Scuttlebutt: A window on the Roan Plateau

Eliza and John Christian Schutte, the author’s great-grandparents, pose with their neighbors on their Piceance Creek horse ranch. (Photo circa 1916 by John B. Schutte, courtesy of Suzanna Bobo)

KODIAK — My window overlooks a parking lot crowded with pickup trucks, sports cars and SUVs. It could be a parking lot at the regional hospital or just about any place in America. But if I look beyond the vehicles I can see a tall cedar fence and past that, a row of cottonwood trees whose verdant limbs part just enough to give me a glimpse of the high desert ridges of Colorado’s Roan Plateau.

Say what you will about the inadequacies of the American health care system. The familiar, looming landscape framed by my window reminds me that our system is so efficient that I can travel to my home state and still receive the infusions that help me function.

I am here to celebrate the birth of my second grandson. And as I have watched the infant’s features fill out and have cuddled with his almost 2-year-old big brother, I have thought a lot about the future.

What will the educational system be like when the boys are old enough to go to school? Will they enjoy playing outdoors? Hold books in their hands and read them? When the boys have families of their own, will they provide for them as their daddy and grandfathers have, with the labor of their own hands?

Today, the boys are enjoying the company of my mother and niece, and I am staring out a hospital window at the Roan Plateau, a place that connects me with the past. More than a century ago, my ancestors settled on the other side of the plateau — the Meeker side — staking their claim to a large parcel of land in a valley so thick with foliage that it was called Piceance Creek (for the Ute word meaning “tall grass”).

They were immigrants, fresh from the Old World, and they arrived in America with dreams of a country where hard work actually resulted in reward. They cut themselves off from their history when they boarded a passenger ship with nothing but a few items of clothing, some money, their infant son (whose middle name “Bismarck” would remind them of home) and a camera they would use to make photographs to send the folks they left behind.

My grandfather grew like a sapling on the Piceance Creek homestead. He helped his mother grow vegetables and potatoes in the rich, dark soil, learned how to hunt for wild game, and watched as his father raised and trained stallions, which the old man sold for a pretty penny in this country where horses remain — for many — a preferred means of travel.

We have photos of the old homestead, wonderful shots of my great-grandfather working with his horses, my great-grandmother in her garden. And the photographs document indirectly my grandfather’s budding competence in using the camera equipment his father had carried to America.

The photos are the only historical artifacts that remain of my family’s connection to the land in Piceance Creek, because when the draft board recruited my then 18-year-old grandfather for duty in World War I, the property was soon lost. The family applied for an exemption — my grandfather was the only child on a working ranch — but the exemption was denied, and my grandfather joined the Navy.

The ranch could not be sustained. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother moved to town. But before they left the ranch, they released all of their horses into the wild, to give the animals their freedom and, I would guess, to keep the bank from getting them.

Today, Piceance Creek remains one of only a few wild horse management areas under the administration of the Bureau of Land Management. Despite efforts by many western groups to preserve Piceance Creek as a place where wild horses may be allowed to roam, the BLM makes regular efforts to round up the animals and adopt them out. In the West, where wild horses are living symbols of a historic way of life, it’s an extremely controversial issue.

I look at the Roan Plateau and I picture the herds of wild horses that run in the tall grass on the other side. Are the horses descendants of my great-grandfather’s herd? It seems extremely likely. Just as it seems likely that the plateau takes its name from the animals. “Roan” is used to describe a coat color found in animals, most notably horses, which does not fade as the animal ages.

The plateau itself seems painted with the mixture of white and pigment that resembles the coat of a roan pony. If there is a herd of roan horses running on it today, horses that came up from the Piceance basin, I am sure they are well camouflaged in the landscape.

The past and present often dissolve into one another, just as the horses melt into the plateau. I look at our grandsons Connor and Kellen, and I see our son Doran. And as we gather around the dinner table, bow our heads and pray, I am intensely aware of how the present blends its pigment into the future.

When we clasp our grandson’s tiny hands at the table, we can never anticipate how our actions today will sustain them tomorrow. We only know that they will.

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