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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

You Can Take the Girl Out of the Country, but You Can't Take the Elders Out of the Memory of the Girl

One of the biggest treats of Christmas day was to go ice skating on the river with my cousins. It was rare to skate the river because of the nuisance of driving into town. We had a skating pond on the farm, known as the "dug-out." It was a simple, square manmade stock pond, where the dug-out dirt had been placed in mounds on opposite sides. The dug-out was located at the far quarter of the far pasture. We never wintered cattle there because of its remoteness and lack of shelter. Occasionally, a windy, early freeze would make lumpy ice on the dug-out. Naturally, this spoiled the skating for the entire year. This was one of those years, when I was eight. But with Christmas at Grandma’s house, we were already in town and only a few minutes’ drive minutes from the river.

The frozen river was a hotbed of winter activity. Dozens gathered every weekend on snowmobiles and ice skates. Some snowmobilers were there to race the sprint course, others to see or be seen. Those on foot huddled in circles around imaginary barrel fires, from which breath-smoke rose in dense clouds.

With skates tied in a tight knot over our shoulders, three cousins and I rushed out to the skating area, which was delineated with straw bales and tree stumps. This area was always smoother than the stock pond and was swept clean of snow. A warming shack stood shakily at the river’s edge. It was sooty inside and out.

We carefully pushed against the springs on the brown-black door. A rush of sweet, acrid smoke escaped and lit up my nostrils. Blinking from the stark contrast of bright, midday sun, I stood still in the doorway and concentrated on adjusting to the foggy, blue darkness inside. I could see the fireplace at the corner of the shack. Scattered carelessly in front of the fire were lumps of soggy-looking mittens, hats, socks, and jackets.

Next to a large wood pile were bleachers—a collection of two-by-sixes placed on paint cans. The older cousins led us to our seats, hesitating after a few steps to again gain vision once the door closed.

Once inside, we spotted the old guy next to the door. The glare from the window behind him framed his head like a halo. In his short-legged wooden chair, he hunched over his task of tightening the skates for the child seated in front of him. When finished and the child had gone out the bright doorway, he looked up at us. I was nervous, but then a well-worn smile spread across his face as he welcomed us to the warming house with a toasty, “Hello.” We returned his greeting and proceeded to free one skate from the other.

He rose from his chair and stirred the fire. I couldn’t help but stare, which must have been rude. But I was intrigued by his focus and determination at his work. Each step, each motion was deliberate. When he returned to his chair he asked if any of us would like help tying our skates. We each replied, “No thanks.” So he leaned back on the wooden slats, turned to the fire, and smiled.

“You know, I’m the best skate-tyer you’ve ever known,” he said with a simple grin.

Though this was the first time I had seen him, I had heard the stories, and knew this was true. Skate-tying was a difficult and much-admired skill. Even so, shyness was a prevalent trait in the shack that day.

The two older cousins had finished with their skates and wasted no time getting back outside. The younger cousin and I fumbled hopelessly with the laces until the old man stood, raised his chair, and moved to our bench. “Would you like some help?” he asked. I lifted my skate, which he placed gently on his knees. He loosened the laces all the way to the toe. Then, eyelet by eyelet, he tightened the skate around my foot.

His stumpy fingers were cracked with dryness but worked with fluid finesse. His fingernails were trimmed to a neat band of white. Eventually, I drew the courage to look at his face. Up close, I saw that his eyelashes were gray, as were the sideburns extending below his insulated Pioneer cap. His eyes were cloudy, like the film on the shack’s single window, and deep creases radiated from them. He had lots of other wrinkles on his face too—the short, vertical ones above his top lip, the diagonal ones on his earlobes, and the swooping smoker’s wrinkles defining his cheekbones. He smelled smoky but not the same as the smell permeating the shack; rather, the combination of stubbed-out cigarettes and fresh rose petals.

I wanted to ask, “Is this your job?” “Do you live here at the shack?” “What happens when the ice melts—does the shack float?”

Eventually, he might have gotten around to telling the story of how his father witnessed the fire that burned down all the buildings on Main Street, and who then designed and built the big blue lollipop water tower at the center of town.

He finished with my skates and I continued to steal looks at him as he tied my cousin’s skates. Except “Good-bye” as we left, he didn’t say another word. Once back out in the bright daylight, we found the older cousins and practiced our figure-eights and spins. My skates were tight and secure, and while I moved smoothly across the ribbon of gray ice, I couldn’t stop seeing the old warming house attendant’s blue eyes.

It is hard to say, even now, why this particular man struck me with such intrigue. Why would I remember an old man tying skates in a warming hut? Why do I remember kneading bread with my Grandma W or playing softball in the back yard of my Granny and Grandpa P’s house, using old disc blades for bases?

Perhaps it is their wisdom and spirit that I respect and treasure. And perhaps it is that they are elders in my world. Someday I too hope to be an elder, tasked with the duty of passing on wisdom and care to future generations by the side of a wintry river, or as I am now—far from home and yet still there.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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