We headed to one of the most isolated parts of the state last weekend for some canyon hiking. The Comanche National Grasslands sits in the south east corner of the state. Not the sort of place anyone visiting Colorado would go to but if you are interested in western history the area is amazing. For a long time this part of the country was the border between the United States and Spanish held Mexico. The particular canyon we explored “Picketwire” was a English bastardization of the French variation on the original Spanish name. The Purgatoire River (keeping with the French) was originally named that for the Spanish explorers who died in the river and were never buried. But people have been living in these canyons for 5000 years. So much history for a place with so few people now.
So while the rest of the state was heading to Pueblo for the State Fair we headed east through towns frozen in other decades until we turned south at La Junta in to canyon country. Sure it was 300 miles for a day trip, but we’re planning to go camping there in the next few weeks.
As with any really good hiking trip it started with a picnic. We were in no rush and had no expectations about what we would find (I hadn’t even read the single page entry in the guide book). After lunch we headed down into the wide grass canyon, along sandstone cliffs and cholla cacti.
There is nothing around the canyon that lets on to its existence. Up top is more high desert than prairie. The windmills that punctuate the view are the only source of water for the open range cattle. But down here the world is green, the cholla give way to purple and orange flowers and the stubby junipers are replaced by cottonwoods and aspen. Not the high mountain aspens but thick sturdy trees whose leaves give blankets of shade.
Near the rising canyon wall we came across the ruins of a hand built cob/adobe house. A few walls and beams remained standing by an empty concrete well. There are signs that this home was inhabited within the last century, a row of electric poles stop at this house, the lines are gone but the poles stand tall and their glass insulators glow aquamarine in the sunlight. A hundred feet down the wagon trail we came to a rusted cooking stove.
Finding these thing so far away from anywhere you get to thinking about the lives of the people who lived here. They were enough to support a mission (although we didn’t hike all the way to its ruins) but they were probably stuck in this valley for months at a time during the winters. Who were they? I know they were ranchers but what were they like? Something in the decorative detail on the stove in an otherwise utilitarian stove set my mind wandering.
A little further along the trail we came upon an apparition. Among the harsh landscape of the canyon we found the remains of a Northeast (or possibly Midwestern) garden. The still green stems of perennials and grass as soft as our lawn in Massachusetts filled a space between the road and a creek. In the shade of some old aspen trees we rested, cooling our toes in the grass.
Kevin and Alder went off to explore, I daydreamed of the family that lived here. How they left their home midwestern home for the promise of the west. From wooden floors and a sitting garden outside the newly married wife lived in this primitive home. Instead of strolling downtown for a sack of flour she makes do with two trips a year to La Junta, the closest town and train stop. The grass seed was ordered from a catalog one Autumn to be picked up the following spring. That whole winter she dreamed of her lawn, like the one she had growing up. Just one small space in this prickly land where she could come to rest. A small shaded spot where the babe that was growing inside of her could learn to crawl, while she sat with her handiwork.
I could see the disdain of the older woman who had been there, possibly for generations of the extravagance, it wasn’t sensible it neither fed the family or the soul. But they were wrong, because once the grass came in full, which took two summers, that young couple and their family ate their supper down there until it started to brown in the Autumn. It was where they paused from the hard work of their days to steady themselves in themselves. The once young bride sat in the same spot with her own grandchildren watching them learning to crawl as well.
All these thoughts past through my mind as I sat alone with my feet in the soft soft grass.