I sit atop a knoll, overlooking the original homestead of my late great-grandparents Charles and Clara Wiening. Maggie, a sweet border collie sprawls out under the canopy of a maple tree, panting and chewing on a stick that has nearly disintegrated under her drool and sharp teeth. The rush of water flowing through the irrigation canal, falling to the lower ditch fills the humid air with a sound that takes me back to my childhood.
As a young girl I visited the old homestead with my mom, sister and nana whenever my mom could afford the trip. We would pack the baby blue VW bug with all the essentials: sandwiches, thermoses of coffee and clothing, and drive across the same desert I drove across just days ago.
Once at the cabin, my sister and I would catch crawdads in Minnesota Creek or sit fingering the grass and clover in the dappled light of the cottonwood tree that was planted the year Nana was born. In the distance we could hear the chatter and laughter of my mom, nana, aunts and uncles as they reminisced about times gone by.
I am back here now because my friends and gracious hosts, Mike and Kathy (the owners of the property on which the cabin sits), have opened their home to me. I will spend the next two days wandering the same land my ancestors once roamed, plowed and harvested.
With the exception of the missing windows and old wire fencing — and the new additions of a trampoline and rope swings — the cabin and its surroundings look the same. Soft-on-your-feet grass makes a green carpet on which the cabin rests. The cottonwood tree still shades the yard and from the marble flagstone front stoop, Mt. Lamborn, aptly named for the lamb it resembles, can be seen rising into the cloud-dotted Colorado sky.
Mike and Kathy have taken good care of the cabin. They use it for a storage area now, but when I step inside, the canoe, garden supplies, old doors and golf clubs fade out of sight and my memory takes me back thirty-something years.
I remember the wood stove that once sat in the center of the living area. I think of it as being part of the family, ever faithfully warming the bones of hard working farmers.
I remember the kitchen jutting out awkwardly from the side of the main house. This was where the old butter churn sat waiting for a woman or child to crank its handle so it could turn fresh, fatty milk into the soft, creamy spread that my mom so enjoyed. That butter churn is probably responsible for the “butter habit” my mom still has today.
And, I remember the loft with the wall-to-wall, soft feather bed. As I look up at the dark emptiness where that bed used to be, I wonder where everyone laid their weary heads when all the siblings came to visit so many years ago. Somehow, everyone always fit. Charles’ and Clara’s home was the place where everyone was always welcome.
When I step outside the back door, I see the roof of the original root cellar. It is where my mom would go as a young girl to escape the heat and to sit sampling the previous year’s apple harvest. The space still smells sweet to me, only now the fragrance of soil dominates.
A little farther out, the outhouse leans to the earth, buckling under the forces of time and elements. Although only the fragrance of sage, moist grass and irrigation water fills my nostrils, the putrid stench of human excrement blended with the sweet fragrance of lumber heated by the summer sun is still fresh in my mind. I recall sitting on that hardwood circular opening, taking care of my little girl business. I can see the shafts of sunlight seeping through the wood plank walls illuminating the occasional invader-of-my-privacy spider as it scurries under my feet that dangle beneath me.
Across the gravel drive stands the original barn that once housed Clara’s Studebaker. According to my aunt, Clara always walked or took the buckboard to town, but one year she finally bought a car. That car sat most of the time, undriven. I guess her fondness for simplicity outweighed the convenience of a motor car.
Next to the barn sits the old smoke house with its single pitched roof. Looking at its aged, slanted sides and exposed weathered rafters brings forth the earthy scent of smoldering wood and the sweet smell of curing beef and ham.
Down a little farther is the small cabin that once served as a secondary home to Clara’s brother, Otto, who would come down off the mountain when the storms grew too fierce. He and my great-grandmother never cared for lightning nor did they care for wind. I understand their unease as the thunderstorms in this high country are unlike any I have ever experienced.
As I take my time walking around the property, taking in the spirit of the place, I notice old rusty plow parts and other tools still peppering the landscape — a reminder of the sweat that seeped into this soil for nearly 100 years.
My ancestors were self-sufficient here. They grew alfalfa, beef, pork, apples, and other produce; they lived off the land they loved. Their lives were simple and clean. I admire them for the abundance and beauty they once saw brought to fruition.
Now, Mike and Kathy live here. They raise chickens and grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other fruit. Flowers like peonies, yarrow and roses find shelter from the summer sun under shade and fruit trees. This family has been gentle and kind and good to the land. They are people my family would have loved and I am grateful they are here preserving and protecting a piece of my family’s history.