Everything Matters

Everything Matters
Zim's Bottling of Strawn

Thursday, May 15, 2014

It’s Important to Ask Questions
By Jeff Clark

It’s important to ask questions.

Up front.

To know your next partner before you head down a troubled road.

I should’ve asked Barry about his affection for gravity.

About whether he felt fear.

Too late now.

I’ve been trying to get permission for some time to follow the railroad right-of-way northeast from Ranger down the steep grade to Strawn. They’re replacing the old cross ties through this part of the world with concrete cross ties. The first rail worker we saw gave us the go ahead, just stay away from the tracks.

This is rough Wiles Canyon country. This transcontinental train track first came climbing this steep grade in the early 1880s.

It’s been hanging on tight to these hillsides with white-knuckled fingertips ever since. If you want to see the original wooden trestle, it’s on the top of page 14 in Alfred Rogers’ wonderful “Images of America – Ranger” book.

Still, the T & P Railroad story is old news. We’re here to search for U.S. 1, the dirt “highway” that climbed this canyon disguised as an old wagon road. This U. S. 1 route was abandoned before 1921, perhaps earlier than 1919. This was before the Bankhead Highway that several in our network remember.

Two crossings under the railroad are the only “for sure” landmarks we can locate, to make sure we unwind this forgotten story from an unshakable We’re Sure It’s True core.

I met Barry Franklin on the Ranger end of this gauntlet. I should’ve grasped my predicament when my new friend rolls up with a death-defying, high-powered Jeep, custom designed to thwart the most basic laws of physics (gravity, up belongs on top of down, impact…you get the picture).
The T & P Railroad built its high wooden trestle across the Russell Creek Gorge, the one that carved deep Wiles Canyon. Another new friend showed me the site from the bottom of the canyon several weeks ago. Though the trestle has been filled in with rock, the height remains unchanged.

Read: People with a (logical) fear (concern) of (unspeakably) high (cursed) places (nightmares) should (forget it) content themselves (turn back) with Google Earth (get over it and move on).

Barry promised to drive slowly. He smiled when he said it. My brain believed him.
We saw the remains of the Sinclair Oilfield Camp through a high game fence to the south. We saw remnants of old electric lines with glass insulators still intact. We saw shattered rail road ties and broken-to-pieces poles that my imagination believes carried telegraph lines and perhaps the nefarious Jay Gould himself.

It coulda happened.

No camera can do justice to the view down the canyon, the snake-winding tracks lowering gracefully toward the Strawn side of its journey. If there were a 500 foot tall flagpole at Mary’s CafĂ©, I coulda seen it from the top. I took several photos looking down the canyon, but the immensity of this Big Country horizon defied my Nikon buddy its victory. Think Grand Canyon, smaller, greener, friendlier.

We motored down a path next to the right of way. We stopped in an abandoned rock quarry. We approached the site of the trestle and stopped. I wanted to check it out on foot. Barry politely turned off his anxious Big Jeep Monster and allowed me to disembark. Allowed me to search along the ground for courage.

This is me looking down. Straight down. No longer in the Jeep.

I will blur the rest of the story. Let the photos speak for themselves. I walked the most narrow stretch of our journey. If my friend laughed, he did it outside my presence. We drove straight up a couple of times. We felt gravity grab hold of Mr. Jeep and roll “up or down?” around in its mischievous hand like an white ivory dice. We didn’t roll over. Almost doesn’t count, Barry told me.

I met a tiger. I saw an Indian head. I got clues I’m not ready to announce. I stared straight down several trillion feet and remembered what immigrant workers must have seen when they cut this path through what was then and what is now still very much a slash of wilderness.

I saw an old road bed. Or maybe nothing. That’s the beauty of trips like this.

We’re coming back, heading toward Ranger. We’re almost back to the pickup and flat ground. Barry says in a calm steady voice, “You know, I never feel fear.”

I’m looking for my seatbelt release. For how far down til impact if I jump.

He says, “Nothing weird, just I’m not wired like that.” Barry’s done motocross and four-wheeling at their most competitive national levels. “Fear just never hits me.”

He answered the question I failed to ask.

Answered it honestly. Wished more people were like him.

Obviously I made it back. Hopefully it’s clear how much I appreciate this man taking me past the place I would’ve stopped to get the story.
Much of the time I prefer to walk on these adventures alone. It’s hard to hear what the land wants to say otherwise. Still, there are a few people who get it.

It was nice to approach an unknown place with someone at my side. Not a fear thing, as much as a perspective thing. Sometimes old roads, aren’t.

The route of U. S. 1 is known, at least in a broad sense. I believe by summer, given the good graces of some shiny now-locked gates up and down this chiseled terrain, that this man’s Jeep will drive that old path once again.

Strapped in tight, my last stop a liquid lunch in Mingus, I hope to tag along for that longed-for fateful journey. That day, we’ll listen to what this land has t

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Tree Grows Bigger

Yesterday I met the buyer and the seller of a little house I know. They’d never met before. This house, the one we’re talking about here, had been the first family’s home for many decades, both parents now gone, to heaven I’d bet, their town, no fault of these folks, now as terminal as any Stage 4 patient nearing their bitter quiet end.

The woman, the seller, kind, a daughter to their family told of her mom and dad. I’m not sure how the talk began, began to roll. But it did, it started, as it does, between people of good hearts, this buyer and this seller of this house in this place on this day I didn’t see coming. Her parents had owned and run a store, back when this place was a proper town.

Back when success could be seen out my office window.

The man, the buyer now, a boy in the story from way on back, remembered eating lunch, called Dinner in these parts, at her family’s store. Lunch there cost 35 cents. A drink was a dime. Her dad was a nice man, this then-boy recalled. Nice to the boy, this man recalled today.

I smiled as their memories met, circled, shook hands. Though these two people had never met, I meant. I mean.

I’m quite sure of that.

This woman had cared for her father near the end – he couldn’t be left alone. She remembered sitting at their kitchen table, looking out with him at the huge tree in their back yard.

I’ve seen that tree. See it now. Sun hits it from the far off western sky.

Her dad would look up at the tree. “That tree’s getting pretty big,” he’d tell her.

And it was. He knew.

And it was.

She loved her dad. Loves him still. But you knew that, already.

I had to hear the story.

They’d talk a little longer, the little girl now grown and her dad, about this and then about that. Five minutes or so later he’d say to her, as if for the first time, “That tree’s getting pretty big.”

And it was.

And it is.

Still, behind this house, getting bigger, like he said. Filling her memory and the thread of a life lived inside this hallowed place. Their home. The room where we three stood grew silent, listening to her words, one sip. 

Then another.

Her words.

Her life.

The woman’s parents took care of her, as parents do sometimes. Raised her. Gave her what she needed. Loved her. She smiled, her little girl eyes glistening brightly at their gift.

Today in this bittersweet time of finally selling the family home, she remembered.

I’d told her several weeks ago that this buyer was a good man, that he would take care of this house in a way that most in this town would not.

I believe that. Know that, really, as people know things without being taught.

He then told her the story of his mom. This buyer, this man, talking to this seller, this woman. It seemed the most natural thing. I think his mom passed away a year or so ago, but I’m not sure.

She too could not live alone, his mom, near the end, so he took care of her. He wouldn’t dream of putting his mother in a nursing home.

It strikes me hard this cold May morning, writing this down, telling you this, the phrase putting someone in a rest home. Like taking a dog to the vet to have them put down.

This man and his mom watched old John Wayne movies together, talked together, though at the end she couldn’t talk, his mom, except with her eyes. I bet they were beautiful, her eyes. Her son and his momma.
He remembered, this man telling his story, two regrets, which yesterday I heard – nothings, slips that his mom didn’t even hear. She’s in heaven now.

Write that down, I tell myself.

He loved her. Did the right thing for her. A hero, this man to me, certainly to his mom, may she rest in peace. The house, he the new owner, is lucky, again, good people, one family to another.

The tree alive, getting bigger.

The daughter, this woman, placing her family’s home into new hands. “Yesterday, I went over to the house,” she said. “So empty it was. So much harder than I thought it would be.”

So much harder than I thought it would be.

They shook hands at the end. She gave him a set of house keys, two garage door openers. “The openers need batteries, but should work just fine.”

I could tell you more, the stories they exchanged, two families forty years before, living inside a house inside a town whose heartbeat was steady, back then.

I thought about it later that night. My pen so unsure.

The words stopped. As they did. As they do.

As they always do.

The busy lives, the slowing as we age, then the end – the days, the years, the rambling adventures – the people we leave behind. That we are left behind by.

Remember the Alamo.

Thank God for His blessings, the majesty of folks doing what they do each day. May He forgive life’s mistakes, or at least let them come into a softer focus, be handed on as lessons, or dare we ask, disappear.

God’s word is there to see, ironically, if we but listen. 3.