Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Love Affair With the West

Remember that magical age of eight, before you discovered boys but were through playing with dolls? That's how old I was when my dad packed up our family of six and sped away from our home in the midwest for a life of adventure in the wild, wild west. It was 1955, long after the Indians had chased the buffalo across the plains and ambushed wagon trains of pioneers but us kids didn't know that and Dad fired up our imaginations with bedtime stories of wild Indians and wild horses and wild animals roaming the west. He even moved us onto an Indian reservation in the state of Washington where we lived in a little encampment of trailer houses near the uranium mine where he worked. We climbed nearby mountains, fished the beaver pond for lively trout, picked wild strawberries behind our camp, and bucketed our drinking water from a creek. I believe the summer of 1955 was when I fell in love with the west.

By Christmas of 1955 we had moved on to the state of Idaho where we lived in a motor hotel in the town of Salmon. My most vivid memory of that school was the cactus that grew in the schoolyard. Across from the school was a ramshackle collection of lean-tos where, I was told, the Indians now lived. I vaguely remember attending an Indian dance held at night where dust rose from the dancers' feet and we ate corn on the cob.

When school was out in May of 1956 we moved up into the mountains to the mining town of Cobalt where we lived for the next three years. I could write volumes about those years for the memories are vivid and many. We moved back to Illinois when the mine shut down and Dad had to find other work. For the next twelve years I lived in the midwest but dreamed of the west I had come to love.

In July of 1970 I convinced my husband to pull up stakes and head west, destination Boulder, Colorado. In retrospect I know I was trying to find happiness and hoped it still lived in the west I had known in the 50s. It worked, for me, if not for him. I'm still out here, living in Colorado with a new husband, a man who grew up in the west and loves is as much as I do. Two of my best friends started life in little towns on the Wyoming plains, Big Piney and Lander. Most of my other friends are native Coloradoans whose childhood memories are stories I love to hear. This is home now and I'll never leave, but there is a part of me that longs for the dark, fertile soil of my native Illinois, for the ripe smell of fall in a hardwood forest, and for springs of warm rain and no wind.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mesa Verde in 2002

Colorado has some wonderful historical sites preserved in parks and other government-owned areas open to the public yet despite the fact I've lived here for over forty years I've visited only a few of them. But each time I do venture out to explore this beautiful state I am thrilled with the beauty and historical significance of our preserved heritage.

In September of 2002, to celebrate my recent retirement from Anheuser-Busch, I made a trip to Mesa Verde National Park to see that most enchanting preservation of ancient cliff dwellings, the former home of the Ancestral Puebloan People or Anasazi as most of us know them. The park was created in 1906, thanks to President Teddy Roosevelt, and has seen millions of visitors in the last 100 years. Despite the wear and tear that comes with millions of visitors and the descecration caused by looters and vandals, the park is beautiful place that feels remote and sacred. Its location in the high desert bluffs of southwestern Colorado ensures its natural state. The best way I can say that is you won't see a McDonalds or WalMart next to the ruins. Many photographers have captured the beauty of Mesa Verde with their images; I've included a black and white photo by Ansel Adams of Cliff Palace and a Wikimedia Commons photo of a group of tourists at the base of Cliff Palace. My favorite part of the tour was climbing the wood and rope ladders up to Balcony House and I've used my own photograph to illustrate that. It's a beautiful place and I recommend visiting Mesa Verde to those who love Native American history, archaeology, and the great outdoors.

There is a hotel of sorts inside the park and a restaurant too. The hotel has minimal services so as not to detract from the serenity of the park. This is not a Disneyland vacation!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Old Pear Tree

The old pear tree that grows east of our house and in a line with two just-as-old apple trees never meant much to me until I learned a bit of its history, then suddenly it became in my mind a majestic pear tree, a survivor who must be nurtured. The tree is about one hundred years old and for the past forty of those years the tree has been largely ignored. I know because I'm the one who ignored it. Although our average annual precipitation around here is a scant twelve inches there are years when we fall far short of that, yet the pear tree has endured.

In May of 2007 I drove up to the site of the Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station located about ten miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to attend a walking tour and presentation by Scott Skogerbie, our local Johnny Appleseed. Scott introduced us to the trees, shrubs, and flowers that survived decades of neglect with no artificial watering when the experimental station was abandoned during the dust bowl years. Scott's love of plants was obvious and infectious as he pointed out the brave, tenacious plants who fought off grazing deer, voracious insects, and the drying winds of Wyoming to survive and grow in that environment. The wind tears the clay soil from around the plants and pulverizes it before dropping it back to earth as blow sand as fine as talcum powder and serving the same purpose - to prevent any moisture from penetrating its barrier. When rain finally comes the ground is slippery and sticky but the water doesn't penetrate beneath the top layer to water the roots of the trees below.

After we returned to the field station buildings Scott continued to share his knowledge and passion about hardy Wyoming and Colorado plants. Unwilling to end the stimulating conversation about a subject so interesting to me I invited Scott to join me and two friends for lunch in Cheyenne. Over plates of steaming, authentic Mexican food we talked of the the tendency of some of us transplanted midwesterners to try to grow the oak trees and willows of our youth in this dry, alkaline soil of eastern Colorado. Then talk turned to Scott's obsession with finding an apple tree somewhere in this country planted by Johnny Appleseed so he could clone it. He succeeded in that venture and has since moved on to other fascinating schemes and plans.

Over lunch I told Scott of the two old apple trees and the seckel pear tree on our place and what I knew of them. We bought our three-acre piece of land in 1971 and the trees were mature and healthy then. One day a woman dropped by to see what we were doing with the land and told us she had lived here as a child, that her father, August Gross, planted those three trees shortly after the turn of the century, approx. 1905. One of the apple trees died back to the ground but the other is still producing big crops of yellow-green pie apples about every other year. The seckel pear tree produces every year, a small reddish-skinned pear that is sweet and flavorful if a bit too small for most people's taste.

Scott then told me about Charles Pennock and the nursery he started and operated for years in Bellvue, just about ten miles west of our place. I was so excited to learn about this and researched it immediately upon returning home. Scott said that he was familiar with Pennock's experiments and seckel pears were on the list.

Ever since that time our old pear tree has become more important to me. I water it regularly and have sent a small pear tree that grew as a root sucker to my sister in Oregon. She thinks it might be different from my tree, that the root stock used by Pennock in his grafts is something other than a seckel pear. She's probably right because her little tree has thorns and the old pear tree does not. Maybe I should get some professional advice on how to clone the tree before it's too late.