Rocky Mountain High; Touring Colorado in Garden Celebrity Style

My new friend Kit Strange and I toured the state with plants, gardens and trucks as our focus. Oh yes, I did say trucks. As Kit explained, she is fascinated with anything on wheels and that I witnessed as we crossed the state: semis, old, new, and small, she loved them all. Oh, but back to the botanical aspect that makes Kit a celebrity.

Kit was introduced to me as an alpine bulb specialist for Kew Royal Botanic Gardens; if you don’t know, the premier botanic garden of the western world. My friend and mentor Panayoti Kelaidis, of Denver Botanic Garden fame, called me up and explained that he was organizing a month-long speaking tour for Kit starting in Alaska and ending in Denver. Sure, they could fly her from Durango – her second to last stop – to Denver, he explained, but then she’d miss the entirety of the Rockies.

Always courteous and insightful, Panayoti acknowledged that people in my industry are extremely busy at this time of year, but he assured me I wouldn’t regret it if I chose to accept. My industry is the one referred to as the Green Industry made up of all stripes of landscapers, gardeners, designers, and such, and sure as you know what, early May is about the peak of the season. And, just as sure, there is nothing I regret about saying yes.

After being ping-ponged around the country, subjected to other people’s plans for her, and getting little time to herself for about a month, Kit waltzed into my care surprisingly gleefully and with an easy-going nature, healthy sense of adventure, and a rather delightful sense of humor to top it all off. I’d like to say I would have done as well, but the truth is I think I would more likely have been exhausted and all peopled-out.

I met Kit at her hotel at 7 AM – the lovely historic Rochester downtown Durango – and they graciously served us both breakfast before sending us on our way. We were Vail-bound, for an obviously necessary visit to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Seeing that I was tasked with showing our European visitor the Rockies, I knew I had to take her via the million dollar highway through the “Switzerland of America”, the same stretch of road that brought tears of awe and joy to my eyes the first time I traveled it. It is responsible for my becoming a Coloradan.

Kit was not disappointed, and in addition to noting the style of the many trucks we passed – purple painted, shiny hub caps, etc. she also kept us apprised of the changing elevation in meters, helping me to make the conversion to feet a little more fluidly.

On our way to Vail she asked how many acres the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is, suggesting 10 or 100 when at first I responded with a blank stare, not sure what measurement she was after. I guessed it may be 2 and she looked surprised, describing Kew in it’s magnificent 420 acres. I thought myself knowledgeable about botanic gardens seeing as how I frequently visit them when traveling, but it was Kit who schooled me on the difference between a show garden and a research garden.

When I travel I focus on the things I care about like plants, mountains, sky, weather, and people. Road tripping with Kit made me realize how narrow my focus is as she pointed out and absorbed pretty much every detail within view. For example, Kit thought it was funny that I didn’t know what a Ski-Doo was. It sounded vaguely familiar, maybe a motorized thing you ride in the water? She kept seeing them along our route. I can’t be sure, but I suspect they are always around; it’s just not something I tune into, which Kit found to be rather shocking seeing as how I live in the mountains, I would surely recognize brand names of what turned out to be snowmobiles.

However, as a mountain dweller, I do know what it takes to stay comfortable, and for me that means wearing short sleeves and short pants when the air and sun are warm, and applying ample lotion and sunscreen to not burn to a crisp, dry out, and blow away. As you can see in the pictures, Kit had a different approach to dress for mountains and claimed never to have seen anyone slather so much stuff on themselves as I did and regularly do.

Interested in everything with wheels, as she put it, Kit asked me one of the few things I couldn’t understand through her accent when I mentioned having taken a bike ride. She asked, “Motor bike or push bike?” Eventually I figured out her words and meaning in order to answer “push bike.” Turns out she does both. Panayoti had prepared me for what he described as her “strong Cockney accent” which concerned me that I may have trouble understanding her, making for an awkward day’s drive, but I felt relieved when I hunted down a YouTube video and did a fine job of understanding the bloke with his accent. We did have a young server in Hotchkiss where we stopped for lunch who made me realize how well I was doing, as I had to translate everything Kit said to her.

After nearly a full day of astounding mountain, canyon and steppe vistas between Durango and Vail, we arrived to Betty Ford and into the care of Nick Courtens, Head Curator of collections. Nick was a gracious host, happy to show us around the gardens in respectable detail and impressive overview. The early evening light made for some stunning displays of already gorgeous grounds. We were also privy to details on construction and lessons learned in creating the new indoor exhibit.

We were put up at the Sitzmark lodge nestled in the heart of Vail village. Kit’s comment was that it looked like Europe, which I fully suspect was their goal. When I pressed her for specifically where in Europe – as a means to learn a smidge more about Europe than I previously knew – she pinpointed Austria. So we enjoyed our evening feeling transported to lands far from Colorado. All the while Kit was incredibly humble about this celebrity treatment, rather marveling at it as a curiosity in her life, as opposed to normative treatment. I sure was enjoying the celebrity lifestyle, if only by association!

We sped along the highway bright and early the following morning to make it to our destination in Centennial, outside of Denver, and into the comfortable hospitality of Randy and Marcia Tatroe. Having been friends with the Tatroes for many years, but not having crossed paths with them for too many, it was wonderful to spend time with them and their impressive gardens once again. Kit and I both were impressed with their garden decor and artistically repurposed found items.

A busy day was planned for us in Denver, so on from Tatroe’s tranquil oasis to other remarkable gardens. Panayoti’s garden was next. Even though he organized Kit’s tour, we was out of town during her visit on a plant expedition in the country of Georgia. He kindly encouraged Marcia to take us through his home garden showcasing just a few thousand of his favorite plants from around the world. HIs rock gardens are always my favorite and this afternoon in early May was no exception. Of course Kit was taken by the impressive display of bulbs in his collection.

Our last stop on this jam-packed two-day tour was Denver Botanic Gardens. Again a prominent member of the horticultural staff, Kevin Williams, gave us a personal tour of the Gardens. No doubt, it was delightful and educational. Kit was to give her talk there, that evening, and so as we toured, one of Kevin’s cohorts, Jameson, delivered us a tray of fresh brewed coffee with all the fixings so Kit could be her brilliant lively self again after all day garden touring in time to deliver her talk.

But before she did we got in on a bonus round of garden tour as Mike Bone gave an overview of the steppe gardens to a NARGS group. Mike is always an enlightening and inspiring speaker; if you’ve never had a chance to hear him, put it on your list for next chance you have.

Kit’s talk was on alpine Narcissus in Spain and although the topic sounds incredibly niche, she pulled off a light-hearted and engaging presentation that it seemed everyone could relate to. This was a different talk than she gave in Durango and when I asked, Kit said she has 9 separate talks with slide shows prepared; each venue chose the one they preferred.

Quite the inspiration and delight, Panayoti was right, I thoroughly appreciated the time spent getting to know Kit and getting a glimpse into her world of shiny trucks of many colors, bikes of many varieties, and plants of all kinds.

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