Roundabout, Hotchkiss, Colorado, 2013
Trent Davis Bailey was seven years old when his father took him to visit his aunt and uncle in the North Fork Valley of Colorado for the first time. He remembers bits and pieces, like eating homegrown heirloom tomatoes, snow peas, and kimchi around a big table.
His seven cousins lived in a tent at the base of a mountain, surrounded by scrub oak and juniper trees. The children spent their days wandering and exploring, jumping into the nearby irrigation ditch, and dreaming of wild animals hiding from view. At night, the tent lit up, and the glow from inside could be seen in the distance.
For almost two decades, Bailey didn't return to the North Fork. His father and uncle had a disagreement, and the visits stopped. As an adult, Bailey became a photographer in New York City, but the Colorado landscape tugged at his psyche until at last it demanded he return.
The photographer didn't know what to expect when he made the journey to the town of Paonia, in 2011. In the beginning, he made connections with a local orchardist and then a metal worker who introduced him into the community. He lived mostly out of his car, sleeping where he could: on the river bank, in a tent, in a barn, on couches, and wherever else he was permitted to stay.
Bailey's stays in Colorado ranged in duration from five days to six months. During his first trip back, he ate fresh-picked figs from a greenhouse, fell asleep to the rush of the river, and woke to the movement of wandering deer. During longer trips, he fed himself by working on the farms during the harvest.
"People here have a very different sense of how time is experienced," Bailey claims. "Rural time is much slower, and more deeply felt, than urban time." A single day stretches out for miles; a lifetime lasts an eternity, punctuated by joys and sorrows and unnameable feelings passed down from one generation to the next.
Bailey's own mother, an artist and a gardener, died when he was just four years old, and he's found traces of her left behind in the feral Colorado landscape. His personal history is rooted in the mountains, the soil, and the untamed wilderness.
Bailey assumed his family had since left the North Fork, but on his third visit, he met his aunt at a local food co-op entirely by chance. "I was certain that I knew her from somewhere," the photographer explains. The memories gradually returned.
Since then, Bailey has reunited with his cousins, who have grown up to make their own lives. One is a goat farmer, another a house painter; there's a musician, an expert in solar energy, and a clerk at a local grocery store. He saw his uncle, now separated from his aunt, and although he didn't recognize him at first, his voice was instantly familiar.
Bailey admits that the real North Fork is different from the one he imagined for 20 years. It's more gritty and less romantic. But in every way that matters, it's the same. He doesn't have to choose between the facts and the fiction of the North Fork because they're both equally appealing to him.
"It feels like home," the artist says of the North Fork. He met his girlfriend, who now lives with him in California, while foraging for chanterelle mushrooms in the Colorado valley.
Although he has no plans to live there full-time, the photographer's family has invited him to build a place on their property. He doesn't know if he ever will, but he won't leave this place behind again. He swears to keep coming back until the day he dies. —Ellyn Kail