There were no cars coming and so I stopped the truck in the middle of the highway and backed up to the mailbox. The name was the same.
Turning down the driveway to the home, an elderly woman came out onto the porch as if she had spied us up on the highway. Even before I could get out and introduce myself the lady offered a friendly greeting.
"Hello," she said in a weak voice. "Can I help you?"
"Ma'am, I'm looking for the old Carlson place. Back in 1965 me and a friend worked there," I half yelled, hoping that the words could be heard above the wind in the towering cottonwoods.
The lady cupped her ear and I was forced to repeat myself. When she at last understood, the woman seemed deep in thought for a few seconds. By her looks, she impressed me very much as a person who had worked hard during her lifetime, but a person who had been valued and loved throughout. She was delicate and ladylike with wisps of white hair playing in the wind.
"Wait just a minute," the woman finally answered. "I'll go ask my husband. He might know."
The couple's ranch was beautiful. It was an old homestead but well-tended. Beside the house ran that same beautiful trout stream that flowed by the Carlson home and the same I had dreamed of in 1965. Two black kittens played and tumbled on the sidewalk.
"Oh, yes," said the lady when she returned. "Carlson...‘Windy' Carlson. I remember now. But it's been so long." The old woman's voice was so faint that it forced me to step right onto the porch. "He lived on back that way a few miles," she continued, "back up the road to Sheridan."
For the next twenty minutes the kind woman tried to tell me all she knew about Mr. Carlson, but between the passage of years and the kittens harassing her feet, there was little more she could offer. The lady did mention that rich people from New York--"artists"--had bought the ranch and the place was closed to strangers. Although this last bit of information dampened my spirits somewhat, still, I was euphoric. I wasn't as old and senile as I had thought a mere half hour before. Thanking the woman profusely, I returned to the truck and started the engine. Before backing away, it occurred to me that I had not seen the more active of the two kittens for the past few minutes. Sure enough, after getting out and looking under the truck, there she was directly behind a rear wheel, crouched and apparently unfazed by the roaring muffler.
Perhaps it was the rush of relief when she saw that her kitten had not been squashed like a ripe tomato, but as we started up the driveway, the old woman waved for us to stop.
"I just remembered," she yelled weakly, "Windy Carlson was trampled by a herd of horses...was killed when they ran over him....I just thought of that."
Following the lady's instructions, we did indeed arrive opposite the old Carlson ranch and everything suddenly began falling into place. But alas, the county road that led by the home had been closed and the ranch was gated with warning signs. A few hundred yards beyond, I pulled off the highway and left the truck running. For a few brief seconds the best I could do was stand by the side of the road on a little rise that overlooked the ranch (above). There were so many trees that I could see almost nothing of the home or outbuildings. But across the road, there was the trout stream, just as I remembered it. And there, directly below and to my right, spread the old hay field.
When I spotted two large dogs approaching from the old Carlson ranch, I quickly jumped back in the truck and started up the road toward Sheridan. That evening, Deb and I stopped downtown at the Pony Bar & Grill. Inside was a noisy bedlam but outside on the front porch it was mellow. Except for young locals who had to ritually rev up their engines at the stoplight, thereby ensuring that all the young females on the porch would note their passing for the umpteenth time that night, the place was quiet and relatively cool.
I was very disappointed. I had hoped to visit the old Carlson ranch. I had expected to be greeted by the new owner in a friendly Western fashion, then allowed to wander around looking for something that would fire my thirty-eight year old memory. I had envisioned leading Deb around to the haystack, the trailer, the water pump, even the supper table, and telling her the various anecdotes. But alas. I was sad that I had not been able to see the place up close and sad that my recollection earlier that evening had been so foggy. But mostly, I was sad to see how time, like wind and rain and waves, changes everything. It was not so much the good, fond memories I was seeking-–indeed, there were few at the Carlson work ranch--so much as the simple recapturing of some of my youth, the bad with the good. Here certainly, I had naively thought, little had changed.
Several cold Rolling Rocks helped assuage my blues.
Before Deb and I left Sheridan the next day, I looked up in the telephone book the name of the lady who now owns the ranch. Curious about Mr. Carlson, I later called her and asked several questions. She was very kind, but admittedly knew little of the man. Sadly, she did recall that Carlson was not trampled by horses as I had earlier heard, but was killed when he got out to open a fence gate one day and his truck rolled over him. In a strange bit of irony, the lady also noted that she hosted writers and artists each month and welcomed me to apply for a grant. I did indeed apply and I was indeed accepted. The following September, 2004, I finally returned to the ranch; and this time I did a lot less sweating and slaving and a lot more sitting and sight-seeing than on my first visit there. Life is wine. Drink it down.