When you get to Nebraska, you know you’re in the West. There are historical sites up and down the Platte and Highway 80, if you’re willing to leave the highway–including a history museum for the sod house and the birthplace of kool aid. This was the path my grandparents took from Lincoln to northeast Colorado (though I doubt that kool aid had taken hold by then). Trying to put myself in their shoes, the thing that overwhelmed me most was how much land there was, how much space, up, down and everywhere. How like the Russian steppes it must have been. Vermont is a little cramped compared to Nebraska and the steppes.
I was very excited when I got to Colorado. Suddenly, there were tumbleweeds everywhere and even more sky than before. One of the first songs I remember as a child was “Tumbling Along with the Tumbling Tumbleweed” sung by the Sons of the Pioneers. The highway was no longer 80; it was two lane and nearly empty. I filled up with gas near the border at a station with fake teepees. As I drove towards Sterling, Hillrose, Brush and Fort Morgan, I listened to a CD with Ella Fitzgerald and in another of those fateful events that filled this trip, she happened to sing “Our Love is Here to Stay.” The song was one I had sung at my sister to make her cry when we were both kids. I was a mean older sister and she loved the Rockies. “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibralter may crumble. They’re only made of clay….”
I don’t remember Hillrose. It was off to the right—a small green place with, Wikipedia says, 264 people. It looked more like 75. The only memory I have of it is my mother’s. She couldn’t have been more than four years old when she watched by the river as her grandmother brushed her long, silver hair.
Somewhere around Hillrose, the gas gauge suddenly dived to empty. Were the gas pumps as artificial as the teepees? I envisioned gas pouring out the bottom of the car. Three minutes later the gague went back up. And days later, a Dodge dealer assured me it was probably nothing.
I found Brush soon after. That’s where my grandparents ended up, and where my memories are most vivid. A small undistinguished town that smells of stockyards, and back then probably smelled of sugar beets besides. The factory was further up the road from the farmhouse than I thought and, of course, the house and everything around it was much smaller than I remembered. It’s amazing how small we must have been to make such small things—an irrigation canal, a forest of trees, a yellow house where the Mexican workers lived—so much larger than they were.
The town still sported the rodeo grounds where a cowgirl singer inspired me to be a yodeler; my grade school hadn’t been demolished, not even the bushes where I hid from the rest of the second grade to pray that God would get us out of there; the same movie house on Clayton Street where I held hands with some kid named Pete is still there; my grandmother’s neat, tiny house, is also there; the railroad station no longer transports people, but it hasn’t moved. Family from Florida, my sister and I cruised the town in a big white SUV and wondered if anyone was watching as we went over the same streets again and again.
Six of us, including my 92-year-old aunt, wandered through the cemetery looking for my grandparents, my grandfather’s fabled sister, Jenny; my mother’s little brother who was shot to death in a gun accident in 1918.
So many things have changed in a long lifetime, but the most amazing thing about Brush, Colorado was that it had changed so little over the last 65 years.
Except, of course, for the miniaturization that turned some very big things small.