Winters were always noteworthy in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s on the Cochetopa.
In particular at the rustic Quarter-Circle Circle Ranch, where there was no running water, no electricity and the nearest town was 50 miles in distance. Temperatures were seldom above freezing during December, January and February.
In the dead of night, when trillions of stars were twinkling in the brisk heavens, 30 below zero was an often occurrence; 40 below was even experienced a few times. And, in 1961, the mercury bottomed out at -60 degrees. At such extreme temperatures everything becomes so quiet. You could yell at the top of your lungs and at 50 paces it would be a little more than a whisper. During those years snow depth was always remarkable as well. There might be a foot or so on the windward side and 20- to 30-foot drifts on the leeward.
The winter of 1969-70 was the toughest. The snow came in like a tsunami the last week of October. Mother Nature’s attitude was relentless as there were several feet of snow that covered the landscape by mid-November. Fences and bushes were submerged, and with a full moon at night, the entire landscape appeared like the lunar surface without so much as a tall bush to act as a blemish to such tranquility. It was May before the road into the ranch was passable.
I was a senior at Gunnison High School and was forced to take refuge at several hospitable locations in town during this period. Such places as the Dorzweiler home, the Haag quarters, Walt and Barbra Jean Barron’s residence and finally the Columbine Hotel became my nomadic destinations during the school year.
While I was away, my mother and “Pup,” her most dependable companion, would settle in for the duration at the ranch. After all, someone had to take care of the cattle, cats, chickens and her first love, the horses. During that long stretch of six-plus months, I would only get to briefly see mother a half a dozen times.
During that period, there was a lady in Denver who was experiencing deep depression and entertaining definite suicidal ideas. And, what amplified her sense of hopelessness was the fact that it was just after Christmas. For the sake of this story we will call her Jennifer. Jennifer’s friend Sally had visited the Quarter-Circle Circle in the summer and was amazed at how much Margaret Besecker, my sainted mother, had lived such a full and inspirational life.
Through a spontaneous notion Sally was able to convince the always despondent Jennifer to take a five-hour drive to the ranch and witness such an amazing woman and how much she had developed such a meaningful existence. Perhaps this would interrupt the thought pattern of self-destruction that Jennifer had become all too familiar with. However, what they did not realize was the fact that three miles from their destination they would become hopelessly snowbound.
What’s that in the night?
Sally immediately realized the dire circumstance and their subsequent plight. She knew they were still a few miles from the homestead and countless miles from civilization. As darkness engulfed the stranded two, Sally made the decision that they must make the final stage of the pilgrimage on foot. So, adorned in inadequate clothing the ladies started the trudge, in the approximate direction of the ranch as from this point the road was completely obscured by snow.
Margaret’s recollection was that it was about midnight when Pup began to whine which awoke her from a sound slumber. The whining then turned into a seemingly urgent bark as though to announce that there was company. Mother attempted to quiet her faithful partner as she knew there was no way. Pup began to nuzzle mother’s side and bark at the same time. With great apprehension Margaret pulled herself from bed and lit a kerosene lamp.
To appease her four-legged friend she walked through her bedroom door and then to the front door of the lodge. As she opened the door there stood the ghost like features of Sally who was so frozen that she could not even knock. Within seconds mother guided her friend into the kitchen and stoked the fire. But Sally seemed delirious and preoccupied with the notion that there was a second soul out in the freezing wilderness.
After mother was finally convinced, she now approached her transportation, which was a 1967 Jeepster; a vehicle which, by tradition, would start, in protest, at -26 degrees but not at all at -27. Mother glanced at the thermometer and it was -36 degrees. She extended her faith through a short prayer and turned the ignition and the somewhat dependable transportation sputtered to a start. What made matters all the more amazing was the fact that prior, there had been no reason to try to start the vehicle in the past month and a half!
Mother, Sally and Pup waited a few agonizing minutes for the warmth of the engine to radiate to the transmission and warm the thick grease so that mother could shift. They then drove on the leeward western edge of the property for about a mile before they were forced to disembark and continue on foot. Pup was excited as he was able to direct the search to the exact location where Jennifer was to be found. Mother’s heart dropped as Jennifer was curled up and appeared to be dead in the deep snow. She was not!
It was with dire urgency in which Jennifer was escorted to the jeep. After delivering the intensive-care patient to the ranch, mother put on her veterinary mindset and began to literally thaw the lady’s extremities. As they pulled the clothing from the fair skinned lady they found that her legs were completely black and seemed to be frozen solid. Mother knew that shock would be an adversarial element of survival, so she assured the patient that the darkness was due to bruising. She soaked towels in warm water and placed them on the patient’s legs. As predictable, the thawing brought forth unbearable agony.
For the next 30 hours mother and Sally tended to Jennifer’s every need. Mother went to great lengths to protect Jennifer’s mental stability. She reassured the patient that she had nothing to worry about; that she would not lose any of her extremities. But, mother knew that this was a lie.
With Jennifer finally stable, it was time for mother to traverse through the winter tundra and summon outside help. She grabbed her snowshoes and approached the jeep with hopes that it would save her a possible mile. Apparently, the inanimate object thought it had already given it’s all for although the temperature was around zero, the battery was now dead.
Mother walked the four miles to the mailbox and was then delivered by postal carrier to the Saguache County shop. Within a half-day the entire ranch road was plowed and the two ladies were on their way to a hospital in Denver.
Upon examination Jennifer was informed that she would be losing both of her legs. She was quick to respond that, no she “would not!” When the medical professionals finally inquired why she felt she could keep her legs she simply said, “Because Margaret said so!” Jennifer was most persistent on the matter which eventually turned into defiance to the medical assessment. Thus, the surgeons were compelled to make a deal with Jenny. She could keep her legs as long as there was no sign of gangrene. With only a confidence that David would understand when facing Goliath, Jennifer agreed.
It is my understanding that within a short period of time, perhaps a couple weeks, Jennifer was released from the hospital. She carried herself with only a slight limp, for she would only surrender two toes from her right foot.
(Rick Besecker will retire from his position as Gunnison County Sheriff early next month. His Christmas stories have become an annual tradition in the Times.)