After leaving the Wyoming ranch, Gene and I set sail south and drove the Corvair as hard as we could to reach Colorado by nightfall.
One could buy beer in that state at the age of 18 and both of us were almost crazed to have a cold Coors. When we reached Julesburg in the far northeast corner of the state, we stopped downtown and bought a six-pack. Once back in the car, so great was our thirst, that we each opened a can and guzzled it down. Mine tasted great but Gene's was a disaster, apparently. Frantically opening the car door, he retched all over the curb.
After we reached home the following day, Gene and I saw very little of each other from then on. I would shortly be up for the military draft and I wanted to live a little more before entering the service. Gene still had a year of school ahead but since he was refused admittance back into Lecompton High School, he transferred to Lawrence, the same school that he had been booted from originally. After graduation, the little Barney Fife look-alike went to work at, of all places, a collection agency. Since not many deadbeats were intimidated when he came pounding on their door demanding overdue debts, Gene drifted to a new line of work. Eventually, my friend ended up in Virginia where he recently retired as a very successful realtor. The last I've heard of him, he lives with his wife in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Of the few times we have seen each other over the decades (Gene has gained weight and now looks great), my friend never fails to mention that our Grand Goombah of 1965 was the defining point in his life. From that time forth, he insists, the travel bug infected him hopelessly. These little get-togethers are great and what I forget, Gene remembers. But curiously, despite age, success, happiness, and an otherwise positive and very forgiving nature, whenever I mention our week of bucking bales in Wyoming, Gene continues to smile but says little. Then, when I bring up Mr. Carlson, a sneer slowly spreads over my friend's face and he offers only one brief comment: "That son-of-a-bitch...scratching a horse's nuts!"
In October of 1965, a cousin and myself drove back up to Ucross. Since Carlson had offered me a job just before I had left that summer, I was hoping to take him up on it. Unfortunately, when we got there the old boss was gone and only the old lady was about. In pretty cool terms she informed me that there was no work to be had, not now, not ever--they had sold the place to "artists" and would be moving out directly. And that's all I ever knew of the Carlsons until I returned 38 years later.
In 2003, Deb and I found ourselves in Sheridan. I had been up that way many times since 1965 but for one reason or another I had never ventured down the road to Ucross. Together, this late afternoon, Deb and I decided to correct that omission.
When we reached the "T" in the road near Ucross, I knew that we had gone too far. Somehow, I had driven right by the place. Although it had been thirty-eight years, I was nevertheless shocked that my memory could have failed so miserably. Had it been a heavily populated area, had there been numerous changes and improvements, it might have been excusable. But this was not the case. Just as it was nearly four decades before, there were only a few scattered ranches in the valley.
Turning around, we drove slowly back the way we had come. When I saw a ranch on the left, I pulled cautiously into the driveway. I was looking hard, searching the place for anything that might jog my memory. Except for the little draw beside the house, nothing else seemed right.
"You lost?" came a sharp voice from someone I hadn't noticed.
Looking to my left, I saw a little woman clad in blue jeans, sleeveless blouse and cowboy boots. She had a long garden hose coiled over her shoulder. She stood just beyond the driveway watching me closely.
"I don't know if I am or not," I grinned with embarrassment.
When I turned off the engine, I began stumbling for words, trying to explain in record time that I thought I might have worked there in 1965. I could see that the woman was duly suspicious. She was perhaps fifty, as dried and cracked as old shoe leather and no doubt just as tough. From the look in her eye, I could see at a glance that this was no person to trifle with. When Deb got out of the truck, it did seem as if the lady softened a bit and by the time I had finished my brief story, the woman even showed signs of a smile.
"Sure," she said, "help yourself...look around."
While Deb and the woman made light conversation, I paced about the weedy lots adjoining the house. Although the draw where the old man pumped his water seemed in the right place, little else was where it should have been. There was no corral. There were few sheds or barns. The trees didn't seem right.
"Those hay bales over there?" I pointed a hundred feet to the south. "Have you always stacked your hay there?"
"Ever since I've been here we have," said the lady, "and that's been ten years."
Although the stack was small and nothing like I remember, it was in the general location and it seemed logical that once a place is located to stack hay bales, that's pretty much where it will stay, thirty-eight years or no. But my two greatest problems with the place was the house and the big trout stream. To the best of my brain's ability, I distinctly remembered that the ranch house was two stories. The home in front of me was but one floor and from the looks of the place, that's the way it had always been. And the creek. Thirty-eight years ago I was an avid trout fisherman. Everyday I had looked longingly at the tumbling cold water of a stream that flowed a hundred or so yards to the east. "The biggest German Brown trout in Wyoming are in that creek," the old man had once tempted me. But now, the beautiful stream of my dreams was nowhere in sight. Still, I reasoned, after almost forty years, dams are built, stream beds are channeled, water is diverted, and . . . . perhaps a fifty-five-year-old man's memory just goes to hell.
After fifteen minutes of questions and answers (and a really strong zephyr which raced down the valley briefly, raising a storm of dust and bending trees), we thanked the kind woman for her help and left.
It was bittersweet. This run down, weedy, dusty, forlorn ranch must be the place, I told myself. In my mind's eye, I had seen myself rolling back in here as if nothing had changed. The home, the corrals, the stream, the haystack, even the tiny trailer where Gene and I had lived, were all there in my memory, just as we had left them. But alas, nothing was the same. Thirty-eight years, almost four decades....I drove back up the road feeling very old and sad.
After driving in silence for the next several miles, I saw a mailbox to my right. The name on the box caught my attention. It was the same name the woman had mentioned in our conversation. This family, she said, had lived in this valley for the past fifty years. I decided to try it.