Week 4, Day 1
We ride back to camp mid morning, the horses smooth and solid with their understanding of where they are going, what is expected of them, what they should expect here. They know the routine. A job they realize well by now. They are a good group. A family. Literally. Father, mother, son… and Norman the New Guy. Now in his second year with us.
Earlier this evening, a neighboring camp invites us to join them for wine. How unexpectedly civilized, imbibing from camp coffee cups with the sun setting behind the Rio Grande Pyramid before us. The greatest pleasure beyond the view is the opportunity to meet new people, hear new stories.
And now a light show from up high. The most brilliant, dazzling display of a lightning storm we have ever seen. Seemingly nonstop flashes, blazing up the sky a brilliant blue and pink that lasts but an instant. The Pyramid and Window appear for a fraction of a second and then the horizon returns to black. And just when your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, another strike illuminates the high clouds and horizon and you’re blinded all over again.
As exhilarating as the Forth of July. The rumble in your gut as each crash of thunder follows the blinding flash. A little bit frightening, or it wouldn’t have quite the impact, wouldn’t leave quite the impression, wouldn’t draw us from the comfort of our tent to stand there on the hillside and stare at the sky.
Closer and closer the flashes appear. We are filled with an odd combination of anticipation and excitement, that intricate balance of fear and awe.
The cracks get louder, lightning closer and finally the intense and sudden rain chases us back into the relative safety of the tent.
We lay there warm and dry, silent together, listening to the storm now directly overhead, the tent glowing with each flash, the pattern of the rain on the fabric, the heavy rumbles turning to a odd and powerful and mesmerizing lullaby that takes us each away in our own tired dreams.
Writing under the glow of candle light. My hands are sore. Even holding the pen seems trying.
Something new today. Learning to single-jack hand steel. You may laugh for what’s new for me is that which is rather old. Such are the skills we rely on here like felling trees with the crosscut saw and moving dirt with horse and slip.
Clang, clang, clang, the rhythm of the steel. Pulse and movement, swing and strike. I keep it up until my hand can’t hold up the hammer. This is no game, banging away for few minutes of fun. It’s all morning long, keeping at it, stamina and staying power. This is grit. Steeling holes in rock. Not for some praise, cheers and competition. Simply to make holes in otherwise solid rock. And into those holes we pour a material thick like just mixed concrete which will slowly expand and eventually break rock. A deliberate, powerful force. None of the drama of explosives, but similar results just the same. Breaking stone. Allowing us to remove obstructions from the ditch, and use the material to rebuild a weak bank.
This is a job. I am surprisingly grateful it is short term for I know I could not keep this up day in, day out, month after month. This week will wipe me out, I’m pretty sure.
A point and a purpose. I could no more bang away at the rock for fun. I believe it was Ray Hunt who said the horse knows the difference between running around in circles and running to get somewhere. A job to do. Point and purpose. Direction. Meaning to this madness.
Bob asks me if I ever imagined I’d be doing this when I was a little girl. I tell him no, I did not. I could not. For I did not know these things existed when I was a little girl.
A darn good day of work. Our bosses get their monies worth with us. Eight hours of hard labor, plus taking care of the horses, tending camp, cooking, gathering firewood and hauling and filtering water.
Simplicity is hard work.
I am sore head to toe. It feels good for it is earned.
Today we hooked up Norman to the old steel slip and dragged the entire ditch bottom – all but the last section we will take on tomorrow – just to clean it up. If you can understand cleaning up dirt. It’s not like it’s going to go away. Maybe “clean” is not the right word. We just make it look better. And work better. We move the dirt around. From the high spots where it would be an obstruction when the water flows, to the low spots where the water could flow over if the bank won’t hold a full load.
Simple pleasures. Hard work with a purpose. I wonder if our draft horse, Norman, feels the same. I somehow feel he does. Why wouldn’t a horse feel pride in his accomplishments, in doing what he was bred for so many generations to do, what he does so remarkably well? I’ll sing Norman’s praises, for he can’t sing himself, but I swear, he knows he’s something special. And he is. One gentle giant of a horse willing to be out there with us, part of the team, getting the work done. Does he know the ditch we maintain for a few weeks each summer will flow water that provides for households and farms in the San Luis Valley eighty miles below? Of course not. And as for us, it’s not about who owns the ditch we are hired to maintain, who owns the water that has become liquid gold throughout the West, or where the water ultimately ends. It’s really quite simple. It’s just about doing a good days work and doing the best you can with what you have. Here in the Weminuche Wilderness, our tools are simple. The greater reliance is on our man power, woman power, and horse power. And although it’s just me, my husband, our son, a few horses and our dog, Gunnar, on days like today, I swear we can be a mighty powerful force.
Powerful, but quiet. If it were not for the clang, clang, clang of the hand steeling, I wonder if a passerby would know we were here. Or see our camp with our tent tucked into the timber unless the smoke from the morning fire was drifting down to the valley below.
Over dinner we talk about what it might have been like for those who build the ditch way back when. When? I’m afraid to say I don’t really know. Perhaps the 1930’s. Someone saw the river flowing down the west side of the Divide and thought, heck, I’ll just put in a ditch a mile long, bring this water over to the east side, and call it my own.
And like back then, I bet those who owned the water were not the same as those who built this ditch. I imagine a team of strong and silent individuals, loner types, private people with good working stock willing to put in a good days work. Perhaps a cook tent for the crew, a wood stove, you’d need a wood stove, without a wood stove we couldn’t be here working as we do through the monsoons. One can only stay cold and wet so long… And tents… What kinds of tents did they have back then? For you’d need a place to rest when the work is done.
These are the kinds of things I think about when I’m very, very tired.
What were we thinking?
So there we are at ten in the morning busting through the ditch bank, knowing full well tomorrow we’ll be packing camp and heading home.
Why? It was an insubstantial section of ditch bank. A weak link to the chain. A thorn in our sides.
We’d known about it for some time, but were unable to dive in until we felt certain we could do it all in a day – break it down and rebuild it. For we would certainly not leave a job half done. Water doesn’t flow down a ditch with a broke open bank. Finally, between the hand steeling and breaking rocks, and Norman’s hauling power, we felt we could get the job done.
At noon our moods are short, our muscles burning, breaking rocks and hacking away at the hill for dirt. Fear and hesitation. What if… we won’t say it. None of us will. We only think it. What if… we can’t get it done, or do it well? We break for a rushed lunch. We’re in no mood to talk or rest, just refuel and head back out. Moods as tense as our muscles.
At three p.m., Norman pulls the rock that our old half-draft horse, Gizmo, back in the day could barely move. It’s been a landmark of sorts for us, left in the bank when we just couldn’t move it further.
“Where do you want it,” Norman seems to say. He gets it. He moves it. It’s in his blood and he understands. This is his job. He’s part of the team. And I swear this horse is pretty darned proud of himself and well he should be. Norman rocks! He not only moves rocks; he raises our spirits.
By five in the afternoon, we see it happening. The bank is being built back up, and better than ever before, with solid rock and soil, held firm by our tamping rods. We keep it up. Sure, we feel beat up, tired and sore and know we’ll be putting in over time, but somehow certain we can do it.
6:30 p.m. In the soft golden glow of evening light, with strong and long shadows adding drama and intrigue, we step back from the ditch and admire our work. What a beautiful bank we just rebuilt. What a lovely ditch we’ve worked on!
I know. It’s just a ditch. It’s just dirt.
But remember the importance of pride in your work. Love it or leave it.
Love it I do. Though tomorrow I will leave it. And sad as I know I will be to leave up here, I’m ready for a hot bath.
6:30 a.m. and waiting for the coffee to percolate. A mild morning. No frost, not even in the bottom of valley where the tallest grasses grow, the sweet spot where we led the horses out to graze at first light.
I think of how many mornings mid August have been harsh and frigid, horses shivering on the high line, pawing until it is their turn to be led out, bull snaps on the picket lines frozen shut, my fingers burning from the cold.
A mild season. And still the most subtle signs show changes coming. It happens. Is it from the light, now just a little lower in the sky, and little less each day? Perhaps because I know what to look for, having looked so closer at this ditch bank, the valley, the mountain back drop for six summers now. The slightest signs. The show begins now. Lay low, be still and silent, and take a look.
Grasses turning brown, seeds heads tall and arching, fully ripe and letting loose in the wind. Leaves of the wild flower transforming from green to vivid orange, purple, red while the few remaining blossoms now look tired, battered by hail and time. Red from the hills of the beetle kill sweeping down to amber of the dying, drying valley.
Today will be our last day of work here for the season. I am utterly and completely exhausted. Yet leaving is always bittersweet. I love it here. I need not tell you why, for I feel you already know. You understand by now, don’t you?
An odd relationship with the land. I believe it is staying with her, seeing her through all her changes, moods, dark seasons. That is what makes a home. Here remains a mystery. Somehow out of touch. A forbidden fruit I am allowed to taste, touch, but never own.
There remains with me this, and I shall take this with me as I leave, as I return home and recover from this hard season of work, back to soaking in my tub each night and putting back on the weight that is taken from me here each year. An appreciation for every mild morning that remains, knowing what is coming, what is going, full of excitement for what secrets will be revealed right around the corner, the next bend in the… ditch.