With sadness, we learned of the death of much-loved horseman, cowboy poet, singer, and storyteller Charlie Camden on October 19, 2013.
From information from Kathy Camden:
Charlie Camden is survived by his wife of 48 years, Naomi Katherine Camden, six children, two stepsons, twenty grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. Called to serve his country in 1966, he served two years in the USMC, with 14 months in Viet Nam. He moved to Idaho in 1969, where he worked for the BLM and moved to Montana in 1971 where he worked in the woods and at sawmills. He spend more than 30 years there and he lived his dream of traveling on horseback in the mountains he loved. He moved back to Idaho in 1995, where he became a cowboy poet and western singer. His love of God, country, and family was very strong.
Find an additional biography below.
It's a pleasure to bring you Charlie Camden's writings in this continuing column, Just Beyond the Ridge.
Poetry and Prose Index
Boardwalks of Bannack
Farewell the Lady
'Fore the Comin' of the Wire
From the Saddle
Old Chest of Memories
The Old Tree
outlaw poem (untitled)
What is a Cowboy Poet?
Why---it only seems like----yisterday
To all of my Friends this Holiday Season,
Only two weeks ago I was high in the backcountry that separates Idaho from Montana. The weather around me was mild, and yet there was a foot of snow in the valleys, and the Peaks of the Selway Bitterroot Range towered above all, with an immaculate new dressing of the purest white imaginable. Over 2 million acres of empty country lay before me. Hunting season was winding down, and for the second or third season in a row, I was willing to let it pass with only a minor pang of regret. Previously in the early Autumn we had witnessed a severe deer die off in the Clearwater Valley. Thousands of deer lay dead in the meadows, fields, and along the highways and many back roads. Victims of a seemingly harmless gnat. Once bitten the deer had only a few hours to live, and died a terrible death foaming at the mouth. This all occurred during the early bow season, and a few weeks prior to the general rifle season. It was a sad sight, and killed my interest in hunting deer for at least this past season.
On the day of which I am speaking the weather cleared for the early morning hours, and from many view areas, the world looked much as it must have appeared before the earliest recorded time. It was a day for reflecting on the past year, and as I stood at one overlook after another, fleeting memories returned from the days of summer, when the sun cooked the mountains with unrelenting heat, and many of the mountains that I now observed were cleansed by searing fires of all their underbrush, as well as their normal canopy of towering evergreens. It was a summer of roads being blocked because of backcountry fires, a summer with a shortage of irrigation water for crops, a summer of sad memories, as well as the usual abundance of good memories. I thought back further to my many years in the mountains of Montana and Idaho, and the many camps in all their wild places. My thoughts traveled like a time ship to such places as the Flathead Alps, The vast Sun River Country on the East Side of the Bob Marshall Wilderness where the mountains meet the plains along the Rocky Mountain Front, with towering 2000 ft. cliffs. The South Fork of the Flathead, and the Spotted Bear Country along the shores of Hungry Horse Reservoir. I had remembrances of such places as The East Fork of the Salmon River, with all its tributaries, The Yellow Jacket Country around Cobalt, Id. and so many more that would take a book just to list their names. I thought how lucky I was to have been able to travel to such places that most will only dream about. Not only travel to, but live within their boundaries for an extended period of time.
As I stood in the places where these memories came back to me, I wondered why I came to be this lucky person. I think that it is because I have always had this wanderlust that seeks new places, new experiences, and no matter how much I try to suppress this wanderlust, it always rises to the surface. I have been blessed with having a wife that is of the same mindset. So what does all of that make me. Nothing more than what a person would see. A few years back they would see a person in an old truck, wearing old Jeans, a weathered hat, and faded shirts, with old wore out boots. But that person would be riding an outstanding horse of some mixed breed that had the eyes of a traveler. Over the years there was a long line of those horses that I remember fondly. Like I said it was a day of reflecting.
Today I am sitting at home looking at the prospect of Christmas on the Prairie. I am somewhat lacking in the Christmas Spirit, but I can feel it coming on. I think of all my Sons and Daughters, all of the Grandkids, and
in the not so distant future, the Great Grandkids that will come about. I wonder what their lives will be like, and if the freedoms we enjoy will still be available to them. Certainly I have seen, and lived, days and times that will seem like tales of the Old West to young people in the year 2025. Days of old rattling trucks, no Boundaries, few Regulations, the smell of Gunsmoke, Cheap Gas, Trails without end, Horses with Fire, and real Cowboy A Fork Saddles that were almost wore out. Days when there were quite a few young men like myself, in some backcountry camp, with a campfire for warmth, a cup of boiling Coffee in hand, working for little more than the experience. I remember well being welcomed by old friends into many remote camps such as that. I can only hope that all will have a wealth of good memories that far outweigh the bad, that they have pride in their Heritage, and that their lives are happy.
As for myself in the coming year, I will still continue down the trail of the Cowboy Poet, Storyteller, Songwriter, and I am looking forward to the challenge of working with the Western Music Association as President of the Northwest Chapter of the WMA, and my newest position as an elected Member of the Board of Directors of the WMA.
To be entrusted with this position by the Greatest Western Writers and Musicians of our time is not something to be taken lightly. It is an honor that weighs heavily, and a responsibility that I take seriously. So in the coming year, with the Lord willing, I will travel new trails, see new country, make more good friends, listen to the sounds of voices and instruments in far away places, and in general, remain in the clutches of Wanderlust.
Very shortly the Sounds and Joys of the Christmas Spirit will be ringing from every quarter, and inevitably we will join in that Spirit, and smile and sing, at seeing our loved ones with faces aglow. Many will have all that our Society can provide---expensive presents, an abundance of food---but deep inside I will envy the cowboy in some remote cabin, with only a sagebrush decorated with paper, a warm fire in the stove, and a Dutch Oven with an Elk Roast with potatoes and carrots, just waiting to be enjoyed. As I reflect on all of this it becomes very clear that there are many things that money cannot buy. True Friendship is the greatest of all.
May your homes be warm and happy, with Family gathered 'round, and may all the Blessings of our Lord be granted, and Christmas peace abound.
Charlie and Kathy Camden
We collected some of Charlie's tales over the summer...in the most recent, Charlie responded to our question about how he came to write the title track of his new CD, 'Fore the Coming of the Wire, done with his partner Bodie Dominguez. As usual, we don't like to waste any of Charlie's words, so we'll include his introductory notes as well.
It was just a brief split-second idea when I was with Bodie at the studio. It worked out to the song in just a day or so...Most of it is just what I have picked up over the years of riding the hills, and hearing the tales of the Old Days. I used to read a lot of Western Books, but found out that they often were out of sync with people who lived through the times. These times we write about are only a little over a hundred years ago. Some children from back then were still around in the 1970's when I rode the backcountry of Montana. Although by that time they were great grandparents, with many of their descendants still living in the West. Many have moved on to jobs that have taken them away from their roots. Those who are still around talk of their grandparents and parents and the way things were "done differently" back then. Whenever I write anything it usually comes from an experience, or something said, or done.
'Fore the Comin' of the Wire
It has been my experience that most people think of traildrives being a post-civil war occurrence. I myself have contributed to that way of thinking in a song that I just wrote called "Fore the Comin' of the Wire."
Actually the drives began a few years prior to this time period. There was a time when a man could ride across the entire United States and its Territories without coming to a fence, or a man made barrier of any kind. I have read accounts of early military officers that attest to the vastness of the land.
Far to the North, in what was soon to become the Montana Territory, a Colonel Vaughan reported that in 1858 the Blackfoot nation extended from the Milk River to the mountains and south to the Sun River. This 32,000 Sq. mile nation was occupied by 10,400 people with 9,900 horses. This area was also occupied by a major buffalo herd which furnished the 60-80 buffalo per day needed by the Blackfoot nation. This was only a small part of the Montana Territory yet within these vast boundaries there were no fences.
The first herd of cattle were moved into this area in 1862. It is my understanding that these cattle came up from Texas. By 1868 3,000 head grazed the hills where none of their kind had ever trod before. By 1886 this land that had sustained millions of Buffalo was beginning to show signs of overgrazing by cattle and sheep. The vast herds of Buffalo that darkened the plains were being eliminated, and the Elk and Grizzly were driven into the mountains to the West.
All up and down the length of our Country it was much the same. Overgrazing. Big Ranchers in the North Country were setting themselves up for a hard fall. This happened in the winter of 1886-87 when the big ranches lost upwards of 70% of their Cattle. By this time the big drives coming north out of Texas were nearing their end. The free range was beginning to close down.
Fences: a detested word to drovers, were cut to allow cattle to pass. To many, the concept of a fence was hard to understand, both by the Red man and the White man. To many it was looked upon as a threat, and was reacted to with gunfire and violence. Many were the men who ended up in jail, or swinging from a cottonwood, as a result of encountering this new menace, "BOB WAR" fencing was one of the elements that forced the end of the cattle drives, along with the laying of the tracks of the train. No need to drive cattle to the Railhead, the Railhead had come to the source.
And so it was that the era of the drover came to an end. The trail behind was one that held many thousands of stories. Many thousands of lives were lived, and lost. Many were the dusty towns that had to find a way to survive. Some would, and many would not.
I often wonder how many of us would choose to leave our home, and travel through great hardship and loss of life, to a new land if it were available. I think the answer is really easy to find out. Just ask yourself how far you are away from where you were born. The answer from many would be, "well, I am too old now." I have to smile because they would have used the same excuse in 1849. In those days they could have traveled "'fore the comin' of the wire."
'Fore the Comin' of the Wire
Headin' north out of Texas, back in 1873,
with 3000 head o' longhorns, kickin' dust ahead o' me.
We were eighteen Texas drovers, ages 10 to 33,
we rode boldly onto the pages of history.
We would ford the ragin' rivers, face the fury of a sudden storm,
there was lightnin', rain, dust, and hail, we'd outrun a prairie fire.
We were sons of many nations, and we rode with our hearts afire,
in the last good years, 'fore the comin' of the wire.
We were first to hear the longhorns bawl, or to hear coosie's triangle ring,
late at night when the herd was quiet, we could hear the nighthawk sing.
We would bed down close together, by the embers of a sagebrush fire,
in the last good years, 'fore the comin' of the wire.
On long hot days in the afternoon, we would watch those storm clouds roll,
we'd pick a spot, bunch 'em tight, pray to God that they would hold.
Coosie would wrap the pots and pans, so no sound could 'ere be heard,
cowboys spoke in whispers, so as not to spook the herd.
Then you could feel the air get heavy, an' colors of the earth would change
and suddenly out of nowhere, a strange power settled over the range.
Some would say, 'twas the hand of God, others said St. Elmo's Fire,
In the last good years, 'fore the comin' of the wire.
Now those eighteen sons of Texas, o'er the years, just rode away,
I doubt there's many like 'em, in the world I see today.
They would all bed close together, by a campfire along the way,
and now their bones and ashes lie scattered, along the trails of yesterday.
They were sons of many nations, and they rode with hearts afire,
in the last good years, 'fore the comin' of the wire.
© 2003, Charlie Camden
In June, 2003 Charlie wrote:
I went fishing today and spent the day with Howard Norskog. He is an old friend from years gone by. We went up on the Selway River with our wives. Had a great picnic by the river and were visited by this moose. He is definitely not afraid of people, and for a bit had ol' Howard trapped on one side of the water. Howard had on a red shirt and the critter had him spotted. You should see one when they bristle up the guard hairs on their neck and withers.
On our way over to Bannack (see Charlie's report of that June, 2003 event) I was thinking of the many places that offered adventure to me in past years in Montana. As we neared a place that was mentioned in a poem that I had written (The Legacy), I turned off and thought that I would look at the spot again. In years gone by it had been hidden by tall brush and trees, and was very seldom of ever noticed by humans that may have passed. At one time it had been along the main Ni-mi-poo trail, and was undoubtedly an ambush site where NezPerce warriors and hunters had met on unfriendly terms with Blackfeet, Sioux, Shoshone, and other tribes war parties.
As I neared the spot, I could tell that it had fallen victim to one of the many fires that had ravaged Montana in the recent past. The large trees and thick brush of past years are now gone. The broken face of the stone wall lies exposed to sun and rain. Undoubtedly people pass by on their way and never realize the written history of that lies only a short distance off the beaten track.
As I came near enough to see the pictographs I could tell that the heat of the fires, exposure to elements, and driving rain had diminished the clarity that was there only a few years ago. It also looked as if some of the drawings were missing. This is a fractured wall and it would be easy for someone to remove pieces that were loose. It is for that reason that I have never revealed its location, or taken anyone there.
Anyway in the poem I made reference to a stickman figure that held "two pelts, or two scalps held high" One of these photos shows this exact pictograph. I could not find the drawing that had the bow with "two arrows aimed at targets hundreds of years gone" Some of the drawings show dots with long lines underneath. I have been told by those who should know that this denotes "Sleeps, or lengths of stay."
Many of the pictographs are fading fast, and others have a washed out status now. Another reminder that nothing stays the same, and like the warriors of many tribes and seasons, we are but passers-by on the trail. I left the spot and made my way back to the highway feeling just a little bit nostalgic. Remembering other times and other places I had found over the many years I traveled horseback in the many of the West's hidden places...I just thought you might like the photos because it brings to life something
you may have thought was my imagination.
Charlie and his wife Kathy put on the Lewis Clark Cowboy Entertainment and Western Arts Festival in Lewiston, Idaho, which marks its its fifth year in February, 2004. We were amused to learn how they met...
We were about 9 years old and I was trying to sell her a snake. I used to sell them to kids that went to the school across the alley from where I lived. They would put them in the teacher's desk drawer, or turn them loose on the floor. They were totally harmless and very docile "ringnecks." However they sure got the girls and teachers wound up. I got anywhere from 5 cents to a quarter for a really big one. Usually had 15 to 40 in stock. A 5- to 6-foot blacksnake was worth 50 cents...
Charlie has sent us various musings in the past weeks, and he has a new camera...
The weather is cold and rainy. I think that it followed us home from Oregon where we spent some time in the sacred land of the Nez Perce. The hills there have been green for some time, and the spring storms seem to be hanging on longer than usual. The Grande Ronde River is up, but not too muddy, and the steelhead and salmon continue to arrive to fulfill their ritual of survival. While camping in the heights of these rolling green hills, one can see numerous lights of a far away mountain cabin or remote ranch that must be at least a day's travel away. And it gives a person reason to wonder what the inhabitants lives are like. Are they aware of the spirits and ghosts of the Ni-mi-poo (Nez Perce People) who in the past had wandered this sacred land. One would hope so, for the legends of this people are filled with tales of courage, dignity, sacrifice, and wondrous stories of a handsome proud people who were caretakers of this land in another time. When Lewis and Clark upon arriving in the Clearwater Country met the first group of Nez Perce, they were surprised to know that they had been expected for some time. To make a long story short, some Nez Perce wanted to put the explorers to death. Cooler heads prevailed and they were spared. I wonder if those cooler heads would still have felt the same, if greed, and treachery could have been predicted.
Today in history we know the details of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We are aware of the hardships and turmoil of their travels. When one studies one version of history, and hears oral versions of the very same thing from the other side, sometimes things do not quite mesh.
Living in the land, and on the scene of where much of this took place, it is inevitable that oral versions are overheard. From all of this one has to pick and choose what one wishes to believe. Naturally one would prefer to believe in the good portions of the story, but often these are false, or have been modified so as not to bring attention to an unsavory act or a particular person. But enough of this, just wanted to send a few more poems and a picture or two....
I'm sitting here trying to figure out my new camera and program. So far it's lots smarter than I am by a wide margin. I thought that I would send you a few pictures I took and my thoughts when I took them.
I just sat down and was looking at a picture to send you, and a thought came to me about the tree. It is actually the reason I took the picture. It sort of lends itself to a feeling of times gone by, and for sure it was witness to many Nez Perce people. In these valleys, and higher pastures, the Nezperce once had herds that numbered into the many thousands. The lower flats along the river had villages that boasted 5,000 people. The horses dotted the slopes and were tended by young boys who were the guards. How many of these were in the basins below the Old Tree? One can only guess.
The Old Tree
The first thing I remember, was the grass was very tall,
then through the years,
as time passed by,
I hardly noticed the grass at all.
I stood watch in those years gone by,
spotted ponies raced below,
storms came and gave me drink,
and I grew and reached for the sky.
For two hundred seasons, I stood here,
watched old ways give way to the new,
My ponies left, my children left,
and the sounds of the saw brought fear.
I saw the coming of the white man,
felt his greed upon the land,
saw the passing of the red man,
felt his sorrow for the land.
Then one day it happened, with a crash and thunder it came,
the lightning struck,
like a dagger to the heart,
and shattered my mighty frame.
forty five years now-----soon I will fall,
but I still see spotted ponies, and I still hear the warriors cries
I hear the sounds of distant drums,
and the grass is once again---tall.
© 2003, Charlie Camden
This is somewhat typical of the wild country around this part of the country.
I have to drive a bit to walk the beaches, but this is close to home. Lots of wild game, fishing, berries, fruit, and at this time of year, lots of little yellow fuzz balls that follow their Canada Goose parents around. The salmon are in the streams, and the warm days of summer are close at hand. Warm nights, and songs-around-the-campfire season is nearly upon us. Lots of performers coming to visit us this summer and fall. Dallas McCord, Brenn Hill, poet Dan Nicholson, to name a few. Later this summer Joni Harms and her family, (husband Jeff, son Luke, and daughter Olivia) are coming to visit us for a week to go fishing in the wilds of Idaho. Should be lots of fun. I guess we never get to old to cherish friendships, and hot dogs, beer, (California, not French wine) and campfires.
I know that this is kind of an unlikely story anymore. But there was a time when passing on the home ranch was a tradition. There was always a day when the passing on of a legacy came about. Thoughts of selling never entered the picture. Parents wanted their children to stay on the land. Here in Idaho and Montana today's young people grow up and go to college and then they must leave their homes and travel to another state to find suitable employment. They go their way seeking the elusive security of money, business success, and making their mark in the world. And so marks the beginning of the end for large ranches. They are often sold piecemeal, and as they shrink in size and the first parcel is sold, houses spring up, and then the ranch can never return to what it once was. It is merely real estate, and each piece becomes easier to part with than the last. I have never owned a ranch, but I have seen many of them go in much that fashion. If I would have been fortunate enough to have been born into that situation I would find a way to eat the sagebrush rather than sell it off. Anyway I call this poem,
Dad shook my hand and said, "Well, its all yours now son"
it was just as simple as that.
Then he pulled up his bandana to wipe away the sweat,
as he raised that old wore out hat.
"I feel like I lived my whole life on this land,
every day I gave it my all.
the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to years,
and the weeks add up to fifty this fall."
"You know, there's not much of a life here for a young man,
that's what they all seem to say.
There's much more in the city for a body to see,
and the money---well---the markets are bad nowadays."
"I remember back in '46,
I had just come home from the war.
Land out here was cheap back then,
and held everything I was looking for."
"So I came out--worked a few years,
to kinda--learn my way around--
Then I met your Ma--the love of my life--
we bought this place--'n--settled down."
"Always had it pictured a little different than it turned out,
don't quite know how to say,
I guess I thought we'd all live here forever,
now I feel kinda' silly thinkin' thataway."
for awhile Dad rode along in silence,
then we passed by this place we call the wall,
then the autumn breeze... loosed some aspen leaves,
and like ships a'sail, they floated graceful in their fall.
"you know the Indians used to camp here in the springtime" he said,
"there's Big Medicine in these old trees--
they brewed tea from the inner bark--
cured everything 'cept white man's disease"
"and here--the stickman drawings on the wall,
show a warrior with bow full drawn,
two arrows in place, ready to fly,
at a target a thousand years gone"
"and the markings in place to count the sleeps,
--a figure with shield and spear--
two scalps--or two skins--held high in a fist--
but no one recorded the year."
"I'm ready for spring right now," he said,
"Hate those winter drafts 'round the door--
don't like to think 'bout those snowstorms a comin'
can't take much cold anymore"
"be headin' into town come mornin'
have a few drinks with the boys--
don't know how I'll take to city livin'
hear it's hard to get used to the noise."
"O I reckon I'll be out quite reg'lar," he said
"and visit with yer Ma on the hill,
never could stand to be away fer' too long,
don't see as I ever will."
We topped a rise and looked out on the land,
shining gold as far as the eye could see.
dots of cattle scattered here and there,
and the river in the canyon flowing free.
He said, "It never seems a whole lot different,
only colors as the seasons change.
Son--there's just no way it could be any better,
'cause the Good Lord designed this range."
I sat for awhile with Dad on this day--
--watched the cattle graze the land,
--breathed the air in this quiet place,
and felt the touch of Time's heavy hand.
© 2003, Charlie Camden
This one is of the old church in Flora, Oregon, not far from where I live. Actually this country is about 1 1/2 hours from Lewiston, as we live near the junction of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
I was on the Grande Ronde River road in NE Oregon when I saw this small sign that said "Flora," there was an arrow pointing to a dirt road that very quickly ascended the green timber crested mountains to the south. Always looking for an adventure, I quickly turned off and started the climb. Steep enough that several times the wheels would spin in 2 wheel drive, we worked our way through switchbacks, and blind curves, with the river finally disappearing thousands of feet below. As we approached Flora we were greeted with the sights of a forgotten time. One could almost hear the choir singing as we approached an old church to take our photos. It was mid May, and storm clouds loomed menacingly overhead, the prairie winds were blowing, and the smell of snow was in the air. There could not have been a dozen families still living in the deserted town, and yet there was a presence that remained. Old buildings that once sheltered the men and women who lived their dreams in the nearby hills and valleys stood silent and offered little to the strangers who had chanced to appear. The wind echoed and whistled through the bell tower of the church, and a piece of metal roofing cloned the ringing of the bells from another time. I walked closer to the church and stepped over boards with nails sticking out, pieces of window and screen, and peered into the darkness within. I felt that if I would enter it would be like putting on an old coat. One that would take me immediately into the past. A portal of time. I wandered around the small yard for some time. The paint was peeling from the weathered surface, and I wondered how many seasons it had seen. How many marriages, baptisms, and funerals. How many generations had passed before those who gathered there had deserted their heritage. The old church stood silent, like a figure lost in time. Used and Forgotten. The storm clouds rolled over and from far away I could hear faint thunder echo across the prairie. How long had the old church stood waiting for its children to return. Undoubtedly in years before they had spread like seeds in the wind. How deep were the roots of this old building? How far had they spread across this nation?
I hope you like this photo. It depicts the state of our Heritage. Somewhat windblown, somewhat in disrepair, somewhat forgotten. Yet still standing, the old tower pointing toward the heavens, tall enough to be seen for many miles to draw its children home.
What a place for a Cowboy Church! Thank God for Cowboy Poetry!
Charlie's about to release a recording, "'Fore the Coming of the Wire," and one of the tracks, Grandma, is a poem about one of his great grandmothers. After listening to the poem, we asked Charlie to tell us more about her:
My Great Grandmother was born Henrietta Duhwig, in the year 1864. The same year that Montana became a Territory. I do not remember her parents' first names, but know that they lived in the area for some time before she was born. I am not absolutely sure of the spelling of her last name as Grandma never attended school, because none was available. I am also not absolutely sure of the location of their homestead, because I was quite young and didn't listen as carefully as I now would.
What I do know is that they lived 3 days out of the Billings, Montana area, and that she was familiar with many of the Indians that lived in the area. She told me many stories of going outside in the early morning and being frightened by Indians standing or sitting outside the door. Imagine living in an area where there were no neighbors, being 4 or 5 years old and stepping outside in the early light, and literally running into such a situation. It had to be a frightening moment for a little girl.
She told me many stories of riders that would hail the house from out in the darkness. She told me of how it was dangerous to ride into any house after dark without first doing so. Many times she stood behind her father when lights were turned out, and listened as he talked with riders somewhere out in the darkness. This must have been a very dangerous area, as it was a rare occasion when strangers were allowed inside the house. It made an impression on her as she was a very loving person to her family, but suspicious of strangers. She was very self sufficient all of her life until the last week before she died.
As a young boy, I cannot remember a time when she was not living with us. In fact she did most of the cooking, washing, and house cleaning while I was growing up. She had her room upstairs where she would sit in her rocker each evening and brush her long silver hair. That is one thing I remember vividly, the silver sheen to her hair. Grandma never let her hair hang down during the daytime. It was always, always, without fail, done up neatly in a big bun on the top of her head. It made her look taller than her small 4' 11" or 5" frame. Grandma weighed approximately 100 lbs. I never saw her in her younger years; she was 77 years old when I was born.
Yet although her hair was silver I always assumed that it was an auburn color in her youth. Why I don't know, I just thought so. She was quite a sight when sitting in her favorite robe, the light turned down, and her long hair reaching to a few inches above her knees. She had not cut it since my grandfather died some years before I was born. She would sit in this big old high backed rocker with her hair coiled around first one arm then the other. Humming and singing, rocking, and brushing till almost 9 o'clock every night Then she would say her prayers and go to bed.
I remember as a young boy that my room was next to hers, and sometimes I would hear her crying. I would go to her door and ask if she was hurt. She always said no, and would add something like "I stubbed my toe." At 7 or 8 years of age, that was sufficient, but in later years I knew she was remembering.
She always said that all young people should know how to play a musical instrument. If Grandma said it, I had to do it. No matter how much I hated to sit at a piano. I was really a stupid kid! If justice was properly served, I would have the biggest boot in the USA swiftly delivered to my posterior!
She told me of the days when her mother came down with some unknown illness, and was near to death. The only possible help was three days away by wagon. She and her brother Ben, and their mother stayed alone for 7 days while her father went for medicine. They never left the cabin during that time.
She also told me of the times her father went for the supplies they needed. It took the 7 days for her father to return. She said they could always hear him coming miles away, drunk as a skunk, and singing at the top of his lungs. They lived at the same location from before she was born, until she left at 16 years of age. They were never attacked by Indians, even though Custer, and his command, were wiped out nearby during this time.
I know nothing of her parents from the day she left headed east to St. Joseph, Missouri. She told me of long days when she would walk beside the wagon as it slowly moved eastward carrying disillusioned pioneers back to where they came from. Many people do not realize that there were many wagon trains that headed east because the occupants were unable for some reason or another to cope with the wild land.
She had almost no money, and she was on her own. In a land where law was only an idea, and many people had their own ideas concerning it. I remember stories of how cold it was at night on the prairie. How sage would drift over with snow. Of how water buckets would freeze solid and they couldn't throw it away, so they would have to melt it. Of sleeping under a wagon that belonged to a stranger to get out of the freezing rain. How do you use your blanket, do you use it as a wind shelter or wrap up inside? All these things she had to decide. There was little help from others along the way. They had their families to take care of.
She told me of the time they passed an Indian Graveyard. She talked of one particularly dirty, unkempt man whom she said went up to the platforms to see what he could steal. She said he took a couple of blankets off the corpses and used them to keep warm. I heard this story numerous times and she always spoke of him in hushed tones, and said she despised this person.
She was afraid of some Indians, and yet friends with others. She hoped that some of those she was afraid of would catch this man alone. Finally after what seemed an eternity, and yet took only the best part of one summer, she arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri. At that time she found a job in what can best be described as a central place where those heading West would gather to form wagon trains and buy supplies.
She worked as a laundress, and waitress/cook where travelers could clean up and sleep in a bed for possibly the last time before their journey was completed. I believe she worked there for several years, before she met her husband to be, Maurice Scanlon.
After they were married she moved uphill into a home that he bought for her, which was only one block below the northern residence of a man known as Mr. Howard. She said she spoke to him many times, and to his wife and mother as well. She said he was always very mannerly, (which was important to her) but he had "eyes like a rider of the plains." I took this to mean that his eyes were searching not necessarily from side to side, but rather looking into the distance. There were many reports that he had visitors that stayed for days at a time, and tied their horses in the plum thicket behind his house. Many years later I used to play in this same thicket and could easily imagine Cole Younger, and his brothers, and many more. My young buddies of the time and I engaged in many a cap gun fight in those thickets.
Grandma told me of how when working at the restaurant, she could look out upon the stables of the Pony Express, and how the corrals were laid out in what is now a city park. Also of many times when a stranger would walk into the restaurant and have dinner, and of the hushed sounds while he was there. And the names of badmen that were whispered when he left. Grandma was familiar with many of these people, and walked among them seemingly without any fear. She always said that a bad man in one place may be an honorable one somewhere else.
There was much antagonism between Northern and Southern factions at the time, with most of the outlaws being of Southern roots. Grandma had three daughters (Alice, Rose, and Pearl) and one son (John). John died at an early age as a result of a head injury suffered in a futile attempt to jump a moving train. He lived for a number of years after the mishap, then one day Grandma heard him cry out from the back yard. Before she reached his side he was dead. This plagued her for the rest of her life, and was one of the reasons that I would hear her crying at night.
Although Grandma never had much money, she was generous to a fault. She received her Social Security check at the 1st of every month, and I remember that it was somewhere in the range of 80 dollars per month. It was all she had to live on. For my first three years in high school she insisted that I attend an all boys Catholic High School in town. Back then the tuition for the entire year was 96 dollars. This she insisted on paying. Finally in the beginning of my Senior year I was starting to grow at least a little backbone and would not let her do it again.
I remember when I was quite young, on hot summer days, she would give me a nickel and send me to the little grocery store down the street for an Orange pop. In those days soda pop came in big heavy glass bottles, and tasted great. I would sit on the porch with her in the evenings and she would tell me stories of how every once in awhile when she was small, she would see one or two solitary buffalo that appeared from nowhere. She told me of times when a fairly large group of Indians with travois stopped by the house wanting food. Feeding 30 or so people that just stopped by would be a chore even today, but much more difficult back then. The story went on to say that there were a dozen or so warriors, "fierce looking," according to Grandma who didn't possess an "ounce of understanding." My Grandfather then killed a calf that he was raising for the Indians to eat. This was a hard thing to do as he was raising this calf to have a milk supply. Milk was something that was needed in the worst way back then. He couldn't just run to the corner store.
I remember evenings when the neighbors would come over and I would play the piano while they all sang. Songs like "Lorena," a song banned by both sides during the Civil War because it caused men to desert and go home. There were times I remember well when she told me I was the most obnoxious kid she had ever been around "in all my years." She smiled when my childhood friends came around, Donnie Miller, and Frank James, and told them that "I knew your folks," and a sparkle would appear in her eyes.
She often talked about horses on the plains, and the right time of day to see long distances. And she could sing Indian Songs. I always hated that back then. I thought she was singing way off key. Grandma lived out her years in St. Joseph, Missouri where she had come to seek her fortune many years ago. She died in 1961 at her daughter Rose's house at the age of 97 years. What a life she had. I credit her for being my inspiration and for my love of all things western. I still look back and think what a treasure trove of information she was. A writer's dream. But the sun was shining, and my friends were up in the plum thicket. I strapped on my gun and rode to the hide out.
She said, "I was born in Eastern Montana, in 18 and 64,
in a two room cabin, with sod on the roof, the prairie was my floor.
Oh how I remember those long winter months, when the sage would drift over with snow,
and the years would pass by with never a change, we had nowhere to go."
She sat in her rocker all wrinkled and bent, and told me of times long ago,
about how things were dangerous then, in the land of the Sioux and the Crow.
She told me of when, "Mother was sick, and Father went for supplies,
seven days alone in that cabin we spent, locked away from unfriendly eyes."
And of other times "when Indians came, for food or maybe a fight,
and hiding behind Father in the darkness, as strange riders called out in the night."
She said, "I remember when I was sixteen, said goodbye to Montana that day,
Left with a wagon train going east to Missouri, had to walk almost all the way"
"On the day I arrived in St. Joe, Mo., I was anxious for my new life to begin,
and I found a job in a boarding house, on the corner of 10th and Penn.
Cooking and washing for room and board, and some money to buy a new dress,
from the window in my room I looked down upon the stables of the Pony Express.
The boarding house was also a restaurant, where men headed west would meet,
and the names Younger, and Dalton, Logan and Doolin were whispered as men
entered from the street.
That was how she came to know Mr. Howard, " she said, "he had eyes like a rider of the plains."
She wasn't surprised when she heard he'd been killed, they said he was Jesse James.
She'd sit for hours in the Missouri night, as Jarflies sang in the trees,
while sipping on a glass of lemon tea, she'd pray to the lord for a breeze.
She loved to hear the piano play, so I'd play her favorite songs,
Silver threads---Lorena---and Rock of ages, she'd hum and sing along.
If I could go back to those years again, there's so much I'd like to know---
About my people----and the people she knew--- in those years so long ago.
© 2003, Charlie Camden
Charlie adds: I never knew what happened to her father or mother. I don't believe she ever said. I think possibly that was one of the reasons I would sometimes hear her crying softly at night. I never knew her to receive a letter from anyone in the Northwest. I wish that I did know something, I would like to travel to the old homesite and just stay a few days.
Years ago I went over to Eastern Montana and found where the wagon tracks are still deeply sunk into the grassy prairie. I sat for awhile and imagined the wagons passing. The sounds of the steel wheels, sounds of the straining animals, the shouts of teamsters, and the smells of sweat and dust. The same breezes were blowing, and undoubtedly many had camped for the night where I sat. It was easy to imagine the sounds of children playing tag and hide and seek. To catch the imagined smells of beans and coffee, and the sweet smell of Buffalo cooking in the pot.
I know it was only imagined, but I felt that her spirit was there. It was the year 2000, and she had passed this way. I was only 120 years behind.
A letter from Charlie, right after Thanksgiving....
Just a short note to let you know what it is like here in the Mts. of Idaho. This is the first day after Thanksgiving and I am out riding around in the country. It is the day that Christmas Shopping begins, and retailers are begin to frantically scratch for the dollars hidden deep in consumers pockets. Also the day when I begin my quest to be where retailers are not.
So here I go, riding East out of Nezperce, Id. heading where the old truck takes me. As I look out to the South, and slightly behind me I can see the distant peaks of the Seven Devils Wilderness area fifty miles away. Seemingly framed in rolling hills of golden wheat and barley stubbled fields. In reality I know that the Seven Devils lie in a rugged range of mountains bordering Hells Canyon. To the East of this range lie the deep canyons of the Little Salmon River as it spills from the broad green valleys surrounding the small village of New Meadows.
As I ride along trying to decide where I will go, I look ahead to the snow capped mountains that only short weeks ago were the scene of the elk hunting camps of Autumn. Hundreds of camps along the streams and roads of the North Fork of the Clearwater, the Little Joe, the Locsha, and the shores of Dworshak Reservoir.
I take a quick glance at the clock on the dash and it says 6:48 AM. The sun has not yet risen, but darkness will return in 9 hours. To the North the Palouse beckons, and to the West the Waha, and the Blue Mountains of Washington. Considering the time element I turn east on Highway 12 as I pass through Kamiah, Id. and proceed East up the Middle Fork of the Clearwater River to Kooskia. Both are interesting towns nestled along the river and they are named for points of interest of the NezPerce people.
Kamiah in NezPerce means "place of the reeds, or where the reeds grow", and Kooskia means "place of two rivers, or up on two rivers" Kooskia lies at the Junction of the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the South Fork of the same.
As I approach Kooskia, I decide that I will turn off the highway and head out towards Elk City. Roughly a trip of 60+ miles of scenic winding highway to a small settlement of hardy folks that don't mind the deep snows of winter. In fact they live for the time when snow covers small trees, and sometimes reaches depths of 15 ft. or more on high ridge top roads. A world of silence, yet filled with snowmobiles, skis, and snowshoes.
Elk City did not receive commercial electricity until about 1959-60. In the past the Elk City Wagon Road was the only completed road until approx. 1950. It is almost like going into a time warp. But a good one for sure. In the early days of the 20th century, mail was delivered by a hardy individual on snowshoes, who often slept out overnight in the snow in 0 degree temperatures. I thought about all of this as I rolled down the window and let in some cold air that smelled of wood smoke, and Douglas Fir.
After seeing quite a few animals along the road, and numerous bundled up figures fishing for steelhead I rolled into Elk City. The clock said 11:15 AM. I stopped at the local grocery which is a delight to shop in. Actually a number of rooms in a building that has seen many uses, currently stocked with anything a bigger city store might have, and a few things they may lack. You can also buy gas, diesel, or propane at the same stop. Directions are cheerfully given to any possible locations, and information about road conditions are upgraded constantly by incoming customers, 90% of whom are on snowmobile, or 4X4 ATV's. So I grab a snack of Saltine crackers, Kielbasa sausage, and two bottles of Coke to wash it down, and I head back out on the road. So where now? A few miles out of town, I turn off on the Red River road. A scene of much gold dredging in past times, and I keep my eyes open for Moose. No luck today, so the camera goes unused. I rarely waste film on scenery anymore, as I have so many photos whatever I would take would be not much more than a duplicate. So as I reach Red River Ranger Station I turn for home. The clock says 2:45 PM. As I head for lower, warmer climes, I think of all the things we have to be thankful for at this time of year.
Here in the USA we have our freedom to live the lives we choose. We have our family and friends. We have our days of Celebration. All of this is guaranteed to us in our Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of the USA. There are those who have the intent to destroy this way of life. Luckily we have our Sons and Daughters who are willing to commit their futures and lives to making this a safe country in which to live. They serve in many lands, and in many branches of the Military.
I remember my time in Military Service, and I wish that none of them had to be away during the Holidays. I guess I was deep in thought when I realized that it was time for the headlights to be turned on. The clock had danced its circle, and darkness had come once again. Much like the days of the year had danced through the seasons, and would do so again and again. So I said a prayer for all those Sons and Daughters in harms way, and God Speed in their mission so they could return home safe. So many things to be thankful for at any time of year. Not just the holiday season.
Once again, we can't stand to waste Charlie's words, so we'll include some of the words he sent along with his column....
... The hot summer days are gone. It's somewhat like Fall Roundup, in that the warm days, like summer calves, are still out there, but they will soon be chased into loading chutes and moved to southern climes.
This summer has been unbelievable in many respects. I sort of laid back and missed a lot of gatherings, but I visited places I didn't think I would ever go back to. Mainly because of their distance, and inaccessibility.
Have you ever been so far back that you can't get home from where you are at? It can really happen. I started off early on trips, and have just come back from the latest. Went back to Montana, and many of the old camps, talked with old friends, outfitters, slept under open skies, and drove by for a look at places I had lived in the past.
Probably just me, but in some cases I felt that the land didn't recognize me. Time had
passed, and the land had forgotten. If that don't make me sound crazy I don't know why not.
But I recalled many memories that were buried, and almost forgotten. Time has a way of changing things. Not necessarily the land, but the people who live and work upon it. The land actually seems to take on a different feeling. One that seems to reflect the attitudes of current residents or users.
While at many of the Trailheads around Montana and Idaho, I failed to see anyone that I readily could identify. And it made me realize that I was somewhat out of the loop. I remembered when I could pull into any of the 46 trailheads that surrounded what was referred to as the Bob Marshall Country, and if any outfitters were there, I probably knew them at least casually. Some trailheads that were marginal in their usefulness in the beginning have fallen into obscurity, and are seldom used, if at all.
Others that were popular have expanded to the point that finding a parking place can be difficult. It seems that everyone has horses these days, and it must be great for the farriers to have all the work.
In all it was a wonderful summer. A learning experience, combined with nostalgia, and seeing old friends. Kathy said that when I pulled up with the rig, she could smell the campfires, horses, and camps, and that the washing machine on the back porch tried its best to leave for parts unknown. She would throw the clothes in, and it would throw them back out.
It has been dry for awhile, and the fire danger has been very high to extreme, depending on where I was at. A friend of mine best described the conditions in this way. "I was camping out in the mountains of Utah and it was so dry that the trees were running down the road looking for dogs."
Well, I managed to get back to looking scruffy, grizzled, lost a few lbs., slept on a new bunch of rocks, and remembered a few from the past. As I traveled from camp to camp I had many experiences that will remain in memory forever.
I was in Grizzly country once again, and signs nailed on posts gave cause for caution. It makes one ponder on the possibility of becoming a belt buckle in a pile of bear sign on some lonely trail. But then if one looks at the statistics, Grizzlies seem to prefer Californians, and Pennsylvanians. I guess it must be something in the water. This makes the rest of us feel safer.
One night at an empty trailhead, I slept on a table and stared up at the millions of stars overhead. The Rocky Mountain Front loomed as jagged, black, and silent skyline just to the West. I could hear the water working its way through the rocks of the small stream nearby. The sky was so full of stars that it appeared cloudy, and the Milky Way extended from one horizon to another.
All in all, the entire summer provided what could be referred to as a cup of bittersweet wine. Many of my old friends were gone, some had moved to the city for work. But that is normal. I had been gone from the area since the fires of '88. It made me realize that for the summer, I was here. But I would also have to be considered as one of those who had left. It gave me the determination to come back more often.
I feel bad for all the folks that have to be cooped up in an office, or on some worksite. I wish we could all be out in the mountains sitting around primitive fires, telling stories, and singing songs, waking up to frost on the top of the sleeping bag, and drinking hot coffee from springs where the water has been underground for a hundred years or more. Until then I guess I'll just have to do my best to bring those places, and the readers, together by poem and story...
As I said in my letter I visited many old campsites, and as I did so, thoughts of horses now gone came easily to mind. During the years that I spent in the mountains my horses were a source of pride to me. They were all good ones, even the cantankerous old grey appy I called Pete. Most of my horses had one syllable names because I wanted each to recognize which one I was talking to. You would be surprised how quickly they learn to recognize their name when it is spoken with the proper inflection. They also recognize a look with attitude. Body language is big when working with a pack string. With attitude comes thought projection. But those thoughts are just my way of working with horses, and by no means, will they work for everyone.
I thought I'd send a few that I wrote about Pete. I bought him because he was tough. As a farrier I had been shoeing him for a few years and heard all the tales about him. None of the friends that I knew would ride him in the hills. Too unpredictable they would say.
I wrote this one about Pete in his last years while living in Darby, Mont.
He's long and lean, and his bones tend to show,
his color is like a grey winter sky,
he's an o'nery 'ol coot, and he walks with a limp,
but we've been friends for years, him and I.
As I look back 'oer the years on the trail,
there's a lot that don't seem fair,
'cause it's always him that carries the load,
he thinks---I'm along for fresh air.
But he don't mind, cause we'll camp by a river,
and he'll roll back and forth in the sand
he'll come to a call in the middle of the night,
for a small bait of oats in my hand.
I turn him loose, and he roams all night,
sticks his head in the tent now and then.
He's there in the morning when I light the fire,
ready to be packed or ridden again.
He don't seem to notice that he's gettin' old,
he still packs down a trail whether day or night,
Just steps to his place near the head of the string,
'n shows the rest how to do things right.
At home in the pasture he stands in the shade
cowbirds catch flies by his feet,
sometimes when the grandkids show up,
they bring carrots for him to eat.
They climb the fence, jump off on his back,
He'll take a few steps and just wait,
til' I come out and cross the yard,
and undo the chain on the gate.
Then he'll walk through the gate, up close to the house,
and promptly leaves a mess on my lawn.
I knew it was coming, so I just have to smile,
a few more years--and my old friend will be gone
Last night I heard the wild geese flying,
next week we'll start feeding hay.
There'll be new shoes for the ponies in the pasture,
and hunting season will be under way.
Right now Pete's over by the trailer,
Standing straight and tall in the sun.
twenty four years under saddle and pack,
his race in this life nearly run.
© Charlie Camden
Just a little history on 'ol Pete. Of the many thousands of horses that have traveled the trails of the Bob Marshall Country, Pete is the only horse I knew of that had traveled all of the roughly 3000 therein. I rode him in the northern section before it became the Great Bear, and he knew the Two Medicine country and the Bob Marshall Addition to the East along the Blackfoot Reservation in the Teton Country, also the Middle Fork, and South Fork of the Flathead, and on south into the Scapegoat Wilderness.
Often when riding a trail that he had not been on for years, he would try to exit and go to a campsite we had spent a night at years before. He never got too old to buck with me. Just a respect thing I believe. But he never bucked with a kid, and many a Montana kid around Kalispell learned a lot from him.
Last ride with Pete coming out in the fall...
From the Saddle
"there's a bite in the air this mornin' Pete
---but---I don't have to tell you----
your hair's gettin' long and shaggy---
the long trails for this year---almost through.
There's snow on the ground in the High Country,
----near empty----and hardly a sound---
down here the leaves are almost fallen
---another set of seasons gone 'round
Its been just you and me in these mountains old friend
---2000 miles are behind---
we watched the trees turn green this spring
---watched the old give birth to new---
seen the rivers rise---and fall again
-----wonders--only nature can do--
A few more days--a few cold nights
---then for you---the barn--a warm stall--
for me there's a sip of brandy by the fire,
---and another year of memories to recall---
© Charlie Camden
... I have been to gatherings, organizational meetings, hunting camps, and other non-essential events. I get phone calls from out of the blue, and there I go, off again. I attended a gathering in Kooskia, Id. that was called "The Last Roundup" This was so named because it was a judged gathering with segments that received points for authenticity. Segments that were as follows: Most authentic cowboy camp with mandatory sleep in at night, Performance of an old Cowboy Poem, Performance of an old Cowboy song, skill with throwing a loop, a written test to show knowledge of overall cowboy equipment, skills with horses, and much more.
This was a lot of fun. It was all done on the banks of the Clearwater River, with a big campfire at night for performances. Nothing electric. All acoustic. We had an audience of about 70 to 100 people depending upon the time of day. The big points came for the camp and sleeping on the rocks.
I had the annual Fall Cowboy Poets of Idaho show coming up so I passed sleeping on the ground. Getting too old. Didn't want to risk NewMonia, the OldMonia I had last year was bad enough. Good decision as it was cold, foggy, and rainy off and on with brief rays of sunshine for the entire weekend. Still finished third, so I didn't do too bad. A really unusual gathering, and great fun. Anyone interested in events in this area can check your events listing. We welcome all, and will do our best to make your experience here a great memory.
I probably better get to the business of sending the poem I told you about. I wrote this quite awhile back when I was living in Montana for a reenactor group. It turned out to be one of the many outlaw skits that we did. We had a lot of fun with it, and even had squabbles about who was to play what part. I envisioned it much like a melodrama. But it ended up with many interpretations. So here it is. After 10 years it still don't have a title.
He stood in the shadows at the end of the bar,
his shoulders were stooped and bent.
sharp eyes alert for an unfriendly face,
there were enemies wherever he went.
only a few claimed that they knew him,
but no one knew him well,
there were those who dared to face him down,
and he had sent their souls to Hell.
Men at the bar were afraid to leave,
and wished they had never come in.
for now they shared the room with this deadly snake,
this pariah in a den of sin.
there were those who said that---
you could feel the cold---
of his glance, if it happened to fall.
It was said he was quick---
that before you could spit--
you'd be killed by his .44 ball.
Ten years before I had felt his eyes
the day he rode into our town.
'said he'd heard of a lawman here'bouts,
and he'd come to gun him down.
t'was on a Sunday morning,
we were coming from church,
just Father, Mother, and me.
Mother was talking about the sermon,
when the Snake stepped out from behind a tree.
He said "Boy--you'd best step away
--take your mother too,
I'm here to gun me a lawman--
there's nothin' you can do."
Father hurriedly pushed us aside,
and said: "I'm not wearing a gun--"
the Snake just laughed and said:
"well then dance lawman,
or maybe you'd rather run"
Father just stood there and stared him down
--as bullets kicked dust at his feet--
then the last of twelve was placed in his heart--
and Father fell dead in the street.
Mother cried out, and held me tight,
but I fought, and broke away.
The seeds of hate were planted in my heart,
and revenge was born that day.
I took the badge that father had worn
--I took his holster and gun--
and I took an oath to kill the snake,
for the terrible thing he had done.
Now ten years is a long, long time,
for a young man to work with a gun,
but when the blink of an eye--is too slow , and you die--
my practice was never done.
Now word came to me--that the snake was back--
he was down at the Crystal Saloon,
He was bragging, and swaggering, and daring all--
but silence had claimed the room.
the sun was going down as I entered the Saloon,
I pulled my hat low oe'r my eyes,
and I heard the whispers that ran through the room--
and a sudden gasp of surprise.
I opened the old bag--pinned on the badge--
and strapped on father's old '51--
then I carefully spun the old cylinder--
checking caps on the black powder gun.
Then I turned and stepped up close at the bar--
my left hand felt the warmth of the wood--
I wanted to see deep into his eyes--
in the seconds when he understood.
I told the barkeep to set up a drink--
for this snake who would soon be dead--
and as I looked into those loathful eyes,
--this is what I said,
"I'm here today---to kill a killer--
there's nothing that you can do--
so take your drink--it will be your last--
You see---Today--I'm gonna kill you"
He looked at me with Serpentine eyes
--that masked deceptive speed--
--he was a man destined to die---
and my hand would do the deed.
I said: "I see you're wearing your guns--
that's more than my father had"--
In the flicker of his eye, I saw sudden surprise--
as he said: "You're the lawman's lad"
"you must be here 'cause you're ready to die--
--you know you don't stand a chance--
--But--I might let you live for a little while---
--Depends--on how well you dance."
I said: "There's six bullets in this gun--
--when you're ready--just start--
but no matter what you do--no matter how fast--
I'm putting all six in your heart"
The fangs of this snake glistened at his side--
like diamonds in the coal oil light,
he slowly pulled the gloves from his clawlike hands--
first the left--then the right--
there was no way to measure
--the speed of his draw--
no hint--word--or clue--
but before his hand touched metal or wood,
he had made his play--and I drew--
I could almost watch that first bullet travel--
and I saw it pucker his shirt--
but before his heart could paint the spot red--
five more followed the first.
His guns fell back in their holsters--
and he stood there alive--and yet dead--
he clung to the bar unbelieving--
in a whisper these words he said:
"The day I killed the lawman--
'twas the foulest deed I had done--
but I made a mistake --my greatest mistake--
I should have killed the son"
His legs began to buckle--
his eyes lost their light--
he fell to the floor in a shapeless heap--
but there were none who would mourn his plight.
I unbuckled the belt of this man in black--
whose skin was cold and white--
and pulled the fangs from this now dead snake--
before I walked away in the night.
No one walked beside me--
no footsteps but mine on the floor--
yet--I felt a presence--and a touch on my arm--
as I left through the batwing door.
© Charlie Camden
Well, there it is. Imagination is a strange thing, and takes many a strange trail. In many instances I believe cowboy poets live within their poems, dreaming of times before, when responsibilities of modern society were unknown, and nonexistent.
Well, I'll close for a bit, all my gatherings are done for this year. I have to prepare for the WMA Awards Show in Vegas. After that I will be in the mountains till the snow runs me out...
As usual, we can't bring ourselves to omit the introductory letter Charlie always sends along with his tales...
Once again I sit before this magic machine that whispers many words heard around the world. Within a micro second all types of messages are carried to far away ranges, valleys, and distant friends, relatives, and loved ones. What a change from the days of the Trail Drover. Can you imagine his reaction of disbelief and dismay if he were told that whatever he wished known, it could be delivered around the world as fast as he could think it. Such a machine would have been, and is, the dream of Men of Conquest. It could have saved millions of lives, created empires, changed the course of history, and absolutely ruined the West as we remember it. I am glad it was not available, or even thought possible.
Sometimes in today's world, I look at it with mixed emotions and wonder what future changes will come about. Technology being what it is, and also being instantly updateable, who knows what the eventual ultimate will be. I would suggest that there is none, for each plateau of knowledge only serves as a base to learn from. But these are only thoughts from one not qualified to speak on such matters. At present we can only communicate what history has recorded. Any prediction of the future is only speculation, overshadowed by the probability that all these wonders we see today, will be obsolete by tomorrow.
And so it is that many choose to live in the past, to dive into the history that cannot be changed. It is the only place that they can remain stable. The visions that pass the minds eye, whether fabricated or not, speak of a time when freedom of spirit reigned. When there was always open space that beckoned, offering a new life to those with courage.
Well I don't really know what got me off on this tirade, except that I was watching the Evening News. It never ceases to be a source of bad tidings. I suppose now that I will have to sit here for awhile and drop back into a time when things were not necessarily better, but at least simpler. A time when our leaders did not have to have someone follow them to analyze what they said so that foolish people could think that they understood. So here I am, once again I am standing on a railroad platform of 1870's America. My trusty night horse tied in one of the stock cars. Heading for some destination, maybe near, maybe far. A place along the track, open spaces beckon, roads and computers do not exist, a man lives by using his senses, and being self reliant. Where the ultimate technology is still the Pony Express, and top speed is a faster horse.
As I sit here I can't help but think back to where I left off before. And a certain memory comes to mind. And it involves an old man that lived his life in those simpler times. This man was much like the old man in "Silver Star" I'm not sure if he ever realized that his time was past, and that the world had marched on. Anyway it goes as follows, and is another story in rhyme.
Why---it only seems like----yisterday
About 10 years back I went to a gathering of poets and reinactors at a retirement home. After an hour or so of gunfight skits, and poems---- I was just about to leave----- when an old man in a wheel chair gently pulled on my sleeve-----"I'd like to make your acquaintance young man" he said with a quiet western drawl-----"Your stories bring back memories from times most folks don't recall"-----"I do like that old saddle poem"-----"I knew a lady like that once----I shoulda went back----jist never seemed to be the right time" then he said a few words that I didn't understand. The nurse came over and said, "His name is John---and he drifts off now and then---but considering everything he really does fine-----last April he was 99."
He reached up to shake my hand, and his grip was soft and light. He wanted to know if I was looking for a job---said I could "bunk at his house that night." I told him that was much appreciated but I was just passing through. Then we sat for awhile in the afternoon sun and told stories like----well like--old timers do.
The nurse came by about every 10 minutes----said she'd never seen him talk so much----and he told me about all the ranches where he'd worked----and how he finally came to own his spread. He'd talk for awhile and then drift off. For a few seconds he'd hang his head----then he told me about the time in his youth he spent runnin' and breakin' wild horses. He said that those that looked like they might make a ridin horse were separated from those on the poor side----and those that looked poor went through the sale ring as canners----he said lots of young buckaroos did it for the money---it was a way to survive.
Once again his head began to nod, and I thought he was asleep, but this is what he said, "Son, let me tell you my thoughts about runnin' those wild horses----Ya know it jist don't seem like 70 years ago----Why----I kin see 'em like it was yisterday---But I guess time has a way of slippin' by----'cause I'm told they're not there today"
The old man paused again and with a determined effort he straightened his frail body. His hands gripped the chair, and his eyes were clear and blue as the mountain skies, and silver was the color of his hair. In that soft drawl he began again,-------I hear the waterholes is all dried up--and fences criss cross the plain---they tell me that wild horses are only memories----of times that will never be again----Oh, I pray the boys are wrong----and--them shaggys are still runnin' on some rock strewn, sagebrush plain" His old eyes began to glisten, and he reached up with a feeble hand.
"Why----I can almost touch 'em---see the sunlight flashin' on their ripplin' skins, long tails, and shaggy manes----"
He stopped for a minute and raised his head, "can you smell 'em son---ragged breath like puffs of steam----swirlin' round in the frosty morn---while the wild mare's hearts pump untamed blood---to foals that are yet unborn"
The old man's body tensed as if watching a scene unfold, and a look of concern spread across his wrinkled, weathered face.
"----I pray they never run up that last canyon---that they never pass the last gate----no corral will close before they can turn----and no instant when they know its too late---no dust clouds to swirl amid their frantic forms, while the air reeks of bitter sweat and urine---and no unmerciful sun to bake the scene---and no brandin' irons to burn----no screams from the stallion at the touch of hot iron, to pierce the nerves like icy steel----no cries to announce the death of freedom----and no remorse for me to feel----
The old man's eyes seemed fixed, but he continued.
----ya know--I hear there's oil rigs on those mustang ranges---and a play ranch in every draw---and a few years back an ol' bay stallion was the last wild warrior they saw----Perhaps they've faded back---farther n' higher---maybe somewhere in the Lost River Range---and drink from the waters that fill Herd Lake---where the mountains remain unchanged.
The old man was getting tired but he kept on talking.
"----I pray they never catch the last ones---I pray I don't live to see---the day when the last wild range has been stripped----of the Wild Horses----runnin' free---"
I sat there and I watched and the old man fell asleep. Years later it would occur to me that I never knew his last name. I had never had such an experience. For a few minutes I was there in the past with wild horses all around. I could almost choke on the dust. The nurse came over and wheeled him away saying it was way past his nap time. As I watched him going down through the hallway I wondered what he was dreaming about.
Was he ridin' to the thunder of wild hoofs, chokin' on alkali dust, reliving a past time----or was it just quiet and peaceful in his mind---as he turned the corner into his room, I hoped that it was both.
During the 1990's one of the gatherings that I looked forward to the most was the weekend we would spend along the banks of Grasshopper Cr. and at the old Ghost Town of Bannack, Mont. Poets and Musicians from Cowboy Poets of Idaho, and The Charley Russell Western Heritage Assn. would gather there in motorhomes, campers, tents, and some only brought bedrolls. The days would find performers in many places around the town, beginning with early breakfast in the Meade Hotel, and finishing in a large central camp as evening began to settle. A campfire was built, guitars came out, mosquito repellent was more valuable than a Gold Double Eagle, and the sounds of friends laughing, telling stories, mixed with the smell of hamburgers, hot dogs, and from more affluent fires came the smell of T-Bones.
Those were the good old days. By that I mean the days when hardly anyone was being paid for an appearance. As the sun sat behind the Lemhi and Bitterroot Range to the West, and the waters of Grasshopper Cr. flowed eastward, a large circle of performers settled around the fire for an all night session of poem and song. Tourists would gather behind the circle of performers and stand as long as they were able to see a spontaneous progression of people rise to do their favorite piece. Many of these performers had written special poems about Bannack, and were thrilled to stand where the subjects of their stories had lived and met their ends. For many this was the first time they had been to Bannack. Previous experience was only through History Books, and novels written about Henry Plummer, the outlaw sheriff, and the many stories of the Montana Vigilantes.
The following is a poem I wrote about Bannack. Often in the past I have walked the middle of Bannack's street at midnight listening to the sounds, looking at the shadows, and taking the short walk out of town to the gallows, and up to boot hill. I have seen no ghosts, or had any strange happenings. Just the experience. I would recommend this type of thing to anyone who wishes to write Cowboy Poetry.
Boardwalks of Bannack
Comes the light of a silent dawn----to fall upon cold stone--
giving shape to letters that form the names---of men who died alone---
some were men who came from the east---others, sons of pioneers---
Many were soldiers of the Civil War---running from distant fears.
Most were following the lure of gold--like the song of a Lorelie---
riding on the brink of eternities trail---waiting their turn to die---
men who drew comfort from the warmth of wood---
and cold steel of a Colt .45---
Doomed to a life of dealing out death---then running to stay alive---
Such were men of Buntline's novel---proclaimed to be Knights of the Age--
Their deeds portrayed before the world---by the magic of the printed page---
but now today--the sun slowly sinks--as in all these years since their
the gunmen come to life--on the Boardwalks of Bannack---
and they live in this poems rhyme--
I listen in the silence--to the sound of hooves---
as they ride in past Bachelors Row---
to meet Henry Plummer in Skinner's Saloon---
and plan where next to go---
The smells of supper--the slammng of doors---
carry far in the clear evening air---
as does the sound of laughter---that comes from a cabin---
of a Lady with long raven hair---
Hear the shouts of the teamsters----the turning of wheels---
--feel the dredge as it trembles the ground---
while through it all---gunmen gamble and drink---
--as they wait till enough gold is found---
But time was passing---and in soon years---
like the buffalo----they would be gone----
---and their only remains---these cold grey stones---
and the names carved thereupon---
Many of them were shot in the back---
and as they lay face down in the dust---
the last thing they saw--was a gun in the hand---
of someone they thought they could trust---
Perhaps---their thoughts went back in time---to a long forgotten day--
a day when a mother's tears were shed--as she watched her son ride away--
never to know the place where he died---
--or to grieve at the grave where he lay--
the years have passed so quickly by---
---for those who eternally sleep--
---the secrets they carried to forgotten graves---
---are forever for the grave to keep--
and yet--sometimes---when the light is right---
--and for those whose eyes are keen---
--shadows move through the old hotel--
--and by the creek--ghostly riders are seen--
there's the woman in white near Bachelor's Row--
--and a sweet smell of Jasmine in the air---
--was it only the wind--or the touch of a hand--
when you felt something cold touch your hair--
It's said that the crying of children can be heard---
--when the wind makes the cottonwoods moan---
--and I myself have heard faint sounds--
---of a shovel digging in stone---
but mostly the buildings stand silent now---
---victims of time--and wind--and sun---
Ghostly reminders of a time gone by--
--of Gold---and the Outlaws Gun--
The legends and stories of Gold that are Bannack's history are as many and varied as the characters that made them. It is reported that Henry Plummer offered to bring, "My weight in gold within the hour" if the vigilantes would free him. They would not. Henry's last words were, "Give me a good drop boys" To this request they were all agreeable. Henry's skull graced a shelf in one of Bannack's saloons till a fire destroyed the building. The town still stands with all its secrets. Perhaps if a person had good enough ears---I have heard that sounds never die----
Here we are once again at Memorial Day. A day that means many things to many different people. To us Veterans it brings bittersweet memories of friends who have gone on. To families it is remembrance of Fathers, Mothers, Sons and Daughters, and departed family members. I remember all of these, but my Great Grandmother Henrietta Duhwig always stands out in my mind. She was born in what is now Eastern Montana in 1864, near where Custer met his end many years later. She was more than just Grandma to me, she was a real hero. I grew up with the stories of her life with the Indians, and Riders of the Plains. When she was 16 she left Montana, and that is the last that I know of my Great Great Great Grandparents. They remained in Montana. Those stories are the reason I moved west when I was able. I remember seeing her in her room, sitting in her rocking chair holding her long hair in her lap, giving it the required number of strokes every evening before bed. It was at those times when I heard stories of dead warriors on platforms out on the plains, of riders that called out to the house in the dark of night, and of being locked inside for a week or more at a time. Of her growing up never being out of reach of a gun. Dangerous times. I wrote this of her later years. Years ago, before my Cowboy Poetry time.
Old Chest of Memories
She had letters bound up with old ribbons,
Postcards from places they had been,
Old headlines from days long gone by,
Just memories from times way back when,
An old flower pressed between paper,
that's lain in the dark through the years,
and a shining lock of golden hair,
all viewed through a hidden tear.
Many are the cards, all yellowed with time,
that tell of a love old and true,
a record of their years together,
all signed "I'll always Love You"
And all spread out upon her bed,
a wedding veil of white,
photos, of a boy and girl,
the legacy of her life.
Buttons contained in a little tin,
and a Silver Brush for her hair,
and a letter that says, "In the Line of Duty"
lies folded in the corner there
A portrait of her soldier gone,
stands silent in the yellow light,
and she yearns for his arms to hold her,
as they did on a long ago night.
The smell of remembered years drift out of the chest,
as she handles each item again,
She smiles when she touches something special,
just memories of times way back when
She looks in the old mirror, at the lines on her face,
as she stretches her long white hair,
the very same mirror that her grandmother used,
passed down many years with care.
She picks up the brush, and strokes her hair,
then she places it back in her chest,
the picture is wrapped in the folds of the veil,
and she presses them close to her breast
fragments of time she'll never forget,
locked away in her memory chest.
© 2002, Charlie Camden
Charlie Camden gave us a glimpse of spring earlier in the month...
Its early morn here, and I just came in from helping a friend check cattle. After such times it helps me to remember that up here the days pass, and the rivers run, the winds of change can be felt, but the long shadow of a cowboy can still be seen watching the valleys from a nearby ridge.
The yips and squeals of the coyote mix with the bawls of the cattle at the approach of grey in early morning. But now they have been joined by a sound not heard often in the last few decades. The long, low, drawn out, call of the Wolf. At such a time other sounds seem to stop. I don't know if is because we tune our ears to listen and exclude other sounds, or if they also stop to listen.
There are many sounds of the West that qualify as the call of the wild. The Bull Elk in August and Sept., The Coyote in the Big Hole Country of Montana in January, and the call of the Loon on a remote lake or river in early Autumn, these are all prominent. There are other happenings that are silent, such as dark star filled nights along the Rocky Mountain Front, where the only sound may be a distant rolling rock, a sudden gust of wind, or the snapping of a stick in the nearby timber. Many of these places are hidden for many months of the year, and their inhabitants long gone to lower ground, or flown to warmer, less harsh environs. And so these places pass their time without sound other than that of the wind.
Yesterday I watched as the wild flocks of geese and ducks passed high over head on their way to the northern potholes, and nesting grounds of Canada and Alaska. Many of the local ducks and geese left several weeks ago. In the late days of June and early July the big yellow grasshoppers will fill the weedstrips along the road. This draws the coyotes to feed on the fat bugs that get hit by cars. Quite a few coyotes get hit after being confused by carlights, and I have seen fair numbers of pups lying along the road edge.
Well enough for now, just thought I'd give you a quick glimpse of West Central Idaho. Winter is over, and the hills beckon. Next month the Silver Sage will bloom...
As usual, what Charlie Camden says when he sends his column is full of interesting prose, so we've included some of it here:
... This is sort of what I call a story in rhyme, and the meter may be hard to catch. If memory serves me right I'm sure I wrote this one night while staying in a Forest Service Packers Cabin about a quarter mile north of the end of the road at West Fork Teton, in the Eastern portion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I had met up with a couple of Forest Service packers that afternoon and they invited me down to the cabin for supper. I could see the clouds building along the Rocky Mountain Front and knew it was going to blow up a good'n so I accepted without hesitation. I just happened to bring my bedroll, and sure enough it came down by the barrels full. They invited me to stay for the night as there were plenty of bunks. The original of this story was written on the backside of a pair of saddlebags that I gave to a friend in North Dakota some years back. Even at that time the writing was sweated on and darkened almost beyond reading. I'd be willing to bet that those bags are still traveling the back country. Well we'll start with this one...
Today my thoughts turned back in time---to the year Jim Waters died---
You see back then, Jim was my best friend---and it was he that taught me to
ride---and how to push a herd across a flooding river---and to handle the
gun at my side. I reckon that Jim was---"nigh onto eighty"---when he
worked his last full day---that night in the bunkhouse, as it thundered and
rained---old Jim passed away.
I was too much a man, at twelve years old--to cry--so I held it
inside---later I rode down to the trees by the riverbank---and there a young
But during that time I remembered something---old Jim said that I should
know. About the dreams that he had---where he saw old friends---from a
time that was long ago. He said that on stormy nights, when the lightning
would strike---he'd toss in his bed to and fro. Then in dreams he would
ride, over ridges and mountains---on trails only outlaws would know. Then
he would come to a camp, where he'd water his horse, and when he'd turn they
would all be there. Ben and Johnny, Nate and George---and the Indian
they knew as Joe Bear. He said he knew he was dreaming---cause these boys
had all died long before. But still it was good to go back and just talk
with them---and lately they came more and more. He said some of them had
holes in their shirts--- where their hearts lead bullets had found---their
clothes were old and tattered---and smelled of mouldy ground. Their eyes
were deep and burning
holes, and their skin an unholy white. They appeared as specters from a
prison of darkness---set free to roam in the night. He said they all
talked of the old days, and the deeds of which one had done---then they'd
laugh and pass the bottle---and one would draw and fire his gun. As if on
cue the thunder would rumble---and the wind would
begin to blow---and as the lightning flashed he would see---fire dancing on
ten thousand horns like foam on an angry sea. Then he'd hear the cries of
those men around him---their voices were as wailings in the wind. They
raced their ponies as though possessed---and their tortured bodies would
call out again and again. Then old Jim would awake in the dead of the
night--- to the sound of rain on the roof. He'd shiver in his bed, and
try to swallow the taste---of brimstone, and dust from hooves. Jim's life
was a torment, and he lived with the fear--- that someday they would take
him away. Then he would have no choice, but to ride in darkness---and
spend eternity that way.
Jim's been gone now for almost 30 years---the old ranch house has stood
empty for some time. I ride over that way 'bout once a year,---'cause
nowadays the next ranch south is mine. The last time when I was over near
there, a sudden rain began to fall---and as lightning flashed in the
rimrock, I thought I heard someone call. When I turned to the sound they
were almost upon me---foul spirits one and all. Their fetid breath hung
heavy in the air---their voices were wails and moans. I cried out for
help, but none was to come, and I realized-----I was alone. And so I stood,
rooted in terror, as fear froze my bones.
They had the smell of death about them----as they raced their ponies so
fast. But I recognized them for who they were--------the ghosts of 'ol
Jim's past. As lightning danced on the rimrocks above---the thunder
punished my ears---and I found myself riding with gun in hand---amid the
horde of ghostly steers.
When at last I was blinded by the acrid dust---I reined my horse away.
Then the storm and the riders passed swiftly by----and sun brought the
bright light of day. I watched for long minutes----as the storm crossed
the valley---for I could still see the riders and the steers.
Suddenly one rider stopped and waited for me---------- then waved and rode
on his way. I have no way of knowing, but it would be just like 'ol
Jim-----to try and reach across the years.
I turned my horse and headed for home, and felt the warmth of the sun on my
face. I urged my horse to a faster gait, as I was anxious to be away from
This all happened a few years back----and I swear to you boys, its true----
Now I listen to the rain as it falls on the roof. Sometimes I hear the
sound of hooves---I sometimes hear voices in the wind----and I always check
the lock on the door, and batten down the windows during a howling wind---I
stay a far piece from that old ranch house----and I'll never ride that
It sure has been a long time coming. It just can't seem to warm up, and I can't wait much longer. In fact I think that tomorrow I'll saddle up the Ford pony and ride over to the saddle shop in Lewiston and hang out with some of the boys. Its warm down there and its time to spread good humor, tell lies, and sing a few good old cowboy tunes. I'll see if I can get a loop on a good days weather to drag home with me. The mountains are well above average for the winters snowfall, and as the days warm up the rivers are beginning to run brown. Still the days are only in the 40's. When it gets this late in the season, and snows are still hangin' in the high country, it is good for lowlanders to be on the alert for fast rising streams and rivers. Seen it happen many times, but people seem to forget every year and get caught with their pants down. Sort of like geese it seems. Waking up in a new world every day. Don't want to get into that. Lots of new calves on the ground, and I never seem to get tired of watching them play. Butting heads, racing around the pasture, all under the watching eye of a seeming nonchalant cow. The other day I was going down the highway toward Lewiston, and off to the side a rancher had scattered some straw on a little high rise in the ground. I'll bet there was a good 65--70 head of calves laying around, running, and generally having a good time, and there were only 2 cows within a quarter mile. All the mother cows were up on a newly greened up hillside with their heads down. Somehow it perked up my day, and I saw a smiling face in the rear view mirror. It should be mandatory for all human beings to spend calving time on a ranch somewhere. Hard work, Dirty work, Long hours, Lack of sleep, Cold, Wet, Miserable. Sleeping in the saddle or in the seat of a pickup. Some have it easier, some have it worse. But what a time. When it is over and all is well, new work begins. And I don't want anyone unfamiliar to this type of life to even begin to think that ranch women don't participate to the hilt. I always get a terrific laugh when I hear city people say that when they retire they want to get a small ranch with only a few animals and just kick back and relax. Let me know where that place is!
Well, we are back from Santa Clarita. Sure is a long drive. But what a great time we had. Met lots of new folks, and had great sessions with old friends. Laughed until our jaws ached, and visited with the Sons of the San Joachin, Joni Harms, R. W. Hampton, Curly Musgrave, Stephanie Davis, and met up with a new group that are destined to make a name for themselves called David John and the Comstock Cowboys. I always love the gatherings and shows but memorizing poems seemed much easier in past years. I got enough poems and songs to last for many years, and I look forward to getting them out to all of you folks that spend lots of time here at the Bar D. This is a great website for all the writers and performers of Western Culture events. I take a lot of pride in saying that I know most of these people personally, and those that I haven't met yet---well they are the reason I just keep going.
In the beginning when I first started going to gatherings my neighbors would ask where I'd been. I'd smile and tell them that I had been to a Cowboy Poetry Gathering. A questioning look would appear on their faces and I knew what they were going to say! Without fail "What is a Cowboy Poet?" would be the next words out of their mouths. And so I would give this answer:
What is a Cowboy Poet?
What is a Cowboy Poet?
that's a question I hear almost every day.
but to provide an exact description,
that's not exactly easy to say.
There's no two alike when they approach the mike,
Tho' big hats and like moustache's they may share,
He's big, she's small, he's short, and she's tall,
some are rowdy, and others quite debonair.
But all cowboy poets are dreamers,
and some may seem totally out of place,
One may appear, young, pretty, and demure,
and the next has grey stubble on his face.
But a real Cowboy Poet is a keeper of the Spirit,
of a time we will never see again.
when empires were built by cattle barons,
and railroad towns were Boomin'
When shouts of GOLD! echoed from the west,
My God man! Destiny was loomin'
A cowboy poet has heard all of this,
and dreams of these times long ago,
and can plainly see what a hero he could be,
In a novel by Louis L'Amour.
Why, just yesterday he rode with the rangers,
chasin outlaws on the hot dusty plains,
He drove for Wells Fargo one mornin' last week
then scouted right o' way for west bound trains.
Today for awhile, he was Jesse James,
smellin' gunsmoke, holdin' tight to the reins.
He hung some rustlers back in "86,
runnin' irons still hot in their hands.
fought rustlers, range fires, killer storms,
that's the job when you ride for the brand.
He's rode night guard on herds
on the blackest of nights.
dealt cards in a dim smoke filled room,
and he's a definite favorite of all the ladies,
that live above the Long Branch Saloon.
A cowboy poet could be anyone,
who rides wild stallions in their dreams,
who can draw fast, shoot straight, never tell a lie,
and foil a scoundrel's schemes.
Cowboy poets are young at heart
for them, it's a fascination.
to speak the words, that paint the scenes,
that they see in their imaginations.
© 2002, Charlie Camden
We don't like waste Charlie Camden's words, so we've included a bit of what he wrote when he sent his current column:
... Today as I sit down to write, I look out the window at about a foot of new snow. Just a few days ago we had bare ground, some green grass, and warm days. But if a person wants to enjoy life, be part of it. I think that maybe I will get out real soon and check out the places where boats are sold and see if I can get me a small fishing rig. You are probably wondering "what kind of talk is that from a cowboy poet?" Actually it is part of my diversification program. "All poetry and no fishing makes Charlie a dull boy" I guess that I am straying from the subject at hand, and I probably better get back on track.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a good bit of snow here, and that always makes me think of the Ghost Towns that dot out part of the country. Many of them have a few residents that still dig the yellow dust that lured seekers of fortune to remote canyons of the West. I have been in some of these towns in winter time, and I smile as I think of some of the houses as being closely akin to a bear's den. In midwinter, it is common to see tunnels in the snow which are walkways to cabins that are totally covered with snow.
Depths of ten to twelve feet are common in the high elevations, and streets give way to snowmobile paths. A local restaurant parking area may be bladed out to allow up to 50 snowmobiles to park for a meeting. It is sometimes hard for those who are not used to such winter conditions to understand why anyone would remain there. There are hazards, as most of these residents heat with wood gathered from the forest. Fire trucks are able to assist only a few houses. Many houses do not have electricity and use propane or coal oil lamps. Sometimes the snow load on the roof becomes so heavy that a cave in occurs. If sickness strikes, seeing a doctor sometimes involves a hundred miles of travel one way, by snowmobile and 4X4 truck, and involves overnight stays along the way.
And yet, people choose this type of living, and raise families under such conditions. Why you may ask? It all comes down to the seeking of the yellow dust. Dreams of riches, not so much the reality, but the dreams when all becomes right. And in these dreams there is no end in sight. I have seen people experience the finding of gold. I know a man who has over 200 gold claims. Many of which are good producers. He is happy with himself and understands that the gold in hand is not the treasure. For awhile it provides happiness that was dreamed of. For awhile it gives satisfaction, contentment, security. But then a longing sets in, and a person realizes that finding is not always the answer. Rather it is the seeking, dreaming, and sacrifice one makes along the way. The feeling of being alive in a world of opportunity. One needs to realize this no matter what the treasure may be. One needs to realize that there may never be a tangible treasure. But the living with dreams, having goals, having happiness, these have to count for something. Still Searching,
I was camped out along the North Fork of the Sun River one night in July of '88 when the fires were burning everywhere in the West. I knew that the fires were burning around, and I would be going out to the East in the morning. There was an orange tinge to the sky miles away to the south, and the smell of smoke was in the air. I was very close to the River, and if a fire came over me, I would have covered the horses eyes, taken them to deep water and see if the river would stop the flames. I didn't want to cross the river and just run. It was sixteen steep uphill miles to the pass, and if the flames jumped the river, they would chase me hard to the summit. So I made sure that the horses wer well fed, watered, and standing in good grass. I would have several hours start if I saw flames in the distance.
I made it out that next morning and found that the fire had passed 16 miles to the south. Within a few days fire swept through a canyon where I had been a few days before, and burned everything
The campfire is burning, crimson and gold.
Tall trees reflect pale light,
in the dark before the moon, in a cloudless sky,
only stars shine on the mountains tonight.
Silence of wild has settled around me,
troubles of man seem afar, and away,
no phone or TV to disrupt my thoughts,
and there is no Dan Rather today.
The packs are all stacked and covered,
Saddles all standing on end,
in the silence far away a coyote sings,
somewhere near Horseshoe Bend.
Suddenly the wind comes howling through the trees,
like wolves on the run in the night,
it leaves in its wake a scattering of sparks,
and my fire picks up and burns bright.
I add a few sticks, stare into the flames,
and look around in the flickering light.
my camp which was sunny just a short time ago,
is but a small spark in the vastness of this night.
The horses nicker and talk to me,
tired at the end of the day.
having rolled in the sand where this river once flowed,
they're content now with sweet clover hay.
The hours pass, the fire burns down,
and only the stars shine bright.
and I sit in the darkness and listen to the river,
as it battles with stones in the night
Early in the morning, I'll be packed and gone,
and this meadow will be filled with sunlight.
But for now I'll lie back in a peaceful sleep,
with sounds that make the silence of night
© 1988, Charlie T. Camden
One of the good things about memory is that gives one the chance to choose among a list of favorite happenings. Sometimes mere shadows on the weathered wood of old buildings provide the stimulus to create imaginary flights of fancy. Evenings and early mornings on the Boot Hill's of many Ghost Towns carry sounds that may go unexplained to those who don't have imagination. Sort of like looking for your keys and after fifteen minutes of searching, find them right where they were supposed to be. You know that you didn't overlook them. How did they get there? Oh well, the saying goes. I must be losing my mind. And so you shrug it off and go on. You just missed your chance at a good poem, song, or if a person believes in such a thing, were you delayed in your travels in order to place you in a different spot when something happened? Have you ever wondered where you would have been if you had taken opportunities that were offered in years past? Certainly you would be somewhere other than where you are at this minute.
One afternoon I was taking pictures of old buildings at Bannack, Montana when I entered a small two room cabin that was apart from other buildings. The old furnishings, and feelings I felt led to this poem For better or worse the decisions we make on the spur of the moment will affect the rest of our lives. Such would be the case for both the woman and the man in the following poem. What happened to them as a result of their decision? How would it affect us at this late date? The man was a business man that loved the lady of the night. He could not stand the thought of her business. He sold his holdings and left Bannack on the Southern route to Salt Lake City. He was never seen or heard from again. The lady of the night seemed to appear out of nowhere. She plied her trade in the dancehalls and saloons of Bannack. She was for awhile a friend of Nellie Paget "the star of Bannack." She was hardened by the times and by the life she lived. One day Bannack awoke and she was gone from sight. There is no record of her, or who she really was. The West is full of stories of such ladies. They grew old alone, and in obscurity.
Farewell to the Lady
"could I lay in your arms one more time pretty lady"
said the man who stood in her door
"my wagon is loaded and I leave in the morn,
I just can't stay here anymore"
She stood for a moment , and just stared at him,
then she ran a tired hand through her hair,
as she stepped aside, he entered the cabin,
then closed the door on the chill mountain air.
Her lantern burned bright, yet it cast a soft light,
that gave the walls of her room a pink glow
her bed was piled high with pillows and lace,
and held secrets that wives would never know.
He took off his coat, and hung up his hat,
In the silence she turned out her light,
and the room knew again, old familiar sounds,
of love made in haste in the night.
As they lay together for this last time,
they talked for awhile,--- and then,
she pulled on her robe, ran her hand through her hair,
and relit her lamp again.
She refused any money when he held out his hand,
instead----she just turned away.
She knew this time would be the last,
and he'd be gone with the first light of day.
She thought of a time long months ago,
when he first had asked for her hand,
but she couldn't see living in a small prairie cabin,
on a little parcel of land,
so she said No!----and then laughed----and walked away---
Now she watches from her window, as he hitches up his team,
while men from the mine move about,
then comes a knock on her door, and the sounds of a scuffle,
that ends in a drunken shout.
The man at the wagon picks up his reins,
to leave on his southern route.
It only took minutes to be out of town,
and when he stopped for a last look about,
what he noticed most of all,
were shadows on her curtains,
then her scarlet light was turned out.
© 1991, Charlie T. Camden
Every year about this time, a feeling of anticipation comes over me and I think of all the new canyons that I will see this summer. Am I going to find that little gold strike in some far away creek bed, or maybe a rich vein in a little side canyon. Probably not, but is a dream to smile about. If I did find a nice big nugget, what would I do with it. Would I keep it? Don't think so. Would I sell it? Without a doubt. They say Gold has a smell. I have smelled it before. Nothing great. It smells mostly like the sweat in my hand, and somewhat like the handle of my hayfork. I can think of lots of things it would get me, like a real good fitting saddle, a rifle with history that when properly held by someone like me could shoot the shortnin' out of a biscuit without crackin' the crust at 500 yards. Maybe a pair of spurs, or a headstall and bit that was used by Roy Rogers or Gene Autry.
Now I can tell you that any of those smell better than my hand, or the handle of my hayfork. More than likely this summer will be like so many of the past. I will see new canyons, because I will set out to do specifically that. I may find some gold. I do every year. But it is not the strike of dreams, usually a few flakes of yellow in the bottom of a black pan. The gold I will see will be in the Painted Skies of the still wild west. It will be with me most evenings I spend in camp. You can reach out for it but you cannot hold or contain it. In a blinking of an eye, it goes back into the earth along with the setting sun.
Those who frequent wild places are often treated to gem-like displays of a silver moon, and a sprinkling of diamonds. A talk with the horses and a walk by the river are actual luxuries that have to be lived to be appreciated. If you are a horseman and have handled your animals with the respect they deserve, they will treat you the same. There are always little games they like to play, but you need to be aware of these, see the humor, and take them for what they are. Insights or lessons. Communication without words. Projections of attitudes. In time to come I will get into all of these, and you can e-mail your thoughts pro and con.
Mornings are another thing entirely. Sunrise is sometimes accompanied by a white sky which becomes blue as the morning goes on. Other times it may range from a brilliant red to a pale pink that covers the entire sky from horizon to horizon. Red mornings require a bit of thought, and possible changing of plans, as it almost always an indication of a storm approaching, accompanied by rain. On the other hand a Red Sky at sunset indicates good weather ahead for the next day.
Here I go rambling again, this next poem came to me after one of my last trips into the mountains for that year. "I don't remember which year." A well known outdoorsman and writer from Corvallis, Montana by the name of Jerry Lewis used to come to my house at least several times a week and we would toss stories back and forth. We used to refer to late fall, and winter as the "season of frozen ropes." Those who have done it know what it feels like to have bloody split lips, and frozen cracked fingers, and well as feet that don't feel the stirrups.
Cold blow these winds of November,
white gleam the peaks neath the moon.
the horses breath gathers in frosted clouds,
and coyotes sing out of tune.
Hoar frost stands the hair on my ponies
pack ropes frozen hard in the coil,
shod hooves ring out like cathedral bells,
on this high country, frozen, thin soil.
Winter descends on the High Lands
as a Grey Ogre with an Ice Taloned Hand,
and makes sun rays slant from the distant south,
with summer chased to a distant land.
The animals have all moved lower,
bears sleep an unknowing sleep.
they feel not the cold winds and winter,
but dream of Salmon, Silver and Sleek.
Its damn sure time to leave this High Country,
Heavy snow will soon claim it all,
camps and wild places lie beyond closed trails,
their good times mere memories to recall.
My cabin waits near the river
its fireplace beckons and glows,
and I'll sit by its warmth, on deep winter nights,
sipping brandy as bitter winds blow.
Outside in the barn, my horses will nicker,
in warm stalls secure and clean,
with eyes half closed, they'll bury their nose,
in rich hay, shaken loose, and dark green.
These saddles will hang from a lofty beam,
ropes coiled neatly on the side.
padding all hung to catch the air,
as they wait for next seasons ride
Far in the future, these things shall all pass,
lofty mountains to be mere grains of sand.
what eyes shall it be that looks to new heights,
what creature shall cherish the land.
© 1989, Charlie T. Camden
Charlie wrote that the following is "...just a few lines that were sort of a preamble to a simple song I wrote called "Let 'em Ride" I used to do this song years ago at Cowboy Poets of Idaho and Charlie Russell Western Heritage Association gatherings. It is ghostly when 20 or more performers chime in with whispered voices in old buildings in Ghost Towns such as Bannack, Montana. My thoughts on the emergence of a figure that is a mixture of "Mythical, Physical, Original, and Controversial proportions." Some day I'll do the song for you. I am not a guitar player, and this is done entirely with the guitar tuned "open E." The weird spacing was to allow a Guitar to accompany me. "
During the late 1860"s---after the Civil War---many soldiers returned home
to Texas and found that nothing but poverty and desperation lay in
the economy and attitudes of the time were such that nothing could be
expected from the federal government in the way of aid-----In fact--most of
the programs that came down from Washington seemed aimed at vengeance---and
punishment---However---The land was literally covered by wild longhorn
cattle that had flourished during the years that the men had bee away
fighting the war.
A few men of vision realized that if a way could be found to gather---and
deliver--these cattle to the stockyards and railheads in the North--vast
fortunes and empires could be realized----
They began rounding up these wild cattle with the aim of being to drive them
to the far away Stockyards----
Many figured it was impossible---the very distance was intimidating ---to
say nothing of the storms to be encountered---vast dry lands---river
So while many shook their heads in doubt--others forged ahead---
Texas history had always been steeped in adversity--and always before its
people had risen to the occasion---it would be so again---BUT---it would
require change---courage---and determination.
And so it was to be--that a new figure appeared---
a figure created from the need of the time---one that was destined to ride
forever across the pages of our history books--
THE AMERICAN COWBOY
He did not just appear in history---he made the history---
As we gaze back over the years of the 1870's--and 80's--those years come to
life as the most colorful era in the building of our nation---
The drovers brought the cattle---the cattle brought the railroad---and the
railroad brought towns--and thus came civilization.
Approximately 20 years in our history----but what a time!
Imagine the excitement and sounds that filled the air along the many miles
of trail--and when the herds finally arrived at the railheads---saloons
never closed---gunfire echoed in the night--fortunes were made and
lost---and the whoops---shouts--and the cries of the American Cowboy
-------------Still echo through the years--------------
© 1997, Charlie Camden
Charlie told us: "I used to visit old folks retirement homes. Did Poetry and Cowboy
reenactment skits. I wrote this one after such a trip. Sometimes I look at an older person, and a lifetime seems to spring forth. Possibly what they were, and possibly total fiction. Over the years there have been many old timers I have met that carry untold, and unlistened-to, stories of courage, determination, and selfless sacrifice. All in an effort to leave a better way of life behind than what they found. I often wonder if we are deserving recipients of such acts. How quickly we can forget..."
The wrinkles were deep on the face of the man,
that sat in the old straight backed chair.
The smell of his pipe was pungent yet sweet,
--circled his yellow white hair.
Far seeing blue eyes stared right through the smoke,
and held memories of bygone times.
While from out on the street came the sounds of the city,
and on the breeze-----
--distant church chimes.
People at the home were kind to him
but they thought him a little bit strange,
for he talked of Indians, and mining camps,
and tracking outlaws----
--across wide open plains.
He carried in his hand a Silver Star,
he had worn in younger days.
when men had a Code of Honor,
--knew simpler ways..
Now his old eyes stare out to the busy street,
to see the traffic as it hurries on its way.
while his mind travels back to another time,
and his soul----
--seems to drift away.
He sees the faces of old friends he knew,
but they just smile as he passes by.
He reaches to touch them, but they just fade away,
and his mind----
---doesn't understand why.
A distant voice cries---CALL THE DOCTOR!
and he opens his eyes to see--
the young attendent from the nursing home,
--but he smiles and says----
--just let me be.
He closes his eyes, those memories return,
all of the pain seems to just drift away,
and he lives in a body strong and limber again,
and bygone times----
a distant voice says, The doctor is here,
--but the voice seem small and far away--
He takes out his watch, to check the time,
as he stops at the Frontier Saloon,
and he steps inside for his usual drink,
the watch says------
--six hours past noon.
old friends step up to greet him,
his memory town now seems so real.
while back on the porch the Silver Star,
--into hands that don't feel.
as he leaves the bar, the sun is sinking,
and he looks the street up and down,
its quiet now, not like it used to be---
when the Texans-----
--brought the herds to town.
back then the saloons stayed open around the clock,
but this evening----
--there is hardly a sound.
as he walks the boardwalks of this familiar place,
a piano down the street starts to play,
children are running between the buildings,
--closing for the day
he turns his head as if to listen,
when a distant voice says-----
"his son is on the way"
he steps into the street in the greying light,
and begins his evening rounds,
he remembers the day the bank was robbed
and 400 miles of dusty trail----
---before he ran them all down.
and there were other times---when he stood in the street,
so early---with no others around,
when the only sounds---were the scrape of his boots,
on the boardwalks----
---of his Frontier town
Its silent now----the street has grown dark,
as he finishes his final rounds.
Its been a long time,
since his gun was used---and on boothill-----
---there are no new mounds.
Somewhere in the darkness,
a player piano----
and quiet voices are the only sounds.
he sees his home at the end of the street,
from its window there shines a light,
for just a minute a boy and dog--
stand framed in darkening night---
and from out of the dark---a familiar voice----
---will he be alright?
he opens his gate, and steps up on the porch,
and stands in the lamps gold ray,
from the yard comes the sounds of laughter--
of the young boy and dog at play--
then once again the familiar voice---
---I was coming over later today.
Then a different voice calls out his name,
but again no one can be seen,
the smell of fresh coffee and biscuits,
--through the front door screen.
he pauses for a moment---looks back on his town,
then steps through the door to the light.
a lady steps up and wraps her arms around him---
and the door---
--- closes softly on the night.
and from inside the house a lady's voice says---
"wash up---supper's on"
and another voice this time from the dark says--
"I'm sorry son----
The attendant helps the middle aged man,
carry the old mans baggage out the door.
He says "You know---all he ever talked about was you
said you drove a fine big car--
He sat on the porch just watchin' and waitin'---
said---you didn't live far"
He had some things he wanted to give you--
but I sure don't know what they are.
all he had----that I ever seen,
were these clothes and pipe--and---
---that old Silver Star.
© 1989, Charlie T. Camden
About Charlie Camden
I was born on March 1, 1941 in St. Joseph, Mo. as the first son of Charles E. and Josephine Camden. The first few years my mother and I lived with my great-great grandmother Henrietta Scanlon while my father was serving in the war. Upon his return, we moved into a larger house, and my years of recollection begin.
As a young boy I would listen to my Grandmother tell me stories of her life in the wilds of Montana in the 1860's and 70's, and her life among the Sioux and Crow. I remember in my early years, the warm evenings sitting on the porch listening to stories of her days after she came East to St. Joseph, Mo. and her first hand encounters with famous characters of the old west.
I remember glasses of lemonade, the smell of fresh mowed grass, and the singing of Jarflies in the trees, as the hours wore on. In my 7-year-old mind, I could imagine riding with Quantrille, I could see the Youngers riding their horses into the plum thicket behind the James house only a few city blocks away. It was also easy for me to imagine the Pony Express Stables in full operation, as I had played there many hot summer days, when the smell of horses still permeated the old stone building after so many years of neglect. It was easy to see the corrals that filled the city block to the North, corrals that by 1950 had become a City Park.
As the evenings wore on and lightning bugs were chased by all us kids, a kind of closeness settled over the area. It almost seemed like the past and the present were all one. I had often stood in places where Jesse and Frank, as well as Cole Younger had stood less that 60 years previous. One of my childhood friends lived a city block away. His father was a shoemaker, and his real name was Frank James. How many kids played cowboy, in the Original Pony Express Stables, with their childhood pal Frank James. It is easy to see why I have lived the lifestyle that I have.
I attended 8 years of elementary school and 4 years of High School in St. Joseph, and attended one year at the old community college of Missouri Western. Like many of the students going to school I worked many different jobs, and tried to support myself as much as determination and opportunity allowed. The next few years were hectic, I got married, had two children, and divorced a few years later. I was in that period of life when I thought I knew everything. I served in the USMC for several years, and made one tour of Vietnam, spending the entire time inside the I Corp Area, and the DMZ. During this time I married my wife Kathy, and although she has threatened to kill me hundreds of times, I tell her I love her every day.
After I returned from Vietnam, I worked at numerous jobs and finally decided to go west to see the places my Grandmother had spoken about. To seek the elusive treasures of solitude and freedom. I got involved with Backcountry Outfitters, Packing, Wilderness travel, and all related subjects. As years progressed I looked for ways to make a living doing what I loved. I worked several years with the BLM, and built trails and fought fires throughout the West. I bought and used horses during this time to travel in the Mountains, and to work backcountry contracts. I eventually went to work in the woods industry as a sawyer, heavy equipment operator, and road builder. Worked extensively with explosives drilling and blasting long rock escarpments.
During one layoff I made arrangements to attend a Farrier's Class at Montana State University. This was a class for those wishing to become a professional farrier. During this time Kathy and I were receiving regular allotments of kids who seeming arrived at will. By now I had a suspicion of the cause, but preferred to remain dumb, because I didn't want to change. (By this time I was beginning to think that maybe I didn't know everything.)
Today those kids have grown up and are the best young adults in the world. I had kids that grew up in the mountains riding High Country Trails, when they were less than a year old. Kids that slept between mom and dad under heavy blankets in elk camp, as Mother Nature dumped a foot of snow on us overnight. My son Jeff spent his first night in Elk Camp at 4 months of age. Young daughters that could catch up any one of the horses, and with a handful of mane swing up onto an already running bareback mount. Boys that could pull packstrings across miles of Bob Marshall Wilderness trails and river crossings, and meet me at a predetermined spot on the map before their teen years. Am I proud of them, you bet.
Along the way, there are many saddles, manty's, and saddle bags scattered through second hand shops, and back country camps that still carry the faded writings, poems, and thoughts inspired by the thrill of these trips. It was through the writings on some of these that I got involved in Cowboy Poetry.
Years ago I was writing a book (still unpublished) and one of my friends saw it and told me about an event he had heard about over the radio. It was called a Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Well I never heard of such a thing, so I
thought I'd check it out. It was in the Swan Valley of Montana which was not too far, so off I went. Met up with a few old boys that I hit it off with and have been doing Cowboy gatherings ever since.
Currently my wife Kathy and I produce the Lewiston/ Clarkston Cowboy Poetry, Music, and Western Art Festival. It is rapidly becoming one of the best of its kind in the US.
Some recent credits include:
Co-Founder and Vice Pres. of Charley Russell Western Heritage Assn.
Past President of Cowboy Poets of Idaho
Member of Board of Directors, Academy of Western Artist's AWA Poetry Division
Nominated for Cowboy Poet of the year AWA 1997
Radio Show on KRLC 1350 AM, rated in top 10 in the world
Performing Member of WMA
Charlie's CD, 'Fore the Comin' of the Wire, done with his partner Bodie Dominquez in 2003, is a collection of tales, poetry, and song. Read a review of the CD here. The CD is available for $12.50 postpaid from Charlie Camden, PO Box 208, Nez Perce, ID 83543, (208-937-2352) firstname.lastname@example.org
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