March 13, 2013

Little Puffs of Dirt


It was a dry summer in 1978 in Routt County, Colorado. It frequently is in the high mountains of Colorado, renowned for its fierce wildfires. That however, was never an issue for a child of eight years, me most specifically. I had the most glorious childhood growing up, free to play out of doors, free to roam the beautiful country side, explore the river valley of the Yampa in Steamboat. For a child such as myself, that is a very odd kid with an imagination that rivaled Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, I was in heaven.

Much of my early childhood was spent playing alone, but I spent an equal amount of time playing with my cousin chester, who was a year younger than I. We grew up in those formative years as best "buds" and indeed the family referred to us as buds. Chester's family owed a large piece of land just on the edge of town, wedged between town and the local cemetery. Of course having the dead's tombs serve as a playground was an absolute delight, and we spent most of our days wandering around the dry sage and dead playing war, hide-n-seek, building forts, riding dirt bikes. The other most wonderful advantage of their property was that it was the original city dump from the turn of century, and there were no end to the artifacts we would find from old tires, to cinder blocks that we would convert to make shift houses. Playtime in the late 70's in Steamboat was liberating.

My mother comes from a large family, she's the eldest of eight children. Her family was raised near Steamboat in the Elk River Valley near a town called Clark in a district of Hahn's Peak, an old gold mining community. Her father was a cowboy, who worked on several ranches in the valley, but most notably for a rancher called Murphy who ran a large operation with cattle and winter wheat. The property still exits, but now its history is largely forgotten and it serves as a dude ranch for tourists. Her brothers followed their father's footsteps and largely became ranchers or cowboys themselves. Her father bought a small run down hotel in the town after retiring from ranching where he and his wife, my grandmother, ran the hotel. It was this hotel that my father took over in 1976 that brought us to Steamboat.

One of my mother's brothers, Doug, was off and on in Steamboat. He was something of a rounder, loving beer, not able to hold a steady job, but a hard worker all the same. He was for most of us kids a favorite uncle because he was always funny, always joking, and always drunk. My mother's father, Norm, keep a close eye on Doug for all his life, and the summer of 1978 was no different. As an eight year old I had no idea that Doug's life was in shambles, instead he was always something of a hero, wearing his tall cowboy hat, jeans, and boots with great western flair. Doug had fought in the Vietnam war, and by 1978 was only still recovering from the conflict. As a kid I only knew he was a war hero and a lot of fun.

One day in the summer of 1978 Doug rumbled up to my cousins' place on the edge of town driving my grandfather's old Dodge 1960's something pickup truck. We always loved to ride int the back of this truck because all sorts of interesting things were usually floating around, horse bridles, tools of all kinds, brooms, hay, salt licks, even the occasional gun. This summer day Doug and Granddad sauntered out of the truck and found us kids playing on one of the many abandoned old racing cars littering the property (Chester's father was a retired stock car racer from the 60's).

Doug always had a bit of a 5 o'clock shadow and Granddad always wore a neatly trimmed mustache that framed his lips. Doug's hat was a stained felt hat, tan in color, folded carefully in the brim, shadowing his blurry eyes. Granddad's hat was a proud tall grey hat cowboy hat that was well worn but in perfect shape.

As Doug and his father approached us we dropped what we were doing and ran up to them both. Doug, beer in hand and a toothpick dangling from his mouth, grinned lopsidedly and looked down at Chester and I, "What are you boys up to?"

Looking at each other with the answer already planned without speaking to one another exclaimed with one voice, "Nothing!" For we knew that it was likely Doug and Norm were headed to do one of three things, go to the new city dump (a treasure trove), go horse back riding, or go the VFW. We were hoping for one of the first two.

Doug squinted at us, "Where's Phyllis?" Phyllis was his sister, Chester's mother.

Chester exclaimed, "Working!" She worked at the grocery store and at the elementary school.

He looked at me, "Thomas, what are you up to?"

I was more shy than Chester, "Um, just playing with the cars." Doug's eyes shot over me and scanned the broken cars scattered around the property.

Granddad never spoke, he stood with one thumb hooked in his belt and the other hand holding a beer, Coors. His toothpick barely moved, unlike Doug's which nervously shifted from side to side of his mouth.

Doug smiled suddenly, "You boys are lucky, Norm here and I were just headed out to hunt rabbit, you boys want to go?" Before he even finished the invite we had already ran to the back of the truck and had climbed in.

The old truck rumbled loudly, and we sat unbothered by the wind in the back as the last vestiges of town slipped past as we drove out west, further into wild country, closer to a small town called Hayden between Craig, Colorado and Steamboat. Chester and I were unaffected by the lack of restraints, excited both of us to ride in the old truck, a long .22 caliber rifle lying at feet in the truck bed. An old broom stuck out of the side of the truck like a flag pole with an old red checkered handkerchief fluttering fadedly in the wind. We drove this way for nearly 20 miles, then Doug turned the old truck off the highway and we followed the side roads another few miles, then he turned again and to our delight the pavement gave way to gravel roads. The yellow dust and rocks kicked up by the bald tires were amazing, and with the road, wind we could nothing except the sound of stones tinning against the side of the old red truck.

Finally Doug pulled the truck up again a barbed wire fence gate. As the dust settled down around us we found ourselves in the dry sage brush ringed area of colorado that was dry and brown as an old paper bag. The landscape was a series of rolling hills dotted with sage brush and a few juniper. The mountains sat just to the east of us, though we were surrounded by foothills. It was late summer and there was no water, and the blue sky was only interrupted by a few wispy clouds and the occasional red tailed hawk.

Leapt from the truck to the dry ground, the stones crunching beneath our sneakers. Chester always wore a baseball cap and was in jeans and a hand me down teeshirt. Perfect summer attire in 1978. Now a point must be mentioned in this story - Chester had a lazy eye. He had surgery and wore corrective glasses, but one of his eyes threw his vision off and as a result he didn't see very well. This didn't matter to us though, we never even thought about it, well I should amend, I never thought about it, I'm sure Chester did.

Doug reached into the truck after we had clambered out and pulled out the .22. "You boys have fired a rifle before right?" We both had, though we had never done so without our parents around so this was a treat. Doug with his other hand took a long drink from his Coors. "Good, because today we're going to get us some rabbits!" He sauntered over to the barbed wire fence, "Let's down up the hills a bit. There are bound to be jack rabbits in the ravine just over yonder." He pulled the middle wire up with his beer bottle and stepped with his cowboy boot on the bottom wire to make a crawl space. Chester and I easily slipped through, Granddad did too after a bit of snagging on his shirt. Doug easily slipped through. Granddad carried only a bottle in one had, and six pack of beer in the other.

We didn't wander too far before Doug and Granddad were ready to stop trudging through the under brush. Doug looked at Chester, "Chester you're the youngest so I want you to practice with the rifle." He set his beer down in brush and handed the rifle to Chester. He glanced at me. "Thomas see that ravine just up the hill?" I nodded, "Good, I want you to run over to it, climb down into it and see if you can't flush out them rabbits." I was off well, like a jack rabbit running toward the ravine. Behind me I could hear Doug instructing Chester on the rifle's basic operation. I was a bit miffed I wasn't firing first but I knew my chance would come.

As I wandering down the ravine to it's lowest point I could hear over the rim Doug's voice calling me, "Thomas - those rabbits like to hide under the brush in the shadows, look for dark spots!" I searched the ravine and noticed several places a rabbit could hide. In mind I wondered too if other things were hiding. We had found the occasional rattle snake in the past and this worried me as I wandered down to the ravine's bottom. The sun was above me and the ravine created a nice shaded place that was a break from the dry Colorado heat. I paused for a moment and then heard the distinctive crack of the rifle as Chester took a few practice rounds. Oh if only they had let me go first!

As I wandered further into the base of the ravine I heard rustling sounds. My heart was pounding, between the rifle exploding somewhere behind me and the dark ravine hiding only moses knows what I was nervous and a little scared. I walked carefully towards the rustling noise only a few yard before me, and then suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, a rabbit raced out in front of me!

"Uncle Doug, Uncle Doug, a rabbit!" I screamed as I ran towards the poor terrified creature. It darted down the ravine, but i could see the ravine closed together in a narrow point and that the rabbit would have to race up a side and closer to the rifle's sights. The rabbit did just that, and towards a steep side, it ran up, running away from Doug, granddad and Chester behind us. I scrambled up the dusty ravine side following the rabbit, we both struggled for footing as we ran. As I neared the top my head clear the edge of the opposite of the ravine behind me. I heard again the sharp crack of the rifle and suddenly in front of my eyes appeared a little puff of dust. Again the crack, and again puff, dirt floated into the air just before my face. I looked over my shoulder, still clinging to the side of the ravine trying to lift my body up over its far edge. Puff, puff, puff, crack crack crack. It dawned on me, Chester thought my head was a rabbit!

I screamed, "Doug I'm not a rabbit, I'm not a rabbit!" I fell back into the ravine, and the crack of the rifle continued, from my new vantage I could see little dirt clouds floating away. In the summer air I heard Doug's laughter. I was upset and scared and stumbled back into the ravine away from the rifle shots. When I came up the ravine this time walking towards the guys Doug was roaring with laughter and granddad was grinning ear to ear. Chester held the rifle to his shoulder and was scanning the opposite side of the ravine for his prey.

"Doug, Chester was shooting at me!" Doug slapped his knee, laughed, drank from his beer, and said, "Good thing he's blind in one eye then isn't it?" He roared with laughter thinking the whole thing hysterical.

We did end up getting a rabbit, I remember as Doug skinned it thinking it was so pretty, so horrible that it was now dead. I took no pleasure in its expiration. I have never hunted again. At one point the local sheriff's deputy had come by to see what we were up to. He reminded Doug we were on private property, but he recognized my grandfather from town so let us off with a warning and that was the end of our excursion.

Now though every time I see little wispy clouds I think of my cousin, my Uncle Doug and rabbits and am thankful for at least in the summer of 1978 that the kid was blind in one eye. Oh and Bugs Bunny was a saint to put up with Elmer Fudd, hunting rabbits indeed.

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