The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

Poetry in Place 

Come with me to the River Bench along Fountain Creek near Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. I discovered it while riding my bicycle on the old Ute trail one hot summer morning. Nestled in the cool shade of willows, undulating like the creek, it invites you to linger.

The River Bench is not a bench in any conventional sense. It’s more like a floating concrete sculpture resting on boulders. The top is decorated with stones and colorful tiles. Some of the tiles are embossed with verses written by one of my favorite poets, Pattiann Rogers, who penned the poems especially for this spot along the creek.

On my first visit, I circled the bench, reading all the verses, then lay down on the cool cement. Suspended between earth and sky on Pattiann’s words, her poems came alive around me. The creek cascaded over a riffle, talking to itself. The grasses faintly swayed, anticipating the afternoon breeze. The air smelled green. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and feel the delightful spirit of that place.

Thanks go to Steve Wood, who designed and constructed the River Bench, and the people of Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, who helped install the project. What a surprising and wonderful gift!


Dinosaur Nation


There aren’t many places where extinct animals are more visible than living ones, but along Highway 40 in Utah and western Colorado, dinosaurs rule. You see them everywhere as they’re portrayed in paintings and envisioned in sculptures. Although these outrageous creatures died out millions of years ago, they are neither gone nor forgotten. The dinosaur has discovered a fertile habitat in the human imagination.


Although you might encounter dozens of prehistoric creatures on a drive between Duchesne, Utah and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, most of them will not resemble the real deal — not even close! There are two main reasons for this: 1) Our scientific understanding of what dinosaurs actually looked like is constantly evolving as we come across new specimens and develop more sophisticated research techniques. 2) Humans, as a species, love to tell stories and fabulous monsters are major characters in most of our primordial mythologies. We love a good monster, especially if they’re scary — but not too scary. Roadside dinosaurs are made to fit the bill. They get your attention, but unless you’re under, say, five-years-old, you’re unlikely to worry that you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park.

This disconnect between what we actually know of dinosaur biology and what we imagine them to be like is the focus of paleontologist Brian Switek’s new book, My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs. After Brian was a guest on Cara Santa Maria’s “Talk Nerdy To Me” video series, she asked viewers, “How long do you think it’ll take before our romantic vision of the dinosaurs catches up with modern science?”

Having traversed our nation’s dinosaur hotbed, I’d say, “Never!” We know what bears look like but has that led to the demise of the Teddy Bear? No! There’s fossils, and there’s fiction. Something as monstrously cool as the Brontosaurus is not going extinct a second time.

(The Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) turned out to be an inadvertent hoax but that hasn’t kept it from becoming the most popular dinosaur, hands down. Read Brian’s book if you want the whole scoop.)

God’s Magpie

Your eye and this page
I am standing …

Into me

~ Hafiz

I’ve heard it said that our eternal life intersects our mortal experience every moment. We’re seldom aware of it but every now and then we’re offered a glimpse of this expanded dimension. It’s possible to come around a bend and … surprise! Your eternal nature greets you — your forever friend. Something like this happened to me when I met Hafiz for the first time.

Hafiz lived in the garden city of Shiraz in ancient Persia. He left his earthly body in 1389 AD but his physical departure hasn’t stopped him from scattering his crazy, funny, spiritually sane ideas over the earth like a continuous meteorite shower for the past six hundred years. Why hadn’t I encountered this luminous outpouring before? I must have been ripening toward an appreciation of Hafiz’s shoot-the-lights-out approach to celebrating the Divine.

Just show you God’s menu?
Hell, we are all
Starving —

~ Hafiz

Hafiz and I met unexpectedly — of course. He wouldn’t have it any other way. On a summer road trip from Northern Nevada to Colorado Springs, I stopped at a Trappist monastery outside of Old Snowmass in the Colorado Rockies. Saint Benedict’s is both a working ranch and a retreat center. The monastery cultivates hay, contemplative prayer, and silence. They also have a small bookstore which is where my rational mind said it was going. (I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Merton — a Trappist monk — so I figured I’d buy one of his books.) My heart, however, suspected this rationale was  a bunch of hooey. My real reason for visiting was a fascination with the monk’s commitment to keep conversation to a minimum. Writers tend to cherish places where silence has the upper hand.

I followed the gravel road to a cluster of buildings sheltered in a grove of fluttering aspens and gregarious magpies. No one else was around. Walking up the path, I followed signs to the bookstore and opened a heavy door. Peering in, I saw light from a wall of tall windows washing over shelves and tables loaded with books — my heaven.

Thomas Merton made a good showing among the metaphysical titles, but so did Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, and Rumi. The Catholic monks of St. Benedict’s had eclectic taste. It was a contemplative’s candy store. So many points of view! So many prospective guides! I told my mind to shut up — and my heart to speak up. I was honing in on something …

Next to Rumi lay a mustard yellow paperback with frilly Victorian-style graphics. This? It looked a little stuffy and academic. I was skeptical. 

I almost judged the book by its cover but something compelled me to look inside. After reading a smattering of poems, I fell under Hafiz’s spell. He made me laugh. He made me think. He showed me the hidden world in plain view. Here was my beloved in a future life; a brother from before we were born; a companion I’d always sensed but never known.

I put the money for the book in a small wooden box the monks had left for that purpose and hurried outside. I needed a place to land. A few wooden camp chairs waited beneath the aspens. A magpie alighted on the back of one and then took off. I nestled into that chair. It looked across the high mountain valley toward Mount Sopris. Taking a deep breath, I opened the book and dove in …

 I am
A hole in a flute
That the Christ’s breath moves through —
Listen to this

Why complain about life
If you are looking for good fish
And have followed some idiot
Into the middle of the copper market?


Great religions are the

 Poets the life

 Every sane person I know has jumped

 That is good for business
Isn’t it

See what I mean? No piety here, but an infectious honesty whose cackling irreverence reveals the sincere reverence of a true pilgrim. That summer afternoon, I wandered in these heady poems for hours as thunderheads billowed above me unnoticed — until it started pouring.

The rain reminded me that I needed to continue my journey but I left that remote valley far richer than when I arrived. I’d spent the better part of a day touring eternity with my new friend Hafiz, the Sufi magpie. What an eye-opener.

Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

 My address is somewhere else.

 ~ Hafiz

(Some critics claim Daniel Ladinsky’s English translations are more Daniel than Hafiz. For me, it doesn’t matter. I admire the teamwork between the 14th century mystic and the 20th century craftsman. Together, they rock.)