There’s a magic of that night before Christmas. You know what I mean; there’s like this palpable feeling–a spirit of expectation, of joy in that evening. It’s beautiful. Glenn wrote this several years ago on winter solstice. We can’t remember if we sent it to you–it wasn’t in the blog archives. But it’s about that night 35 years ago before the ranch, the kids, and so many blessings that Caryl and Glenn have seen since. Step back a few years…and you’ll see how even then, there was the beginning of a land, a country, a lifestyle that would be written on their hearts.
Last night was the longest night of the year. I could tell; this morning dawned clear after a clear diamond star night that let every available ounce of heat migrate skyward to the cosmos. I knew it was cold from the sear in my lungs as I jogged across frozen hay meadows in the near black trying to gather 23 head of horses that broke loose just as the sun went down. It took a bit of doing, but they thankfully went back in. The last thing I wanted to deal with on a night such as that was to have them at large in the desert. The next fence was 8 miles away.
The mercury read 22 below zero as the sun finally broke the horizon this morning. It was a little bracing as Annie and I milked Lucy the cow and loaded the outdoor woodstove with lengths of firewood.
December 21 isn’t always like that here in the central Idaho Rockies. But there’s several twenty-firsts that were freeze branded in my brain, and one in particular comes to mind. It was 35 years ago. Caryl and I were freshly married and living in our dream honeymoon home in the wilds of Freeman Creek, just a few miles from the Continental Divide. The nearest town, 12 miles away, consisted of a lone log post office; Carmen, Idaho; 83462.
Our domicile was a cabin on the E4 ranch built of local lodgepole pine logs in 1916. I had spent some time in September trying to get ready for winter, patching the roof and chinking between the logs with time tested recipe of sawdust, sand and cement I borrowed from Jack, the former resident of the log home who raised his family there. It was a futile attempt at making the old home tight, whose logs had shrunk away from each other from exposure to 100 years of arid high mountain summers. It didn’t help that the aspen floor joists underneath were rotting into the ground beneath the house. I spent an afternoon on my back with a headlamp on another later day in October, attempting to block the floors up a little higher.
The crawl tunnels Jack had hand shoveled under the cabin in the 1950s were still there, but they were tight. In some places, I had to exhale to get under floor joists, and there was no turning over. After wiggling my way from one end of the house to another, I stopped when the top of my head bumped into warm fur in the claustrophobic space. I knew it had to be a skunk due to the lovely odor that washed over me. The unthinkable consideration of a point blank odiferous blast hastened my retreat as fast as I could move away from my striped companion, and I gave up on my valiant floor raising attempt.
Part of the reason I knew the skunk was real was a quick recall of the time he waltzed into our kitchen several months previous in the wee hours of morning on a warm summer evening. Our screen door was all that stood between us and the moonlit dark, and the striped smarty pants simply pulled it open and started browsing. The clattering of a skunk doing kitchen inventory woke me up, and as I stood in the moonlight in my skivvies, I carefully herded him out with a broom, much as a bomb squad would unexploded ordnance. I hooked the door shut.
I wasn’t a quick study on these things of hook and latch security, probably because I was lost in love with my new bride. Just a few weeks previous to skunky’s brazen entry, a big black bear attempted entry through the same screen door. I shooed him off successfully, and not because of my intimidating prowess with broom. That time I was also in my skivvies and the ghostly (ghastly?) form of tall white skinny man was enough to send him packing. He wasted no time to consider his odds, and sprinted away, grunting as he bolted up the hill in the fir trees on the other side of the meadow.
It was a lonely but lovely existence up there on the E4 ranch, and rent was cheap. All that was required of us to rent the cabin was that we would covenant to never call Jack with any problems whatsoever, and we were to help on the ranch when needed. It was that help on the ranch that actually got me convinced that cattle ranching was a thing—for me in particular. This was not the Holstein milk barns I spent time in as a kid. These were wild range cattle, worked on horseback. I simply loved it, and each time Jack enlisted us for chores, the work was pure pleasure, even if it was shoveling cow crap.
It was an idyllic existence. We ate from our garden, picked wild berries, harvested elk, deer, grouse and trout for protein from the surrounding peaks and creeks, and lived in quiet. We loved our life there…most of the time.
When the cold settled in, it caught us unawares. The E4 ranch’s cabin was in the bottom of a deep canyon carved by Freeman Creek that carried snowmelt from the Continental Divide, some 6000 feet above us. Although the canyon was refreshingly cool in the summer, it turned into an icebox in the winter. Topography allowed us to glimpse the craved orb of the sun for about an hour a day. We felt like we just migrated from dream home to some spot just south of the Arctic Circle in the tundra.
Those logs with space between them shrunk even further in the cold, and left half inch cracks along my chinking job. Subzero air crept in, driven by bitter winds off the Great Divide. Our washing machine froze solid. We ran two woodstoves, our only source of heat. There was a cookstove in the kitchen, and a big parlor stove in the center of the house. Both were old and inefficient, and it seemed that there was a continuous conveyor feed of wood into the fireboxes. We went through untold cords of wood.
The mercury continued to plummet all through December, until on the 21st, it hit bottom at 35 below zero. Even though the faucets were all dripping, they froze solid. The old stoves were not enough to keep the walls warm, and they creaked and groaned in the brutal cold. The weather forecast that we listened to on our single local radio station spoke doom. My new bride and I were losing heart. Living on love could only provide so much body heat, and we were running out of it. Gloves in the house were not working out very well for either of us.
Thankfully, the next day dawned sunny and clear on the surrounding hills (we would never see it except for that one hour) and the temp rose to a balmy 0 degrees. I called a friend in town in charge of the local Forest wildfire gear cache. I had an idea.
“Bill, this is Glenn.”
“How’s it going, Glenn?”
“We’re cold, Bill. My pipes froze. Any chance you need any of that firehose at this time of year? I could use about 400 feet.”
Long pause. “You know…I really don’t think we’re expecting any forest fires about now. Sure. Why not? Come on down.”
I jumped in the four wheel drive that I coaxed to a groaning and clattering life and headed to Salmon, and came back with my prize. The idea was to thaw out the kitchen pipes with a torch, hook my hose up to the outside faucet, and run the garden hose uphill to the spring box where our unfiltered drinking water bubbled up from the ground. The whole (and somewhat ancient) iron pipe underground line wasn’t buried deep enough, and froze solid. If we could just keep the water in the hose on the ground running full blast all the time through the kitchen faucet, we just might keep water going in the house until it thawed. Little did I know that the next thaw day was somewhere in the month of March.
It was a long shot, but it worked. It took a day or so to get used to water in the kitchen sink running wide open all the time, but after that, it was just white noise. It ended up having to run that way until that March thaw, and it was all we could do to keep visitors from shutting it off and looking at us like we were crazy when we dove for the faucet to turn it back on!
Things were great again (life was pretty simple in those days) and we had some friends over two days before Christmas. We cut a small fir tree from the dense thickets in the forest understory above the house. It was our first Christmas tree, and it was beautiful. The lights made the house look warm, in spite of the clear night and subzero cold. I checked the thermometer: holding steady at 35 below. I would have thought it was stuck there had I not felt the cold seep into my bones as I did chores outside.
Caryl and I had a nice stockpile of wood in kitchen and parlor. We were ready, and stoked the fire hard for our guests. The big stove received and responded to a hungry maw satisfied: It glowed with pleasure with a radiant heat belly of cherry. It was cranking. We peeled off sweaters and vests. I checked the thermometer…inside the living room: 75 degrees. It was an all-time record in temperature differential of 110 degrees from inside to outside. We celebrated our conquest of cold with eggnog. We felt like Sam McGee on the shore of Lake LeBarge in the Robert Service poem!
The next day, Christmas Eve dawned a little warmer, and it was snowing at daybreak. By mid-morning, it was an all-out Rocky Mountain blizzard; snow piled up in the meadows around the cabin, and I tried to keep a narrow driveway out to the dirt road that the county tried to keep plowed. In the midafternoon, the county plow rattled up the road, blowing a swath open to our lane where they turned around. We were the last home on the creek; from then on, it was essentially wilderness. The logging road beyond would lay under many feet of snow until April. We knew that the plow would only come once, and our hopes evaporated for any hoped-for gifts from our distant relatives. We had sent several parcels of our own out to much missed family, but now we were sure we would be alone and gift-less from others this Christmas.
The snow kept coming. The house actually got warmer under the blanket of over a foot of snow on the roof, and we enjoyed the heat. As the night came, Caryl and I celebrated a quiet Christmas dinner together. No friends would risk the drive up, and the only other voices we had to share the evening with was old Christmas LPs we scavenged from garage sales. In celebration of the warmth, we unrolled sleeping bags in the most comfy room in the house–the parlor, by the lights of the Christmas tree. Although isolated and alone, we were together, and it was a sweet evening. Caryl and I shared simple gifts that we made, and things we baked together, until about 11:30, when we thought about turning in. I scraped and rubbed the frost off the inside of the single pane window in the parlor to get a look outside–still snow silently piling up. Snow on snow on snow. Just before midnight, as I was turning off the lights in the kitchen I stopped and cocked an ear. Was that…? Yes. I could hear a faint jingling outside.
It was coming from the meadow in front of the cabin. Sleigh bells? How?
Who? I called for Caryl, and as she rushed into the kitchen, we saw our windows glow with outside lights in the meadow in the front of the house. I ran to the front door to investigate, and just as I was about to grab the handle, there was a pounding on the heavy wooden door.
I swung it open, and let in a blast of cold air and snow. I peered into the dark, as a snow covered figure came into the light. He was covered with fresh snow, and hatless. It was Joe Smith, the UPS guy. He knew the creek; it was his route.
“Hey Glenn.” He looked over my shoulder at my bride. “Hey Caryl. Merry Christmas.” He jabbed a thumb back toward his truck. “I’ve got some packages for you. I figured I’d better get them to you guys so you could have Christmas.” With that, he turned back in his UPS brown but snow covered coat, and walked briskly back to the brown truck. In another minute, he had them all in our kitchen. His glasses were all fogged up, and he pulled them off as he brushed snowflakes off his gray hair.
“Joe–can we make you some hot chocolate or something? How ’bout some egg nog? We have some goodies here. Why don’t you set for awhile and warm up?”
“No…thank you.” He wiped his glasses clean with his gloves. “I’ve got other deliveries to make. I’d best be going.” He turned to the door, pulled it open, and stepped through. I followed him. He turned once more, looked us both in the eye, nodded and said with a smile, “Merry Christmas.”
And he was gone. The truck somehow turned around in the deep powder, and rumbled on down the creek. The jingling started again. I turned to Caryl. “Tire chains.”
We stayed up late that night, well past midnight, and unwrapped gifts from distant loved ones. They hadn’t forgotten us. Christmas was lonely no more. We slept with warm hearts and beds under our humble tree.
It’s been 35 years since that Christmas on the E4, and we have so much to be thankful for. After all, it was in many ways the start of Alderspring. Jack, Diane and their sons Mark and Dave were patient teachers over the course of our six year residence there. You see, they introduced us to the ways of husbandry–of cattle and horses in the still pristine landscape of the Rocky Mountains. I’m still married to the same woman I shared that night with, and we are still on the land, raising these beeves in what can be a harsh place.
It’s in many ways a unique place, this Mountain West. The topography seems to have preserved and kept a way of life and living that is unusual in this day and age. And then…there’s the truth about Santa—at least in these parts. After getting to meet him that Christmas Eve, we noted that he wears brown here, not red. None of those white highlights, either. I will report that he does have gray hair, wire rimmed glasses and does often say “Merry Christmas!” And now, you know the truth about those sleigh bells.
He did connect us to family again, as we’ve found Christmas often does. And as partners on this place we call home, Alderspring, we are connected to you all. We wish you a very Merry Christmas from our hearts. May you and yours be blessed this season, and may your New Year be healthy, happy and prosperous!
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowboys at Alderspring.