moving cows, extracting oil, and loving a rural schoolhouse
The first time I really saw the Coalmont Schoolhouse, my legs were quivering with muscle fatigue on both sides of the round-barreled palomino called Goldie. Topping the final rise and following the dirt road where it curved to give us a sweeping view of the Zirkel mountain range wilderness, my knees cried in protest against the stiff stirrup leathers designed for and broken in by some large cowboy, back when I was bobbing up and down on a flat English saddle at a Pony Club rally in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Goldie and I were surrounded by a hundred cows and calves, all of them bellowing because the calves were hungry and the cows were sore from the chafing of their overfull bladders. It was early June. The sagebrush gave up its perfume as little balls of snow melted from their leaves and woody stems, and the calves slid precariously on the slippery mud of the road. Around the edges of the cold air, the sun had pushed through the clouds to joyfully burn us in the way it can at an undulating elevation of 8000’ – 9000’ above sea level.
We’d come a dozen miles cross country from Spicer Peak so the 56 pairs Gene and Sharon were running that year could spend a couple of months picking at tufts of grass in the Coalmont basin. For the first five or six miles, I rode the herd at the flank and rear, pushing reluctant heifers nervous about their first-borns, chiding casual grazers for slowing things down. Goldie knew the job and carried it out in an impatient way, disdainful of my Eastern bred riding skills. She dashed back and forth dispatching with uncooperative cows, rearing and hopping on her hind legs if I sat too hard in the saddle.
Eventually unnerved by my horse’s hi-ho Silver approach to work, I moved to the head of the herd where it turned out I was responsible for jumping off Goldie every half mile or so, opening a gate to let the cows, horses and cowboys stream through, pulling closed the vicious barbed wire barrier behind us, then scrambling back into my saddle while Goldie spun in circles.
Once my body began its low hum of a prelude to screaming pain, stop, get off, lie down on the ground and weep, I figured out that the best place to ride while moving cows a long distance cross country, is in the middle of the herd. Cows in the middle are resigned to the inevitability of their trek, requiring little correction or encouragement, and someone else is in charge of leadership responsibilities like opening gates, repelling other herds grazing along the way, watching for traffic on any roads traversed.
Which is why I was surrounded by cows the first time I saw the schoolhouse in a meaningful way. After the miles down from Spicer Peak and the long, gradual climb away from the highway to Steamboat Springs, after tipping up over the ridge, it appeared below, a shining commemoration of what was once a thriving community of 200 coal mining residents and their families, until an underground fire destroyed nearly everything in Coalmont except that schoolhouse. It was our terminus. Once the cows and calves were set free on a couple thousand acres of sparse basin-land grazing, we were scheduled to have lunch there.
The older cows recognized the view. They rolled into a choppy jog, their heads nodding against the wind coming straight at them. Down we streamed toward the one-room Coalmont Schoolhouse and its attached teacherage, where Gene had ridden his horse every day from the family ranch nearby, and received his formal education through the eighth grade. Faded but sturdy, swallows diving in and out of the mud nests they’d built in the eave over the front door, it beamed at us with memory and promise.
Gene on his chestnut cutting horse and his brother Bob on his old gray mare, led the way. Sharon, after driving the security vehicle for the mile we had to move the herd down the middle of the two-lane county highway, had gone ahead to park the truck beside the schoolhouse steps and unpack our lunch. I could see her opening coolers, setting out dishes and utensils, methodically reaching up and over the hand painted sign hung on the tailgate. SLOW COWS, it read in warning to the few cars and trucks we’d met on the highway.
Goldie started to jig. She too knew what it meant to reach the schoolhouse. With every painful bounce off that round back of hers, I clung to the knowledge I would soon be sitting still in the schoolhouse yard. We drew up alongside Sharon’s truck. The cows eased their pace and a few calves grabbed for milk from their mothers’ swollen teats. Goldie settled down to a walk and tugged on the reins in a suggestion she be allowed to graze. But Gene and Bob showed no sign of stopping. They waved at Sharon, rounded the south side of the schoolhouse, passed the pair of outhouses behind it, and headed out through the sagebrush.
It was another mile and a half to the gate through which we herded the cows and calves toward the base of Pole Mountain and left them there. It felt more like a hundred. The schoolhouse shrank back into the distance, and I was consumed by another first experience with that old building — a brief taste of what it could feel like to lose it.
An hour later when the calves were far away drinking their mothers’ milk, and the horses grazed while dragging the reins of their bridles across the ground, I found shade by leaning against the front door of the schoolhouse. We drank watery lemonade and ate sandwiches, potato salad, cole slaw, beans and pickles, then soaked up the last traces of it with enormous pieces of soft yellow cake while Gene talked about the teachers who lived at the schoolhouse, who taught the local children, who rarely lasted more than a year — the most unforgettable being the man who kept order in class by wearing a pistol on his belt.
Perched on a splintered step between droppings from bats and swallows, my body unwound from a day of riding Goldie. Through the buzz of muscle pain and sunburn came the voices of people talking about a life I once thought was only lived in a fictional past — a slow moving life they continued to experience every day. The building I leaned against felt as warm from the history it contained as it did from the early day’s sun now beginning to sink west.
A couple of years after my first lunch at the Coalmont Schoolhouse, the women of Spicer Club (the rural ranch women’s club I belonged to) got a grant to restore it and place it on the Colorado registry of historic buildings. We and the men in our lives added an indoor composting toilet, repaired windows, cleaned with a passion, painted the outside, painted the inside, stocked up on firewood for the furnace-sized stove, turned on the electricity, put up a plaque, and invited the entire country (of North Park) to celebrate the building’s return to life. From 30 to 40 miles away and more, people came to the spring flea market and the Christmas parties we held.
While children ran around the classroom, shedding little bits of themselves for the schoolhouse to gather up, their elders talked about the missing houses and store, the ghost of the railroad that transported coal from Coalmont to Laramie and beyond, and about how the mine fires took it all then continued to burn underground for more years than they could remember. The generations in the middle listened to the same stories over and over again until we could feel them rising up from the earth itself, through the worn floorboards beneath our feet, and into our beings until it seemed as if we ourselves had lived the entire history.
As the 1990s drew to a close, so did my ability to live 110 miles from a job that paid me enough to live on. I packed up my North Park dreams, put them in storage, and left the country to live just over the Wyoming border in Laramie. It wasn’t until I lost my home and my job, and my body began to grow cancer, that I found my way back to Hebron, the pause in the road just north of Coalmont.
When I saw the schoolhouse again this fall, it was as strong as ever, but its historic life was once again dormant. Brush had taken over the path to its front door, windows had fallen open to the weather, and mice were the only ones partying inside. Cows no longer come from Spicer Peak to spend the summer near the schoolhouse. Instead, small homesteading ranches with log barns and brave little greenhouses sit above the burned out mines, claiming a new determination to survive frontier living made less isolated by the satellite dishes mounted on their roofs.
Once again, the ground of Coalmont is being mined for riches. This time, for the oil a mile down and across and through the veins of its ancient rocks. Beside the pretty little ranchettes and in the middle of the large old family tracts now owned by corporations, are pumps and flames and massive gray storage tanks all connected by pipelines and powerlines. In September, the Spicer Club accepted a $150 payment from the oil company for the oil they will extract from beneath the Coalmont Schoolhouse. We did it because we knew they would take the oil whether we gave permission or not. We did it in exchange for a binding legal directive that forbids them access to the one acre of surface land surrounding the building.
In spite of the challenges, the changes, or maybe because of them, the schoolhouse has begun calling to us again — those of us who’ve returned, those who never left, those who have yet to hear even one of the stories that used to be told every time our far flung community gathered for a party. A few weeks ago, Sharon, Windi, Kathy and I spent a Saturday cleaning the school. At noon, huddled up to the hot wood stove that only smoked a little, we shared a big lunch sent by Cindy who couldn’t be there but wanted to help.
We ate and remembered — Sharon from a childhood whose future husband went to school there, Windi from growing up in a place that gave her marriage and family supported by ranching on horseback while the rest of the world roared with a technology that didn’t reach here until it was old news. While we put away lunch leftovers, Kathy went outside to dig up the mound of ancient mountain grass that had seeded itself in the middle of the path to the front door. She would save it, the wild grass, transplanting it where it wouldn’t block our passage to the schoolhouse.
Today I’m printing up flyers Cindy and I created. In a few weeks, we’re having a meeting at her house. A meeting to plan the next phase of life for the Coalmont Schoolhouse. There’s talk of dances, writing workshops, birding seminars. But first, we’ll start with a Christmas party in December. Someone said we could pay for it with the money from the oil company. Actually, it will be paid for by the human need to hang onto history while we’re still here, hoping to make a place in it for ourselves, in a way someone else can see it when we’re gone.