Morning breaks over the cluster of mills along the Poudre River. Already there is the smell of corn being ground and trucks-full of whole oats are steaming in, parking alongside Ranchway Feed. Farmers and ranchers are pulling up in “duallys”, parking next to the strip of railroad track that cuts away from the main tracks through town.
This town has been plundered by money-hungry builders, who have torn down vintage structures, replacing them with nondescript office and apartment buildings nearly everywhere. Few things are left that speak by their mere presence to the past, or the centuries old ambience of soldiers in blue uniforms stationed here on a mission to wipe out the Cheyenne, arm in arm with demure women in long taffeta dresses at dusk.
Ranchway Feed, however, remains unchanged. No one has demolished it to make room from some architecturally compatible environmentally friendly mixed-use building. It has been given a reprieve because it is still useful: people still buy grain and hay and dogfood and catfood. Every day but Sunday they come in, setting down cash for birdseed…buckets, ropes, stock tanks, hay forks, pitchforks and posthole diggers.
They emerge with all the other things necessary to take care of their ravenous Hampshire sows about to farrow, ewes ready to drop their lambs before a March storm, quarter horse mares due to foal any time, ears down, milk dripping down their back legs, shifting their weight from foot to foot in freshly bedded stalls.
Sometimes when I am low I drive over to Ranchway and park right next to it, where the river parallels the mill to the north. The smooth whitewashed cement walls of the mill remind me of the adobes of Albuquerque, where I was born. The interplay of light over the walls soothes me, and makes me wish I were a painter.
There is someone I know who lives not far from the mill, in a cluster of trees along the river. I met him years ago in Minnesota, where we both partook of a thriving literary community, running across one another in small rooms lit by candlelight where readings were underway.
I see him off and on, portaging a heavy pack, walking alongside his bike, sitting on a bench near the mill opening a can of beans. At nightfall, he once told me, he makes up his bedroll right at the edge of the river because the music of the rushing water helps him sleep. On the coldest nights he stays at the Catholic Mission a few blocks from Ranchway, or curls up in a corner of the bus station down on Mason Street.
On Easter a few years ago I took my dogs for a swim in the Poudre in the preserve across the road from Ranchway. I thought that my matron Golden would stay close if I let my chocolate lab puppy off her leash.
Instead, they both took off up river. It wasn’t far to a bridge and busy cross street; I was terrified that they would climb up out of the river bed and be mowed down.
I had to go looking for them by driving along the bike path. I drove very slowly, keeping an eye out for bikers, stopping every few feet to listen for splashing.
Even though I was pulled over off the path, a man came by in his spanking clean bright blue lycra biking togs, the sun bouncing off his red helmet, and stopped and swore at me. He held his cell phone to his ear, saying, “Lady, I’m calling the cops on you.”
Before I let the dogs run, I had been to church, and I had sung a beautiful anthem. I might have sworn at the biker if not for that.
I kept on, and then, out of the trees, came my friend. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. With him, were my dogs, soaking wet; he had each by the collar. He had gone into the river to get them; his soggy jeans clung to his legs.
I pulled over and got out, asking him how he was, and thanked him, loading up the dogs. They steamed up the windows with their reprobate panting, soaking the pickup seats.
“I just don’t know anymore,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s just not worth it. Not worth it.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. He wouldn’t look into my eyes. He kept his head down, or he looked off at something.
“Want to dry off and have me take you somewhere? Want to go to the Ever Open Cafe, my treat?”
“I have to go,” he said. “I have to find a book. I don’t know where I put it. It’s a really important book; I’ve got to find it. I might have left it at my house.”
He started trudging away from me, downriver, toward the mill, which was a mile or so from where we stood. He disappeared around the bend in the path.
I drove back up the bike path, to Ranchway, with its obdurate, listing eclipse of highway and mountains. Corn husks and tumbleweeds blew along the tracks. The mill was again illuminated from without by the high sun. Light filtered through the trees, caressing the old building with its cracks and peeling paint. The dogs were settled down in the truck.
I stood alone on Easter afternoon, next to Ranchway Feed, where translucent hands of light lifted me out of sorrow and fear.