Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Big Hole

Somewhere between the time I met Bob Russell in 1970 and our marriage in 1972 he first told me about The Big Hole, a magical place about twenty-five miles north of Fort Collins, Colorado, but as inaccessible to me as if it had been on the moon. He regaled me with stories about this secret wonderland of tall pine trees and cold, clear streams of fresh water cascading over ancient rocks and fossils, populated with deer and other wildlife. The most incredible part of his description was the location of the place, this Big Hole, for it was not in the nearby Rocky Mountains as one might imagine, nor was it in the hogback formations of the foothills. No, it was in the flat prairie of eastern Colorado ranchland, a gash in the earth that opened into a ravine that could only be seen from the air. And it was on private property managed by a grazing association, a place I could never visit. He had been there, several times, he and his friend Bill Hartwig, two guys who enjoyed exploring northern Colorado natural wonders, like Crystal Cave, The Natural Forts, and little known locations of teepee rings, dinosaur tracks, buffalo wallows, and animal pits. And over the years the legend of The Big Hole grew and my imagination grew with it.

A little background might be helpful. Bob Russell's childhood took place in western Weld County, Colorado, on landlocked dryland farms without creeks, lakes, or even irrigation ditches nearby. Average yearly rainfall ranged between 9 inches and 12 inches but rarely came in thunderstorms or gully washes, so there weren't even mudpuddles for a boy to play in. Bob's dad farmed his own land for eighteen years in Weld County and most of those years he watched his wheat crop destroyed by summer hail and his optimism pounded into the ground with it.

Finally, in 1953, Doyle Russell had had enough of that and moved his family and farming operation over to Larimer County, north of Wellington, to farm the land that would be their home until he died. Bob was eleven years old. There were no natural water formations on this land either, but it was bordered on the west by an irrigation ditch and that is where Bob learned to swim. Ironically, this dryland farmer's son joined the Navy in 1962, became an Underwater Demolition Team aka UDT/SEAL frogman where he spent years in the water, cold Pacific ocean water, where he swam, dived, blew up underwater obstacles, and participated in sneak and peek operations and ambushes in South Vietnam.

Back home again after his time in the Navy, reeling from the shock of leaving the humid jungles of Vietnam to living on the dry, treeless plains of eastern Colorado, Bob was also trying to adjust to the surreal animosity and disdain that greeted returning Vietnam veterans. Wellington was not welcoming. He remembered the lush greenery and solitude to be found at The Big Hole, and returned there several times with Bill Hartwig, gaining access without permission, finding solace in that place.
When I came into Bob's life I was new to Colorado...well, not totally new. Back in 1955, just a couple of years after Doyle Russell moved his family from hail alley in Weld County over to his new farm in Larimer County, my dad moved our family from a trailer court in Tuscola, Illinois, to an Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and we drove through Colorado enroute. Dad was a miner.
He had spent the winter of 1954 with a buddy from Illinois searching for uranium near Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado, the coldest winter of his life, he told us. In May of 1955 he was back in Colorado traveling west with his wife and four young children making his way to Washington State where he had a job waiting for him with the same employer, mining uranium. We spent several days in Colorado, entering from Kansas, driving across barren eastern Colorado in our 1953 Kaiser, coming through Denver at night where we gawked in wonder at the golden dome of the state house, illuminated with spotlights for all to admire. The next morning we awoke in Idaho Springs, enchanted by our first view of mountains, covered in Christmas trees, my brother said.
We climbed to the summit of Berthoud Pass where we stopped to throw snowballs and take photographs with Mom's brownie camera...snow in summertime, such was the magic of Colorado. That night we stayed in a motel in Hot Sulphur Springs where we were treated with such thoughtfulness and consideration that I lost my heart to Colorado. Fifteen years later when my life was spiraling out of control in Illinois I remembered Colorado and hoped the magic was still there.

Just like my father, I pulled up stakes in Illinois and headed west. I was married and had a two-year-old son when I arrived in Colorado the summer of 1970. An attempt to resuscitate our failing marriage is what brought us to Colorado but six months later it was over. Our son, Patrick, and I stayed in Fort Collins while my husband returned to Illinois. Bob Russell and I met at our place of employment, Union Manufacturing and Supply Company. After we started dating he introduced me to his friends, and he had a lot of friends. Among them was Bill Hartwig, which brings us back to The Big Hole.

In 2004 I learned that Larimer County had purchased the land surrounding The Big Hole from the grazing association and had named the area Red Mountain Open Space. I didn't learn until years later that the city of Cheyenne bought the actual Big Hole property in 2005 and cooperated with Larimer County to make both properties available to the public in 2009. I was finally going to visit the area I had heard so much about and dreamed of exploring. I talked to Bob about my desire to hike into the Big Hole and came up with a plan. I contacted Bill and Linda Hartwig in Torrington, Wyoming and told them about the new access to The Big Hole and asked if they'd like to join me on a guided hike.
They agreed, even got excited about it. So, in September of 2007 we met with our guide and two other trekkers at Walmart's parking lot early one morning and headed north out of Fort Collins for the Red Mountain Open Space.

I was having some trouble with my feet at that time, nothing major, painful areas between toes, mostly. I should have bought myself a good pair of hiking boots and thick socks but instead I chose cheap sneakers a couple of sizes too big, thinking the extra space in the shoes would be more comfortable for me. Oh, my, what a mistake! So, off we went, five adventurers and a guide, headed for the parking area at the trailhead, wearing layers, carrying bottled water, and me with my sloppy shoes.

This hike took place two years before Red Mountain Open Space was open to the public so we were the only people out there. At times, looking back down the trail, I saw a light colored car off in the distance, a Ranger who patrolled the 16,000 acres alone. We walked at a gentle pace, across a meadow stopping to look at small log buildings whose provenance was unknown to us. Soon the landscape changed from rolling meadow to rocky outcroppings of red sandstone as we climbed higher into the mountainside.I lagged behind so that I could photograph the group of climbers and take my time soaking up the beauty surrounding me. We climbed higher and higher up the unmarked trail where there was no evidence of man, no plastic, no cigarette butts, and not much noise either. I listened for birds but mostly heard the wind as it blew across the canyon making an eerie sound that changed pitch from a moan to a whistle. And the conversation between the hikers above me on the trail fell down the crevice slightly distorted like the cry of children on a faraway playgound. I could have stayed in that state of bliss forever.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the highest point of this trail. I'm not sure the trail had been named yet. If so, I don't remember it. Our group of five stopped to rest, drink water, take photographs, enjoy the view. I remember asking Bill just where the Big Hole was and he pointed off to the north. It may have been then that I realized I was so close to this place I'd dreamed of for many years but still a long hike away.

Today, while writing this post, I googled Red Mountain Open Space and The Big Hole and found this written by someone who actually did hike into that place, Roger Ludwig, "The trek into the glorious Big Hole is a long one, typically only reached by mountain bikers. But if hikers start early, bringing plenty of water and a good lunch you can do it. It makes for a ten mile loop, covering the highlights of this geologic wonderland. Perhaps someday the city will grant access off of Harriman Road through the Belvoir Ranch."

The hike back down from the apex of the trail was painful. With every step I took my feet slid forward and my big toes slammed into the toes of the shoes. No longer was I admiring the view, listening for birds. Instead, I was thinking "how much further to the car?" I don't remember much about this part of the hike. At one point where the ground was smooth I removed my shoes and walked barefoot giving me some relief from the pain. Finally, we walked out of the canyon and onto the flat land, our destination in sight. The Ranger I had seen from afar drove up to check on us, asked if everybody was okay.

He even offered to give us a ride to our car, still some distance away. Oh, how I wanted to take him up on his offer but my pride wouldn't let me speak out. Instead I tried to send a mental message to our guide. He didn't get it. He said we would walk to our van and enjoy the view along the way. And some of us did, enjoy the view. Back at our departure point, the parking lot at Walmart, Bill and Linda thanked me for inviting them, for hiking together on this beautiful trail, and hoped for an invitation to go back to my house so we could tell Bob all about the hike. Instead I begged off, telling them about my painful toes and desire to soak in a tub of warm water.
Over the next days and weeks I lost both toenails on my big toes, and learned a few things from that experience. Did you know that you can lose your big toenails twice and they will grow back but if you lose them a third time they won't grow back? Hmmm... makes me wonder how that evolved.
I cherish the memory of this hike with Bill and Linda. Like so many experiences with friends, most only happen once, especially in our later years. Bill passed away in May of 2015. I can no longer hike and climb. But I am holding out hope that if an entrance to the Big Hole is created on the northern border I might still get into that magical place, pushing a walker or using two walking sticks, anything that works. But if not me, then maybe you. You won't be disappointed...and wear good shoes.

Saturday, January 25, 2020


You know the kind of friend who is ready to go with you on any kind of crazy adventure you come up with, says "let's do it!" rather than, "Uh, I'm not sure"? I have a friend like that in Marilyn Hodges. We've been friends for over forty years but it wasn't until I saw a meme on facebook with Lucy and Ethel that I realized, "Yes! I have a friend like that." I want Marilyn to know I appreciate this special friendship, appreciate her.
As I reflect on the fun times we've shared I've most enjoyed the outdoor adventures. Like the time we went to an abandoned farm outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a guided tour of the trees and shrubs that have survived decades of neglect. Not exactly a trip to Disneyland, but not as boring as it sounds. Marilyn and I both live out in the country where we grow trees and shrubs. We know the challenge of planting species that will grow in our dense clay soil, ever present wind, and scant rainfall.
This property in Wyoming was an experimental range station, planted and maintained by the U.S Department of Agriculture until it was abandoned in the 1930s for lack of funding. For the past ninety years some of the trees and shrubs on that property have survived without any help from man. Our guide that day, Scott Skogerboe, a Fort Collins nurseryman who so loves trees that he tracked down the last known descendent of Johnny Appleseed's trees (he tracked down the tree, not the person), cloned it, grew trees from the clones, then sold them to tree enthusiast across the nation. I blogged about Scott Skogerboe  years ago. When you have a guide with Scott's knowledge and enthusiasm, a fieldtrip to a weed-filled property west of Cheyenne is exciting.
And then there was the time we participated in a guided tour of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area prior to its grand opening to the general public. This time our guide was Dr. Jason LaBelle, an archaelogist at CSU with a special interest in the Native Americans of our area. As with Scott Scoberboe, Dr. LaBelle's enthusiasm for his subject and depth of knowledge of the prairie that is now Soapstone made this field trip thrilling for me. Thanks to my husband's decades long, in-depth study of the Lindemeier Folsom archaelogical site, discovered in 1924 and located within Soapstone, and Bob's sharing much of his knowledge of this remarkable, 12,000 year old site with me, my enjoyment of LaBelle's presentation was magnified.
Our tour that day moved from the Lindenmeier site eastward to the location of remnants of cabins and old homesteads slowly deteriorating in the wind and harsh sunlight. I knew a little about the Bear brothers who homesteaded up there, short in stature, but stout men who adjusted their surroundings to fit their needs. Apparently, they baled hay in smaller bales than was normal and their neighbors joked about the little Bear boy bales of hay, difficult to stack but easier to use. We had limited access to the homestead sites for they were protected by fences, as they should be.

Marilyn and I have several mutual friends, all from Wellington, Colorado, who love to get together for lunch. At one time we even had our own Red Hat Society chapter. During those years we ventured out to Menopause the Musical, the Molly Brown House in Denver, the Cheyenne Botanical Gardens, and more. But that got to be "old hat", pardon my pun, so we put those red hats away and continue to meet for birthdays, music, and lunch, always fun to have lunch.

My lifelong friend Cathy Safiran introduced me to a new author, through his writings, of course, not in person. Months later she told me he was coming to Denver, to the Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of my favorites, and that I would have the opportunity to meet Luis Urrea in person, March 24, 2018! How exciting was that!
I first read "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and so enjoyed it, followed with "The Devil's Highway" and "Into the Beautiful North". By then I was hooked and wanted to read all that Luis had written and eager to meet him, for Cathy had told me that his booksignings were so much more than standard booksignings where the author sits at a table with a stack of books, looks up at the person standing in front of him long enough to ask how to sign the book, then looks back down while quickly signing his name. There is that process at the end of the evening but before that Luis Urrea takes his place on a podium in front of an adoring audience and entertains with stories and confessions punctuated with outbursts of exclamations only understood by the Spanish speaking members of the audience. By the time he wraps up his presentation we all feel close to this man, a part of his family, and he a part of ours. But I digress. This is about Marilyn, and yes, she went with me and so did two other of our book-loving friends, Carol and Leta. And when Luis came to Fort Collins in 2019 Marilyn joined me at his booksigning for "The House of Broken Angels".
Most recently we got to meet our neighbor and acclaimed author Margaret Mizuchima at the Northside Aztlan Center in Fort Collins. Margaret has written five great novels in her "Timber Creek K-9 Mystery" series and we were there for the signing of her latest "Tracking Game". I call Margaret our neighbor because she lives with her husband and dogs just west of Wellington. Anybody that close is a neighbor. I love that when Marilyn realized she was going to meet Margaret she bought her books and read them prior to the signing, making that event more meaningful to her, and supporting Margaret in her career.

Thank you, Marilyn, for these fun times, educational adventures, shared memories. I don't walk as far or as fast as I use to so that hike we were going to take along the trail at Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area might not happen. But I would love to visit your hometown, Lander, Wyoming, some day. The Wind River Reservation is a place I'd like to see, not only because you grew up near there but because another of my favorite authors, Margaret Coel, has written some great books that take place on the reservation. I wonder if Margaret ever has booksignings in Lander? Wouldn't that be a fun adventure? And the Colorado Native Plant Society has outings, field trips where small growths of rare native plants are protected and studied. And do you know about the Stone Age Fair sponsored by the Loveland Archealogical Society? much yet to see and do as we grow older and wider. No! wiser, I meant wiser.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Hallstadt, Germany Was a Long Way From Home

An Internet search today produced an unexpected result and like a time machine instantly transported me back to Hallstadt, Germany, New Year's Eve 1967.  I was married to an Army PFC, living on the economy (off base), renting an apartment from the Josef Horcher family. My husband and I had put the twins to bed, two little girls we were hoping to adopt, having gained custody of them just five months prior, when there was a knock at our door. Cautiously, we opened it to find our landlady's twenty-one-year-old son standing there, holding a bottle of liquor, smiling. We invited him inside with a sweep of an arm and the three of us sat down to our small kitchen table. Rainer was a handsome young man, a professional soccer player, and he was deaf. His mother had told me about Rainer, and it was he who drove us to the orphanage when we first met the twins, but other than that we didn't know him, couldn't talk with him because of our limited German language skills and his inability to hear. So, his appearance at our on New Year's Eve was a surprise.

From our kitchen table we looked out a large window high above the Horcher family's courtyard. Sitting there in low light so that the sky and stars were visible to us we shared Rainer's liquor in silence, nodding, smiling, clinking glasses together in a toast to the New Year. Apparently Rainer's mother, Doris, has told him our good news, that we had just found out that I was pregnant, for he reached toward me with his glass, extended it over my belly with a shy smile, then raised it again so we could once again touch glasses before drinking. Rainer didn't stay long, stood, shook our hands, smiled and walked out of our apartment and out of our lives. I never saw him again that I recall. But I never forgot him, the kindness he showed us, a lonely American couple far from home on New Year's Eve.

Tonight I googled Hallstadt near Bamberg plus Horcher, hoping to find a photograph of the Josef Horcher home at Mainstrasse 9, their street address. Instead my search found a death notice for Rainer. He died this past summer at age 73. I translated enough of the information to learn he worked for the town of Hallstadt for many years, was well respected by his employer, and mourned by two sons and two daughters. There was also a mention of his sister Renate whom I remember fondly.

And there is more to this story, like most stories. Rainer's mother, Doris, confided this to me over coffee and kuchen, that when Josef was gone off to war she, like many of her friends and neighbors, struggled to survive and feed her family. Near their home in Hallstadt was an American Army encampment, probably a supply camp of African American soldiers. (I came to that conclusion after some research years later). They had flour, sugar, and other provisions so badly needed by the mothers like Doris in war torn Bavaria. So she traded what she had for groceries and found herself pregnant. When her son was born she planned to place him in an orphanage but before that took place Doris was told that Rainer was born deaf. She didn't think that anyone would adopt a deaf, black child so she kept him, and when Josef returned home she told him the truth. Josef accepted Rainer as his own and did not blame Doris for her survival decision. When I read today that Rainer stayed in Hallstadt, worked for the town, married and raised a family, probably inherited Josef's home and business, and died there, my heart swelled with love for the Horcher family, every one of them. And I remembered how good they were to me and my family, encouraged me to call them Opa and Oma, tried to teach me their ways. God bless you, Rainer, and those four children you brought into this world. And thank you Josef and Doris for a beautiful lesson about life and love.