Summer '75: Opening Salvo
|Detail of mythic Jackalope, 1974. Omnibus Postcard Collection|
In the summer of 1975 I was an art counselor at the venerable Cimarroncita Ranch Camp for Boys, Ute Park NM. Originally there was the girls camp, and somebody thought that Junior needed to be somewhere if Sis was.
I rode the Dog from Athens OH thru Columbus, thence southwest through Missouri, OK City, and the vastness of Texas: Amarillo, Dalhart to Raton NM. There I was picked up by the camp in a station wagon with 3 other guys, and thence west on Hwy 64 to Ute Park NM.
"Jacky Blue" was playing on the radio. All the other guys seemed way more knowledgeable about all this, and I got the distinct feeling that my previous summer in Italy didn't count here.
The first three weeks were my Ohio sinuses draining in the mountain air. I'd finally come back to a home point on my native geographic axis, that ran from New Mexico up thru the Rockies into Idaho/Montana. Humor me, I was born in Denver.
The six weeks went by painfully slow, full of terror due to my complete ignorance of early childhood education. Being a college graphic design major, I knew nothing about teaching art. So I made shit up.
The boys were children of Texas rich, plus a few Mexican boys who came from vaguely powerful old families. All this was an unknown world. Prior this time I’d read about rich Easterners in John O’Hara novels. These were Texans of means. As the camp nurse from Oklahoma joked one afternoon, we were the revenge of the middle class on the rich—at an average rate of $.23 an hour or so. Because it was a 24/7 job.
Being a Western camp, there were horses. Here I was relatively prepared. I'd been a stable hand since 1971, and somehow managed to learn a few things about horses. Watching Laird teach her students the finer points of riding was mainly me checking out the girls. There were several times in the saddle as well, but I didn't follow up on this opportunity. This was due to my being at odds with myself.
Captain Crow was the riding instructor; an ancient retired British cavalry officer, late of the Indian Army. Word had it he stayed on after 1947. He sure looked it. Lean, leathery, watery blue eyes, one was cataracted. Abrupt, rough as a cob. I was fine with that, he reminded me of ex-soldiers I'd met elsewhere. He also had a young wife and an infant child, suggesting his precious bodily fluids were high-octane.
But hey. On an overnight trip I was assigned a gelding named Po'Neil, who had ideas. The previous week he'd thrown a kid who'd broken his arm. On this outing I was fine until the exact moment my attention wandered, and I was airborne, landing right between a rock and a cactus. It was only dirt, but a wakeup call.
The next morning we saddled up, and began the ride back to the camp. Once down on the flats, Po'Neil spied the barn in the distance, and broke into a full-gallop. Fortunately I had my break-glass emergency kit. Remembering Laird's instructions, I dropped my heels, then firmly pulling the reins on a 3-count. Repeat. Eventually Po'Neil decided it wasn't worth the effort, and resumed a trot.
Captain Crow rode up at a canter, fixed me with his one good eye, paused, and bellowed "Where did you learn to ride like that?"
"Uhhh, my stepmom is a dressage rider and teaches"
"Very well then!" He wheels back to the line, no doubt relieved that nobody fucked up.
Night Off/Night On
Monday was our night off, by design. This was so we’d be less likely to die on New Mexico’s winding mountain highways, where whites and Indians both had bottles hanging out of their faces. Sue me, one of the Colorado boys told me that.
And drink we did. Along the way had my first taste of New Mexican cuisine in Taos. La Cocina de Taos was where the peppers opened up the top of my head and I saw Spanish colonial cherubs lounging in the clouds. Art History classes paid for themselves that night.
We’d make it back to Ute Park in one piece. And more than one Tuesday
morning I was nursing a pounding hangover doing a a bad job of faking it
in front of 10 year old boys.
The cabins were uninsulated pine shacks up on blocks, with rudimentary bare light bulbs. This stabbed my eyes, so I got a discarded #10 can and made a light shade with a can opener. Don't remember if the boys liked it or not.
The boys liked me to read a chapter of Hardy Boys or similar at bedtime. I hadn't read the Hardy Boys since grade school. Quickly discovered that they were written by cut & paste robots, and I was rewriting the books as I read them. Finally I said "this is awful, there's got to be something better"
The boys were "Huh?"
After a couple of misfires, I found "Across The Cimarron" by James D Horan. Fast-forward 40+ years when an Amazon customer wrote: "Incredible oral history of a young George Bolds as dictated to the author on his personal adventures in the Old West."
After the banal and anodyne narcolepsy of the Hardy Boys, this was a barn-burner that the boys really liked. I originally started by reading one chapter a night, but they clamored for two, and it was a slam dunk.
Other nights off involved double-dates, and as I was incredibly awkward, pained silences between nervous talking and beer. One quasi-double date ended with my WTF Epiphany seeing the girl I'd brought in the front seat of the guy driving the car, and me in the back seat. He was having fun chatting her up. I'm in the back seat, and my unheard "But hey!"
I saw my opportunity several days later when there was a dance over at the girl's camp. I spotted a woman I'd seen earlier standing by herself at an outdoor event. Mustering up all available courage I asked her to dance, and shortly enough I realized it wasn't rugby but Fun, With A Woman, and dialed it back accordingly. She was twenty years older and a shit ton wiser, and BOOM I was a fool in love.
The following week we went to Angel Fire Resort for A Real Dinner, where I managed to keep it sufficiently on the rails. We took our time getting back to Ute Park.
I'm sure our obvious summer romance was well-known, but being 19 and idiotic I was never the wiser. It broke me in a thousand different ways to leave her when the summer was over. I last saw her on my return trip to LA in 1977.
The summer camp season had come to an end. I knew that I'd burned too many bridges and that I was never coming back.
Now I was on a mission to spend a week in Aspen, CO, which hacked off my grandmother in Denver. Her tractor beams were pulling me in, and I wasn't ready to hit the pause button. I'd gotten close to several people and fallen hopelessly in love with desperately romantic notions: geographic, and erotic.
So I got back on the Dog and rode it north to Glenwood Springs, hence to Aspen.
Many, many years later I heard this wisdom from a much older woman.
"When I was 18, I thought 40 year old men were wonderful.
When I was 40, I thought 40 year old men were wonderful.
Now I still think 40 year old men are wonderful."
She was easily 85. I'm thinking "damn, you are the bomb..."