What can be more fun than a visit to the Big Horn Mountains and a couple days at a cabin with a stream nearby. Add to the experience a pal to run around with and a big slice of watermelon on a hot summer day. My memory of those childhood days had grown somewhat hazy, but it was brought back suddenly with the recent death of my pal Donald whom I had not seen in person since we were still in high school.
The cabin belonged to Donald’s aunt and uncle, Toots and Domingo Goyhenex. They had a ranch near ours down in the foothills and were good friends as well as good neighbors. Donald came to live with them in second grade. He was one of only two boys near in age to me in the area and became a playmate. Even at that age he was a complete gear-head who spent his waking hours driving trucks, flying airplanes, and fast cars. He would run up and down, shouting out gear changes, (whatever is “compound anyway?”) in a frenzy of driving his imagined machines.
Judy, a giant golden collie was our constant companion. She would follow us on our rounds, her tail swishing back and forth. She is pictured here with Donald, my brother Jimmy and me. Dad’s 1953 Cadillac is in the background and once again, we are enjoying a visit to the cabin in the Big Horns.
My favorite pastime was to run down the creek, leaping from one rock to another, attempting to stay dry. The water was cold and icy, coming straight from banks of snow in the high peaks. Getting soaked would leave you shivering and blue with cold. Invariably, we would end up wet and forced to climb up the hillside to some rocks to warm up. We wasted endless hours trying to catch rock chucks whose burrows were in the crevasses in the rock, to no avail. I don’t think we ever wondered what we would do with one if we did catch it, and I found the dens to be stinky and pretty disgusting. I can still hear the shrill chirp of the rock chucks early in the morning as they were the first up to greet the sun.
Ranch neighbors gathered to help brand cattle and sheep and this day the fence sitters had no immediate jobs to do. Left to right, my mother, me, Jimmy, Donald and Edna. The men are down in the corral dogging the calves for branding, vaccinating, and castrating. The round-up and branding usually takes place late May to early June and my summer wardrobe consisted of sun suits my mother made from flour sacks. I am wearing one of her ensembles here and I remember being very comfortable and cool. We usually got to have a sip from somebody’s cold beer after the branding was done.
I could not wait until I was old enough to go on the early morning roundup to gather the cattle. It meant getting up when the birds had just begun to sing and the air was crisp and cool. As the morning wore on, the heat would build and it seemed like we would never get finished driving the cattle into holding pens to sort calves from their mothers. By then I was ready for a shady spot to catch a nap but the real work had just begun.
Domingo, far right, looks on as the brand is placed on the calf’s hip. Toots is above on the corral post. After many hours of branding calves, my mother would serve a meal to all who came to help. It was a long day, but everyone seemed to enjoy the camaraderie.
Actually, this little fish wouldn’t be enough to feed the crowd that gathered at Domingo’s cabin. So he fed us pancakes–the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten! They would fill the plate, were light and fluffy and drowning in syrup. Domingo was a great cook and his mulligan stew and rice pudding were our favorites (after his pancakes, of course.)
In winter the North Fork of Powder River would freeze over in the sloughs and backwater ponds below Domingo’s house. Donald and I would take our skates and cruise up and down the creek, leaping a few strands of barbed wire in one spot, and trying to avoid falling in the openings in the ice. The creek wasn’t very deep in most of the areas we skated, but a slip under the ice could have been fatal. We didn’t dream of having adult supervision for this free-range frenzy on the ice and they didn’t seem to feel a need to watch over us. The duels we fought with cattails torn from along the edge of the creek would leave the ice so cluttered with fuzz our skates stuck to it. When we were thoroughly cold, we would head to the house for a warm drink. We polished our skates with mutton tallow, at Domingo’s instruction, to keep them water proof.
Dinner time at Domingo’s house usually meant the kids drank wine with the adults. The Basque culture of the Pyrenees was liberally laced with wine and I can still taste the stuff Domingo would pour from a jug of dry red (I seem to recall Mogan David or Marco Petri?) into a metal glass (easier to take on the sheep camp trail – they always served from metal glasses) and in no time the kids would be asleep.
My memories of Donald are closely embedded with my memories of his aunt and uncle. A couple summers I was invited along to trail their sheep to summer pasture in the Big Horns. I loved being outdoors in the mountains, and as the sheep grazed and ambled along, we had time to wander and explore. It was a special time.
Donald left for Viet Nam after highschool and settled in other parts of the country. But he never forgot his old home town and old friends. One summer he pulled into town riding a big motorcycle. He captured my brother for a ride, which my brother later described as the most frightening experience of his life. I did not witness the event, but my imagination runs amok when I envision Donald, at 6 ft. tall, and my brother, a giant at 6 ft. 5 inches aboard a motorcycle, screaming up and down the roadways near Kaycee. A little off-road bump and grind added to the experience and convinced Jimmy never, ever to crawl aboard another motorcycle. A few years later Donald arrived back home in a helicopter. He landed it at the Sussex ranch where Jimmy resides and appeared out of a dust storm to invite Jimmy for a ride in his “chopper.” Jimmy politely declined, recalling his trip aboard a motorcycle with a maniac. Good thing Donald didn’t land at the home ranch north of town, he would have been tangled up in the cottonwoods and scared my grandmother’s chickens into the next county.
I had not connected with Donald until a friend request turned up on Facebook a little over a year ago. We shared some experiences, filled in some of the gaps in our lives, and I learned that he was suffering from health problems. He didn’t let on that he was nearing the end, however. I remarked to my husband over breakfast a couple weeks ago that I hadn’t received a post from Donald in about a month, and that very day I received word that he had died. I feel like a chunk of my childhood died with him.