Mile-high Magic and Misery
Dan Vinson was a finance man for the big cattle kings. His work took him from coast to coast. The eighty-four mile ride with Vinson to his home in Raton, New Mexico was one of the most enjoyable and profitable of our journey, for this man taught us a code of service such as we had never experienced before.
Dan Vinson had but one policy—helping others. During our ride with him he stopped six times to see if he could be of assistance to unfortunate tourists.
He did not merely slow down and yell, “Are you all right?” Are there very many autoists who carry two of each kind of tool and vital Ford part, just to be able to lend it to a stranger? “Here, take my spare tire,” he said to one man whose pneumatic was beyond repair. “Send it to me as soon as you’re done with it,” he told him, presenting his business card. “And do you know, boys, I’ve hardly ever lost a thing through a fellow forgetting to return what I’ve loaned him. “
Vinson said he got a real kick, real happiness, from doing this sort of thing. Although sometimes in a hurry, he felt there was always another day coming, and the fact that he made the drive from Raton to Detroit in five days showed his policy of kindness and helpfulness did not noticeably cut down his daily mileage.
Vinson pointed out the loco weed which makes cattle crazy when they eat it in the spring. He told us how Wagon Mound got its name, showed us the Sierra Grande and high plateaus where bumper crops of wheat and corn were raised without irrigation, pointed out the mountain ranges to the west where rich coal mines were being uncovered. He opened wide to us the doors of New Mexico’s romantic storehouse.
And then Raton at last. Dan dropped us at the tourist camp, where we could prepare supper, then said he would come back later with his family to take us up the pass so we could see the little city by night. This beautiful town, one of New Mexico’s most progressive centers, was situated at the foot of the famous mile-and-ahalf high Raton Pass over the Rockies.
To see a car high up in the pass at night reminded one of an airplane hopelessly lost, and circling back and forth across the sky. The view down on Raton from up in that pass was impressive. The lights of the city, spreading like a brilliantly decorated Christmas tree, held us with an awe and silence akin to reverence—a fitting sight to remain in the memory of one about to leave the state.
People like Dan Vinson could never be forgotten, and his family were as friendly as he. We shivered with happiness and cold as our friends disappeared down the winding road, for they had left us high in the pass well on our way to Colorado.
Another state was almost behind us. As we looked down at the lights of Raton we were thinking not only of that city but of all New Mexico.
Our friend Vinson was a firm believer in the future of his state and had told us many interesting things about it. “It’s old, yet it’s new,” was his way of describing it.
As in California, it was not only the historic and physical features which had impressed us, but the quality of the people. Many individuals had been good to us, done us favors, and literally “gone the second mile,” to use a New Testament verse we’d recently been reading. In a way which we had never even imagined previously, the state’s name really described it; this was new Mexico. For the first time in our lives we had made significant contacts with people of Mexican and Spanish origins. Every such contact had been revealing.
It had started with the Mexican-American who had not only given us a ride into El Paso but who, next day, had offered to watch over our packs and blanket rolls while we went across the border to get the flavor of Juarez.
Upon leaving El Paso, one little Mexican senorita, at whose home we had stopped for a drink of water, had questioned us eagerly about our trip, and then with a smile which brought dimples to her cheeks, exclaimed, “Oh, but I’m afraid you’ll get lost. “
A simple exclamation, but the smile which went with it cheered us up. All of our Mexican-American and Spanish contacts had opened our eyes to the friendly and sincere qualities of these inhabitants of New Mexico.
On the road one learns to take what one gets. Before Dan Vinson picked us up we were miserable in the sand, then for a few hours all had been comfort and enjoyment. Another hard knock was coming now, above Raton in the pass, where the Vinsons had left us. About midnight it began to rain. This was a high elevation, well over a mile high, and we had picked a poor place to sleep. Furthermore, our blankets were extremely leaky. When wakened by the rain, we pulled the blanket from below us, put it on top as additional protection, drew our heads under, and slipped off into dreams again.
If a person has never slept in a rainstorm without shelter it is hard to imagine the clammy feeling of water creeping steadily along the different parts of the body. There is no escape from leaky blankets and the underwash of a poor location.
The first time I found my feet resting in a pool of water was in northern California. Then, I could no more have gone to sleep in that condition than I could have made it stop raining. We had toughened considerably since, however, and now with water from our knees to our toes, and a pool under our hips which was fast creeping toward our shoulders, we just laughed, being careful, of course, not to change our positions.
Some time in the night Win did change his position, suddenly. Bolting upright, which wakened me, he muttered under his breath, “Golly, Francis, it’s snowing.” On pulling my head from the blankets, I was met with a flurry of snow which had already whitened the ground. With the fall in temperature, the water in which our feet rested had begun to congeal. Soon it really began to freeze, and so did our feet. No part of our bodies was any too warm, but our feet were in serious condition. There was no use getting up and trying to exercise. It would be too dangerous trying to grope along the winding mountain trail in total darkness, and in our soaked condition we might have frozen stiff upon exposure to the wind.
An analysis of the situation indicated that our numbing feet caused the whole body to ache painfully. With blankets enveloping every part of us we sat holding our uncomfortable tootsies, while the storm increased to a gale, sucking the biting snow through the pass with a stinging velocity.
As our feet warmed, the ache went from our limbs and in half an hour sleep came again. There was no danger of freezing while sleeping, for at intervals the pain in our legs awakened us and forced us to go through our foot-warming exercises again. The time might come when we could freeze stiff and still enjoy a good sleep, but that would take a bit more practice.
The first dull breaking of day found us up, scooping the slush from our delightfully warm shoes. Our Indian friends would have been proud of us could they have seen the war dances executed there in the Raton Pass. We played Fox and Geese, Hare and Hound, every conceivable game to combat the nipping cold of the early morning and to start our sluggish circulation. Rather tardily we wished each other May Day greetings, for this was May 1st, the day set two months ago for our entry into Denver.
May still seemed a long way off in these snow-covered mountains. Our blankets yielded at least a gallon of water each, and even then they were heavy to lift. With numb fingers we roughly packed our equipment and headed up the pass.
The snow had nearly stopped but a fearful wind was sweeping up the cut. It came in irregular puffs which caused us to stagger wildly. This, coupled with our clumsy balance in the slippery snow, made us hug closely to the wall side of the trail. When the wind was to our backs it forced us into a run. When it hit us head on we were actually driven back three or four feet at a time before being able to brace ourselves. We made extremely poor progress, and were miserable, but our troubles were nearly over.
Fate had taken her little swing at us; now she was ready to help. “Look,” I exclaimed to Win. “Look down there. That’s a truck wheezing up the pass.”
“It sure is,” answered Win. “And do we need a ride! Maybe this is it.” It was. Ten minutes later, when we were warmly wrapped in heavy tarps in the back of the truck and looked back on snow-clad New Mexico, beautiful under the sun which was daring to come out, we forgave her this last crack she had taken at us. Our eyes turned toward the Rockies of Colorado.
“Another new state,” commented Win, as we crossed the state border. “This is our 20th.”
Thinking for a moment, I replied: “New for me, yes, but not for you.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you think I’m here too?” came Win’s tart rejoinder.
I ‘realized he hadn’t caught the clue I was working on. “Colorado is sort of special for both of us,” was my next statement. “Don’t you realize you were almost born here, and I was too.”
Then Win comprehended what I was driving at. During some of those shivering spells of sleeplessness the night before I had been thinking about all this, planning to spring it on him when we crossed the state line.
Win was born in Linesville, Pennsylvania where our thirtyyear-old father ran a variety store. But our father was in poor health; the doctor didn’t give him more than six months to live. “Your only hope is to move out to a high, dry climate, ” had been the doctor’s advice.
So our parents, with the just-born baby, moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Pop bought a fruit ranch, hired a middle-aged Civil War veteran, Billy Warner, to help him, and started a new life. It didn’t work out. Our father was a variety store expert, not a rancher. They moved back to New London, Ohio, where he opened a new store, immediately after which I was born. Whether it was the double move, or my birth, it is hard to say, but his health improved; he outlasted the doctor’s prediction by well over half a century, living to be eighty-eight years old. Because of the double move, both Win and I narrowly missed being native Coloradans.
Trinidad, the first city in the state which was almost our birthplace, put out her welcome mat to greet us. Then on through Walsenburg, past the beautiful Spanish Peaks, into Pueblo we went. Those twin peaks, completely white, were the most beautiful, we felt, since Mt. Shasta in California. By seven o’clock next morning we had already covered the forty-five miles into Colorado Springs, the gateway to Pike’s Peak and the Garden of the Gods. Fourteen thousand foot (actually 14,110) Pike’s Peak, best known mountain in the Rockies, was blanketed deep with snow. Our father had climbed it on foot twice in his younger days. (Perhaps that is what brought his health back.) To use a pun, Win and I were “Pikers” by deciding not to attempt it now but save it for some later trip.
Our ride to Denver with a young man from Estes Park was punctuated by three blowouts which we became adept at repairing, but at last we reached the great mile-high city just a day behind the schedule set weeks before. Learning that we were hopeful of getting mail in Denver, our driver now went out of his way to drop us right at the post office. What a flood of letters—from our folks and various friends at home, from two new acquaintances we had met in California, and from Jenny Antrican, the girl we had met because of flood waters near Salem, Oregon. Reading the mail and writing diary kept us busy in the library the rest of the afternoon and evening.
A day later, while “doing” the sights and attractions of Denver, we met a man who drove us all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming—our second visit to this state. Over nine months before, we had been exploring its Yellowstone Park. What a world of adventurous experiences had come our way since then!
Our plans now underwent considerable change. We were not due at our uncle’s home in Tulsa, Oklahoma until May 25, and with fair travel that could be accomplished far before the appointed time. We therefore concluded to continue east to St. Louis, south through lower Illinois and Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, and then straight back west through Arkansas, to Tulsa.
As we boomed eastward during the afternoon the range country gave way to wheat land, and by the time we had crossed the Nebraska border and pulled into Kimball for the night we were in good agricultural country.
The deserts were now a thing of the past. The Rocky Mountains were behind us. The West and Southwest had been faced and conquered. This was a completely different world.