Residents of Wyoming are well-accustomed to vast stretches of high prairie covered with sage, western cheatgrass and the occasional small grove of cottonwood trees, which can often be spotted from as far away as a couple of miles. The sight of this small oasis will invariably set your imagination into active wonder. “Just how did it get there?” is usually the first question that enters the mind. Like any spot of greenery found in isolated, water-deprived areas, there are a multitude of stories that it could tell—this is just one of those stories.
In the early 1950s, our small, two-bedroom home was the last dwelling on the eastern edge of town at the corner of E. 5th and S. Gurley. It was a straight shot from our very small living room (which had a couch, a tube radio and a party line telephone and also served as my bedroom), through our kitchen, past the wood burning cooking stove and the ten gallon stainless steel dairy can we used for hauling water, then through the front door that let you out onto the mud porch. The mud porch was a small enclosure that held our icebox with a drip pan, a bare wood storage bench where we would store our muddy boots, and a few pegs for hanging winter coats.
Once you stepped out of the mud porch and crossed the dirt road known as Gurley Avenue, you were standing on the edge of never-ending open space clear to the horizon. Immediately in front of you was a large quarter section field of long ago abandoned wild alfalfa. This was a place of many wonders, a place where children of good imagination could play for hours on end, free to be whatever they could imagine. For the most part it was flat and ringed by a barbed wire fence on three sides. The far eastern border was a sheep fence with 6” wire squares. An old, rectangular, dry holding pond was near the center of the north end. All four sides of this dry pond had a large berm for us to climb, fight on, or roll down. This became everything from our fort to exotic locations where we would fight Indians, or the Cavalry, or bad guys of all sorts. All around us was waist-high alfalfa, and the empty holding pond bottom was filled with milkweed as tall as we were. They could be made into spears once the summer heat dried them to a blonde, brittle, stiff shaft of a good length for throwing. The root was large and spear head shaped. With a little trimming and then whittling of the root it became a sharp pointed object that would stick into a target.
The south end of our field rose steeply toward the large white farmhouse at the top of a large hill. We never went near that farmhouse, even though we knew the man who came by with his twin horses and wagon to empty our trash incinerator of ashes, lived there with his wife. We just let them be.
The alfalfa field was the breadbasket for much of the nearby wildlife. One could not walk across that field without encountering a white tail or a black tail jack rabbit, or a flock or two of sage hens (prairie chickens, we called them). Meadowlarks, red-wing blackbirds, sparrows, hawks, and the occasional barn owl, were everywhere.
Once the far east fence of the wild alfalfa field was reached the social dynamic changed. Those games of cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers ended there. One needed a grand urge to wander out into the vast unending prairie to go beyond that border. This was my world, once I crossed that fence, I was a Daniel Boone or a Kit Carson—always with my eye on the far horizon.
My favorite destination lay beyond the alfalfa field, another half to three quarters of a mile across a sage covered prairie. One could make out the tall stately cottonwood trees rising above a sea of sagebrush, all the way from our front porch on a clear day and with a little squint of the eye.
Trees on the open prairie were always an open invitation. Their very sight would arouse a young boy’s curiosity from a very long distance away, drawing him into its private little space with the promise of shade, maybe a nearby spring, nests of large birds of prey and even the possibility of the remains of an old homestead.
Even in the winter, the large bare branches would be an anomaly standing above the snow-covered prairie—sturdy and strong, daring the winter cold to be its harshest. The summer heat could be lessened by the cottonwoods’ green and silver sided leaves combined with a prairie breeze. Cottonwoods were never lonely, as they attracted every passerby from a great distance. Coyote, bob cat, mule deer, antelope, sheep, cow or man, it made no difference, they all came with an expectation to share a few moments of shade, cover and relaxation.
This particular grove was small—five or six mature, even-aged trees in fairly close quarter. Its size was set, and it was rare to see a young sapling anywhere nearby. Cottonwoods require a spring flooding season to regenerate, and with this group there was only a small pond that fed its thirsty roots. This pond, although small in size, (perhaps 50’ by 50’) rarely was overwhelmed by spring thaw enough to cause the flooding the cottonwoods needed to regenerate.
It held no remnants of an old homestead, with the exception of a few planks strewn about for some unknown purpose. These planks became important however as I, along with my good friends Terry and Jerry (the Gladson twins) from the nearby Experimental Farm, fashioned them into a sturdy raft of a perfect size to hold two boys and my dog, Jip.
The Experimental Farm was two miles east of Gillette and rested on the top of a pine covered hill. Forest and Jenny Gladson oversaw the daily operations and maintenance of the farm infrastructure. Experiments in hybrid crops and animal husbandry were handled by state professional agriculturists. Their two boys (twins) Terry and Jerry were good looking, athletic, and very popular with the girls in school. They had three sisters, although I only remember Dena. Terry and I, and sometimes Jerry, hunted small game together, sometimes with 22 rimfire rifles, but mostly with a bow and arrow.
They had a small, black and brown short-haired rat terrier, named Danger, who had one good eye. Danger lost his left eye to an encounter with a rattlesnake a few years back. It left him with a swollen blind left eye that bulged out of the socket. This event was life-changing, and it became Danger’s life mission to kill every rattlesnake in the state of Wyoming.
We rarely ran into rattlesnakes on our forays, but if Danger was with us (as he often was), he would always find one or two. It went like this: we would be walking along a cow path or down a small gulley, and out of the corner of our eye we’d catch Danger’s sudden stop and half squat as he loaded his legs. He would bark and fake a lunge that would cause the rattlesnake to strike. As the snake struck, Danger would leap straight into the air and the snake would be somewhat stretched out below him. As he hit the ground he would turn, and his jaw would grab that snake just behind the head with a violent shaking motion. None ever survived an encounter with Danger.
The Pond, as we called it, lay almost exactly halfway between the twins’ home and our house so it became our normal meeting place. The twins had morning farm chores that were quite extensive, so we usually could only meet after lunch. When approaching the pond, (they from the east and me from the west) we would hold up any small game we had acquired along the way, high into the air. Terry usually had a cottontail or two, the experimental farm was loaded with them. I usually had a young sage hen from the alfalfa field.
The Pond had two main attractions: lots of cattails for fashioning shelter, and mud puppies for catching, just because it was fun. Tree climbing was also a minor attraction, as was whittling the nice soft cottonwood branches that lay everywhere. Even an occasional swim took place. The pleasantness of this place, the cooling shade, the prairie breeze and just the essence of something special was not lost on us. We felt good here, relaxed and at peace.
Mud puppies are a salamander species. These, as adults, were about 8” – 9” long. Tannish brown, they were difficult to see at the brown mud bottom in a slightly murky still water pond. They had three finger-like hairy gills on each side of a flat head, and the tail was short and thick. Their small but strong legs would speed them across the bottom at an amazing speed. To catch one was a real challenge! We often considered cooking the mud puppies we caught, but always rejected the thought and returned them to the pond.
Cattails were thick, tall and strong in the Pond, and all you needed to harvest them was a sharp sturdy knife. Cattails are useful in many ways—a four-season food, medicinal and utility plant—most of which we ignored. We did however like to cut the stalks in June/July and use the fibrous leaves as twine. We would weave the stalks into a small dome large enough for a boy to sleep in, tying them together where needed with the leaves. That kept us busy for hours on end.
We always had good intentions of using these shelters, but truth be told we preferred laying our bedrolls out in the open where we could stare at the stars and wonder at the worlds beyond our earth. Building of the shelters was still great fun and my dog, Jip, always enjoyed using them for a nap.
Over time we had developed a pretty nice camp site. When larger dead branches broke and fell from the cottonwoods, we would drag them to our site, trim them and arrange them to make seating around the fashioned fire pit. The trimmings would be cut to length just right for our small fire pit that was ringed with what stones we could find. A couple of flat stones were laid as a surface for preparing food. The branch trimmings lay stacked in three neat piles by diameter, small to large. The long leaves from the cattails were laid lengthwise on the ground like a small mattress, although it was just an attempt to have a barrier between our blanket or bedroll and the dusty ground.
Of all the fun the Pond provided us, what we really enjoyed was cooking the wild game we harvested along our journey from home to the cottonwoods. It was an unwritten rule that when heading to the pond we carried our lemonwood longbow in hand and a sturdy quiver filled with Port Orford cedar arrows upon our back. The harvests usually consisted of a cottontail or young sage hen, on occasion a snake or turtle from around the pond was added to the menu.
If we were actually spending the night, a small blanket rolled tight and strapped to my quiver was needed. My knife/hatchet combo was always on my belt, as was a WWII canteen/cup and a haversack made from an old pair of jeans rested over my shoulder. Inside the haversack would be a WWII mess kit (pan, plate, spoon, fork, knife), inside the mess kit would be a plastic bread sack with a cup of flour laced with salt and pepper and a small jar of Crisco for cooking. In a separate plastic bread sack would be a cup of oatmeal flakes mixed with a pinch of salt, sugar and powdered milk. A tea bag and a small container of sugar, along with a small box of stick matches, would usually complete my load.
To lie on a light blanket underneath the cottonwoods with the embers of a small fire glowing nearby, the warmth of a hot summer day still warming the evening air, the night lit as though it was Las Vegas in the sky, good companions and a dog to cuddle with—just nothing settles the soul or excites the imagination better.
That was how we spent our days and times at the Pond with no name. The overnight trips happened two or three times a summer for three years in a row, but day trips were more common. I suppose we eventually outgrew the pond, but before we did, we laced our lives with memories that would last forever. Such was the life of a boy with the urge to wander, his dog, his bow and arrow and the endless sea of sage covered hills, valleys, flats and gullies that stretched as far as the eye could see.