Guest post: My Plateau

Map: Colorado, setting of “My Plateau” by Beth Bates
This is a guest post from Beth Bates who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Colorado. Enjoy!

My heart cracks a little when I allow it to revisit the scene where my teenagers are babies and I am a cattleman-turned-lawyer’s wife in southwest Colorado.

We’re living in a one-story house on a one-acre lot among farms and ranches postage-stamped on an irrigated mesa 6,000 feet above sea level. In the field behind our homestead near the Black Canyon, Grand Mesa, San Juan Mountains, and the Uncompahgre Plateau, an amber sea of barley undulates in the September sun. In alternating years the crop is corn. Nearby farms yield onions, the earthy scent of which wafts our way on windy days.

Winters, on the land behind our Spring Creek Mesa house, cows take up residence to munch down stalks left behind from harvest. Heavy bovine rustling noises of milling over rutted rows; mooing, calving, and weaning wails become the soundtrack to my simple life. For four years of days and nights and nap-times, I immerse myself in the livestock sounds like songs I need to learn by heart. I am rapt in views out my kitchen window, over the sink where I bathe my baby girl, soak dishes, bottles, and sippy cups.

One October Saturday, my babes and I play in our pumpkin patch between brittle vines. Over the fence Mr. Brown, my next-door neighbor who still holds hands with his WWII bride, probes out of curiosity born of wisdom. “Where is your husband?” and “When do you two have time to be married?” Indeed. My cattleman-turned-attorney husband seems often to be missing evenings and weekends. Planning commission and fair board meetings, required and optional, eat up certain weeknights. For fun he judges FFA heifers, killing time at cattle auctions at the fairgrounds.

I don’t suspect another woman, but retreating into activities that reconnect him to his ranching youth (where meaning springs from barrel racing, livestock shows, and fair queens) creates distance. On my own becomes the norm, but my little boy and his baby sister are always near; and to the west I sense my plateau as a kindly divine presence watching over his children.

For occasional Sunday outings, we four pile into Daddy’s pickup to climb the one-lane, 4-WD drive road up to Yankee Boy Basin, where we hike along Sneffels Creek among an orange, purple, and blue carpet of Indian paintbrush, lupine, and columbine. Or we might swim in Ouray’s hot springs pools, or head down to Ridgway, where John Wayne filmed “True Grit” near Ralph Lauren’s ranch. After wearing out the kids with play we mosey over to the True Grit Saloon for chicken fingers and burgers. My tall, lumbering spouse always walks the boy or holds the baby so I can finish my meal, I’ll give him that.

How we ever mated remains a mystery. When I met him in downtown Denver, ennui from a recent breakup had numbed me to the point of blindness to our differences. Living in a LoDo highrise in the trendy neighborhood now occupied by Coors Field, he passed for my type. He was wearing a suit. He was tall. If he were a house on the market it could be said that he showed well. As it turns out, he was a real cowboy, having grown up on a small Charolais operation near Golden. He was novel.

Novel does not a happy marriage make, but two angels and a plateau help.

Framed by my kitchen window the Uncompahgre, a Ute word meaning “rocks that make water red,” fills a 10-and-2 field of vision, rising to over 10,000 feet at Horsefly Peak. My plateau begins each day as vivid as the eye can bear: the morning sun illuminates distinct trees and detectable-yet-inscrutable cliffs and crannies of canyons with names like Tabeguache, Escalante, and Unaweep. For two weeks every fall, bright yellow puffs of aspen groves glow against an evergreen backdrop; in winter, spring, and summer its colors come in every shade of pine and umber. In the hour before dusk I watch my plateau swell black as a vast, elevated, shadowy sea behind which the sun slips to shine on Vegas, California, Hawaii, Japan . . .

And every morning the Uncompahgre greets me, its nuances manifest again and friendly, granting me another day in this stunning spot on the planet. “Enjoy me while you are given the privilege of living within my view,” it seems to say. I drink it in while it warms and breaks my heart, unaware that years from now I’ll pine for this vista as one longs for a lost love; ignorant to the fact that ten years hence I’ll look back on toads kissed and princes married, and nearly married, and understand this: the great love of my life was not a person but a place.

Beth is an ardent mother and wife; a reader who writes, a writer who edits, creative nonfictioner; fan of walking outdoors; lover of fresh air, grass, plants, dirt, sand, waves, mountains and, in some cases, the Oxford comma. Being paid to be creative makes her feel like a lottery winner. Her favorite thing is to help other writers shape up their own work. You should try her. She blogs at Lit Salad and Tweets @bethbates.

The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this addition of a “Favorite Quotes” series to my Andrea Reads America coverage.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz by Manuel Ramos book coverFrom The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz by Manuel Ramos

“Our hands met in a halfhearted attempt at the Chicano handshake, but we didn’t quite remember all the intricacies.”

“He had a gleam in his eyes, like mica dust, and he was either higher than a kite or in love.”

“I had seen him like this one other time – the night Rocky Ruiz was shotgunned to death by masked and hooded men on a dark country road, twenty years ago.”

“Before I could face the pile of deadlines stacked on my desk, I convinced myself I had to have a breakfast burrito and real coffee.”

“He stopped by one Indian summer afternoon when the moon was high above the snowy mountain peaks along the horizon.”

Chicano was a deragatory word as far as [Jesús] was concerned. ‘If you want to be called ‘boy Mexican,’ that’s up to you, boy.'”

Plainsong by Kent Haruf book coverFrom Plainsong by Kent Haruf

“The evening wasn’t cold yet when the girl left the café. But the air was turning sharp, with a fall feeling of loneliness coming.”

“Outside the house the wind came up suddenly out of the west and the tail vane turned with it and the blades of the windmill spun in a red whir, then the wind died down and the blades slowed and stopped.”

“We’d drive around out in the country for an hour with the windows rolled down and we’d talk and he’d say funny things and the radio would be tuned in to Denver, and all the time the night air would be coming in.”

“The sky was clear and crowded with stars, the stars looked hard and pure.”

“When they were inside the house the McPheron brothers’ faces turned shiny and red as beets and the tops of their heads steamed in the cool room. They looked like something out of an old painting, of peasants, laborers resting after work.”

“They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room.”

“Once he was outside, the midnight air was cold and frosty. Little pretty glittering flecks of ice were falling under the street lights.”

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas book cover

From Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

“If she fell, the snow would cover her up, and nobody would know where she was until she melted out in the spring.”

“May, June, July. I’ve seen it snow in Middle Swan every month of the year. If you like snow, you’ll be happy here.”

“It’s not mining, it’s dredging. A real miner works underground, not on a rackety boat.”

“A quilt’s like a family Bible. It’s got everybody’s mark on it, memories of everybody’s lives.”

“Hennie wondered why mountain men always seemed runted – rooted to the ground as if they were built for long winters and heavy snow.”

“Just when you think it might be spring, another storm blows in. Always happens.”

“‘Women here are as tough as mountains,’ she said, ‘and your wife’s a mountain woman now. She can handle anything that comes down her trail.'”

“The wind had come up, sliding down from the high peaks, gathering force, until it reached Middle Swan as an angry gale, shaking the ice on the trees, for a fog the night before had frozen on the limbs.”

“The best kind of mining was lode mining, following a gold vein as it twisted and turned underground. Lode mining took talent and was the way God intended for men to mine gold.”

“There was nothing that brought women together like quilting and childbirth.”

Andrea Reads America: Colorado

Andrea Reads America Colorado book map
Andrea Reads America: Colorado

I set a dangerous precedent by reading six books in California instead of only three. When I arrived in Colorado on my reading tour I started out with three books. Then I read four. Then five. It’s a good thing I didn’t set a time limit for myself to finish this project; it felt good to read all those books, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I over-read a state.

Going into the Centennial State*, the only thing I knew about Colorado was the Rocky Mountains and skiing. After reading five books, I’ve seen so many facets of Colorado I don’t know which three to pick to best represent the state. Tough Cookie highlighted the ski-lodge culture, Little Miss Strange showed Denver in the tumult of the 1960s and 70s, Prayers For Sale takes the reader to the gold-mining days of Breckenridge, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz grants entrée into modern Denver Chicano culture, and Plainsong takes us to the open plains of Colorado – plains I didn’t even know existed in Colorado until I read Haruf’s beautiful book.

To make narrowing the list less painful, I chose the three titles I felt best represented Colorado as character, and then wrote about Little Miss Strange and Tough Cookie separately. If you are interested in reading Colorado beyond the books listed below, please see Sarajean Henry is my hero (Little Miss Strange) and Ski lodges, killers, and cookies: a Colorado win (Tough Cookie). Otherwise, enjoy the swagger of Chicano Denver, the brittle cold of gold-mining Breckenridge, and the sweeping plains east of the Rockies.

*Colorado became a state in 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and so it has been nicknamed The Centennial State.

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas book coverNovel: Prayers for Sale
Author: Sandra Dallas, lives Denver, Colorado
Setting: 1930s Middle Swan (Breckenridge), Colorado
Categories: Historical Fiction

Set in Middle Swan on The Devil’s Backbone, the high ridge where Breckenridge perches in Summit County, Colorado, Prayers for Sale takes place during the mining boom of the late 1930s. Middle Swan, loosely based on the geography and history of Breckenridge, is a gold dredge town, where the gold boats screech and clatter all day long, with silence being a torment rather than a relief because quiet means the dredge has stopped. And the dredge stopping often heralds a grisly death.

Prayers for Sale is stories within a story. The widow Hennie Comfort, an 86-year-old mountain woman, imparts town tales to newcomer Nit Spindle, a young woman who travelled to Colorado from Kentucky to start a life with her new husband. Both women have lost babies, both women hail from the mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky, and both women seek companionship in the high altitudes where it can snow any month of the year, and where they never know if the men will come back after a day on the gold dredge.

Sandra Dallas shows the colorful nature of a gold mining town – the hookhouse, the social statuses, the differences between mining and dredging, the danger, the strength of the women, and my favorite, the mining jargon that makes its way into everyday speech: “Tap ‘er light” to say take it easy and “deep enough” to say it’s time to stop. Hennie’s storytelling takes place over quilt piecing, raspberrying, cooking, and baby birthing, and her relationship with Nit explores the beauty of women’s friendships. Quilters will enjoy the well-researched quilting scenes and storytellers will appreciate Hennie’s penchant for spinning a good yarn.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf book coverNovel: Plainsong
Author: Kent Haruf, born Pueblo, Colorado
Setting: 1980s(?) Holt, Colorado
Categories: Literary Fiction, National Book Award Finalist

Set on the high plains east of Denver, Colorado, in an unspecified decade when teachers used ditto machines, smoked in the teachers’ lounge, and when people used payphones, Plainsong is a quiet, elegant book. Told through the intersecting stories of seven characters – Guthrie, a highschool teacher whose depressed wife has left him and their two boys; the two boys (10 and 9); a widowed teacher Guthrie’s age; a pregnant teen; and the McPheron brothers, two balding bachelors who know no other life but their insular cattle ranch – Plainsong pieces together a community of what many would consider broken or half-formed people. None have partners, either because they lost their mate or they never had one, and none have an intact parent-set.

Yet solitude is not their story. Their stories are the way they navigate life through their own solidity – Guthrie standing up to a bully family whose jock son is failing Guthrie’s class; Guthrie’s boys taking responsibility for their paper route, watching high schoolers have sex, baking cookies with a housebound newspaper customer, helping herd cattle; Maggie helping the pregnant teen find shelter and asserting herself romantically; the 17-year old’s choices about her pregnancy; and the old bachelor brothers changing everything they know late in life, after decades of sameness – and through their coming together as community.

In addition to expertly weaving these stories together, Haruf’s treatment of the plains setting is gorgeous. It is both gentle and harsh, with the lives of Colorado ranch animals often paralleling and informing the human stories. This book was eloquent, telling the story of plain, ordinary people and the grace inherent in them. It was optimistic in a quiet, down-to-earth, unsentimental way that made me believe in the goodness of humanity.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz by Manuel Ramos book coverNovel: The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz
Author: Manuel Ramos, born Florence, Colorado
Setting: 1990s Denver, Colorado
Categories: Mystery, Crime Drama, Latino/Chicano Fiction

Set in the late 1980s or early 1990s in Denver, Colorado, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz reaches back through time, via Chicano lawyer Luis Móntez, to a night 20 years prior when an ambitious revolutionary, Rocky Ruiz, was gunned down by men in white hoods.

Packed with machismo, mystery, raucous courtroom scenes, and adulation of a young Chicana lawyer, the novel take the reader into an old story of a Chicano brotherhood that is 20 years gone at the beginning of the novel. Móntez and his former revolutionary brothers are no longer young and are established men in their Denver community: an attorney, a judge, a proprietor of an anti-gang, anti-drug community center. Yet when they begin to receive threatening phone calls, Rocky’s traumatizing death, which they’ve spent the past 20 years trying to forget, rushes back to them.

Author Manuel Ramos infuses the text with Chicano style, intermingling Spanish and English, and even clarifying the term Chicano** (Mexican-American), which Móntez calls himself, but his father Jesús rolls his eyes at:

Chicano was a derogatory word as far as [Jesús] was concerned. “If you want to be called ‘boy Mexican,’ that’s up to you, boy.” What made him really laugh was that most of my comrades in the movement did not speak Spanish.

The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz is a fast, fun, crime drama with a different character set than my usual mystery sleuths, which I admit, are pudgy, bumbling white women named, oh, Agatha Raisin, or dapper Englishmen named Richard Jury. Author Manuel Ramos adds a new voice to the crime drama genre, and as Director of Advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, Colorado’s legal aid program, he lends an authenticity to both the Denver crime scene and the legal actions that follow. The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz is the first in a series of mysteries starring Luis Móntez.

**The best consensus I can find on the differences between the terms Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano are as follows. The terms describe heritage – “regions of origin” – not race:

  • Hispanic describes persons hailing from Spanish-speaking countries (i.e. not Brazil, which speaks Portuguese)
  • Latino describes persons of Latin-American heritage (including Brazil)
  • Chicano describes persons of Mexican heritage living in the United States. Chicano is sometimes seen as derogatory, as Jesus demonstrates in The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, though the author Manuel Ramos claims the term for his lead character and has himself taught Chicano Literature at the University level.

For Further Reading in Colorado

Books I have read and can recommend
Little Miss Strange by Joanne Rose
Tough Cookie by Diane Mott Davidson
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbow
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.