“Turkeys” aka tourists

Central City is what my father called a tourist town. The height of tourist season was in the summer, and many stores completely closed up during the winter. Somewhere along the way, our family started referring to a tourist as a turkey. I don’t remember why it started exactly. I had always assumed that it was a fairly commonplace term and that all of the local townspeople used it. Certainly all of our family and friends did.

Beginning in the spring, people would come to Central and, while visiting, ask the shop owners where they could drive for sightseeing. Oftentimes proprietors would send them up the hill to the right of free parking and then into the ghost town of Nevadaville, past the Buck House, then across King’s Flat, down the hill and around the switchback at the ranch, past the Boodle Mine and down Gregory Street back into the heart of the city.

All summer long, vehicle after vehicle would drive by the Buck House. Sometimes a station wagon with a family and their dog, other times five or six 4x4s in a row, part of a club up from Denver. Not that anyone blamed them for coming. We lived in the midst of one of the most beautiful places on earth. Mountains, meadows, wildlife and wild flowers attracted everyone. Then in the fall, at the height of Colorado’s leaf season, someone from town would inevitably drive the loop stopping every once in awhile to hammer a home made sign into the dirt. These would safely lead the tourists along this road back into town.

With three dogs a part of our family, we knew each and every time someone drove by, even if we didn’t hear their engines directly. Sometimes the strangers would even come down our driveway looking for directions further up Bald Mountain or back to town if they missed the signs. These were the turkeys. 

Later, as we built our log house even further out in the woods, we found that the casual drivers in the station wagons gave way to mostly 4x4s and motorcycles. By and large I’m sure that most people are respectful of nature, but with that many people driving out into the woods to test the abilities of their vehicles and their own driving skills, there were plenty of bad apples. Sometimes they would decide to go completely off road through meadows or up hills tearing up the countryside and the destroying the pristine beauty. Particularly in the spring, when the snow runoff was highest, folks would race across bogs trying to make it to the other side. When they didn’t, their buddies would get their tug-ropes out, attach them to the bumper and pull them back out making even more of a mess. These were the turkeys. 

Especially during the summer weekends, campers would come up from Denver. Our property, like that of our neighbors, was a former mining claim. A piece of land granted to someone else years ago because silver or gold was found there. A five-acre strip of land otherwise surrounded by the Arapaho National Forest. The forestry department did not require a pass or otherwise restrict campers at all here in the middle of the woods. Too frequently, Mother Nature’s guests would leave their trash at their makeshift campsites by Pisgah Lake. Beer cans and diapers would be left behind to be carted off by wildlife or picked up by nearby families like ours. These were the turkeys. 

Many weekend visitors didn’t even realize that private property criss-crossed the mountainsides. That while they were driving on the actual road that it was perfectly fine, but depending on where they left the road they might be on private property – whether marked or not. Our log home was built down the hill from where public access crossed our property. Because we built our log home stockade style, it was mostly invisible to most passersby during the summer. Before we finished all of the matching log outhouse walls, you could could sit there, on the throne, tissue in hand waving at the tourists and not one would even know. These were the turkeys. 

My brother is nine years younger than I am. He learned to talk during our adventures in the middle of the woods. So naturally, he learned what a turkey was based on our family’s use of the word. We lamented the sounds of the turkeys coming around the curve on their motorcycles. We complained when we had to pick up trash the turkeys left. Dad bitched like hell every time we passed one of the pretty meadows now turned bog by the turkeys.

Sometimes the turkeys would stop in the middle of our property and start to unload for the long weekend. Tents, coolers, kids, and dogs would try to move in, not realizing that they were camping 1500 feet from our house. Before they completely unpacked, Dad would get his 12-gauge shotgun, open it and put two red shells side by side into it. Then, leaving it open, he would walk up the hill and approach the folks very friendly, but seriously and ask if they knew that they were on private property. Occasionally he would have them look not far from where they were unpacking to find the stone marker that proved it.

There was also the time that turkeys stopped at a meadow the other direction from our house where we used to play softball. We knew when they started shooting guns at our No Shooting sign, not because of the gunshots, but because we heard the bullets whizzing into the trees above our house. Dad loaded the shotgun, then loaded the Doberman into the Jeep. He mumbled something about the mother of these turkeys before he sped up the driveway. Mom made us stay inside the house away from the windows where we heard more gunshots and then one final loud one. It turns out that dad had to fire his 12-gauge into the air to get their attention and stop them from shooting. They were understandably mortified to know why Dad was standing there with a shotgun and why he was more than a little upset at them shooting toward our house.

As more and more colorful leaves joined their brothers and sisters on the ground, fewer and fewer tourists came by. Snow fell and stayed longer. Labor Day marked the last day of the season, then Halloween came and went. By the end of October snow is a permanent part of the landscape until spring. As Thanksgiving approached mom and dad began to talk about what we were going to have for our Thanksgiving dinner.  Mom told my sister, my little brother and I that there would be pumpkin pie of course at the end, but we would have ham, green bean casserole, yams and mashed potatoes with stuffing from the turkey.

Little Charlie started crying hysterically, loudly and rather inconsolably. “Why are we going to eat turkey”, he said between sobs. “I didn’t think we would eat them!”

It took us a very long while to calm him down and to explain that we would not be eating people this Thanksgiving.

The Jeep (Pt 2)

This is not our Jeep. It is very close to it though. I took this photo in June 2016 while on family vacation in Washington state. It was parked on the side of the road. Likely unused until winter.

Ours was nearly like this, but there were some custom modifications that made it even more of a beast.

  • Nearly this color, but darker and two-tone with a creme made it look more like a panel wagon.
  • The rear windows on ours went all the way to the back, with the furthest back being sliders.
  • We had an extra fuel tank behind the passenger seat, so there was another gas fill-hole and cap on the same side, but closer to the front.
  • We also had five gallon Jerry cans hanging on both sides just in front of the doors.
  • Our Jeep had heavy steel bumpers on the front and back.
  • We also had a PTO winch (this one didn’t, I looked).

My family bundled up and drove home in the Jeep during winter as far as we could. Sometimes we would park it either at a friends house either in town or at a place we called the ranch and take our snowmobiles from there.

Many, many times my father would be driving our family along home and find another 4×4 stuck in the snow. Sometimes they were even stuck exactly where we needed to drive through to get home.

Dad would hop out of the Jeep and introduce himself by walking through the snow toward them and assessing the situation.

If this poor soul was stuck because he and his friends forgot the golden rule of what a 4 wheel drive is for; or if he was stuck so bad that his 4×4 club buddies had already tried and failed to pull him out; or especially if he wasn’t polite…

Dad would charge the driver $50 to $75 to hook up our winch and slowly pull him back out of where he shouldn’t have been.

If this was a man out with his family for a weekend of sightseeing in their 4×4 and just happened to go a little too far because he never learned the golden rule.

Dad would pull them out for free, then direct the driver and his family to a better location and probably share the golden rule again.

Sometimes we would pull folks out of snow banks, other times it was the annual spring bogs and more than once we pulled people out of Pisgah Lake.

The most memorable time was when my father got to pull out the realtor that sold us the property that we owned. My father had always felt like they were dishonest when they sold the first piece of land to us near the Buck House. Dishonest in that the road on Bald Mountain was not plowed throughout the winter as they stated.

This time they had come out to check out the land we swapped our original property for a couple of years prior. They got stuck in the snow in a place on our property that they shouldn’t be driving through. Not because it was our property, but because it was impossible to drive through that drift. I knew because it was part of my walk to school.

I did learn how it was possible to be stuck with a winch when it was electric if you didn’t know enough to keep the engine running. They had run down their battery on their fancy Jeep Cherokee by endlessly trying to pull themselves deeper into a drift.

Dad pulled them back out and charged them I don’t know what. He and Mom laughed about how they got stuck on our property for many years after.

The Jeep (Pt 1)

If we were going to spend a winter in the house we were building, we were going to need more than the 2-wheel drive truck we had.

That fall, Dad brought home The Jeep.

Photo of early Columbines and other wildflowers taken from the Jeep at the base of Mt. Pisgah.

We just called it The Jeep since we didn’t really name vehicles and we only had one Jeep. Dad had already taught me the basics in the truck and I had been steering around rocks for him all summer from the passenger seat at 12 years old. But back to the Jeep…

The 1953 Jeep Willy’s Wagon was a little more complicated, and it took a while at that age for me to get all five gear shift levers correct in my head.

  • The tallest and most obvious one was the main gear box. Gears 1-3, reverse and of course neutral (which isn’t exactly a gear).
  • We also had an overdrive which I never really learned how to use since it was supposed to be for higher speeds. This was a separate control which I never needed.
  • Then we had the shifter that switched between 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive. Often I would have to get out and lock or unlock the hubs as part of our trek one direction or another.
  • Our transmission also had another shift on the floor that would change all of the first set of 4 gears (yes, even reverse) into a lower version of each once it was in four-wheel drive.
  • Finally, the last thing in the cluster on the floor was the gear shift for the PTO winch. When the winch was engaged, the engine and clutch controlled the speed going forward or reverse.

The entire chassis and body was raised up higher (out of the snow) by special suspension. This made it almost impossible to climb into without a hand up. It wouldn’t be until next year that I actually drove the Jeep (and never on the public roads), but I spent hours upon hours in the Jeep, occasionally jumping out and then back in and back out again. Not just for the hubs, but also the occasional barbed wire fence or to run the winch out to a nearby tree.

I preferred when dad pulled the cold cable out of the box, trudged through the snow to wrap it around a tree and clip it to itself while I got to operate the winch from inside the warm Jeep.  That didn’t happen often, but it did once or twice.

Mostly though it went like this…

After getting off the pavement and to the Boodle Mine above Central City we would stop and I would hop out and lock in the hubs so Dad could switch to 4 wheel drive. First one, then the other, then hop back in. That was pretty simple.

Depending on whether there was snow falling and how much, we might also have to stop and put on the chains on our oversized tires. For this I would jump up on the back bumper, lift the top window, then release the latches on the left and right sides of the heavy tailgate and lower it slowly. Then we could get all the chains out and separate them before we put them on. We had chains for all four tires, but sometimes we would just put them on the front.

For each of the tires we would untangle the tire chain and lay it in a line in front of the tire. When two or four were lined up, Dad would drive slowly on top of the chains and stop about three-quarters of the way. That way, when we pulled the rest of the chain (now behind the tire) up around to meet the other chain it would be easier to fasten them together without one or the other end constantly falling down into the snow. Mittens are out of the question to get this job done, and gloves would only get you so far. By the time we were attaching the chains we usually went down to bare fingers that were getting colder and colder by the moment. Keeping chains out of snow was really self-preservation to keep your fingers out of the snow.  Once the ends were connected on both the inside and outside of all the tires, we criss-crossed rubber bungie straps across the tires and got back into the warmth of the Jeep.

Now, here’s what many people don’t realize about snow. They think of it falling down, but they don’t really think about the blowing snow unless they’ve experienced it themselves.  Even a day of no snowfall while it is windy, could change our ability to get home easily or at all. So, while there was a fair amount of just driving through the snow in our Jeep while in 4 wheel drive with chains – that wasn’t the real problem. It was the snow drifts.

The Jeep was able to go through a lot of snow, but even she had limits. My Dad always said that 4 wheel drive was for getting you out of shit you shouldn’t have done in 2 wheel drive.  Of all the times we were stuck in the snow, we were never stuck both directions by accident.

Not only did the two of us know the road and each drift location well, but we also knew exactly how far our winch would reach and which trees were nearby from previous experience. Dad knew exactly how far into the drift to take the Jeep without getting stuck before backing out and hitting it again and pushing a little further. Once we were far enough into the drift that we could reach a nearby tree with the winch, Dad would push the Jeep even harder into the snow. Sometimes we would even go hard enough that last time to bust through the drift and be able to travel on for a bit.

Eventually though, we would get to a drift that we knew the Jeep couldn’t handle. We would repeat the previous steps to get within winch distance of a tree. Then, I would then get out, get my hands dressed again for the cold and pull the cable out as Dad ran the winch in reverse. He would keep the engine running at just the right speed for me to walk into the snow, pulling the long cable behind me while still keeping it tight. Then I would wrap it around a tree and clip it back to itself. Depending on just how far away the tree was we might also need to extend the reach with one or both of our heavy pull chains which where also kept in the back of the Jeep at all times. Dad would get the chains out and follow through the snow in the path I made to the tree and would then help get everything connected on these bigger jobs.

Then we would get back in the Jeep and Dad would put the winch in gear and let it pull us through the drift.  This sounds pretty exhausting and labor intensive just once. There were times that we did this three times in a single section of the road. I could point to the section today if I were to drive by it.

Mostly though we pulled ourselves through drifts only when we had to. Sometimes that meant we could only get so far toward home before we had to walk the rest of the way.

The section of the road home is closest to the house and often part of our walk to get to the Jeep (or other vehicle) so we could drive the rest of the way into town.

We Are the Children of Clark School

The Schoolyard at Clark was a 4th grader’s dream and every modern mother’s nightmare. The kind of excitement we had then cannot be found on a playground today.

As I recall, the swing was on the only flat part of the yard and constructed of three inch iron pipe. Tall, three-legged triangles on each end with a supporting pipe between them all painted a glossy black. The swing seats hung down on chains from the support bar far above. Deep troughs in the dirt beneath the seats were worn by the countless children before us.

This was the setting for one of our playground challenges – Who can jump out of the the swing at the high point and land the furthest from the swing set?

By the 5th grade, I was one of the kids who could climb to the very top of the swing, shimmy out the chain support and drag the seat up and around the pipe thereby lifting the seats higher and providing greater distance for our flying jumps.

Tetherball provided additional modes of combat. Yes, combat. If you’ve not played tetherball in the schoolyard and had your face pounded by a hard ball swinging around a pole as fast as another kid can propel it, you just don’t know. Like the rest of the playground, the tetherball was on a hill. Surrounded by a few trees and the furthest away from the eyes we imagined on the second floor of the building, was another pipe. This one mounted vertically into the ground with concrete peeking out on the downhill side where water had washed away the dirt.

We creamed one another with the ball. Learning that the uphill position was the superior one helped me to at least win sometimes.

Another memorable game in the schoolyard was a variation on tag that could only be played here in this unique place and time.

The school, like the rest of Central City, was built on a hill. Sitting between Gregory Street and First High as it was, there was a need to ensure that run off water from the street above did not flood or wash out the playground. Stone masons from years past had built a stone wall on the north side of the yard, perhaps ten or twelve feet high supporting the road above. In the wall was left an opening that resembled a big fireplace or a small jail cell without bars. In reality it provided open access to the water flowing down from the street above, through the chamber and then down to a small corrugated drainage pipe in the floor that whisked the water away under the playground and the street into the creek in front of the school.

It was into this jail that we boys locked the girls during tag. The small chamber became sort of the opposite of a base with room enough for at least 4 kids. We captured the girls by tagging them, this meant that they also had to go up to the jail with the rest of the captured girls until they were let out by another girl who was in the game and had yet to be captured. This was pretty much the sum of the rules. A voluntary game on the part of all participants and a made up excuse to hang out on the playground with the opposite gender. In elementary school I was apparently partial to blondes, especially two particular ones. One with straight long hair and the other with shorter curly locks.

It wasn’t all fun and games though, not with Mrs. Gray as our principal. Now I’m sure she was a perfectly nice woman to adults. But to us kids she was terrifying. I had never been in a school setting and had anyone bang stainless steel utensils on a cafeteria table before. No doubt she had to yell and bang to be heard over the lunch noise of who knows how many elementary students. Nevertheless, it was frightening. The only time I got in trouble was when my sister and I were throwing rocks at on another after school. She called my parents and they handled that back at home. I was never in a chair in her office.

The hallways of Clark were lined with lockers, a reminder that it was a high school before it was repurposed into an elementary. The science room on the first floor also retained its high school lab equipment. Science class was taught by Mr. Allen who let the students light crayons on fire with the gas burners and draw colorful wax  drawings by dripping them onto paper. One year, during field day at Columbine Campground, Mr. Allen was in charge of lighting the grills for the cookout. He used a can of ether to get them started. I think he might have been a closet pyromaniac, but us kids loved him anyway.

Mrs. Quiller was probably a favorite teacher for most of the students. As the reading teacher, she certainly was one of mine. I especially loved reading alone in Mrs. Quiller’s reading loft — a literal loft built in the room to one side for the sole purpose of reading. When I started in 4th grade she moved me to a 5th grade reading book. When I advanced to 5th grade she moved me to the 6th grade reader. When it came to 6th grade though, Mrs. Quiller ran into a problem – there was not a 7th grade reader available in the elementary school. I was presented with the 4th grade reader since “at least it has new stories”. I knew that Mrs. Quiller was doing the best she could by giving me new material. I also totally understood the logic in why there were not 7th grade reading books available, but I still talked to my Dad. He talked to Mrs. Quiller and the new principal, Mr. Myers. Everyone agreed that it was silly and something needed to be done. That asking a 7th grade level reader to read a 4th grade level book simply because another book was not available in an institution of education…?

I received a new 7th grade reading book compliments of the Clear Creek County school system. Like all readers at that time, the book was named something related to the content within. On the front of my new reader was printed Serendipity.

Our Elementary Alma Mater

We are the children of Clark School,
We try to live by the Golden Rule,
We are the pride of our mother’s eye’s,
You know it true we really try,
We try to be our very best,
Do what’s good,
Forget the rest…

Or something like that, seriously, it has been 40 years! The song was written by one of the school administration, but I don’t recall who specifically.

Missouri Falls

One summer mom and dad surprised us with a trip to a local, but apparently not widely known, private location they referred to as Missouri Falls.

To reach Missouri Falls was a quick trip by truck since it was not too far off the highway outside of Blackhawk. After turning off the main road, we turned onto smaller ones and eventually passed the remains of a cabin. Dad said that this area was occupied in the past by the Hell’s Angels and their cabin was burned down by the law.  True or not, it added color to the trip.

We parked and then had to walk through the woods a little way as I recall before we came to the waterfall. In the middle of the woods, surrounded by aspen and pine, Missouri Creek dropped off the top of a rock cliff creating a pool of ice cold water in the soft stone below, then it cascaded down the smoothed rocks into another pool further down. After creating a series of smooth rock slides into natural pools like this, the small creek continued down the valley to eventually meet up with larger and larger creeks.

Dad’s favorite flower and a frequent subject of photos.

This was obviously not the kind of water park with wristbands and pay for entry. This was just a hidden spot, deep in the woods, discovered and shared with close friends over time.

Now, it also turns out that this place was clothing optional. Being only ten years old, this was the first I had even heard that public nudity was a thing. I decided that maybe it was related to the biker history?

We went with friends of the family who turned out to be comfortable in their birthday suits. I guess mom and dad knew, but Jen and I were very surprised. To be perfectly clear, we wore our bathing suits.

Getting to the very top pool over the slippery rock was a bit scary, but that one was the deepest because the water fell the furthest. Naturally, that’s where we headed first… last one there is a rotten egg… my sister was last. That trip to the top pool was the only one that day. That was fine with me because the most fun to be had was sliding down the rocks below it and splashing into the lower pools anyway. Truth be told getting to the top one was scary, but I wouldn’t give my sister the satisfaction of knowing.

It was one of those amazing Colorado summer days that creates memories forever.

We came back to Missouri Falls a number of times that year, but I never saw anyone there other than the various families we visited with. Some clothed, some not.

I came back a few summers later with my cousin Tommy. Not for the falls, but for the cliff. I learned to repel from that cliff. Tom and I walked around to the top and he tied off the rope to a big secure rock, assuring me that it was fine. Then he walked backwards and disappeared out of view over the edge.

That entire day was spent with him showing me the ropes… so to speak. I learned to tie knots, and clip on carabiners, and after repelling in tandem with Tom, I eventually repelled down by myself. That too was a thrill I would not soon forget, even after learning to ice climb at St. Mary’s Glacier and Mt. Evans with Tom later that summer.

The “Curve”

The last leg of the journey home began at what we called the curve. This photo shows a small part of the sometimes narrow road and, of course, the curve itself.

The edge of the road is actually a drop off to a valley far below – a steep drop off. On the topographical maps it was marked as Hamlin Gulch and we built our log house nearly at the top of it. It cannot be seen through the trees, but is nestled in the pines in the far left center (or so).

This being literally the last leg and the first line of site to our property, it was also the first place we could hear people coming around the mountain.

In the summer (when the roads were clear) I drove my parent’s 1970 Super Beetle back and forth to town. In the winter we passed this part of the road covered in a snow drift on our snowmobiles.

No matter who was driving and no matter what they were driving; if it had an engine we could hear it echo through the valley as soon as they reached this curve.

In the springtime, we could hear the 4×4 clubs getting closer and closer to our house once they got past the curve. In later years, once neighbors started moving in, we also began to recognize their individual vehicles. Our Jeep sounded much differently from the neighbor’s Scout and even individual snowmobiles can be identified by their sound echoing through the valley as soon as they reach the curve.

Mom would often announce,

“Dad is at the curve, wrap up your chores, dinner in 10 minutes!

Well, she did in the summer time anyway.

In the winter it would take longer because the next part of the road home was a big series of sometimes impassable drifts.

 

 

 

Christmas Eve Eve Snowstorm

In 1979 my Uncle Ted came to visit us for Christmas during his holiday break from Kent State University.  To say that Uncle Ted was my idol would be an understatement.  He taught me all sorts of things when I was younger… like “Peace Baby Man That Turns Me On” (said while holding up your fingers in a peace sign), he knew magic and how to make farts with your arm pits.  He was also “Speed Racer” in his Mach 5 and got in trouble from my grandparents when we came back from the store exclaiming how Uncle Ted drove just like Speed Racer.  In those days we lived on the east coast (Ohio, Virginia, New Jersey) and saw my grandparents and my Uncle Ted and Aunt LeAnna every summer.

After we moved west to Colorado we saw them less frequently, but Uncle Ted and Aunt LeAnna visited us once every few years and had many great adventures in Colorado.  In the winter of 1979, Uncle Ted came to visit us when we were living in the basement of the house.  While we had many fun times during his visit like concocting recipes of a “dubious” nature, drawing, talking late into the night and listening to Uncle Ted’s music – this is the story of Christmas 1979 and the blizzard of a few days before.

December 22nd

2011 re-creations of the decorations made in 1979. Thanks for your help Maya.

Getting a Christmas tree while living on private property in the middle of the Arapahoe National Forest is easy.  Pick one out, saw it down with a bow saw and drag it back home on a snowmobile.  Decorating it is another matter though.  This was our first year out this far in the woods and getting our food home was a higher priority than transporting our decorations from storage to the house.  So we improvised…

Garland made of popcorn hand-strung onto string and wrapped around the tree is an obvious one – and we made plenty.

We also created paper snowflakes by folding paper multiple times and cutting circles and triangles into the sides, then unfolding them, putting string through them and then hung them on the tree.

Less obvious was how to make actual decorations to hang from our tree. Well my father said that necessity was the mother of invention so we used what we had.  I certainly had my experience with tin snips building the house and we also had an abundance of lids from canned foods (since we didn’t have a garbage collection service).  So we improvised by cutting various shapes into the tin lids, punching holes in the top of the shapes with a nail and running string to hang them on the tree.  In the end we had stars, crescent moons, diamonds and of course the obvious circles hanging from our tree.

December 23rd

Mom and Dad hadn’t finished Christmas shopping and planned a trip to Denver with Uncle Ted and Charlie (my three-year old baby brother). Any trip to Denver is a day long event, so they left early in the day with instructions to my sister and I to get our chores completed before dark.  Duh! Honestly, our chores were “serious chores” like gathering water and cutting wood.  If we didn’t do them we would have nothing to cook with and no wood for the stove anyway.

This close to Christmas Jennifer and I were getting along really well and we worked together to get the chores done early in the day.  In fact, since Christmas was coming we actually hauled in enough wood and water to last us through Christmas Eve and Christmas so that we didn’t have any big chores on those days.  Of course, this was two days before Christmas and the days were as short as they would get, we worked hard early in the day to complete everything we needed to do and then spent the rest of the short day playing games.

Throughout the day we saw the weather looking worse and worse, but didn’t think too much of it. Even when it started to snow we weren’t concerned because we knew that Mom and Dad had taken the six-wheeler with the tank treads and it could make it through the snow.  When our parents didn’t get home before dark and the snow become a blizzard with the added wind – we started to worry.  Then when it became time for bed and still our parents weren’t home we were definitely concerned.  Of course, we didn’t have a phone at the house (since we didn’t have electricity either) and this was a LONG time before cellphones. There really wasn’t much we could do except go to bed listening to the howling wind and plan to walk into town the next morning to search for our parents.

December 24th

As is often the case, morning dawned with no clouds in the sky and the only reminder of the previous night’s blizzard was the new snow on the ground.  Jennifer and I swept off the wood that we gathered the day before and carried enough in for the day and night.  Then we put on our heaviest clothes and snowshoes and headed into town.  Our family had friends who lived at a place we called “the ranch” (even though it wasn’t) and that’s where Mom and Dad always parked the six-wheeler and got into the 4-wheel drive for trips into Denver – so that is where Jennifer and I headed out to.

We must have been walking doubly fast in our worry about our family because we made it to the ranch in record time.  Imagine our parents surprise when the children they had spent all night worrying about snowshoe in just as they were getting ready to try and make it home again!

What happened the night before

This photo shows what our six-wheeler looked like without the tracks, but is not actually ours (thanks Google).

While Jennifer and I were spending our day together, the rest of the family had trekked to Denver, completed their shopping and made it back to the ranch – but not before the blizzard set in.  Of course, Mom and Dad were worried about Jennifer and I all alone at the house and were bound and determined to make it back to us.

But the elements and luck were against them.  As they piled everyone into the six-wheeler and started off through the blizzard, the machine threw a track off.  Investigation showed that the track had come loose because an entire tire had come out from the drive train.  Even still, they tried to make it with no tracks and only five tires.  After making it less than a 1/4 mile through the snow they realized the futility and walked back through the blizzard to the ranch (which must have been a distant and yet welcoming light seen occasionally through the blowing snow).

Uncle Ted was in charge of carrying Charlie held close against his chest while Dad helped Mom back to the ranch through the blinding snow.  Uncle Ted said later that he was crying on the way because he just knew that baby Charlie must have frozen to death during the endless walk.  The relief must have been astounding as he unbundled his seemingly lifeless, but in fact only sleeping, form in front of the fire in the huge fireplace at the ranch.

They spent the rest of the sleepless night hoping for an end to the blizzard so they could make it back to the house.

Since Jennifer and I showed up early, there were two extra sets of arms to carry things back home.  We limped the now five-wheel drive back home walking along side it.  The walk was much longer since we had to take the long way around (Jennifer and I went cross-country on our way in).

When we finally got back home (well before dark), we found that the dogs had made it into the house by climbing in through a missing pane in the window (which was only covered up with cardboard).  They knocked the Christmas tree over and ate every last bit of popcorn off of it.  We were grateful to be home though so we righted the tree, popped more popcorn and made new garland.  The dogs stayed in for the night and with full bellies didn’t eat any more of the garland.

December 25th

Christmas Day dawned just as Christmas Eve did.  No sign of snow and the temperature probably rose close to freezing.  It was the most memorable Christmas ever – even if all the excitement happened in the days leading up to it.

And yes, Santa did make it out to the Gibbins’ home and surprised us all Christmas morning.

Tent Living

In the late spring, summer and early fall of 1979 I lived in a Coleman tent with my father and our Irish Setter.  This was when we first began building our log house.  Living in the tent allowed us to get up early each day and finish the day’s work as the sun set.

This was the same tent that we used to camp with every weekend when the family lived in Great Falls, Montana.  Lovingly cleaned and put away by my father we were still able to use it 10 years later.

This photo was taken by Dad the summer before we began work. That summer we spent camping on both sides of the property. The campsite is on what we called the “backside” of the property. 

After seeing both sides during the winter though, Dad said we were going to build on the other side because of the southern exposure. Even though this was the prettiest side and was next to the water. 

When we began work, Dad pitched the tent downhill from where the house would one day stand on the other side of the mountain from this photo.  He explained as he unrolled the tent that he chose this particular location to maximize the coverage of shade as the sun moved through it’s daily route in the sky.  After the tent was up and staked, Dad got out his military issue folding shovel (one with the shovel and pick axe that could be positioned in multiple ways).  He then dug a little trench in front of the tent door (which faced uphill) and around the sides.  The trench would ensure that any rain that fell would be directed around the tent instead of flowing under it.

For the fire pit in front, Dad used a much larger shovel and I took my turn too.  We saved any rocks we came across and used them to ring the fire pit.  Dad wanted it big so that we would have plenty of space for a large fire.  Placement of the fire pit was also part of his planning for the tent placement such that the fire pit would not be under any trees.

Next it was time to make the latrine.  Dad and I headed off into the woods a short distance from the tent, but far enough away for privacy and dug out a hole.  The hole was dug behind two trees that were about 4 feet apart.  At the time I didn’t pay attention to this placement, but it became clear when the hole was completed and Dad cut down a tree and nailed it to the other two trees crossways to provide a place to rest your butt.  Got the visual now?

On weekends, Mom and Jen would bring baby Charlie out and we would all camp on the property.  Filling the tent to capacity.

Mornings we would often unzip the door of the tent only to startle deer as they grazed in the meadow. Dad pointed out the path that they had worn through the woods as they came so often over the years.

At night we would let the fire die down and as we fell asleep we heard coyotes in the distance howling their messages across the valley.

Not every day was a work day. Some days Dad had to drive to Denver to pick up building supplies. On the days that I didn’t go with him, I was left a mental list of things to work on. Sometimes these were tasks to work on for the house like skinning the logs, or gathering rocks. Other days I had basic camp chores such as gathering wood and water for the next few days.

No matter what I had to complete, I always worked hard to get the tasks done early so I had the afternoons off. Many were the hot afternoons spent in the shade of an Aspen tree, absently swatting horseflies and turning the pages of whatever Sci-Fantasy novel I was enjoying at the time.

Fifty Steps To The Outhouse

Charlie and I as the outhouse was being built. The seat actually faced the road so you could wave at people as they drove by.

Or so… actually, I probably never really counted.  But it was off in the woods a little way.  The thing is that we didn’t actually finish the walls on the outhouse that first year either.

Dad got up first in the morning and the rest of us just waited for him to restart the fires and take the chill off the basement.  You could hear him moving around, building up the fires in both the wood cookstove and the potbelly.  You could only see him by the glow of his cigarette and the occasional light from the open stove doors.

Once he had his tea and cigarette he would make his way to the outhouse.  He was the first each morning to make a path from the house, through any new fallen snow to the privy.  Since the walls weren’t completed, neither was the roof.  So dad would have to first shovel of the snow from the floor and sweep it off of the “throne”.

Now think about that a moment.  That’s one cold toilet seat!  Unless you detach the seat and bring it inside.  That’s right.  Just behind the potbelly stove we had a large nail in the wall where we hung up the toilet seat to warm by the fire.  So when you went to the outhouse you actually grabbed your coat, the hot seat, the roll of TP and then you headed out.

Generally, this worked pretty well except that sometimes, when the fire was really hot… you burned your ass.

Beginning Work On The House

Spring of 1979 marked the year we started building the cabin. Dad and I and Ginger (Dad’s Irish Setter) loaded up the tent and headed out to “the property”. From the time that Mom and Dad exchanged one mining claim for another even more remote claim it was referred to as “the property”. It wasn’t until we moved into the semi-completed cabin that it became “the house”… but that wasn’t until much later.

We pitched the five-man, canvas Coleman tent in the meadow that would later become our yard, dug little trenches to divert the runoff from summer rains around the tent, and also dug a latrine a little ways out into the woods.

As one would expect, the future house would be on a hill. Given that this was the Rockies, that meant we would need to dig a flat place into the hill. Bobby Allen, a Central City resident and business owner was hired to drive his backhoe out to the property and dig us a proper site to build. Apparently there was some misunderstanding about how large of a site was needed and Bobby left with the hole being about four feet short of what we needed. We began work anyway.

The planned log home needed a foundation measuring 32 feet square. Dad planned to place old telephone poles every eight feet to hold up the house. It takes a LOT of hard labor to dig sixteen separate holes wide enough and deep enough to put telephone poles into. Luckily it wasn’t just Dad and I digging. Blind Jerry spent a number of days helping to build the cabin and he could dig a hole with a pot hole digger like nobody’s business… as long as the hole was started so he knew where to dig.

Eventually we had four telephone poles sticking about twelve feet out of the ground in the front, four poles sticking three feet out in the back and eight somewhere in between. The next step would be to put in the floor joists and that meant a trip all the way to Denver because there was no closer lumber yard.

Dad and Jerry would get up early and head out in the pickup for a trip that was to last all day. During these frequent supply runs I was often left to “hold down the fort” (as Dad would say). The first part of these days I would gather campfire wood, walk to the creek to get water for the next few days… and then work on other tasks that a twelve year old could complete without supervision. Then, I was left to do whatever I wanted until Dad returned at about dark. Mostly that meant sitting under trees in the shade and swatting horseflies while I turned the pages of whatever sci-fi or fantasy series I was currently devouring.

The floor joists, made of 2×12 rough sawn beetle-kill pine, went up unremarkably well. There were just a LOT of them which meant a lot of sawing, hammering and splinters. Soon though it was time for the plywood sub-floor and another trip to the lumber yard.

The “walk out” basement wrapped in tin and showing the two log walls we were able to complete before winter.

After the floor was down, Dad wanted to enclose the walkout basement so we could move out of the tent. The outside walls were framed in, second hand windows installed and then outside was covered with scavenged corrugated (and rusted) tin roof material.

It was then time to start the main part of the cabin by setting out into the woods, cutting down pine trees, skinning the bark off and building the walls 8 to 10 inches at a time. We only got two log walls up on the main floor before our short summer was over and it was time for a hard decision. The whole family moved out of the comfort of Buck House and into the basement with a dirt floor and limited insulation.  Thus began a long, cold winter and the start of “roughing it” in the Colorado Rockies.