Back in the 1980s, when I still had in-laws working a family farm out on the eastern plains, I used to head out to visit them on U.S. 36 and pause, like many drivers did, at a wide spot in the road called Last Chance. It was a place for gas and chips and a soft-serve and maybe a bed if you were a bug-eyed trucker, a place to stretch and refresh on the long haul to the dwindling amenities of the places ahead -- hardscrabble farming centers with names like Cope, Joes and Kirk.
A place to stop for a moment and take stock, gaping at the sprawling blue sky and the endless procession of fleecy, swift-moving clouds bumping against the undulations of the high plains, a spectacle celebrated in the collected works of Kent Haruf.
The in-laws are gone now. The land endures. And so, just barely, does Last Chance, despite the ravages of time and last month's devastating prairie fire.
Years of diminishing business closed down the Dairy King, the motel, and some other businesses at this crossroads settlement. On June 25, sparks from a blowout on the road just about finished the job. The parched grasses on either side went up like -- well, straw. Within a few hours, the blaze stretched across miles, devouring pastures and cornfields and a sizable ledger of properties, shuttered or not, in town.
Local ranchers and fire departments pooled resources and fought like hell. Fortunately, no one died. The 45,0000 acres blackened by the blaze -- one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history, but hardly noticed in the wake of the High Park and Waldo Canyon conflagrations -- have left the southwestern part of Washington County looking like a lunar landscape, void of life. It's eerie and grim and harshly beautiful, all at the same time, a disconcerting combination Nathan Federico's photographs express so eloquently.
But the land endures. And so do the people of Last Chance. Below are photos of Last Chance, shot this week by Nathan Federico for Westword.
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