The Taos Trail

As of today, June 27, Colorado is home to eight wildfires. The closest to Westcliffe is the Waldo Canon Fire west of Colorado Springs. 32,000 homes have been evacuated. Over 15,000 acres are ablaze or have burned. The wind fans the flames.

On a clear day you can see forever

I write from Centennial Ranch, a sub-division of 37-acre parcels south of Westcliffe and east of Hwy 69. Our five parcels follow Promontory Ridge just north of the Huerfano County line. The photo above (taken in forest fire haze) gives you a notion of the grand expanse. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the chalk cliffs north of Salida.

It is dry. The grass crackles under foot, and the sun bores through my skin. I wonder about spontaneous combustion. It was 109 in Pueblo yesterday. How hot does it have to get before I burst into flame? We have no trees on our Centennial property, but grass fires are not unheard of. I wonder if I could outrun a grass fire.

Looking at the landscape… where would I run? The cattle tank is dry. The pond is dry. On one corner of our property, we have the remains of a dugout. I wonder about it. Who lived there? A lone homesteader? Or… heaven forbid, a family. I can’t imagine the isolation and the do-or-die dependence on the growing season. The closest most of us have come to drought is on the nightly news, and yet drought has always been with us.

Sitting here on the ridge, it is easy to imagine a season without water – the silence broken only by the howling wind, the thirst-crazed cow and the newborn baby’s wail. Had I lived in the dugout, I would have cried. But I imagine that if a woman did live here, she was beyond tears. Imagine being beyond tears.

Rain clouds gather, Oh Yes!
But lightning strikes come with rain.

On my return home, I stopped at the library to pick up The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. I was in the mood to read about those who had survived the Dust Bowl years. But as usual, I was waylaid by an interesting book on the same shelf.

Publishing is such an iffy business. Why do some books jump off the shelf and others collect dust? A perfect example of an “interesting book” is Wah-to-ya and the Taos Trail by Lewis H. Garrard. Outside historical buff circles, Garrard is unknown. In contrast, Francis Parkman, author of the American classic The Oregon Trail is known by almost every reader.

On the surface, it is difficult to distinguish why Garrard and his book fell into a black hole and Parkman became a household name. Both recorded their travels through the untamed  West during 1846-47. Garrard, at only 17 years of age, left Independence, Missouri, for the Santa Fe Trail. He took the Taos cut-off, a branch of the Santa Fe Trail that followed the Arkansas River through to Bent’s Fort and on to Taos.

Parkman, who was older by five years or so, travelled the Oregon Trail,  a more northern route west through Fort Laramie and on to the west coast.

Both men were curious and observant in detailing the landscape, the customs of the time, their companions and their dealings with the Native Americans – in Parkman’s case, the Sioux; in Garrard’s, the Cheyenne.

Francis Parkman’s book is an American classic; meanwhile, only die-hard Western history buffs have heard of Lewis H. Garrard.  If it weren’t for the University of Oklahoma Press issuing a new edition in 1955 and our local West Custer County Library buying the book, I would have never had the pleasure of reading it.

I know the Taos cut-off well. As for Cimarron (a midway point between Raton Pass and Taos) I know that locale very well. My parents lived in Cimarron for some years and reading the familiar names of Kit Carson, St. Vrain, Carlos Beaubien, Charles Bent and Lucien Maxwell, I felt a homecoming coming on.

In the introduction to Garrard’s memoir,  A.B. Guthrie (recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished Fiction) speculates why Garrard slipped into obscurity while Parkman’s status was elevated. In Guthrie’s opinion. Parkman went on to publish a number of other books, each capitalizing on the previous book. Parkman had a body-of-work; whereas, Garrard published only one book. (Apparently the kiss-of-death. According to my sources, when you submit your first manuscript, the first question asked by the publisher is, “And where are you in terms of your next book?”)

That said, Guthrie deemed Garrard’s book superior as being “fresher, more revealing, the more engaging, the less labored.” Guthrie faulted Parkman for bringing “the attitudes of mind associated with Boston.”

Guthrie’s comments reminded me of how many of us bring our cultural biases to the table.

Quoting from one of my favorite paragraphs, I give as an example, the cultural biases of Garrard: “Though smoking is repugnant to many ladies, it certainly does enhance the charms of the Mexican senoritas, who, with neatly rolled-up shucks between coral lips, perpetuate winning smiles, their magically brilliant eyes the meanwhile searching one’s very soul. How dulcet-toned are their voices, which siren-like, irresistibly draw the willing victim within the giddy vortex of dissipation!”

Don’t you just love that! The giddy vortex of dissipation. Priceless! Two things. First, how many 17-year-olds can write that well as Garrard at 17, and second, given his tender years, Garrard’s thoughts might have been influenced by his youth as well as his cultural bias.

In the same chapter, Garrard attended a jury which resolved to hang six men following the Mexican-American War. Five men were convicted of murder; one man of treason. Garrard showed great maturity in writing, “It certainly did appear to be a great assumption on the part of the Americans to conquer a country and then arraign the revolting inhabitants for treason. […] Treason, indeed! What did the poor devil know about his new allegiance?”

The Garrard book is wonderful. Yes, it is only one book – his only book. I guess we should be grateful that when Garrard was publishing, publishers did not expect him to have a second book in-the-works.

A hard rain’s gonna fall. Maybe. Sometime.

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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One Response to The Taos Trail

  1. I wish you rain, Doris, lots of rain. Helga

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