Written by River Wharton
Photography by Aly Barohn
Home is an idea. Most of us have a place to call home. A house or an apartment, a tiny home or a van. I have a home in Denver, in my case a house with a yard. Although, when travelling, I have called couches, hotels, back seats of cars, and even considered my backpack a home.
If you decide to live in the city, you have your places to hide in the mountains––swimming holes, slow going rivers, secret groves, wildflower meadows, or simply the quiet mountain town with the quiet mountain town bar––where you may greet the sublimity of nature. For me, I seek the same as anyone else. A place to get away. To “unplug”. To find a sense of silence rarely possible within the city limits. As a writer, I feed off inner city energy but require outdoor isolation to compose that energy onto paper. In the quiet Colorado mountain town of Palisade lies a not so quiet distillery and bar. Peach Street Distillers works with what they have, sourcing nearly all of their product from the surrounding farms and distilling that essence into their beautiful bottles.
I was introduced to Moose Koons during a previous trip to the Western Slope. Moose works as Peach Street’s marketing and sales division, and as such was my point person during my trip. As I prepared to set out on my return to Palisade, we talked about what to do in Palisade, where to hike and what to see. He paused at one point, distracted, and suddenly said, “We wouldn’t be what we are if it were not for where we are.” Perhaps he was speaking of their proximity to the fields of the distillery, but maybe there was another level. Some secret, something else, which waited for us in Palisade. Enthralled, enchanted, we spent the weekend exploring the magic of Colorado’s Western Slope.
It was late September when we made our trip west. It had been beginning to cool down on the Front Range, and the mountains were converting to their autumn shades. The day was warm, even over the passes. With little traffic and possibly some speeding, we reached Palisade in less than four hours. I was hungry and ready for an adventure. For lunch, we had been instructed to try meatball subs at Diorio’s Pizza of Palisade. I hadn’t had a meatball sandwich since likely high school, but if I had a Diorio’s in Denver it might be a weekly visit. I spoke with the young girl at the counter, who asked to be anonymous, and asked her what people did in Palisade. She told me, “It’s boring. (She laughs.) No, there’s a lot of farming, a lot of hiking, a lot of drinking. (Laughs again.) It’s actually pretty mellow here.” I asked if she would ever want to leave, to get out, “No, I love it here. It’s nice, and more people are moving here.”
My photographer and girlfriend, Aly, asked if we could find somewhere to swim as we didn’t need to be at the distillery until the next day. I had her search for a swimming hole nearby, and quickly she found a spot beyond Colorado National Monument. If you have never been to the Colorado National Monument, think of a miniature Grand Canyon. Great washes of ochre pigment in varying degrees splashed across the cliffs. Balancing rocks, arches, and towers spread across the western plateau above Grand Junction. Just west of here is Utah. I had driven the road that passes through Colorado National Monument once before, always believing it to be a loop. Our directions instructed us to leave the switchbacks of Rim Rock Drive and climb above the cliffs to the little community of Glade Park. Once giant parcels of ranchlands, Glade Park now sits alone above the grand valley. Separated to such an extent that many of the homes utilize alternatives to grid electricity to power their homes. Rammed earth homes, straw bale homes, and Earthships make an appearance in this high altitude community.
The swimming hole we found was secluded, another ten miles past the town, offering us a chance to relax before the weekend. Piñon trees, sagebrush, and juniper crowded the landscape. Limestone cliffs flanked our drive. The scenery was rapturous, like a scene from an old Western, devouring our attention as we drove silently to the water.
The Western Slope of Colorado was offering herself to us this day. A chance to be alone, to disconnect completely. We relied on the words of others to find the swimming hole, as we lost service and our access to a map. The day we spent amongst the dragonflies and water spiders remains our secret. But if you asked me how the piñon nuts tasted or the temperature of the water, I could relate to you those moments. How the sun warmed the rocks like a midsummer day, but the scent of autumn lingered amongst the changing colors of leaves. This is what it means to live here, to have your secret spots, but share in an experience of nature. This is the voice of the sublime, an offering of heaven available to the wanderers, to those who listen.
These are the spots, the places which make Peach Street special. The next day, as we toured the facility, we were told the gift of the outdoors was what brought these people together. The staff I spoke with all came from different backgrounds––mechanics, musicians, artists, ski bums, and brewers––but had this one thing in common. They came here to find a place away from the city. To find a vocation that provides energy, but without the need to waste it on city life. Of course, these are the things which make the product of their distillery so valuable.
We visited the home and vineyards of founder and co-owner Bill Graham. I asked him what set their fruit apart. Smiling, he remarked, “We get the fruit fresh out of these fields, crush it right there at our place, ferment it and distill it.” We were walking around his land which sat directly below the cliffs of Grand Mesa. He was having us try the different grapes in his vineyard. We would walk a few rows before he continued, “This fruit is just amazing. The sugar content is so high. It’s all about the weather. Being high altitude is always a risk, with the frost, but it plays to our advantage. We get 365 days of sun, but we also get a temperature swing. Yesterday was 95º, but at night it’s in the 50’s. To have a 40º swing makes magic. Plus, to have the Colorado River so near, the irrigation helps. Just add a little water to the desert and it rocks.”
Moose had set us up nicely that day in Palisade. While we were staying with friends in Grand Junction for the rest of the trip, that Saturday we stayed in Palisade to get the full experience. Earlier in the morning Davy Lindig had toured us around the distillery explaining the process. Our work, to many of us in the city, is just a means to finance our lifestyles. To afford the luxuries of city life, we work our day jobs and return the suit to the closet at the end of the day. Davy seemed to be so involved with what he did here, as head distiller he commented, “You gotta like this stuff. Not a lot of people here work hard. Denver would be different. But then again, and not to rip Denver, but people get caught up in the whole city life. I mean, take someone from Denver and stick them here in Palisade and they’d be like, ‘This fucking sucks.’ They’d be bored off their ass. ‘Where’s the bar? Where’s the dance club?’ Sure, there are plenty of people in Denver who get out and do things.”
Yet, this is why he is here, why any of them are here. Every single one mentioned this fact, “It’s the beauty of this place. Plus you don’t have the population of the front range. It’s like combat hiking over there. I go on a trail here, and I don’t see anybody. I am going to make the most of that. I’m not looking forward to this place getting big and expanding.” We joked about writing Palisade off, encouraging people to visit somewhere else, but at that point I was captivated. Aly and I talked about how we could afford to live here, to find work in Grand Junction but live in a bungalow by the Colorado River. I would eat at Slice of Life Bakery in the morning before riding my bike to town. This was small town living at its highest.
I am always looking for a place to practice my art. A place for quiet. I talked to Dan Sharp, who ran production at Peach Street. We spoke about his music and his work. He told me, “You can teach someone to do this all day long, but no one is really teaching us all the scientific breakdowns and numbers. I mean, those people are chemists. I equate making whiskey very much to making music. It’s an art.” Dan had come to Peach Street labelling bottles and learned every aspect of the place since then. The peacefulness of the grand valley provides him the opportunity to pursue his various artistic inclinations. Sometimes all you need is a moment of silence. A place where you can sit quietly without the commotion other people’s lives bouncing around beside you.
Here in Palisade, a small town, it is still possible to find yourself lost in the city life. You can try the “trifecta”––drinking at the brewery, the distillery, and the bar––or bounce over to Grand Junction for a night on Main. If your heart is true, if it yearns for another option, something closer to what the West can be, get yourself lost. Hike, climb, bike, or even drive to the remote reaches of the Western Slope. Travel the Mesa, ride alongside one of America’s last wild horse herds, or simply lie by the mighty Colorado. If you are like me, only passing through, stop at Peach Street and have a drink, talk to the locals, explore the orchards, and sip at the vineyards. Before you leave, come stop at Riverbend Park, climb down to the Colorado and dip in your feet. It’s quiet here, most trails far enough away to find yourself alone. If you really listen, you might think you hear the traffic of nearby I-70, or maybe it is only the breeze in the cottonwood trees.
This story is sponsored by Colorado Tourism Office Heritage and Agritourism Program. Heritage tourism and agritourism showcase the intersection between travel and agriculture and history. From fiber crafts to farm visits, breweries to birding, Colorado's back roads provide authentic interaction with farmers, ranchers, hunters, gathers, artists, naturalists and food enthusiasts. Roll up your sleeves and enrich your travels with something uniquely Colorado. Download Colorado Roots: A guide to off-the-beaten-path heritage and agritourism activities in Colorado.