At the cabin now, the days are still relatively warm, hitting 40 last week, although the nights get cold; getting up this week at 6 a.m., the temperature was 11 degrees. With those shorter days, there’s less time for the sun to warm the earth. The snow is minimal, just a few inches on the ground last week.
At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to a very different time, 100 years ago, before climate change, when winters in the mountains were tough, with deep snow most of the winter. My knowledge of that time comes from local writers, such as Enos Mills, the man who preserved Rocky Mountain National Park for the rest of us to enjoy and who lived just up the road from my cabin, and from Katherine Garetson, who ran a teahouse for tourists, on what is now Big Owl Road, only a few miles from my cabin.
I’ve written about Katherine before, how she homesteaded here from 1914 to 1919, sometimes helped by a friend but other times alone. In that hard, rocky ground she managed to grow a few potatoes, but found the teahouse more profitable than farming. 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 when the temperature was zero degrees to get the wood stove going again, because she was too cold to sleep. One particularly severe winter, she ran out of firewood by March and tried to keep warm by candlelight during a winter that lasted into May. 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 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.”
There are 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 through deep snow 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.
I think about Christmas in the 21st century. Rather than the one hour of celebration shared by Katherine and Esther, we are bombarded nonstop by Christmas messages since Thanksgiving. The message is buy, buy, buy. We’re given portraits of happy families sitting around the table, an ideal that few families can live up to in a world where many families are fractured, where commercialism dominates our discourse and relationships. I can't help but feel 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 a 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.