During my first spring in the valley, weary of the surrounding mountains―the weight of their prodigious snowfields and the way they seemed to crimp each day’s helping of daylight―I once again felt the lure of the Great Plains, the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT” on explorer Stephen Long’s 1821 map.
So I got in my truck and drove east, entering the plains at Walsenburg, Colorado, where I continued in the same direction on empty, laser-straight Colorado Highway 10. There, I passed barbed-wire fences bearing no-trespassing signs faded into near invisibility by incessant sunlight, scouring wind and dust, and utter human disinterest; empty pastures gone to yucca and cholla; and lonely mini-mesas, buttes, promontories, and nubbins; all in the wrap of sky and beneath the crush of space.
Nothing else. Not even Cary Grant in a dusty suit.
At the Kopper Kitchen in La Junta, Colorado, I ate a “chiliburger,” a factory-stamped beef patty on a slice of Holsum Bread, all drowned in a “chili sauce” so bland I added ketchup to give it a kick, any kind of a kick. A Southwestern travesty. And in a town with a Spanish name!
Then I headed south into the Comanche National Grassland. After the Comanche nation, once the most fearsome on the North American continent.
There, with a fully-loaded backpack, prepared to camp for a night, I explored a strange geological shiver on that otherwise smooth land: the half-mile-wide canyon of the Purgatoire River and its various feeder canyons, all of them burrowing echoes of the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Spanish Peaks to the west. The Purgatoire, about 30 feet wide, moved at the pace of a Western box turtle on its journey to its confluence with the far larger Arkansas River east of Las Animas, Colorado.
These worn canyons were not the colorful, sheer, deep defiles of southeast Utah. They were generally twenty to thirty feet deep and consisted of two tiers of sandstone separated by a gentle dirt slope. With a sound body one could climb out of them at nearly any point. They were filled with grasses, sagebrush, cholla, the occasional cottonwood, and, along the riverbanks, willow and salt cedar. They didn’t boom with space and vibrate with broken rock, as in Utah; they rather slumbered.
At various times of day, they filled with the music of the meadowlark, flicker, red-wing blackbird, and, far too infrequently, the signature bird of the canyon country: the delicate canyon wren with a plummeting call somehow appropriate for places with depth. Meanwhile, above soared the red-tailed hawk and the first vultures of the season.
In the appalling emptiness of the plains, the womblike shelter these canyons offered was particularly welcome. I saw not a single foot traveler. And who the hell backpacks on the Great Plains, anyway? Trudging along beneath my load, I was a Four Corners, hump-backed Kokapelli gone astray, feeling as queer on this landscape as a blue spruce or bull elk.
The following morning, wishing to escape any sight of the Rocky Mountains, I continued southeast, past miles and miles of treeless pastures, barbed-wire fences, windmills, and dry creeks. My next destination: the Cimarron River in the Cimarron National Grassland of southwestern Kansas.
On the way, I paused on a windy afternoon to investigate an abandoned house near Kim, Colorado. (Kim, Rush, Vona, Cope, Joes, Otis, Hale, Kirk, Roy, Pep, Dora, Eads: Why do high plains towns often have names as short as the native grass that carpets them?)
From the road, the house was not hard to identify as abandoned: its dirt driveway was choked with weeds, and the vivid plains sky streamed through many of its curtainless windows, some without panes. A raptor, nesting or merely hunting, alighted from somewhere in or on the single-story structure as I approached. The house’s roof, nearly stripped of shingles, was a bristle of nails. The roof that day notwithstanding, the obvious fitness of the sandstone-and-concrete-mortar structure might at one time have been the envy of Kimians. With a warring mixture of curiosity and anxiety―Abandoned or occupied, what can be more private and personal than an American home?―I entered.
The house included a sun room windowed with tall plexi-glass. A large, vinyl-upholstered easy chair, now in considerable decay, was its only piece of furniture. I wondered why this sumptuous chair was abandoned on this smooth, hard land where even a natural seat is difficult to come by. Around the chair were scattered magazines―Farm Journal, Life, Better Homes and Gardens―from the early fifties and an October 1964 issue of Grit magazine.
The kitchen’s wooden cabinets and shelving were rotten and caked with rodent turds. The living room included a fireplace, although the obvious question was, where did one find an abundant supply of wood for it? Meanwhile, the wind howled through holes in the roof. Wary of prairie rattlers, I descended into the basement cautiously. The basement had two rooms, each with a closet, the closet likely doubling as a tornado shelter. How precious, amid the stare of all this space, must have been the privacy of a simple little bedroom constructed of flimsy walls in a simple little house on the plains.
Back outside the house, as the flushed raptor circled directly overhead, I discovered what appeared to be a concrete cistern, bone dry. There was a corral, and a stable with a cinderblock foundation. Six trees, likely fruit of some kind and apparently dead, stood in a row. A rusted, windowless Chevy Impala, minus wheels and bearing 1963 Colorado plates, perched on a great pedestal of dirt. The surrounding yard was littered with cow manure: home, home on the range.
I’ve entered abandoned houses in such Great Plains counties as Weld in Colorado and Harding and Union in New Mexico. There are few things emptier, sadder. Unlike their counterparts in cities, their missing windows―rendering them “sightless,” in the words of author Max Evans, who lived for years in Des Moines, New Mexico―and doors are rarely boarded up, probably because there’s no interest whatsoever in entering them. So the surrounding space flushes and scours them outside and in.
A major scourge of cities is homelessness. For decades, places like Kim, Colorado; Mills, New Mexico; and Rolla, Kansas, have grappled with a different kind of tragedy: homes without people. Peoplelessness. Since the 1920s, due to consolidation and automation in the farming industry―and, yes, perhaps a lack of vision―population has been steadily decreasing in the rural areas of the Great Plains. Human-caused climate change might be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe wind farming will reverse this trend. Maybe, as has been proposed, vast tracts of the plains will be transformed into a federal nature preserve, a “buffalo commons” employing caretakers. In any event, the peoplelessness allowed me to brazenly snoop around that property and, as my guts churned, imagine the whole human spectrum of hope, perseverance, disappointment, and ultimate failure. The ruinous dwelling in Kim brought to mind Robert Duvall’s modern-day plainsman character in the motion picture Tender Mercies when he proclaimed: “You see, I don’t trust happiness. I never did. I never will.”
Finally, I wondered where that cool Impala went on a Saturday night in Kim, Colorado, when JFK was president.