a little valley within the San Juan Mountain range in Colorado. You can walk the length of Main Street, which goes from one end of the town to the other in about 20 minutes, even walking slowly like I did because my doctor son warned me about too much athleticism in the thin mountain air. The buildings and shops on Main Street have been kept pretty much as they were at the end of the 19th century. There is an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor, a small souvenir and art shops, grocery, laundry, small hotels, small restaurants, a theater that shows one movie on Friday and Saturday nights, and an original Elks Club building. The City Hall, library, museum, churches, a public elementary and high school, and other buildings are located on streets just off Main Street. I may be wrong, but I think I may have been the first Filipino, or certainly one of very few Filipinos, to come to Ouray. A map in one store has pins stuck on places in the world visitors have come from and the store keeper was thrilled to finally stick a pin on the Philippines.

Ouray was originally a mining town but was the victim of two price crashes — one in the price of silver in 1897 and the other in the price of gold in 1985 which is when the last mine closed. (Thomas Walsh, an immigrant Irishman, made a fortune from gold mines there. His daughter, Evelyn, owned the Hope Diamond.) Since then Ouray has built itself into a tourist resort area. It is not a ski area because the mountains nearby are too steep and jagged. Although some people come in the winter to do ice climbing, the season starts in June and ends in September. People come from the hotter areas of the United States like Texas, to enjoy the cool mountain air — much like Manilans go to Baguio. There are hot springs, although I declined the use of one, and tours that take you up through the mountains, to old deserted mines and settlements. Fishing, white-water rafting, and trail riding by horseback or biking are also popular. However, I was there before the season started so I only managed one jeep ride through the mountains (I was the only customer) and one trail ride by horseback that had to wait for the last Sunday I was there because of lack of customers. In fact, when I arrived on a Monday there was no one there. By Sunday, the stores had begun to have a few more customers and the hot springs were full. I was the only resident at the Writers’ Retreat House that could house six people in an assortment of rooms and a family cottage.

I fell in love with my room at first sight. It was furnished with what I suppose interior designers would call Early American Garage Sale – bits and pieces of varying styles and eras – but it was tastefully and cozily done. There was a pretty pink and green flowered patchwork quilt on a comfortable bed with an Early American headboard. I slept well every night snuggled under a soft, warm duvet with six down feather pillows providing added warmth and comfort. The temperature at night would dip to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and I slept with my windows open to breathe in as much of the fresh, clean air as possible.

Becky had set up a small table (which used to be her sewing machine table) in a little corner where I set up my laptop. The whole retreat had a wireless connection. I had my own kitchen, my own bathroom, and my own little balcony where I would eat breakfast and lunch, and read. I did my own cooking and it would take me 10 minutes to prepare myself good, healthy meals. ( I cannot understand why it takes two hours to prepare a meal in Manila. ) I’d eat dinner in front of the TV , which was the only time I turned it on, to watch the NBA playoffs.

So how did I spend my days? In heaven. Doing nothing but reading, walking, gazing at the mountains, surfing the Internet, breathing, doing a little research on my prospective protagonist – a Colorado volunteer in the American army in 1898, and sometimes even writing. So what did I get out of it? Probably enough recharging to last me for the next six months. Did I produce anything monumental? I’d have to sigh and admit I did not. But hey! Gabriel Garcia Marquez had one hundred years–I only had one week of solitude!

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