Cool Bookish Places: The Rocky Mountain Land Library

The Cook’s House on Buffalo Peaks Ranch, home to the Rocky Mountain Land Library. Photo by Michael Ciaglo.

At first glance, the Buffalo Peaks Ranch near Fairplay in South Park, Colorado, may not seem like the ideal location for a library. One of the oldest ranches in the state, it sat vacant for decades with no access to electricity or running water. Yet today it’s home to the Rocky Mountain Land Library, arguably one of the most quixotically awesome libraries in the US. How did this library, the dream of two booksellers, come to pass? Time, patience, and Kickstarter.

Long-time partners Jeff Lee and Anne Marie Martin met while working at the Tattered Cover, one of Colorado’s most beloved independent bookstores. When they traveled to Wales in the mid-1990s, like any bibliophiles worth their salt, they made a point to visit bookish places during their trip.

One of those places was Gladstone’s Library, a “bed and book” where you can stay overnight surrounded by books and fellow biblioholics. Inspired by Gladstone’s, Lee and Martin set out to create their own bed and book library devoted to the subject they loved the best: natural history.

Dubbed the Rocky Mountain Land Library, this 32,000-volume collection presents a cultural history of the American west, ranging from environmental sciences to poetry, histories of coal mining to meditations on spirituality.

The character of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, and the knowledge it contains, can be well-represented by Lee’s two favorite books: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (which not coincidentally is this year’s read for the RMLL’s summer book club); and Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places.

a sand county almanac aldo leopoldLee considers A Sand County Almanac a classic of natural history. It’s a 1949 meditation on the land by someone first starting to notice the changes humans were bringing to the environment, and a call for everyone to at least be aware and appreciate their ecological footprint.

The Wild Places is, in Lee’s opinion, one of the greatest books about landscape ever written. An exploration of nature set in Britain and Ireland, Macfarlane addresses all sorts of landscapes–from forests and moors to suburbs–pondering the concept of “the wild” on both a geographic and intellectual level.

Like the Rocky Mountain Land Library, these two books are about people and their relationship to the land. They set out to change the way you think about your environment and how you interact with it. That’s the dream Lee and Martin have for the Rocky Mountain Land Library.

A selection of books in the Rocky Mountain Land Library. Photo by Michael Ciaglo.

The Kickstarter Campaign

The fate of the RMLL came to head in 2012 when Lee and Martin were forced to move. It was at this point, while packing their library into more than 600 large boxes for storage, that they realized their collection needed a forever home.

Enter the abandoned Buffalo Peaks Ranch, situated in a picturesque valley and surrounded by snow-capped Rocky Mountains. The peacefulness and wide open space of the Ranch takes one back to the beginnings of settlement of the American west and times when humans were more in touch with nature and their environment. It was the perfect place where Lee and Martin envisioned book- and nature-lovers coming together.

Thanks to donations and volunteers, the two were able to restore the exterior of the ranch’s Cook’s House. But the interior still required a ton of renovation before it was anything close to habitable. Enter Kickstarter, where the Rocky Mountain Land Library set up a crowdfunding project for $125,000 to help fund repairs.

Sound like a crazy ambitious goal? You have no idea. Only 69 literary Kickstarters in the entire history of the company have managed to raise more than 100k. That’s .5% of all Kickstarters, ever. Yet the Rocky Mountain Land Library not only met their goal, but exceeded it with days to spare, eventually raising around $140,000 for the Ranch renovations.

The project captured people’s imaginations: it was featured on the NBC Nightly News and The Today Show, in The New York Times and The LA Times, not to mention local outlets like The Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio. When asked why he thought the project received such an enthusiastic response, Lee said it was likely a combination of the Library being a positive, grass-roots project and–he hoped–an expression of people’s love for books and learning.

But another appealing factor is the sheer improbability of the project. Building a connection between literature and the land, with the goal of inspiring people to discover and understand their environment, might seem fanciful and unrealistic, and perhaps it is. But it’s also an act of optimism and hope, sustained by Lee and Martin’s belief that there are people out there who think respecting nature and preserving wild, open spaces is essential. Fortunately–and maybe surprisingly, to some–their faith was rewarded.

Visiting the Rocky Mountain Land Library

The renovation of the Cook’s House is only the first–though admittedly, very important–step in the development of the RMLL. There are other buildings on the ranch also in need of repairs, and eventually Lee and Martin would like to host artists- and writers-in-residence, as well as daily visitors.

Currently you can sign up for their summer workshops, and if all goes according to plan, the Cook’s House will be available for overnight stays starting next year. Lee and Martin also plan to have library memberships and programs available in the future. All of these things will cost money, but Lee emphasizes they’re committed to keeping the fees as reasonable as possible, and may even provide scholarships once the programs and lodging are established. If you can, get out there and support what’s sure to be one of the most unique libraries in west!

ETA: “69 Kickstarters” was changed to “69 literary Kickstarters”.

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