Down the road

Roger’s dusty work boot casually pressed the pedal. A slight hum answered from beneath the hood. His other boot eased out the clutch, and that tired Ford called back with a rattle, a shake and a near stall. Just in time, that first boot jumped in and saved the day, massaging the gas pedal and moving the truck through the shake and down the road.

“Zero to 60 before nightfall,” I joked, still a smart-ass teen-ager but secretly proud to be riding shotgun in that pickup along some of Western Colorado’s dirtiest backroads.

Roger would just smile, gently pat the F150’s dashboard and turn back to the road. The man was in love, wearing that classic truck like an old shirt and handling it like a delicate lady – never too hard on the gas or brakes and always opting for the slow ride. And what wasn’t to love? Sporting a dusky, powder blue coat, that Ford was cobbled together with bits and pieces of baling wire. Its leading amenity was a fuzzy AM/FM radio that only picked up the Navajo country station – bits of George Strait and Willie Nelson sandwiched between announcements in the Diné dialect.

But people also saw much more than that beater Ford, as Roger Williams puttered his 60-plus years around the remote corners of the Western Slope. They beheld a long-standing passion for the land, a century of cattle ranching embodied in an old pickup and its driver. They saw yet another Williams – accompanied by some fool ranch hand – pouring his life and soul into the high desert for small financial rewards. I first met Roger at the beginning of my 15th year, when I joined Williams Ranches as that fool ranch hand. He quickly dispelled any illusions of handling horses, roping cattle or dabbling in land management. Instead, he set me to work following 10-mile cattle drives on foot, gaining a mastery of fencing and bucking hay bales onto a moving trailer. In that first year, I was paid room and board plus a mere five dollars a day. In hindsight, I think I got the better end of the deal.

My days were spent on Wright’s Mesa staring up at the jagged tips of Lone Cone, El Diente, Wilson Peak and endless bluebird skies. The table was always covered with eggs, bacon, hash and pancakes before noon and plenty of steak and potatoes after. Over those four years, I learned the high art of stretching barbed wire, how to skin a post with a shovel, the way to properly cut water into a field and the best approach to passing a 10-hour shift on the back of a tractor. I also had the privilege of studying under the ablest of teachers. Roger’s gentle but firm approach was never far off.

One of the strongest lessons I took from that chapter was that there is little romance to the “Cowboy Way.” Agriculture never really covered Roger’s bills, and I watched as the lunch table got lean, my already meager paycheck stopped arriving on time, and tax pressures started to take a heavy toll. During my four-year stint, I also saw one of San Miguel County’s largest ranches begin to shrink as three hard-earned parcels were taken out of ranching, subdivided and turned into homesites. The last sale was the most humiliating – stuck in a corner, the family had to sell off the original homestead, the 100-year-old origin of the operation.

At about that time, Roger also started slipping a little bit. The smile wasn’t as forthcoming and little bits of temper started to show. After a trip to the doc, the ranch patriarch got some bad news – a double diagnosis of diabetes and congenital heart disease. Over time, the herd diminished in size and one of the ranch houses was claimed by fire.

I eventually bid the ranch and the Williams clan farewell as I packed my things and left the bunkhouse behind for college. Sadly, I never looked back and lost touch with Roger and Williams Ranches after that day. Part of me was afraid to go back, frightened that a fleet of split-level homes with two-car garages had replaced the old barn and lower hay fields. The other part was terrified to go back and face the family, knowing I’d turned my back and traded in a life on the land for a desk and a chair.

But, you can only stay hidden so long. The family managed to find me last week, and the news was not good. After 77 years, nearly all of them spent in the foothills of the San Juans, Roger had picked up and moved on. After 77 years – a life that started with a job picking potatoes and peaked as one of San Miguel County’s largest landowners – Roger had ambled down the road.

Late last year, that faulty heart finally caught up with him. Observers watched as the old rancher – far from his herd, his fields and his family – dashed into the post office for holiday stamps, ambled back out and then collapsed in the parking lot. By all accounts he passed quickly and quietly, just as everyone knew Roger would.

I didn’t hear for sure, but I suspect that old powder blue Ford was parked just a few feet away. And since he was just dashing in for stamps, I’ll bet he left the engine running. I just hope that the dusky old truck kept idling for a few long moments after Roger passed on down the line.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows