Across the USA (Pt. 4)

The drive to Dodge City was very hot.  We panted while sitting on the hot cloth seats.  We could barely sit back because the vinyl inserts got hot enough to raise welts.  As a consequence, we kids got a little out of hand.

It started with a classic ‘stop touching me’ and went bad from there.  Soon, we were surreptitiously pinching, hitting, poking, and needling each other.  The swamp cooler ran out of water and we couldn’t find any to refill it with so that air stayed hot and dry.  Our supply of drinking water, not the best anyway since it had been filled with pale yellow water from the faucet, ran out.

We finally pulled over at a gas station that had an attached store.  The owner should have worn a woolen overcoat with brass buttons, an eye patch, a bandanna over his head and carried a cutlass.  He was a pirate.  Sodas, which normally sold for around thirty cents had a price tag of seventy-five cents on the ice tub.  We bought only two.

While he kept a wary eye on everyone in the store, my brother and I went to the side of the store outside and discovered a water tap.  He went back to the bus and found all our canteens and, trying not to clink them together, brought them to me.  I eased the tap open and filled every one of them.  The water tasted cool and clean to me.

When Bluebeard mentioned that the next gas was almost seventy miles away my dad just scoffed.  The pirate’s last shot was ‘see you in a couple of hours’.  My dad just smiled.  We had almost a half-tank of gas.  That would get us all the way to Dodge City and then some.

Dodge City turned out to be a real bust for us kids.  We’d been watching western serials on television over in Germany and thought that with a name and history like Dodge City had they would still be packing six-shooters in the streets.  Not so.  People seemed normal, if a little irritable in the heat, and didn’t even say ‘shucks’ to us once.

There was an old portion of town, set aside for the tourists, that was supposed to be authentic.  It looked the part, but I got the impression if you went behind the false fronts you’d see nothing but timber shoring them up.  It wasn’t quite that bad, but it did seem that every building had some sort of entrance fee.  Just drop a dime into the bin and come see ‘authentic this’ and ‘old-timey that’.  For a half-dollar they’d lock you up in the ‘hoosegow’ for ten minutes.  Whee, what fun.

A couple of guys stepped into the street from two different saloons and drew on each other.  Amid some fairly good gun work, they shot each other on alternate hours and twice on Sunday.  It was a good show.  The stage rattled in twice a day with appropriate dust cloud and properly dressed schoolmarms and dudes stepped down looking like their shoes hurt.

We came away mostly unimpressed with Dodge City.

We took US 50 out of Dodge City and dropped southward to meet US 160.  Our eventual goal now was Durango, Colorado.  Night began to fall as we passed through sleepy, dusty towns until we found an arrow pointing to a lake.  We turned off and wandered over a bumpy road until we came to the lake.  It wasn’t much of a lake, but the tall cottonwood trees gave some shade.  It wasn’t deep either.  I could wade across it and not get my tummy wet.

The evening breeze picked up and kept the mosquitoes at bay.  And, if that wasn’t enough, the smoky fire we started would.  Dinner was good and, once the dishes were washed, we were allowed to go run around for a while.  My brother discovered the blackberry patch and didn’t tell anyone.  I asked him why his fingers were blue and he finally told me.  I grabbed a big pot and went back around the lake to fill it.

The berries were very ripe and were probably the largest blackberries I’d ever seen.  There appeared to be a whole hillside of brambles and I filled the pot and myself before coming back to the bus.  My mom saw them and wanted more so she sent me and my sister back with two more pots.  We filled those also.  She had plans for them in the morning.

Around midnight, a pickup truck with its lights off idled past us and went around the lake.  I could hear doors slamming and an occasional snatch of conversation.  Most people have no idea how well sound carries across water so when I began to hear girlish giggles and manly chuckles I had a pretty good idea what was talking place.  I was either asleep or they were really quiet when the left.

We entered Colorado the next morning.  The air seemed to get cooler as we gained altitude.  Around noon we got to Trinidad and pulled into Trinidad Lake State Park to eat.  It was so nice there we stayed several hours.  My brother and I found that canoe rentals were reasonable enough so we rented one for an hour and messed about the lake.  We’d flit from one part of the bank to another, ground the bow, and take off exploring.

I was amazed at the amount of just plain crap thrown aside into the weeds.  Tons of fishing gear wrappers, empty bait tubs, beer cans, and other items littered the small trails that ran everywhere.  In Germany, you would have a hard time finding anything lying around like that.  Not only are there laws, but there are a sort of park ranger there to back it up.  If nobody official kept you from littering, there was always pressure from just plain folks to keep your act clean.

Once, as we drifted slowly across the lake, my brother looked down and pointed with a shout that there was a huge fish following us.  I looked and sure enough there was a very large catfish just swimming and nudging the frayed end of a rope dragging behind us.  He’d come up, grab the rope in his mouth and then try to dive.  I thought it was my brother doing something behind me until I saw the fish.  I could have just barely covered the catfish’s head with a paper plate.

Towards the end of the hour, we paddled back and turned the canoe in.  By the time the two of us walked back to our picnic table, everyone was almost packed and ready to go.  We jumped into our assigned seats and left to begin the long climb up towards Wolf Creek Pass.

First we had to go north until we got to Walsenburg then west past colorfully named places like Muleshoe and Seven Mile Plaza.  By the time we got to South Fork we had started up the eastern grade to Wolf Creek Pass.  My dad found a pullout next to the road and we let the engine cool down a little before beginning the climb.  Being air-cooled, the Volkswagen runs efficiently and cools down very fast.

Refreshed with a drink from the very cold stream we got aboard the bus and started out.  Most of the time we remained in third gear until the grade got really steep.  Down to second gear at times, our top speed was just over twenty-five miles per hour.  Luckily, there were quite a few pullouts where a slow moving vehicle could let others pass while not having to stop.  We did a lot of pulling over.

The final grade had us in first gear.  Whining up the slope at a stately ten miles per hour we had all the time we needed to look out at all the patches of snow under the trees and the huge piles of it where the snowplows had dumped it at the side of the road.  In one small stretch we couldn’t see anything but a ten foot tall wall of dirty snow.

We ground into the parking area at the summit – right at ten thousand eight hundred and fifty seven feet.  It was the highest I’d been in over four years except for the one time we went skiing down near München.  We all stood in front of the rustic sign naming the pass and showing its altitude and had our picture taken by a guy from a passing family.

My dad asked me if I wanted to drive back down the west side.  I said I’d be happy to.  We loaded back up and down the hill we went.  He cautioned me to never get above third gear until we got down into the flats.  He explained that I could get too fast and the brakes would heat up enough to lock so use the engine as a brake.  Good advice.

I wound around sweeping curves, taking quite a bit of time between light brake applications.  Cars would whiz past us whenever they could pass us.  The downside didn’t have tow lanes so they had to wait until they could pass us in the single lane road.  One guy in particular was very obnoxious when he passed me but signaled that he though I was number one in his book.

I smiled greatly when we came up on him at the side of the road – two huge black streaks leading to the smoking rear end of his car.  He’d hit his brakes too many times or too hard and they locked on him.  Happily, it was his two back brakes and not a steering brake.  I tapped the horn as we passed and waved.  He signaled to me again with both hands.

We reached our interim stop, Bayfield, in the early evening.  This was to be a short stop to visit some sort of relative on my dad’s side; an uncle, I believe.  He was a big, rough hewn kind of guy that rarely smiled.  He lived on a farm with lots of outbuildings we could explore while the grown-ups chatted.  My brother and I peeked into a big barn first.

There were two horses in stalls at one end, and a huge pile of left-over horse at the other.  Both smelled a lot so we slipped out the back and ended up in a chicken yard.  Now, I’ve never been afraid of a chicken, but when this one little black dude with half his feathers missing charged us cackling and squawking, we beat a hasty retreat.

Two smaller buildings proved to be just storehouses for ‘stuff’, mostly canned food.  Then, one shed way out in a field showed some promise.  Through the open door we could see a couple of old cars.  I’ve always been a fan of old cars and, as we got closer, I could see one of them was a 1937 Chevy Coupe.  It appeared to be in pretty good shape, but it was up on blocks and had no wheels or tires on it.

Right next to it was an old Willy’s Jeep.  It was the convertible model called a Jeepster and I thought it was from 1949 or 1950.  I opened the door and sat down in the driver seat.  It was set pretty low because of my uncle’s height so I couldn’t see very well over the dash.  It was originally an old maroon color, but it had two blue fenders on the left and a gray rear quarter panel.  Obviously, he’d been fixing it up.

We threw a few rocks into his pond trying to hit the ducks floating around but didn’t come close.  They just quacked at us and swam out of range.  A faint voice called to us from the house so we had to cut our explorations short and get back for some dinner.

Dinner was good.  Heavy farm food like corn on the cob, thick slices of roast beef, mashed potatoes and stiff brown gravy and the like was on the table.  For dessert, we had a huge slice of cherry pie.

Rather then try driving the miles to Durango, my dad elected to just camp out in one of their pastures for the night and drive in the next day to my grandparent’s farm in Breen.  We unloaded just the bare minimum for comfort and cover and slept under the stars.

Next morning, we kids were assigned duties.  I drew egg gathering and asked if there was some secret method of dodging that nasty little rooster.  My aunt told me that when I opened the first gate he’d charge me and to dodge to the side and trap him by swinging the gate through the opening and he’d be caught in that little triangular area behind the gate.  Sounded like a plan to me.

I was prepared for his charge, but it didn’t come.  I eased past the gate carefully looking in all directions and still no feathered missle.  I crept towards the henhouse and cracked the door.  It squeaked just a tiny bit.  That did it – he woke with fire in his eye and began pecking at my feet and ankles.

I swatted at him but he deftly dodged every swing of my basket.  His gabbling woke every hen in the house and they began to add to the din.  It was insanely noisy with all the cackling so I tried to make the best of it and reached for the first nest of eggs.  The owner took exception to me grabbing them and pecked at me the whole time.

I finally got those three eggs in the basket and moved onward through the rest of the nests.  I had at least four pockmarks on my arms from attacking hens and two of them were bleeding.  Those damn chickens have a really sharp beak.  I counted around eighteen or so eggs and decided to beat a hasty retreat.

This time the head rooster followed me beating at my heels with his wings.  I smiled when I managed to hit him with the gate as I opened it.  A small victory, but I felt better.

Breakfast was also farm fare.  At least three frying pans on the wood-fired stove were cooking things like omelets, bacon and leftover mashed potatoes.  The bacon was not the paper-thin stuff you see in supermarkets but nice thick slices manually taken from a huge side of smoked pig.  All of it was delicious.

After packing up and saying our goodbyes we headed out for the few miles to my dad’s father’s farm.  We were held up in Durango while the Silverton Steam train rattled across the road.  All of us asked if we could take the train while we were here.  Dad said ‘maybe’, which is a pretty sure thing sometimes.

We arrived at the farm in early morning and settled down into visit mode.

T.O.M.

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