The Ranch: Part I

A swatch of land along the Trés Piedras River between Durango and Pagosa Springs, Colorado, was our summer home. A cattle gate, always at a slant with a chain link and combination lock, separated the dusty rutted road from the Forest Service Camp Ground. The road was narrow. A cliff on one side and the river on the other. My aunt hid under the dash and screamed until we passed the steep section of road.

One time just before the gate, a mama black bear and her cub were just meandering across the road to the river.

There were four structures on this land: a cabin, the Lodge, an old barn and the Duncan House. Past the gate, the land flattened out into the start of wide long meadow where a small two room homestead house stood under a few great cottonwood trees. Shaatree and his parent’s lived here. They had chickens, a garden and ground their own coffee and flour.

A fenced in pasture was next. One year, a Palomino and her colt occupied this space. I spent a great deal of that summer hanging over the fence petting her. Some days I was brave enough to climb on her back and just lay there. She never minded. She never really stopped eating either.

The dusty road wound around past a row of gigantic cottonwoods that lined the river on one side, the meadow on the other stopped by the great lodge pole pine forest endlessly climbing the ridge and up the valley. Just out of sight of the cabin sat the Lodge. A two story building with a garage space below and three apartments on the second level. A stair case inside the garage led up to space between the three. A large wooden stair case, not much more than a ladder outside, led up to one of the apartments. The three were each assigned a color: red, yellow and green. It was the late sixties early seventies. The colors occupied the linoleum, the sinks, toilet, tub. . . anything that could be of this color, was. Each apartment had two bedrooms and one bath, a kitchen-dining room space and a wee sitting room.

Despite the welcoming festive color, the apartments were always cold and hallow feeling. All the things that make a house cozy, rugs, throw pillows, familiar art, belongings etc were missing. The only personal stuff we brought was minimal. There were five of us in an old station wagon after all. My parents were not the type to strap the extras to the roof. Whatever could fit in the back was all we brought.

One year, we did bring Ratty, my sister’s pet rat. Yes he was named after Wind and the Willows. He had a tiny metal cage. He never spent much time in the cage, though, because he knew how to unlatch it. He would rather be with Lynn, my sister, sitting next to her or wandering the tiny apartment instead. He was a mouser. Each morning we would find dead mice around. Somehow, someone figured out he was the protector.

I liked each apartment for a different reason. I liked the yellow one because of the long outside staircase and the shade of the cottonwoods. I liked the red one because it looked out over the river and opened directly above the large porch on the back. The sun in the red one warmed the square kitchen table where one year, Lynn started making paper dolls on a rainy day. We made dolls and clothes all summer at that table. Intricate dresses, shoes, hats, clutches, pets. The possibilities were endless and so was our attention to this task.

Dolls. This brings up a side topic born at the Ranch and vitally important to us all to this day. At the Ranch we were the Ingalls. Yes, as in the Little House on the Prairie. Lynn, the oldest and most well read, was always Laura even though Laura is the second oldest in the series, she is the protagonist and so Lynn got to be Laura. Amy, the middle sister, was always Mary, the pretty one. I was always Carrie, the youngest. One year, Lynn and Amy received gorgeous rag dolls in their likeness, but named and clothed as the characters from the books. The dolls were and still are exquisite. Hand stitched in tiny tiny stitches with embroidered faces and yarn hair perfectly fitted and braided. Each came with a few changes of clothes. Calicos, lace, velvet and silk.

As the youngest, I did not get a doll. That summer, in our hours of wandering, making forts and pretending to be homesteaders, my sisters’ dolls were their constant companions. Apparently, my grandmother noticed that my dearest Snoopy was not accompanying us on our adventures. One afternoon, I came home to a doll. A rag doll made by my grandmother. She had red hair. . . really red, fire engine red on sheet white skin. Her eyes were sewn on with knitting yarn, not floss. They were big and awkward. She had one dress, blue and white checks that were too large. She was floppy because she was stuffed with tissue. In comparison to the dolls my sisters had, she was ridiculous. But I had a doll. Someone had thought I needed one. I carefully kissed Snoopy, and ran outside to find my sisters.

We spent each summer in jeans, or calico dresses and actual sunbonnets imagining a world without electricity or running water. Making forts and collecting rusty plates, bottles and the remains of who knows what from the outside of the old barn. We rarely went in the barn. We were told not too. This was grandpa’s territory. It held dangers and mystery of the machines and old rusty stories.

We had the river. Down a short path from the Lodge, a sandy beach sided up to the river. A sandy beach by a river is very different than ocean sand. River sand is fine and blends into mud right at the juncture of the water. This beach was large enough for towels and all of us to lounge. Willows, long and dense marked the end of the beach on either side. The river at this point was wide and deep. Across was a large cliff carved out in a perfect ledge for launching oneself into the swimming hole. Hours went by jumping into the current swimming to the beach running up the river, crossing in the wild current and jumping in again.

Up the river, large rocks made eddies and small clear swimming holes. Beatle Bug, an older boy, whose family would also come for stretches of time to the Ranch, loved these calm pools. On occasion he would allow me to follow him. He would give me a spear he had made out of a stick with a whittled sharp end. He was old enough to have a pocket knife. With my eyes open under water, I watched in awe as he tried to spear the fish. I don’t remember if he ever got one, but it was pure wonderment to be a part of the ritual.

At the end of the summer, somehow he killed two rattle snakes. He slit them open and grilled them for our final meal. I never liked meat, so I don’t know if I actually ate any, but I know I would have if he had offered it to me. The smaller of the snakes had two slimy mice partly digested in it’s stomach. I don’t think he grilled these.

The rattle snakes were a daily part of the Ranch. Mom simply said to watch out for them. She warned us to never run or move quickly around them. If we encountered one, we were supposed to simply say, “Hello Mr. or Mrs. Snake. How are you today?” while we slowly walked backwards. Once out of striking range we could turn and run.

Remember Shaatree? The boy who lived in the small hundred year old homestead house at the entrance to the Ranch? Well, he wasn’t always there. One year when my sisters and I were playing Little House, we wondered far away from the Lodge. Far away up river, where grandpa and dad were planning to make a bridge. A big sturdy bridge to cross the river. I suppose the road crossed here and some how the old bridge was gone or simply not safe. I was too young to really know. But here we were, on the opposite side of the river after crossing the large limestone square rocks scattered over this stretch. The forest here was dense with skinny tall Lodge Pole pine trees. Being the dry west, the undergrowth was almost non-existent. We could wander freely and quite easily for miles. We did. Then, there was a fort. Not much different than the forts we built ourselves. The difference was that there was laundry hanging around, voices, smoke and smell of something wonderful cooking.

A young woman was stirring a pot over a stove of some kind. A really young boy, my age about, was running through the trees. Hiding and scampering. Staring at us. His face was dirty and his clothes were tattered. I bet we looked just the same. Only we were in dirty swimsuits. The woman welcomed us. Smiling and kind. She made us hot coco. Hot coco in the summer in Colorado is not unheard of. It gets cold in the afternoons and evenings. We drank the most delightfully rich and intriguing hot chocolate I had ever had. I still make this combination today. And every time, I drink it, I remember Shaatree in the forest.

After our hot coco, we made it across the river and back to the Lodge. We told mom and dad about the family in the woods. I was terrified they would ask them to leave. It was the late sixties early seventies. They were hippies. Squatters. Freebies. Even though I was little and many things I did not understand, somehow, I knew about a group of people who lived like the gypsies out of my books. I secretly lusted for this freedom and sense of community to wide web of wanderers. Were Pa and Ma Ingalls, the family we emulated with every waking breath, much different after all?

Relief, my parents invited Shaatree and his parents to live in the homestead house. They fixed it up and lived there for years. Near the end of summer, mom and the young mother went to the local orchard and bought crates of apricots and peaches to make jam together. Many days mom and I helped weed their garden. We had new friends. This was the beginning of my awakening to the true character of my mother. Friends are everywhere.

More later. . . We still haven’t made it to the Duncan House . . .

Beth Van De Water