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In the heart of Red Ryder Country

Late September—morning in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The cool, crisp air under blue skies at 7,500 feet is invigorating. The cottonwoods lining the streets are already a rich yellow-gold. It’s easy to see why people want to live in this valley, billed as the “land of the cool sun.”

My objective is Pagosa Springs on the other side of the Continental Divide that follows the ridge of the San Juan Mountains. U.S. 160 out of Alamosa follows the Rio Grande that rises in the east slope of the San Juans. The cottonwoods along the Rio Grande form a yellow band as the road gradually rises in elevation, through tidy, scenic towns of Monte Vista and Del Norte, to South Fork.

South Fork marks the division of geographic and culturally historic worlds. The stretch of the Rio Grande from its origin in the San Juans to South Fork rushes clear and cold. From South Fork to its remaining 1,700 miles to the sea, the Rio Grande is slow and filled with sediment, with the exception of a stretch through a gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

Downstream from South Fork, the San Luis Valley, originally settled by Hispanos, consists of irrigated agriculture. In contrast, to the north and west is mountain country with its history of mining and railroad building.

In the early 1950s, explorers Edward Beale and Gavin Heap favored a central Rockies route for the first transcontinental railroad, declaring the San Juans “rail worthy.” A year later, Captain John Gunnison, upon leading band through an arduous trek over the rugged San Juans, came to a different conclusion. As a result, southern Wyoming became the viable option.

With the sun at my back, my GMC makes the climb up the east slope of the San Juans. Against the blue sky, the brilliant sun on the evergreens splashed with the golden aspens creates the scenes for post cards.

The climb takes one to Wolf Creek Pass, marking the Continental Divide. I stop at the overlook where a brass strip marks the exact line of the Divide. Rain drops falling inches apart eventually find their way to either the Atlantic or the Pacific Oceans, depending on which side of the Divide they land.

At 10,857 feet, the breeze feels cold. I climb back into my GMC for the scenic descent down the west slope of the San Juans to Pagosa Springs. The temperature is in the eighties, the air warm and dry — very pleasant. The downtown lies along the north bank of the rushing San Juan River.

I grab a motel, and my phone rings. It’s my friend, Elmer Schettler, who has arranged for us to have dinner with Fred Harman Jr., son of Fred Harman, cowboy artist and creator of Red Ryder.

Elmer had recently acquired some ranch land and invites me to take a look at it. I drive over to Elmer’s office on the west side of town. We climb into his vehicle and drive a few miles west to his acreage. In his vehicle, we go up a trail; the hills covered with range grass, then hike up to a ridge. To the east is a gorgeous view of the San Juans. For miles along that ridge stretches the Continental Divide.

As we walk down from that ridge and climb another, we look to the west and can see Chimney Rock about ten miles distant. Just weeks ago, President Obama signed legislation designating it as a National Monument, an objective long sought through bipartisan effort.

As a kid, my favorite Red Ryder novel was, “ The Adventure at Chimney Rock.” It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that Chimney Rock is real. I guess it was only natural that the setting for Red Ryder would be the real thing near the Fred Harman Ranch.

As the afternoon wanes, we head back to town for dinner. As we leisurely sip some wine, Elmer’s mate, Ann, arrives. Soon Fred Harman Jr., and his wife, Norma, join us.

It is a rare treat for a kid who grew up with Red Ryder novels, comic books, movies, and a Red Ryder BB gun, to visit with the son of the creator of Red Ryder. Fred Jr. reminisces about growing up on the family ranch and daily riding his horse thirteen miles to Pagosa Springs High School. Norma, who grew up in Long Island, New York, is unable to resist a gentle poke at her husband, suggesting that, “surely, it must have been uphill both ways.”

My friend, Howy Waddell of the New Glarus Sword Manufacturing Company, had earlier asked me to personally convey to the Harmans appreciation for the joy that Fred Harman had brought to a generation of kids through the adventures of Red Ryder. The Harmans were deeply appreciative of this sentiment and assurance that this hero of the Old West is so fondly remembered.

The legacy of Red Ryder is preserved through the Fred Harman Western Art Museum, presided over by Fred Harman Jr. The Museum contains Harman’s original paintings, original comic strips, and interesting historic memorabilia of western movies of the 1940s and 50s. The annual showing of the movie classic, “A Christmas Story,” prominently features the Red Ryder BB gun. And Pagosa Springs hosts the annual Red Ryder Rodeo. It is reassuring that the legacy of Red Ryder lives on.

The most pleasant evenings must end. As we depart, I leave Fred and Norma a sample of some Green County cheese. I later received a note from Norma informing me that they shared wine and that Wisconsin Cheddar with some friends, and they, “came back for more.”

The producers of that Wisconsin cheese will be pleased to know of the connection with that cowboy hero they admired as kids.

John Waelti’s column appears in the Monroe (Wisconsin) Times every Friday. This column is reprinted with permission of The Monroe Times. Waelti can be reached at jjwaelti1@tds.net.

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