Here’s another story to celebrate Fathers’ Day week.
I wouldn’t say I totally locked up the brakes when I saw the cowboy feeding his herd of black angus from a huge wooden sled, but I did draw some feisty attention from the rancher behind me in his pickup when I stopped dead in the middle of Route 69. The snapshot could’ve been from the late 1800’s as the cowboy’s team of Clydesdale steamed and huffed through snow over their shins and the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos loomed for a backdrop. It was my first glimpse of the Wet Valley and Westcliffe, Colorado as I passed through en route to the San Juan’s for a three day hutting trip over Christmas of 2000.
I doubt the cowboy I saw had any idea when he suited up that frigid December morning that the timing of his loop at the east end of his ranch would encourage me to buy a plot of land to build a house. Ten minutes from his homestead. Two weeks later.
Fast forward to construction. In that lifetime, some of the last tailings of my invincible 20’s carried over into my kid-less early 30’s and all efforts and funds were available to devote my full attention and time to the off-grid house. At 8600’ in elevation and situated five miles from the nearest paved road, it was on a dead end a rancher or lost tourist might frequent once a month at most.
On the sunny side of the structure one could work comfortably in a tee shirt, in the shadows, frostbite seemed imminent. On the day I started installing windows sugary snow still covered the ground over my ankles, a couple dozen antelope dotted the crest of a sage covered hillside south of the house, and a mild updraft from the valley carried the slightest suggestion of Spring. A pair of red-tailed hawks observed from on high in a sea of pale turquoise; underwings flashing their version of an avian fingerprint. Alone and engrossed with the scenery and participating in the peace going on all around me, I leaned my ladder against the house realizing the windows wouldn’t install themselves.
The day I’m recalling was my first taste of what being truly content felt like, and how easy it would be to turn hermit. It was a feeling other men must get in the privacy of the open sea, the abyss of the prairie in waist high swells of native grass, sheer granite mountain faces or feeding cattle from a horse drawn sled.
The windows were four feet by four feet and not especially heavy, but were especially breakable. My mind teetered between present and elsewhere as I walked the window up the ladder in front of me to the second floor, a wrung at a time, a step at a time; my tool belt and cordless drill clanking over my Carhartt’s as I began to realize the awkward position I got myself into outweighed the window itself.
With the window rested in place for a moment on the sill, I reached around to grab the drill and adjust my posture. Whether the ladder settled a millimeter, the weight of my shifting tools took my balance or I simply hiccuped my focus—I went beyond the tipping point, with the window in tow. Like the feeling of leaning too far back in a chair, everything paused and fell silent as I gasped and braced for the rest. Only, the rest didn’t happen. My weight and the weight of the window hoisted back to the stability of balance from the open air, and worse yet, that sudden stop at the bottom. A distorted smile and relieved swearing took the place of nervous shock, like the after effects of getting grazed in the crosswalk by a speeding delivery truck.
I regained my feet and my breathing while my pulse thumped triple-time in my ears. I looked at the left side of the window, then at the right, and as I steadied it back on the sill where it belonged, I looked straight on—and with the pale turquoise of a Colorado sky in the background, I locked eyes with my long passed and smiling dad looking back at me in my own reflection.
Here’s to all the dads—and to the daughters and the sons they’ve nudged back into place. Happy Father’s Day.