Dear Tom and North Fork Valley Folks,
When I arrived at the serious depths of my fifties, time, which had begun to noticeably accelerate in my forties, really began to speed up, which can be both a bad and a good thing. On the negative side, a couple of years or a decade can zip right by while you’re wondering what to do next, just idling in neutral at the crossroads. It becomes easier to waste whole days, weeks and months–maybe the rest of your life, in routines until you eventually you find yourself in the old folks’ home with a tube up your nose while you wonder why you didn‘t have more fun during the last thirty years.
On the other hand, patience, which was a hard-to-come-by virtue in my earlier years now comes easily. For example winter seems to go by much more quickly now that I’m fifty-six. It seems like I’ve barely reestablished my winter habits, centered around firewood and multiple layers of warm clothing and felt-lined boots, when the snow suddenly begins melting off of the north side of the machine shed’s roof.
The long icicles are collapsing from the house and shed eaves, and the Singing Angel Ranch roads are getting muddy in the middle of the day. The snow is still deep up the mountain among the aspens and pine but it now has that heavy, late winter crust to it. Winter has gone by without my noticing.
In early March a sort of striptease weather pattern emerges around here as the storms move in and rebury everything at the ranch for a week at a time before the coming spring regains its momentum In the meantime, a few thousand feet lower in the town of Anthracite, the same weather event is half rain and snow, and the latter has melted from the sunny sides of street and alleys by noon. People are walking around without jackets and digging up their gardens on sunny weekends. Guys at the community coffee table at the Chicken Abortionist Cafe begin to casually mention that they have picked some early spinach, lettuce and green onions.
“I’m not much for salads usually,” Pastor Mike Storm says, “but eating a bowl of green stuff that didn’t come from the grocery store by way of Mexico or someplace is kinda nice.”
“The rhubarb is starting to come up,” young Lester Ford, who has just come in from feeding cattle with me tagging along, reports and this sets off a round of signs-of-early-spring news from the gathered farmers, orchardists, ranchers and retired, in-town gardeners. The talk goes from salad greens to inventories of what’s left in various root cellars around the Rio Poco Valley. Phaedra Elkspirit says that she has plans to cook one of the last of her stored butternut squashes in her solar oven that day. The relative firmness of carrots buried in damp-sand-filled boxes and stored potatoes in need of a final sprouting are mentioned.
Suddenly the time for the birthing of livestock has come and gone. Calving season is pretty much wrapped up for most ranches including ours. Almost everyone tries to time the calving earlier than they used to. Earlier calves equal a bigger calf to sell in the fall or in the spring as a yearling. The weather is a little rough on the youngsters but the winters here are nothing like they used to be, or so the oldtimers tell me.
During calving season I stay in a camper trailer parked at the pastures we lease for the winter. There is a good enclosed shed on the property and I set up some heaters in there and Lester, who does most of the winter feeding, came by the help when he could but he was dealing with his own calving at home. During previous years my ex-girlfriend Melanie would come out to help but this year I was on my own except for Lester, the local vet, and a couple neighbor ranchers who would come over if there was an emergency and they didn’t have their own. I have to finally admit that cell phones can come in handy in ranching.
As I’ve mentioned before, this year Melanie decided to move on, from a middle-aged ranchhand to a middle-aged Crested Butte realtor whose job doesn’t involve clearing the afterbirth from newly born calves in the middle of a early February night. The romance of the cowboy life will get you only so far with women these days.
After fifteen years of managing the Grubstop Market and hanging out with me in her spare time, Melanie has gone back to being a lawyer full time. I guess I give her credit for changing gears in her own fifties, but I’m not sure she’s any happier than before; she doesn‘t look it. I think it was the first Henry Ford that pointed out that change isn’t necessarily the same thing as progress.
Melanie and I are now doing that awkward small town thing where exes can’t help but run into one another pretty often; at the post office, grocery store, Town and County building, Kelty’s Texaco, the Chicken Abortionist or just walking down the street.
“Nice to see some sunshine”
“Looks like rain.”
“I hear a storm is coming in.”
We are down to exchanging all of those polite little snippets in passing that we say to everyone except one: “how are you?” That question is off limits along with anything but the briefest eye contact. I’ve tried shuffling my usual routines around but that hasn’t seemed to lessen the chance meetings very much, maybe because she might be doing the same thing. In a small town with one grocery store, one hardware store, one real restaurant, two gas stations and one bar it becomes a card shuffle involving only one suit.
On the other hand, if you want news about your ex-girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband in a place as small as Anthracite it’s not hard to come by, but you have to sort fact from fiction. And the information is usually of the negative sort that is probably meant to be comforting.
“I saw Melanie in the Butte on Sunday. In the lift line on the mountain. She was having an argument with that guy. It sounded kind of nasty and she slapped him once. A pretty good one.”
“I hear that that Melanie’s realtor guy had some trouble with the law a few years back. Something about beating the hell out of his ex-wife. But take that with a grain of salt cause that comes from a sheriff’s deputy over there that dates her now.”
“I saw that guy Melanie’s hanging out with at the mall in Grand Junction with some other woman–walking around holding hands. Guess people do that a lot now with the Internet and everything. Shop around. None of my business.”
From my personal observations over the years, around Anthracite divorces usually, but not always, result in one or both of parties leaving town while more casual breakups don’t seem to require that level of separation. Divorces involving children are generally the touchiest due to joint custody arrangements that sometime require the assistance of the local police on stand-by mode. West Elk County Deputy Sheriff Tomyris Justice calls these situations “hostage exchanges.”
“Mix in firearms and alcohol and it can get pretty tense,’ Tomyris told me one afternoon when she stopped by the ranch on her daily patrol of that part of the county. She and I have been visiting more often lately. “After reading one too many ‘man shoots estranged wife and then self’ stories in the papers the women lots of times don’t trust the men and get concealed/carry permits. And of course the men usually really resent the financial arrangements and if they were the one that got left and ex-wife has a boyfriend and seems happy… well, sparks can fly.”
Tomyris rode up to the main house with me and helped chip and shovel some of the snow and ice off of the patio area so that the sun could melt things off faster. The snow piles up there from sliding off of the metal roof in the winter and since the patio drainage wasn’t designed right the adjoining kitchen area can get flooded if things aren’t cleared away.
“Nice view from up here,” Tomyris said, taking off her gloves. She is a tall muscular blonde in her late thirties who is Anthracite mayor Zima Hydryk’s cousin or something: I haven‘t quite gotten that clear and she doesn‘t talk about her childhood at all. They both grew up in the valley and look a lot alike, close enough to be mistaken as sisters, and even wear their hair the same way, long in a single braid down their backs.
The owners’ house at the Singing Angel is two and a half stories, built in the lower edge of the aspen groves with all sorts of different levels in the house and little rock-walled outside terraces built into hillside. (Editor’s clarification; The Singing Angel owners Lacey and Steve Naver spend the winters in Chicago and will return sometime in May or June. Mr. Washburn, the ranch “manager” resides in the “old” house at the bottom of the mountain valley.)
Tomyris and I talked about the gardens I would be putting in at the big house and on the south side of my place. She said she wasn’t much into gardening but liked to eat fresh stuff. I promised to bring her some early peas and things when they were ready.
“Or you could invite me up to dinner,” she said, knocking a big chunk of dirty ice loose with a steel pry bar.
“That too,” I said.
A few days later when I was down in town I stopped by Tomyris’ rented doublewide while she was out on patrol and cleared all the old weeds out of her back yard, spaded up a small square in a sunny spot and planted some peas and mixed salad greens. I stapled the seed packets to pieces of lathe so she could figure out what I had been up to.
I saw Melanie at the post office a few days later and she looked kind of dazed or something. I walked right past her and said ‘good morning’ but she didn’t even look up. Then I saw the bruise on the side of her face and wanted to stop and ask her about it but I didn’t since that would have been against the rules.
I mentioned it to Tomyris when she and I had lunch at the Chicken Abortionist.
“Not much we can do unless she files a complaint. Peoples’ private lives are private,” she said. “I said something to her the other day and she told me to mind my own business–in her lawyer voice.” She took a big bite of her bison-burger patty melt and chewed slowly. One of the things I really like about her is that she doesn’t eat like a girl–whatever that means.
“Okay,” I said even though it wasn’t.
On the way back to the ranch I spotted a coyote trotting along the edge of a field, staying close to the cover of the uncleared sagebrush. Wrong place at the wrong time since there were new lambs one field over and a coyote is a coyote. I got the scoped rifle out from behind the seat, and using the hood of the truck to steady my arm, dropped him. There were plenty more coyotes out there looking for an easy meal but you do what you can do.
I was hand watering the little garden at Tomyris’ place when she drove up in her white Sheriff‘s Chevy Blazer.
“Look,” I said, kneeling and pointing to a few tiny green leaves. “Things are germinating.”
“Nice,” she said and touched my shoulder.
“I hear that that guy Melanie’s been going with got into a fight or something outside a bar in Gunnison,” she said. “Busted him up pretty good. Guess he’s been in the hospital in Grand Junction for over a week now.”
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“No, it isn’t,” she said.
I showed her which green bits were lettuce and which were weeds.
“Hard to tell them apart when everything is just coming up,” Tomyris said.
“Yeah, I usually just wait until the second leaves come on,” I said. “Patience is the thing.”
Your friend, Lazarus
Lazarus Albert Washburn Jr. is the fictional manager of the fictional Singing Angel Ranch in the fictional West Elk County located roughly halfway between Paonia and Crested Butte where people are making things up as they go along. His Anthracite stories (as edited by the semi-fictional Thomas Wills) have been appearing in local and regional publications since 1994.