Little House on the Prairie?

Throughout my valley are log cabins. Some of them have been taken care of, some of them have been abandoned, some of them are slanting against the wind, some of them — well you can’t hardly tell what they are or were other than the trees planted as a windbreak in a rectangle around a house-sized open space that was once a homestead.

We tend to think that those houses were from the Wild West and the Frontier Days but not necessarily. Here’s my mom’s family in the 1920s. The house had been there a while. Most of their kids were born in it.

1922-23

You can see how the window had been put in to replace a door and the structure itself had been added to a few times. It was a lousy place to live, by all reports. I heard seemingly endless stories of pasting newspapers to the inside walls to keep the wind out. The wind would have been fierce, too, on the high plains of Montana and desperately cold in winter. Believe me, I know my deep love of winter hinges on having a heated house.

My grandparents were settlers, but this cabin (which they had not built, anyway) on the plains was not their first Montana home. They’d come from Iowa and settled first in the Clark’s Fork valley in the town of Belfry but, according to my mom, the hills and trees there (it’s beautiful) had given my grandma claustrophobia so they ended up here. Apparently my grandmother — like this granddaughter — had a thing about seeing the horizon.

I think, also, their move might have had something to do with the death of their son, Martin. I know it broke my grandmother’s heart. Maybe she didn’t want to live there any more because of that. She’s not here to ask, so…

I’ve been there but I can’t say exactly where it is. I believe it had a Hardin, MT address. When the kids grew up enough to get jobs, sometime in the 1930s, the family moved into Hardin, a real town, and I think life might have been easier.

Here’s most of the family in front of the house in Hardin. Grandfather, the prophetic looking bearded guy in the overalls. Grandma is behind my mom who’s in the front row, Dutch boy haircut, wide collar, looking down and at the camera at the same time — one of her all time favorite poses I learned from looking at a lot of photos. There is an extra girl in this photo and one son is missing. My aunt Florence (who was working) is in the fur collared coat.

Settling the frontier is a big theme here on what is still kind of a frontier. Plenty of people in the San Luis Valley sport the license plate that sets them apart as descending from original settlers.

Like them, I’m proud of my family, its courage and resilience. I love my local history museum, the Rio Grande County Museum, because it’s a safe home for the relics of settlers’ lives, and, what’s more, their stories.

There’s a similar museum in Hardin, Montana — The Bighorn County Museum — that contains photos and stories of my own family. It’s one of those amazing museums that covers a few acres and on which old buildings have been moved, erected and restored. They have an entire camp from one of the places where my uncles worked, the enormous Campbell Wheat Farms. In the museum you can see their thumbprint sized faces in more than one photo of this historic farming operation. The Campbell Farming Corporation had 95,000 acres under cultivation. It shut down in 1987. Flying into Billings from Denver, I could look down from the plane onto the Pryor Mountains, and see fields of wheat that might have been visible from space. I don’t know.

One of the buildings at the Bighorn County Museum is a one room schoolhouse, the Halfway School, which played a role in my mom’s stories about dancing with cowboys. There is the German Lutheran Church with its German Bible and hymn books. Museums like this are more than places to see old stuff.

I guess if I lived in Montana (Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania) I could sport a license plate like this, but I don’t think I would. I had an epiphany in Switzerland in 1997 and realized I would NOT have emigrated. I’d have changed my religion. But then, how do I know who I would have been back in the 17th century?

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/22/rdp-friday-settle/

Yet Another Quotidian Update, this One Without Beans

Every summer I have to make this adjustment from going out with the dogs in the middle of the day and surrendering to going out in the evening. Last evening Teddy and I headed out to the Big Empty. Normally I’d just take the easy way and wander around the hood through the golf course, but it was Sunday meaning league golf. So, why not head out and see what our friends the geese, blackbirds, meadowlarks, mountains, sky and light were doing at 7:30 pm?

The Refuge was beautiful. Mt. Blanca was lit by the sun coming from the west, every valley and cornice visible and luminous. The little bit of remaining snow tinged golden in the late-day light. Teddy, of course, was very happy to get the chance to take his inventory of goose excrement. According to him, there was no new carnivore scat to report.

He really wanted to see the bunny again.

I’ve been communicating with the director of the Rio Grande County Museum and something she wrote made me feel the urge to get on with the project — Swiss Immigrants in the San Luis Valley. Sit down, sit down. I know you’re excited and can’t wait, but I have no idea when or if this will happen. I started writing my little talk and, as I did, I began to wonder if the community could endure a series on this topic because I think that would be epic (literally).

Most important, I became absorbed in what I was writing for the first time since the virus. I’ve gotten a lot of good stuff done in these two months but none of it was really interesting. Maybe this is a step in the evolution of living with this thing. Maybe this is a stage a lot of other people are reaching, maybe it’s (along with money) a reason for the strong urge to “open up” the country. Down here that’s a huge thing. Tourism and potatoes are the biggies in this economy and people down here — where most businesses are small businesses — are eager to get on with life. We’ve had a total of 75 identified cases and one death down here which, for me, is an argument AGAINST opening to tourism but…

I made my every-two-weeks trek for groceries yesterday, ski buff at the ready to pull up over my nose and mouth. As I waited in the parking lot, I saw that most people going in and out of the store were wearing masks. It hit me that IF people did not resist that small thing, the business of opening up might be OK.

In other news, Ancestry DNA has revealed yet another amazing trait: I like coffee. Don’t be fooled by “You said you have 1 to 2 caffeinated drinks a day.” It is one giant cup of espresso = 6 little espresso cups. 😀

Although I promised no beans, Tu Fu wanted to share this with you.

Night in a Room by the River

Evening rises toward the mountain trails.
as I climb up to my high chamber

Thin Clouds lodge along the cliffs.
A lonely moon rocks slowly on the waves.

A line of cranes flaps silently overhead,
and, far off, a howling pack of wolves.

Sleepless, memories of war betray me.
I am powerless against the world. ❤

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/18/rdp-monday-surrender/

Quotidian Update 91.2b.ii

Li Bai inspecting the bean field

Yesterday I spent the hottest part of the day overcoming a 4 foot square patch of dirt and grass. I’m proud to say that, for now, I’ve achieved mastery over the bean field. I hope next weekend to convey Li Bai, Tu Fu and Li Ho to their residences.

There’s something satisfying about going at the ground with a pick axe, mainly that it works. It breaks the sod, it cuts deep enough for any plant and for the 2 x 4s I use for the borders. Another satisfying tool is the hand saw. I had an 8 foot 2 x 4 and when I had the field measured out all I had to do was lay the board on the ground and saw it.

One of the good things about gardening is you get to see something happen for the better which, in these times, is pretty cool.

Yesterday I got an email from Louise, the woman who runs the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte where I did a reading last December from As A Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. Our plan for June was another reading, this time from one of my Swiss books — The Price- and an exhibit of the Swiss immigrants to Rio Grande County, Colorado. There were many. I was going to put together a timeline/mural of Swiss events from the 16th century to the 18th when my family emigrated, and Louise, who runs the museum, was going to do the same thing for the people who’d settled here.

Louise’ family and that of her husband were among the original non-Hispanic settlers of the San Luis Valley and they both have incredible stories, the kind that, in the old days, you might sit around the fireplace and listen to into the wee hours.

Naturally, this is on hold indefinitely. We can’t meet to discuss it or share materials. I haven’t been able to think about it, but now I’m thinking that working on it now might be an act of faith.

As is gardening, when it comes to it. One of my favorite films (liked it better than the book 😦 ) is Milagro Beanfield War. It was filmed in the village of Truchas, New Mexico, about 1 hour south of me. It is really about a bean field. The other bean field that went through my mind as I broke the earth open with my trusty pick axe was Thoreau’s bean field, described in Walden.

Thoreau’s bean field was a few acres and he tilled it by hand. My bean field will hold three bean plants that will give me fruit I might not even eat. It’s really all about watching them grow and attract butterflies and hummingbirds, plus, the beans are growing from beans I grew myself. Thoreau writes of his bean field as I could write about standing out there in the Big Empty and maybe as any farmer could write about the San Luis Valley:

As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans…

The nighthawk circled overhead in the sunny afternoons…like a mote in the eye, or in heaven’s eye, falling from time to time with a swoop and a sound as if the heavens were rent, torn at last to very rags and tatters, and yet a seamless cope remained; small imps that fill the air and lay their eggs on the ground on bare sand or rocks on the tops of hills, where few have found them; graceful and slender like ripples caught up from the pond, as leaves are raised by the wind to float in the heavens; such kinship is in nature. The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys… When I paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row, a part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “The Bean Field”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/17/rdp-sunday-overcome/

It’s a Small World, After All

Yesterday I learned that my little town had a POW camp during WW II. It’s a little hard to imagine this, German soldiers being brought all the way here, but they were. In fact, Colorado had several of these camps.

My friends and I went on an adventure yesterday to Del Norte (our primo destination) that involved lunch, a short stop at the fabric shop, and a long stop at the Rio Grande County Museum. I guess I’m just going to take you with me.

I picked them up at my neighbor’s house and we hit the road in Bella. Lots of chat in the car and me driving, looking at the mountains, noticing a herd of buffalo close to town that I’d heard of and never seen. Stock around here have a lot of different ranges and are trucked from place to place as well as sometimes driven on horseback. I didn’t say anything because my friends were pretty involved in the conversation.

We had lunch at the comparatively new Colorado Grille. Why the “e” I don’t know, must be residue from the days of “shoppe” etc. Lunch was good, the conversation was better. The waitress called me “honey” and I’m afraid the moniker has stuck. It is pretty funny. She was perky beyond all rational levels of perkiness, but what can you do? My brain was a little fuzzy when we set out, I think from all the books I’m contending with, but it cleared up over lunch, thank goodness. From there we went to a florist shop up the street.

There one of my friends engaged a young cowboy (about 9) in a chat. I just listened until she suggested he call me “honey.” Neither he nor I was having that. He’d been to the dentist and was relating the import of that experience to my friend who very charmingly drew him out. Cowboys around here pretty much start at birth. Later on I heard him walking, dragging the heels of this c’boy boots the way my mom would yell at my brother and I for doing, but it’s a great sound for a kid. “Don’t drag your heels! You’ll wreck your boots!”

Then we went to Kathy’s Fabric Trunk because I needed ribbon and elastic for my epic sewing project. Kathy has a daughter who is severely disabled and spends time in an elaborate chair under the watchful eye of a Labrador retriever. As we got there, she was on her way out. The Labrador and a little shit-zu/pekingese mix met us at the door. They came right to me. Kathy hugged my friends and when the dogs were finished acknowledging my presence (I honor that Lab with all my heart) I said to Kathy, “I’m kind of a dog person.”

“I noticed. So did they,” and she hugged me.

I got my “notions” and we headed to the museum.

The biggest treasures in that museum are the people, Louise and her husband, Alex. I love all the things that are there, but I love those two people more. They’re good, they’re passionate about their home where both their families have lived for many generations, they have incredible knowledge. Alex is struggling with dementia, but he KNOWS he’s struggling. Sometimes he knows me (no one knows why he would, but he does) and other times he doesn’t. But he always tells me a story.

Yesterday he told me about being stationed in Europe during the Korean War. My best guess is that the story took place somewhere that was German controlled during WW II possibly the Alsace. Alex had said he had been sightseeing with buddies in Holland, Belgium, and “other places.” He told of being in a town that was circular. That’s pretty common for medieval towns that have survived into the present, labyrinths of concentric, narrow streets. Alex said he and his buddy couldn’t find a way out and they asked all kinds of people for help but no one spoke English.

They finally found a man who could help them. Alex then asked the man, “Where did you learn English?” and was stunned to hear that the man had been a POW in Monte Vista, Colorado. What’s more, he’d known Alex as a little boy. The town was even smaller then and the POW camp was essentially in Alex’ neighborhood.

I came home and wanted to know more about the POWs. I haven’t found much, but I haven’t talked to the people at Monte Vista’s historical society. I found a fascinating article on POW camps in Colorado, though. Most of the POWs were captured in the North African campaign. They worked during the harvest season in the potato fields, taking the place of the Americans who had gone to fight.

The Featured Photo shows sketches done by a German POW. The Rocky Mountains, the Colorado State Capitol, and a tunnel — I think it’s the Moffatt Tunnel.

Here’s a link to the entire article in case I have piqued your interest. https://www.historycolorado.org/sites/default/files/media/document/2018/ColoradoMagazine_Summer-Fall1979.pdf

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/03/05/rdp-thursday-cinch/

February 29, 1972

On February 27, 1972 I was at Winter Park with my friend Susie and her family. They were from Chicago, had rented a large cabin and we were all having a GREAT time. The next day it snowed heavily, and I was gripped with a terrible and irrational apprehension that we wouldn’t be able to get back to Denver that day. I had an exam the next day, as I recall. Still, it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. I was bossing everyone around, putting cardboard under stuck wheels and generally being a pain in the ass. We made it back to Denver and, safe and snug in my dorm room, I went to sleep.

The next morning — a bright and shining day — I went to my 9 am history class. About 30 minutes into it, someone from my dorm called out my prof and he came back and asked me to come with him. I walked with this woman back to the dorm office where my Aunt Martha was standing. I knew everything just seeing her there.

“Martha Ann, you dad passed away last night. It’s for the best.”

I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t for the best. He’d suffered a lot during the last two years from deterioration caused by MS. My aunt went up to my room with me and I packed.

I didn’t feel anything until I saw him in the casket at the mortuary. I reached into the casket to hold his hand as I had innumerable times at the nursing home when he was in one coma or another. The hand was cold, unbelievably cold, and then I knew that all my love really COULDN’T save his life. My aunt Kelly and uncle Johnny were with me and took me out of the room and sat with me until I calmed down. After that, I held it together, helping my mom contact family, taking clothes to the mortuary, even reading from my dad’s favorite poem during the service in Colorado Springs. I was pretty OK until the funeral in Montana when the casket was placed in the ground when I lost it again. Fortunately, my grandmother was there and we sheltered together in the limousine.

My dad died at 45. I’m 23 years older than he was when he died. Sometime in my late 30s I realized I was about to live the life my dad couldn’t. That meant something to me.

When this day rolls around every four years I’m a little messed up. Luckily, this time, I was here in the San Luis Valley, and it exerted all of its magic for me today. I had reason to write a blog post that meant something to me. Then I went to the Rio Grande County Museum with some notecards to sell, but also to see how the new show — Colorado and the Suffrage Movement — was doing. Louise, who runs the museum, is an amazing woman, and I sense we share a common heart. She told me about some of her new discoveries and then her husband, Alex, came in. Alex has lived here forever, his family has lived here forever. He’s a pretty incredible person, too. We talked about runaway horses, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ventilation of potato cellars and much, much more. I love learning about this place, and I left feeling a little intoxicated.

From there I drove west to take a photo of another potato cellar I hope to paint, one that’s in terrible condition. I went to the store and came home to find that one of my stories (originally published here in my blog) won first prize at a contest I entered in December, a contest held by the Alamosa Library’s literary magazine, Messages from the Hidden Lake. There was a party last week, but I forgot about it. 🙂

After lunch, I took Bear to the golf course so she could roll in whatever snow remains (there was some). On the way I stopped to talk to the kids and their mom. I heard yet another amazing story about her dad, on horseback, in the mountains, going over a little ravine and his horse fell on him. His dog — a dog like Bear — Zip — stayed with him and protected him until help came more than 12 hours later. Zip even wanted to get on the helicopter.

Bear and I took a wandering ramble nowhere in the world of smells that is Bear’s somewhere. Fifty cranes flew over us, calling to each other. On the way back, the little girl was in the yard and we had a long talk about little brothers. She told me that sometimes she and her little brother (two years younger, just like my brother and me) have terrible fights. I told her my brother and I did, too.

“What do you fight about?” she asked me.

“Oh, you know, ‘Get out of my room!’ ‘That’s not YOURS! It’s MINE!'”

She nodded in profound understanding and told me about a time that her little brother helped her clean her room.

“Yeah, that’s a good brother,” I told her.

“Once my brother hurt my feelings. He said he didn’t love me.” She looked sad.

“He didn’t mean it. That’s just little brothers. You know, my brother was my best friend.”

She nodded. “Yeah, but someday we will have our own families and won’t live together any more.”

“He’ll still be your brother.”

She smiled and launched into a wonderful long story about a game of pretend they’d played after seeing Frozen. It was wonderful, involving, as it did, an evil snow man and an enchanted forest.

All this has been the gift this miraculous valley has given me on this day that comes every four years, a day on which I cannot help but feel sad.

Featured photo: My dad and me in his basement office. We built the shelves together, framed and paneled the whole thing. I was 12. In the photo below, I’m 11. You can see I reached my adult height early. My dad was 5’8″.

My dad looks kind of pissed off, but he wasn’t. 🙂 Bellevue, Nebraska, 1963

War Memorial in the Back of Beyond

Cold in the back of beyond — single digits but still above 0 F ( +4 F/-15 C), and I didn’t need to let the dogs out at 5 (they weren’t even awake) but I did which means leaving the back door open a little. OH well. It’s cold in the house, but if I’m either surprised or upset, I’m an idiot. You might say, “No, you’re an idiot for leaving the door open,” and I wouldn’t dispute that.

Yesterday I took the little paintings to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. Incredibly beautiful windy ground-blizzardy day, jewel clear and dazzling. The display turned out to be a couple of lilac branches stuck into some modeling clay. It’s kind of cute, but somewhat unstable.

Trying out the display at home…

The little paintings have their own table in a room that is otherwise reserved for the Rio Grande County Veterans’ stories. Louise Colville, the museum director, has not only put hours of work, but hours of heart into it. On a counter are notebooks that hold the stories of the veterans of all the wars up to (and including) the current fracas. Each veteran has all the pages he/she needs to tell their story. “I had to stop for a while,” she told me yesterday, “it was just too sad.” Many of the pages include photos of grave markers and the obituaries of those who were killed in action.

Now think of this. ALL of WW II has two, slender, three ring binders. WW I has one. There is a Civil War Veteran. The binders are not full to over flowing. Each typed page is placed into a plastic leaf so people can read the stories easily without wrecking the paper. There is so much information in the way the notebooks have been assembled, clearly illustrating how few people have lived here and how precious each person is. This is a database that can’t be Googled. If a kid wanted to research WW II Veterans of Rio Grande County, he or she could find excellent first person sources, but they would have to go to the museum. There are small museums like this one all over America, treasuries of local history, labors of love that are unknown for the most part.

On the wall are some photos — most from Vietnam, naturally, as photos before then might have fallen by the way if they even existed. It was pretty intense. “The only thing that kept my father out of WW II,” said Louise, “was that he was the only son of a farmer.” Her comment made me think about some woman in Denver who, on a Facebook post back in 2016, asked “What’s so damned important about farmers?” I guess they knew the answer to that back in WW II.

As is always the case in the San Luis Valley, we shared stories and opinions. And, small political statement, I’m 100% sure we did not vote the same way in the last major election but I am also 100% sure we agree on most things. I felt again the immense distance between the government in Washington and a tiny county museum in the back of beyond.

The museum is a haven for the objects of the lives of the people who have lived here pretty much since the beginning.

“The earliest settlers here came with the Spanish conquistadors. Their descendants are here in the valley,” Louise tells me, her voice filled with wonderment. I share her wonderment. That bit of history is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.

An exhibit of clothing at the Rio Grande County Museum

My News: Another Event…

Among the things going on, I will be doing another reading, this time at the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte as part of their holiday celebration. The event runs from now until December 21. All the other participants are artists — most were members of the now defunct artist co-op which some of you might remember as having been, for me, a very mixed experience.

I took my stuff yesterday — all books, except a few notecards left over from the erstwhile co-op. My books are on top of a beautiful cherry-wood Victorian piano. The museum is a historical museum that has saved many things from the “old days” in the San Luis Valley — that says a lot, really, since the “old days” here go back to the Spanish conquistadores, not to mention the Navajo and Ute tribes. It’s a fascinating little museum, and I’ve learned a lot from looking at the exhibits.

Once I had my books on the piano and the poster from the Baby Duck reading set up, the exhibit looked kind of bare, so I went home and made a poster for the historical novels. It’s not as finished as the Baby Duck project, but I didn’t have weeks. I had hours. But, it’s all there now.

I was very low on supplies — even spray glue — and didn’t have time to drive to Alamosa to bigger stores with better choices. I was stuck with our little Safeway which was even almost out of tissue paper. But… I realized from making these two poster how my brain goes first to electronic presentations because that was my “thing” for so many years. I have not had to make posters for anything since my 8th grade science project on the Geological History of the Tetons. That went extremely well, by the way. I got an award from the National Geological Society and some oil and gas company. But seriously; 8th grade? I was 13…

The big open-house opening is tomorrow and I’m going with a couple of friends. “My” day is December 7, and as it is Pearl Harbor day, and there are a LOT of veterans here (one of the oldest retirement homes for veterans is near where I walk the dogs; it was built to house Civil War veterans) I decided to read the sections from Baby Duck that talk about the alliance between the US Army and China to fight the Japanese, notably on Hainan Island, and the numerous Chinese veterans I met. In those stories is a Christmas story and I’ll end the reading with that.

I’m looking forward to it very much — much less prep work for me as the museum is catering the event, not me.