High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, p.1Hal Borland
High, Wide and Lonesome
Who is my love, my song
BY AN ACCIDENT OF time and place, I grew up on an American frontier. I was born in 1900, ninety-six years to the day after Lewis and Clark left St. Louis on their expedition across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase; but my formative years were spent under circumstances not far different from those my great-grandfather knew in western Pennsylvania a century earlier, when Conestoga wagons were still hauling freight over the Alleghenies into the raw, new Ohio country. In that sense, I was born old. I am a kind of bridge between an almost legendary past and a fabulous but often worrisome present. In a way, I am my own grandfather, or even my great-grandfather. In terms of social history I have lived close to one hundred and fifty years, simply because I grew up on an island of isolation in eastern Colorado.
As a result of strange eddies in the migration of a restless people, eastern Colorado and western Kansas were virtually untouched by the whole nineteenth century. After Lewis and Clark, the trappers and traders ranged the whole area from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Then the Army, following the trappers’ trails and often guided by the trappers, “explored” that country. In 1836 a ragged frontier army won freedom for Texas. A decade later another motley army won a war for California. Gold discoveries set off a series of mass migrations, to California, to Montana, to the Denver area. The Mormons made their stark trek to Utah, not for gold but for land and freedom from persecution. And after the Civil War the Texans, cattle-poor and rawhide-tough, trailed their long-horn herds north across hundreds of hostile miles to the railroad pushing its way westward across Kansas.
In their haste, these rushes and treks and trailings detoured or leap-frogged vast areas, some of which became virtual islands of isolation in a shallow sea of settlement. Those islands, isolated geographically and doubly victims of the time and culture lag, east to west, which was so pronounced before the era of national magazines, newspapers and radio, became our last frontier. Eastern Colorado was one of those islands.
That high, wide and lonesome land is roughly two hundred miles square, an arid, treeless, short-grass upland with few live streams. To the north lies the Platte River, along which emigrants followed the Oregon Trail. To the south lies the Arkansas River and the old Santa Fe Trail. To the east is central Kansas, long accepted as the western limit of feasible agriculture. To the west is the barrier of the Rocky Mountains.
No major emigrant trail ever crossed that area. It was too dry, and the Indians were too fanatically hostile. For years a large part of it was an Indian reserve, and it was the range of one of the last great buffalo herds. In 1877, the year after Colorado was admitted into the Union, President Rutherford B. Hayes called those high plains an unsalable desert, unfit for human habitation, and recommended that it be set aside as a grazing reserve, to be tamed by the stockmen if they ever needed the grass enough to undertake the job. His recommendation was ignored, but the area’s character had changed very little when my father decided, in the spring of 1910, that he wanted to take a homestead there.
We arrived on that “unsalable desert” by a route that sums up a good deal of frontier history. My father’s people came from Scotland to America before the Revolution and settled in New York State. After the Revolution they moved to the frontier in western Pennsylvania. My great-grandfather, who came to be known as Old Will, was taken from there to Ohio as a child. In young manhood he moved, with his wife and basic possessions, to frontier Indiana. His son, my grandfather, who was known as Young Will, in turn moved west, fording streams and hacking his way through the forests. But by then the frontier was moving swiftly westward; Young Will went all the way to Nebraska. He settled not far from a secondary trail which crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph, Missouri, and angled north to the Oregon Trail on the Platte.
Young Will Borland, my grandfather, was only casually a farmer; he was by trade a blacksmith and millwright. After a few years on the frontier farm he moved to Sterling, a new community on Nemaha Creek, and set up his forge and built a mill. He was a small bull of a man, five feet six and close to two hundred pounds. He had lost one eye in a boyhood accident, but he was a crack shot with a rifle. He made nails and hinges for the village church, built wagons that would last a farmer’s lifetime, fed, clothed and schooled a big family, and died in his fifties. Two of his sons became blacksmiths, two became railroad men, one became a teacher, one the local sexton, one an editor.
My father, still another Will Borland, was the editor. He started to learn the blacksmith’s trade, but after a year of it he walked out of the shop and apprenticed himself to the village printer. He became a master printer and, eventually, a part owner of the weekly newspaper where he had learned his trade. But he, too, had the westward urge and dream of his father and his father’s father. So we went to Colorado, that spring of 1910, and settled on a homestead almost thirty miles south of the Platte valley town of Brush.
By 1910, railroad promotion and the depression of 1907 had persuaded a good many marginal farmers in the Midwest that free land, even on the forbidding high plains, was worth a gamble. They were willing to bet Uncle Sam, as the saying went, that they could live on those dry plains five years—later reduced to three—without starving out. If they won the bet, the land was theirs. If they lost, all they lost was their time and a little labor. So there was a fringe of homestead settlement all around that arid area when we arrived. My father chose a homestead out beyond that fringe.
Our homestead was as far from Brush, both in distance and in travel time, as Hillsdale, Ohio, had been from Chillicothe in my great-grandfather’s day. It was as far as my grandfather’s homestead near Vesta, Nebraska, had been from Nebraska City. In terms of horse travel, the means they used and the means we used, it was a good five hours each way even in good weather. In spring mud or winter snow it was a long all-day trip each way. There were telephones in our day, but the nearest one was twelve miles from the homestead. So was the nearest post office. The nearest doctor was thirty miles from us. And our closest neighbor was two miles away.
Looking back from this age of atomic power, our life on the homestead seems almost as strange as life in Medieval England. Yet the grandfathers would have been at home there. They pioneered in timbered country, but the plains would not have baffled them for long. Lacking logs, they would have built a sod house, as we did. Lacking firewood, they would have burned cow dung and sheep dung, as we did. They would have made do with what they had until they could provide better. They would have hunted their own meat, ground their own corn, tended their own sick, buried their own dead, and persisted. And all without heroics; with only that dogged determination, that persistence in the dream, which is a bright golden thread through all of America’s history.
In a sense, this book is a fragment of American history. It is the story of the frontier and the pioneering I knew. As a nation, during my own lifetime we have had to face bitter questions about our purposes and our basic philosophies. Many of the answers, when we face the questions squarely, lead back to the frontiers: to men and women in a wilde
Colonial New England is far away and long ago, and Dan Boone’s Kentucky is a misty legend. But the Old West is just over the horizon, a frontier which in many ways summed up three centuries of American pioneering and growth toward maturity. Reaching for a remembrance of it, trying to understand this heritage of ours, we sometimes catch only false heroics and false melodrama, but now and then we do capture enough of its reality to recognize our enduring purposes. No matter where we came from or when, the pioneers were our rootstock, our source, our beginnings. They shaped the pattern for America.
H. B., 1956
WHEN FATHER AND I started out, that late April morning, it was like the dawn of creation, so sweet and clean and crisply damp-cool. All along the first two miles south from town the blackbirds in the big cottonwoods ka-cheed among the jade-flake leaves, leaves no bigger than a ground squirrel’s ear. The blackbirds themselves were like gems, jet set with ruby and gold, the red-wings and the yellow-heads, all ka-cheeing in the sun not half an hour high. And in the roadside alfalfa, silvery blue-green in new leaf and dew, was a jack rabbit in from the sand hills for breakfast, the sun making his long black-tipped ears pink as rose quartz. It was all spring and new beginnings, a morning to be alive and laughing.
I wanted to laugh and shout when the jack rabbit in the alfalfa swiveled his ears, stood on his haunches, knee-high to a tall man, and wriggled his nose at us. Then Father did laugh, and Dick and Shorty broke into a trot, snorting and eager and full of life, and the rabbit hopped away. The wagon, loaded with lumber and roofing paper and sections of galvanized well casing, jolted on the gravel road, creaking and rattling.
Father let the horses trot a little way, then drew them down to a walk again and handed the lines to me while he rolled a Bull Durham cigarette. Already Nebraska was “back east” and we were Coloradoans. Father, who had been a printer since he was fourteen, was going to be a ranchman, or at least a farmer.
“If I’m ever going to make a change,” he’d said two months ago, “I’d better make it now, or I’ll wake up some morning and find that I’m an old man.” Father was almost thirty-two years old. So he came to Colorado alone, from the little Nebraska town where he was born less than thirty miles from the Missouri River, and he found the land he wanted and filed on it as a homestead. He went back to Nebraska, sold his share of the weekly newspaper, sold the house where we lived, and told Mother and me we’d move just as soon as winter was over.
Winter began to break up in March, hurried as though just for us by an early spring. Mud and melt crept along the Missouri River bottom lands and up Nemaha Creek, and Father helped us with the first packing. Then he left the rest of the packing to Mother and me and came to Colorado, to rent the little green house in Brush for a temporary home, to buy a team and wagon and a couple of cows and a dozen chickens. He even set two broody hens so Mother would have a flock of chicks for summer frying. And, ten days ago, Mother and I came out to Brush, eighteen hours on the cindery green-plush train, eating from the big box of picnic food, napping in the stiff-backed seats, talking to the friendly conductor and brake-man. The brakeman said to me, “Why, at almost ten, you’re big enough to ride a bronco and shoot a coyote!” And I couldn’t wait to get to Colorado.
Now we were on the way to the homestead, Father and I. Mother had seen us off, breakfasted and eager. Father had said, “We’ll be back within a week or so, ten days at most. We’ll get a house up and dig a well; then we’ll come back for you.” And she had kissed us both and waved goodbye, slim and dark-haired and a little misty-eyed. Mother would be twenty-nine in the fall. She was still standing there in the door-yard, watching, her hands wrapped in her apron, when we turned the corner at the depot and waved. She waved to us, then turned and went back to the little green house, and we headed south along the road lined with tall cottonwoods just leafing out.
Two miles from town we came to the end of the cotton-wood lane. Ahead was the first range of sand hills. We turned east, skirting them. We were climbing out of the Platte valley, going toward the high flatlands. Behind us the valley was lush with trees and irrigated fields. Ahead, where we were going, the hills rolled gently all the way to the horizon without a tree in sight. We skirted the sand hills another mile to the east, then turned south again, and the hard road ended. The horses began to strain as the heavily laden wagon’s wheels bit into the sand track.
I watched the front wheel on my side, the left, as it turned in the sand, felly-deep. The sand lifted with the wheel and fell back in a little cascade that glistened in the sun and made a soft, singing hiss. The hub rattle was muffled. Only the puffing of the horses and the creak of harness where louder than the singing hiss of the sand at the wheels. I looked south and asked, “Is that where we’re going, to that hill?”
“Farther than that,” Father said. And when we had crossed the next hollow there was a new farthest hill. We were going farther than that one, too, much farther.
We crossed the sand hill strip and were on hard road again. The sun was halfway toward noon. The horses were sweating, and the smell of sweat and warm leather was a Nebraska smell. It was a Grandpa smell, Mother’s father, who was a farmer and teamster. I would always remember him for the smell that was upon him, a clean farm smell of hay and horses, not a barn smell. Grandpa was a gentle man, a man who never had a cross word for horses or dogs or small boys. The other grandfather, Father’s father, I never knew. He died before I was born. He was a blacksmith and a millwright. There was a profile picture of him that hung in an oval frame in Grandma Borland’s house. It showed only one side of his face, and one eye; he lost the other eye as a boy. He had a face like Father’s, except that Grandpa Borland had a full black mustache. All grandfathers had mustaches. Grandpa Clinaburg had a brown one, except when he had been hauling flour for the mill; then it was white, and so was his hair. Sometimes Father told stories about Grandpa Borland, but not this morning.
We topped another rise and I pointed again to the farthest hill in sight. “Farther than that one?”
Father laughed. “That hill is this side of Gary, and Gary’s just about halfway there.”
So I watched the meadow larks on the fence posts at the side of the road, saw the yellow of their breasts and the spotted brown of their backs and the lengths of their bills. I watched the funny way they flew on their stubby wings. As I listened to their songs it seemed they were saying, “This is the time to see the world!” and “Hello there, boy!” And I watched the striped-backed little ground squirrels and asked Father what they were. He told me and I said they couldn’t be squirrels because the squirrels along Nemaha Creek back in Nebraska had long, bushy tails. These, I said, were squinneys, and Father said, “You’ll see lots of squinneys.”
It was eleven o’clock when we reached Gary. Gary wasn’t really a town; it was a store and post office, a big, rambling frame building with a wide porch and a long hitch rack. Father tied the team at the hitch rack and we went inside. It was dark and cool and smelled of coffee and leather and calico and coal oil. Tom McDowell, the tall, lean, leisurely storekeeper, wore a blue work shirt and a vest open down the front. He drawled when he said, “Warm morning for April, ain’t it?” Then he glanced out the big front window, saw our wagon and its load, and he asked, “Homesteaders?”
Father said, “Yes. We’re going down in the corner of the county. Just going out to build the house.”
Mr. McDowell said, “Well, good luck. That’s down on John Gerrity’s range, isn’t it?”
I was edging down the long brown counter, looking at the yellow coils of lariat rope, the leather work gloves, the bibless overalls, the high-heeled boots hanging in pairs from the ceiling. At the few bolts of calico on the shelves, the rolls of table oilcloth, the square, slant-topped, lacquered bins of coffee and tea
Father was buying cheese and crackers and sardines. Mr. McDowell was saying, “That’s down south of Gerrity’s main camp. Up at the head of Ketchem Holler.”
“I don’t know that name,” Father said.
“That’s the big valley just west of the school section,” Mr. McDowell said. “They used to use it to hold the herd when they had roundup, the big ranches.”
“I guess that’s it,” Father said. “We’re just west of the school section. On section seventeen.”
Mr. McDowell nodded and put the things in a paper sack. “Good hay land in there. Well, I’ll probably be seeing you some more. Expecting any mail?”
“Not yet,” Father said. He paid the bill and we went back to the wagon. There was a watering trough beside the store, so we watered the horses before we drove on.
Three more miles south, past a few farms and alfalfa fields, and we came to another range of sand hills. We drove to the top of the first hill, pulled out of the main track, and unhitched the horses. Father slipped the bits from their mouths and set out a tin pail for each of them with a couple of quarts of oats.
We sat in the shade of the wagon and Father opened the package of cheese. He cut a slice with his pocket knife, laid it on a big square cracker, and handed it to me before he opened the can of sardines. I took a bite, caught the cracker crumbs with my tongue, and sucked the warm, tangy cheese and felt the crispness of the cracker. I held it in my mouth, just tasting it, before I chewed it. Father cut another slice of cheese, put it on another cracker, and lifted a mustard-drippy sardine on his knife blade. He put the sardine on the cheese and handed the whole wonderful thing to me.
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