In winter, often when I arrive at the cabin after a week’s absence, everything is frozen: the water jugs, the cans of soup in the cupboard, and even the tomato sauce in the refrigerator. (It’s times like these I’m glad I have no plumbing pipes.) The temperature inside is often about 10 degrees colder than outside (because the sun’s rays don’t penetrate the cabin), usually in the 30s, and it can take at least two hours to warm up even into the 50s. While that is happening, I keep my sweatshirt, hat and gloves on, while I sit at my laptop and work.
But every time I start to whine to myself about the cold, I think of Katherine Garetson, who homesteaded near my cabin from 1914 to 1919, sometimes helped by a friend but other times alone. In that hard, rocky ground at a place she called Big Owl, she managed to grow a few potatoes, and found running a teahouse for tourists in summer more profitable than farming. But she loved the mountains, and even in the coldest and harshest of winters, she didn’t abandon her dream of owning her own land.
She wrote about stumbling out of bed in the middle of the night because the temperature was zero degrees to get the wood stove going again, because she was too cold to sleep. In order to stay warm, she heated flatirons and stove lids to take to bed with her. One particularly severe winter, she ran out of fire wood by March and tried to keep warm by candlelight during a winter that lasted into May. In order to get more wood or find food, she snowshoed through 15 feet of snow. She wrote about enduring a three-week period of snowstorms alone, and when she finally had a visitor realized her voice didn’t sound familiar, so vowed from then on that she would she would read aloud each day or even talk to her broom, so as never to lose the sound of her own voice.
And yet she so loved nature that she wrote, “Physical needs were apt to be relegated to the background. I once realized hours after luncheon time that I had literally fed on beauty and gone about the afternoon work filled.” What need did she have for food when she was surrounded by the beauty of the mountains?
There’s many stories I could quote from Katherine’s writings (which were compiled into a book and published by Allenspark Wind in 1989 as “Homesteading Big Owl”), but my favorite is the Christmas when Katherine snowshoed 8 miles to meet a friend. During the previous summer, Katherine and her friend, Esther, who lived in Estes Park, 16 miles from Katherine, agreed to meet on Christmas Day half way between their two homes. Over the intervening months, there was no way to contact each other and verify their plans, but in the weeks before Christmas, Katherine was depressed enough by the gloomy and short days that she planned to snowshoe the eight miles to their prescribed meeting place, no matter what.
Amazingly, Esther showed up and the two greeted each other with tears, cleared out a place in a snowbank, built a fire and sat on newspapers while they dined on soup, coffee and bacon sandwiches. They had only an hour to catch up on each other’s lives—and to curb the loneliness of winter—before they had to trudge back through the cold and snow to their respective homes.
And then I think about Christmas in the 21st century. Driving on busy highways in heated cars to Grandma’s house, family and friends around the table laden with more food than most people eat in a week; a holiday movie on TV in the background; the conversation polite, but everyone eager to get back to their video games, computers, or texting.
And I know, in my heart, that Katherine and Esther’s one hour of Christmas celebration, eating bacon sandwiches in the snow, was more heartfelt and real than almost anything we experience today.
Katherine eventually did earn her homestead claim, but when World War I came, she moved to Denver and worked for the government, although making frequent visits to Big Owl. I wonder if, sitting in some downtown Denver office, she thought about that Christmas day with the same amazement I regard it now: as something that happened a long time ago in a different and far better place.