The beginning and the end of the world, in one town. America in subcompact form.
This is one of those stories that has no real center, no particular glue. Branson, Colorado is a tiny town of some 70 people in southeast Colorado a few miles north of the New Mexico border, and about 30 miles east of Trinidad, CO. Nearly everyone in town is in ranching, or else works on the enormous, nearly endless TO Ranch (owned by this country’s largest landowner, John Malone) in northeast New Mexico. They’re cowboys, mostly. I went there almost entirely by accident, as the guest of a friend we’d recently made.
She values her privacy highly, so I’ll call her Samantha. We met her at a kids’ rodeo in Trinidad one hot day in August, traded emails, and soon enough she invited us to come spend the night. Well, my wife-to-be was away in New York, but I took Samantha up on it. She works with horses. Trains them. Competes in rodeos. She also teaches school. She performed in a famous East Coast circus when she was younger. She lived on the Navajo reservation near Four Corners for a couple of years, alone in a hogan, becoming fast friends with the Navajo. And she’s a writer – poetry and stories and nonfiction narratives about her life in the West.
I asked if I could bring my 35 mm Nikon F to take photos of her with her horses, and she said sure. I also wanted to shoot Branson ranchers branding their calves, but Samantha said they’d just finished branding a few days earlier.
When I got there, we chatted for a bit and then she and her friend (whose name I’ve forgotten, but let’s call her Beth) told me there was an antique car and truck auction about 10 miles east, out in a field. Did I want to go? Sure.
So, in spite of Ford Broncos and IH’s others I would have gladly snatched up, she and Beth went home empty-handed. Me too. I had a ’72 Jeep Commando, which was project enough: failing exhaust system, loose motor mounts that would lock the automatic transmission into first gear only, bad shocks, you name it.
Later, she said there’s a barn dance in Branson that night, and would I like to go? Sure. Where’s Branson? 30 miles east, all on one dirt road. Sure. So the three of us took off in their Jeep across dusty rolling flatness at sunset – the epitome of what they call the High Plains. The women wore western shirts and jeans and I, displaced Yankee, wore whatever I’d brought.
When we came into town I wondered how such a small place could support any type of community. A couple of dozen buildings, maybe. But they had a school with a small gym, and this is what acted as their Community Center and dance hall. Everyone inside dressed to the western nines – kids and adults alike – and the music (natch) was all two-step. Basic two-step is pretty simple (feet move quick-quick, slooww-slooww), but these men and women (and the kids too) had all kinds of flourishy moves and inventive variations. A sea of smiles and a chorus of voices with western drawls – I felt I’d landed in some alternate fragile universe where joy and love had been perfectly distilled. Samantha and I danced several numbers, she guided me through a couple of cool moves, and I did my best to do more than just clunk along. But in the end, it wasn’t quite my world and my feet weren’t responding. (I think I asked her at one point if I came across as an Eastern type and she told me, frankly but with kindness, “It’s written all over you.”)
It’s easy to tell from the photos that Samantha has a strong body, and at one point one of her Branson male admirers asked her, in so many words, where her “arms came from.” She snapped back (but with a smile) – “from God.” I think she feels modest about her body. Beauty and strength are internal, where they should belong.
We left and headed back to Trinidad. Same 30 miles of dirt road. For reasons I wasn’t quite sure of, I felt glowing inside, as though I’d been touched in a place that was new to me. For a couple of hours we’d been connected to a tiny remote community where everyone knew everyone else and treasured their togetherness. There was no talk about such things, as if talk would diminish it.
A few years ago, as Branson kept shrinking and the number of children dwindled, it became a model for elementary school distance learning. And still is, I think. More recently, their post office was shut down, and the whole town gathered to bid it farewell.
The next morning was photograph time. Pretty horses, great rider. My Nikon F had great optics, but of course it was 35mm film and somewhat limited.
At the end, she wanted to walk her horse outside the ring on her ranch land. I followed with my camera, wanting to frame the shot with her leading her horse off to the left.
Before leaving, I gave her a copy of my only commercially published novel, warning her it was as culturally opposite to her world as a book could be. She didn’t mind.
We connected by phone after that, but eventually lost track of each other. She has many stories to tell, but she’ll need to do that herself. I felt privileged to know her, and spend a couple of very special hours in a rare American community. Or maybe it isn’t so rare…
For other insights into this special part of the country, its beauty and troubles, see here.
There it is.
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