At the town center, Main and Center intersect in front of two gas stations, a bank and a grocery store. The post office, mercantile and drug store are down the block. There’s one coffee shop, one liquor store, four churches and a temple. Few people live there, most who know it, are only passing through on their way from one national park to another.
It’s a long way to go without much to see. It’s far from here, from my life “up north.” The town moves at its own beat: one made up of miners, farmers, shop keepers and government workers.
The rhythm is the slow pace of the everyday. A decision can take up to an hour to make, but if you take your time and listen, you’ll probably get your way and learn something too. Usually the decisions revolve around stories. The stories get better when you let them grow, sometimes the telling is better than the plot. Not that it matters. The stories need room to breathe, time to take shape in the telling. No one’s in much of a hurry anyway, it’s winter now. No harvest to bring in, no cattle to herd, it’s easier now to take the time to talk shop. The farmers will huddle in the parts store to discuss the price of grain, horses, cattle, irrigation, weather they can’t control, and new equipment they can’t afford.
It’s dirt farming.
A living that kills these men after it makes them hard, it makes them strong. My dad’s nearly 61, and he can still take any of my five brothers in a fight. We call it old man strength, but it’s not age. It’s life. Early mornings, breaking horses, rounding up cattle, milking cows, feeding chickens, fixing fence, irrigating crops that refuse to grow. It’s the work that makes these worn men so strong. He seems invincible, even as I’ve watched him gain some paunch and lose more hair. He always looks the same, just a little slower, just a little heavier, still strong when needed. He’s aging like the sandstone canyons surrounding his land. A little erosion around the eyes, then a bit on the stomach, a tiny more hair goes, and now he’s old.
The old man is always out of place here in my home: his worn jeans, cowboy boots and hat that’s always dusty. He looks like he just blew in from the set of “Lonesome Dove.” He stands out like the Marlboro man in Salt Lake City. He wears flannel unironically. It’s warm, it’s practical. It’s the same fabric his mother used to make shirts, jackets, and blankets when he was young. He stands a little bow legged from too many days on horses backs, slightly hunched from too many nights of reading near a low-burning lamp.
His town is far away from my home.
He’s visiting me briefly, just a quick trip en route to help family move. That’s what you do, help each other, even when you don’t have much. He’s traveling out of his way to help someone in need without an expectation for anything in return. All he has to give is his strength, so he will.
We moved boxes yesterday, or more accurately, he did. I took up my usual role with my silent father, the talker. I stood around chatting with the neighbors, who had come to help. I asked questions of people, whose names I don’t remember, nodding my head and thanking people for their assistance and playing nicely with my pup. All the while remembering the same conversations playing out when I was small standing with Dad in the musty parts store.
Watching him move box after box, it’s hard to remember this is the same man who joined the Army, lived in Panama and across the U.S before settling down to farm with a wife and eight children. I forget that he loves books and travel, too.
We don’t talk much, me and my dad. Sure I call my family, but rarely talk with my dad. He’s reticent on the most talkative of days, and we don’t quite see the world the same. He tries to gently remind me about Jesus, no booze and no boys, while I stridently insist I’m happy and healthy, thank you very much.
I forget how excited he is to talk horses and wheat.
Then when I ask the right question his eyes light up, his hands expand and move as he tells the latest story of another ranching adventure. He recounts the winter’s losses in a low voice illustrating the depth and breadth of each injured horse, cow and fence with his hands at times using his whole body to express the emotions his voice seems unable to convey. He loses himself in telling how he lost his favorite Arabian horse due to a cattle guard, ensuing kidney troubles and a vet too far away to help. Life’s hard there, I remember.
It’s a tiny town far from here, the ranch is even farther.
I miss it. The smell of a crisp winter morning, the sun preceded by pink streaks spreading over Sleeping Ute like a blanket to wake the world. The sky slowly dawns into a purple morning over a red landscape taking its time to reveal the robin blue sky and the red dirt. The chill of the morning never quite shakes off in the midst of winter, snow becomes ice and the ice so thick he can walk across it as he completes the day’s chores.
It will be dark when Dad gets home tonight. It’s a long drive, but the stars will tell him where he is. More stars than you’ve ever seen will fill the sky. Orion’s belt in the west will reassure him that he’s home. It’s our favorite constellation, he taught me to love the stars when we would go out to milk the cows at night. The silence will fall so thickly he can hear it. The moon’s glow will light the way from the car park to the front door. It won’t even seem like he was in a city this morning when he hears the coyote howl in the distance, the cows bellowing in the field and fire crackling in the house.
It’s far away from here, a long way to travel home.