Monday, January 19, 2009

The Mailbox Part I: Excerpt from: "At Home in the Elk River Valley"

In twenty-five years, I’d never seen the May’s wagon wheel mailbox overturned in the barrow pit. But there it was, totaled, by the side of the road. During our winters, the snowplows roll along like defensive linemen tackling a quarterback, with a certain undeniable commitment to the task. A toppled mailbox in winter usually means a new driver behind the wheel who hasn’t developed the right touch, a subtle, but exacting pull of the wheel to the right or left. It’s as if his brain hasn’t yet measured the time and distance correctly.

The mailbox in the barrow pit sadly mirrored the times at the May’s S Bar S ranch. Late last summer, the boys arranged for a ranch auction to sell off old equipment, saddles and tack, household goods, furniture, and a few antiques. Bill and Cynthia had moved to a nursing home in eastern Utah. Bill struggled with Parkinson’s for a number of years and recently lost his battle with the disease. Cynthia had cancer and needed help during her treatment and recovery.

Bill’s grandparents homesteaded the S Bar S Ranch in the late 1800s. The original ranch consisted of two separate parcels, much of it fertile hay ground and the rest oak brush hillside, ideal for summer grazing. Bill and his wife, Cynthia, were fourth generation ranchers on the place. They raised three children there, two boys and a girl. Cynthia’s grandfather, Bittle, rode the trails up through the plains of Texas with Charles Goodnight, who established early cattle trail driving routes to the northern railheads in the second half the nineteenth century. Roots running deep like this in the west make up the bedrock of river bottoms, the foundations of historic barns, and stories told carefully enough to resonate with children born to the twenty-first century.

The Elk River flows around a bend at the May’s place where the cottonwoods and dogwoods share the banks with woodchucks. In the fall and spring, the bare dogwood branches dazzle commuters as the sun sets through their bare spray, turning the growth to burgundy velvet. The ranch now consists of 380 acres of beautiful hay meadow. Behind the cottonwoods, the homestead house used to stand near numerous corrals and sheds. A couple of older log cabins housed help, and an old hay sled sat near the barn.

Near the May’s entrance, I once watched a bald eagle sail back and forth above the river as I waited in my car behind an oversized trailer hauling a newly constructed outhouse for the Forest Service. Others in the car line poked their heads out of their windows and communicated their discovery in sign language to other drivers. The urge to get home dissipated and we forgot about the outhouse as a roadblock. Instead, we dropped our push to get home and relished the flight and freedom of the eagle.

To be continued...

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