July 27, 2023
The Elkhorn became the Elkhorn in 1923. (I spent a long time trying to figure out that simple sentence. I mean—is a ranch “founded?” Is there a single word for the moment at which someone looks at a huge valley surrounded by towering mountains and says ‘yep; I shall carve a home and a business from THIS untouched land?”)
As near as I can figure, my mother came to the Elkhorn in the late 1940s or early 1950s. This is based on the one photo Lexie turned up, of my mother on a horse riding up a mountain trail. She looks like she was seventeen or eighteen, and I remember her telling us stories of going to dances with the cowboys, so I hope to God she wasn’t any younger than that. But maybe!
When she came here, the office was a small cabin with a box where the mail went. (See the word "MAIL" painted on the log by the door?) It had a front porch and a single room inside, and that was enough. To that building came my mom (Little Sally), her younger sister (Betsy), and their parents, George and Big Sally (who by then was very definitely shorter than Little Sally, who ended up a tall, beautiful, and elegant woman).
Which cabin did they stay in? Unknown. Hopefully it wasn’t Highlight, where you need a wrench to apply the foot-pressure torque needed to stop the cold faucet from dripping. (The hot faucet is fine; it’s also on the wrong side. And having two faucets in a sink—a sink at the level of my knees—is just annoying. Want to wash your face with warm water? Too bad. You can cup your hands over here to get cold, and then whip them over here to get hot…or you can plug the sink and fill it so you’re rinsing your face with the same water you used to get off all the sweat and dust. Yuck.)
The other room I’m sure they were in is the dining room, because I’ve come across photos of this room in the ranch’s scrap books. But I seem to have the most emotional response to the idea that they were in the office.
Over time, the needs of the ranch grew, and they built a NEW office building. It has a main room where one can buy Elkhorn Ranch-branded treasures (t-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, etc.) and sundries.
To one side is an office that must have seemed generous before they wedged three desks into it. And I’m on the other side, in the “guest office,” where there are chairs and a desk and a table.
There’s also a broad porch under the deep shadows of the overhanging roof. This is where everyone gathers to chat…but mostly to stare at their phones. Internet is ONLY available here, and especially after dinner, you can't find a seat. Plus the internet is bogged down by all the guests who want to check on life back home. The breeze blows here MOST apeallingly. But on cool mornings when the sun can’t get into the porch, it’s chilly out there. Which is why I’m in here.
But what did they do with the old office? With the office where Little Sally and Big Sally stomped their pretty new cowboy boots before going off on trail rides? Where the mail was delivered three times a week and that was the only link to the outside?
They moved it.
The entire cabin.
They took it apart and rebuilt it up the hill, and made it into the boot-and-hat cabin. It’s still there.
That's the new office in the front of the photo, to the left. Up the hill you can see the old office. A few hundred feet from where it once stood, but still in use. Still valuable. Need to borrow a pair of boots? How about a hat? Or a raincoat that will keep you dry-ish on a horse? There are even a few pairs of chaps, if you think you can pull them off with a straight face. (Or--keep them on with a straight face, rather.)
The box for the mail is right there. See? That's where people got news from home.
I opened the mailbox from the inside and found a bottle of boot stretch (whatever that is) and a large swath of hay or straw or whatever, that someone had formed into a charming bird’s nest. So sweet!
Then it occurred to me that during COVID, when people weren’t going on vacation much, some enterprising bird must have brought in all the hay or straw and built the nest his or her own self. It wasn’t just charming—it was TOTALLY FUCKING CHARMING. Although the two left-over eggs seem a bit sad, but who’s to say those weren’t the Hitler and the Pol Pot of birds? Their abandonment was probably an immense blessing to birdkind.
What was my point? Right—it was that my mother and grandmother were RIGHT HERE. And now I’m right here. And my son is right here.
And that is very cool.
Like most people I didn’t really know my grandparents. Oh, I knew them as kind, benevolent people who wandered into and out of my young life, distributing holiday gifts and cooking glorious roast beefs. But I didn’t ever really talk to them as people. By the time I was aware of anything beyond my own nose, my grandfather was just an old guy who preferred to sit in his worn leather armchair, and who slumped to the side in the car until my grandmother would stiff-arm him and prop him back up again.
But my mother had a photo of her father that I love. It’s of him as a man in robust middle age. He's in waders with one foot heroically posed atop some massive fish he’d caught. It's a charming and funny image, and it tells me that my grandfather had the fishing bug. Surely he fished the Gallatin while he was here at the Elkhorn.
From my comfortable table in the warm sunshine of the guest office, I watched as Rusty met up with Jack for the next fishing trip. They were a small crew; it was just Jack and Rusty and the man who thinks Rusty should join the Army. (He’s so very wrong; Rusty would break the Army.) Rusty likes both of these guys and he absolutely loves fly-fishing, even though he hasn’t caught anything yet. They were clustered around the back of Jack’s beloved Astro and Rusty’s back was to me.
He was gabbing with the other two, and his voice (as always) carried far. I could hear the happiness in his voice if not what he was saying. Since I couldn’t see his face and only his rear elevation, I suddenly flashed on that black-and-white photo of George Gardiner standing over his mighty fish in HIS waders.
Genetics are such strange things. Rusty never knew his great-grandfather, of course, and his great-grandfather never knew him. But Rusty was going to wade into the same river his great-grandfather waded into. He was going to feel the thrilling chill of a glacier-fed river on his feet and shins, just as my grandfather did, and balance on uncertain stone against the pull of a determined current. He was going to cast a fly in a giddy swoop of optimism across the rushing waters in the hopes of teasing some fish to the surface. And maybe he'll catch something, and pose with his catch (never having seen the photo of my grandfather) in justifiable and also laughing pride. Like his grandfather.
It's not just my mother who lives here at the Elkhorn.