Up the road a stretch, in the town of Empire, the same Tulley Nelson who once hiked high in the Rockies to photograph bighorn sheep whacking heads for the favors of doting ewes was also, according to family lore, the postmaster. But today in the sleepy city hall, the clerk interrupts nursing her baby long enough only to explain to Judy and me that she has no records on hand to confirm that fact, and the part-time postal clerk says the same. And so, disappointed by the town's apparent civic amnesia, we motor on. Our search, as it has been since the beginning, is not only to glimpse the sites in which Judy's family took piecemeal possession of Colorado—but to somehow close in on their own Founding Father, Jake Pettingell.
An hour out of Empire, we're drawing nearer to Hot Sulphur Springs and it's impossible not to notice how the rolling hills past Fraser are now denuded and reddish-brown, savaged by Dendroctonus ponderosae, otherwise known as the mountain pine beetle.
Our destination is just a few minutes away from this monochrome landscape, freshened with the occasional roadside splash of Indian paintbrush, and I'm thinking about the target of my quest. I'm thinking how later in life, Pettingell and his wife (abetted by his star-status as America's longest-serving county judge) were photographed being welcomed as visiting dignitaries in Chicago as they traveled across the country. There was something nearly Trumanesque about Pettingell in these photos from the 1930s. Trained as an actor in his youth, the face had finally come to fit the mask: After years as a jurist, he looked every bit the elder statesman, and his wife had taken on a vague but striking resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt.
With my image of Pettingell weighted toward these photos, I'm unprepared for what I find before me when we finally arrive, because the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bust. Aside from the lavish tricked-out resort, there's nothing to see but a completely forgettable small intersection of streets in the exact middle of nowhere. What was I expecting, Versailles? In my enthusiasm, building my case for something splendid from my research, I'd forgotten a single crucial fact: Pettingell was a true pioneer. He carved a life for himself out of the wilderness. Without complaint, he endured hardships that are well beyond our comprehension. In this resides his greatness, and his importance both socially and personally, to Judy's family. But his early life—I'm reminded now—wasn't exactly long on what real estate agents call "mod cons."
As if to underline that fact, getting out of the car I behold the county courthouse from where he administered justice. Courthouses these days tend to be imposing structures, done up with soaring neoclassical reminders of the awesome importance of the Law. In this case, the chinked log structure, standing inside a kind of corral of ancient buildings, is so small, so drab and unprepossessing, that I can't quite believe it, and continue to stare silently a moment while my admiration for the man expands at warp speed. In distinction to the East, which around that time was already condensing itself into vertical cities, the early West was a place where grandeur was either naturally present in the immensity of the landscape itself, or was found internally, in the depths of one's personal convictions. One didn't need built reminders of such things.
I realize this, yet after all that buildup and research, I feel deflated anyway. I can't help it. It's part of my problem, I realize, to presume that great achievement in life will always be signaled by great worldly manifestations of same, and the modesty of the structures in front of me is a sharp reminder of my error.
Chastened, I get back in the car and drive. A half-hour later, pulling up to the town of Grand Lake, we come to the site of Pettingell's summer resort and experience the placid yet somewhat startling apparition of a lake arriving at the end of long travel through dusty scrub. Pettingell gifted the land to what is currently the Grand Lake Yacht Club, as a photo of him inside the building testifies. But the building is closed just now, and it has begun to rain.
Fortuitously, shelter from the downpour can be found in the Kauffman House, a beautifully restored Victorian-era home, which functions as a period museum of the life of early Grand Lake. Many photos of Pettingell are here, along with much gear and tackle of the period. That same sense of life lived with rudimentary means is present here as well, in the small, low-ceilinged rooms, the kitchen with its washboard and pump sink, the wavy glass of the windows, the buckled floors. And yet the high spirits of the time have left their mark in certain rooms of the museum as well. The giant long boards of skis are hung on one wall. On another, the taps and buckets for maple sugaring, along with sleds and snowshoes, overcoats, and toy trucks and games. Clearly, the people disporting themselves here a hundred years ago did so with no sense of deprivation whatsoever. Pioneering tends to remove the vestiges of self-pity that spring up with appliance-assisted leisure time. The rooms of the Kauffman House may be somewhat claustrophobic, but it's clear that the people living within these walls didn't have the time—or Internet access—to find their lives wanting.
From the porch of the Kauffman House, watching the rain poke divots in the lake, I ponder a particular historical irony. Around the turn of the 20th century, at roughly the same time as Pettingell was staking his claim on Colorado and thereby producing that strain of tough-minded fairness that I associate with the West, my ancestors were corralled in the dark, medieval market villages of Eastern Europe and Russia known as shtetls. These, too, were closely knit communities, but rather than stoic high-heartedness they tended more toward the production of tragic, often humorous irony. And when it came to the out-of-doors, well, let's just say that the two camps were so far from one another that not even the sound of a bugling elk could have crossed the gap.
Pettingell and his people actively relished their physical surroundings. Eastern European Jews of the time, having been ghettoized and segregated for several millennia, had a relationship to Nature that was wary, when it wasn't indifferent, and that, as regards their own bodies, produced some of the purest flowers in the history of hypochondria. Unmistakably, there was great joy to be had within the confines of the shtetl, with theater, music, and storytelling abounding. But Yiddish, the language spoken there, though it was rich in descriptions of social failure and the comedy of awkwardness, contained next to no words for "bird," or "tree," or "sunset." The prevailing notion seemed to be, "If you can't eat it, why name it?" And that sad fact tells you all you need to know about the relationship of 19th century Jewry to the out-of-doors.