Saturday, September 24, 2011

Family Ties

Road Trippin
with Steve McCarthy
Day Three of our Big Drive dawned and we slept. We’d earned it after getting up in the middle of the bloody night to see Monument Valley. Like I said before, it was worth it. The plan for the day was to hunt down family history. For me, this was the most rewarding day of the trip, but it was as least as long a day as the last one. It was also a day filled with great roads and fabulous scenery. 
We found breakfast in durango at a little place  called the Brickhouse Cafe & Coffee Bar. neat little place, we hit them just as they opened so we had to wait just a bit longer than we’d like, but the food was good. Except Marianne’s pancakes weren’t hot. UGH! Cold pancakes are not a good thing. The waitress DID fix it quickly so we’d still recommend it. Anyway, we did have a schedule to keep. 
WHAT you ask? A schedule? Aren’t we the go with the flow Road Trippers? Well, yes. And no. Yasee the first steam train out of town left at 8:30 AM and we wanted to catch it up the road. So, tanked with gas and fed, we set off up US 550 parallel to the tracks to find a good photo spot. One place we were told about is called “Hernandez” that is an iconic spot. There’s an old water tower there that makes a great backdrop. That turned out to be a great suggestion! We found the place and got some pretty good shots. We paced the train as long as we could, then the routes diverged and we were off for the next highlight; Gunnison. 
Our late(ish) start that morning meant we had to just just cruise through Silverton (terminus of the tourist road) and the other little towns. We were On a Mission and had no time to be distracted. Turned out to be a good idea. Gunnison was 170 miles on some fairly twisty roads. And the weather wasn’t really cooperative. Off and on thunder showers made passing a bit of an adventure at times. That and those dammed Suicide Lanes! Yeah, Colorado has ‘em too! The scenery in Colorado IS spectacular. Often you are driving above the tree line, so, unlike Washington, you’re not hemmed into a fir lined tunnel. Colorado may be one of the premier Road Trippin’ places on Urth! 

Somewhere near lunch time we neared Gunnison and had to figure out where to start. See, my mom had given me a small photo of her dad taken in 1941 standing in front of the house he was born (in 1894) in. It was a pretty fancy one story brick house with rather distinctive concrete lintels over the windows. The only info we had was that it was supposed to have been an old school  house. But where to start. Marianne, great navigatrix that she is, found in the AAA guide for Colorado (these books are really helpful! One of the perks-that and the free 200 mile towing-that makes an AAA card extremely useful) that there is a Pioneer Museum. The guide said that they had three school houses on the site! Where better to start I ask you? 
We plugged the address into my new toy (a Garmin 1450 nuvi GPS-yeah, I know, the Neo-Luddite Society is gonna revoke my membership-more on the GPS in another column) and Hey Presto, There it was. A bit nervously, we walked in, hoping to find a docent who could help us. There were three of them. Very nice, very helpful. I took out the picture and they all said, “Oh, that’s the old school house!” No, it wasn’t one on at the museum, and they weren’t exactly sure which of two it might be. They gave us directions to both. In the meantime, I was telling them of our family history in Gunnison. They were jazzed! Then, good old St. Serendipity stepped in. 
I was telling them about Great Grandma Jenny Sadoris (boy does she have a history!). Seems she was not only the local postmistress (first woman west of the Mississippi to be one!), delivered the mail wearing snowshoes, but she also wrote for the local newspaper, the News-Champion. “Why, we have a whole set of back issues here!” WOW! And wait, it gets better! “They’re in that building back there, help yourself to a look!” 
Seriously, they have original copies of 100+ year old newspapers and just anybody can look at them? Seriously? 
I was off like a shot. Found the stack of papers. Actually, each year was bound and dated, so with some reasonable care, they could be handled. Lessee now, what to look for? 1902! That was the year Great Grandpa Ready was killed in a train wreck! Out came the volume. Ah, hmmm, January. Carefully I leafed through the issues, trying my best to rediscover my talents as a researcher. Ya can’t read every article. Old newspapers are also set up differently from today’s . Seems that in this paper, local news items were just lumped together, no real headlines. So, I began scanning for anything “Ready”. BINGO!!!! Friday, January 31, 1902--”The funeral of Philip Ready who was killed last Friday morning (this was a weekly paper, by the way) by a run away train down Tennessee Pass…” I’d found it! AND, the short article said his funeral was at the local Catholic Church which meant he was buried locally! This was amazing! 

We found out where the cemetery was (on the way out of town), poked around the museum a bit, then went searching for Grandpa Ready’s house. We tried to follow the vague directions and got nowhere. I tried a different plan. Post Office! Found it easily enough and walked up to the counter. “Hi, my Great Grand Mother was Post Mistress here in the late 1800s!” The people at the counter were amazed! Then I showed them the picture. “Oh, that’s the old school house!” Seems to be a pretty well known building. Then the lady gave us directions of the “it’s just past the Domino’s Pizza near where the highway splits off” variety. No, she didn’t know the street names. She worked in the Post Office and didn’t know street names! At least we were getting a general direction, and eliminated one of the possibilities put forth at the museum. 
Next door was the new newspaper office though. That warranted a looksee. Sure enough, after what had by now become a standard introduction, the people in there (who were also jazzed) gave us exact directions. Off we went. Back down the highway, bear right, and sure enough, THAT had to be the place! All boarded up and looking pretty sad, but those window lintels were exactly right! 
It gets better. The story in the newspaper office was that a child services agency called “Partners” now owned the property and had a grant to restore the old house. Turns out, their offices were in back and yep, they were open. Even more nervously elated, we walked in. “Hi, my grandfather was born in that house in 1894.” 
You could hear the proverbial pin drop as jaws dropped around the office. They proceeded to give me some history of the place (seems it was build when there was a West and and East Gunnison, to show that West Gunnison was better than East Gunnison. The town’s First Brick Building! and later turned into a private residence, it was lived in until the 1970s. It’s been vacant since,) I then pulled out the photo. “I thought you’d like to see this, it was taken in 1941, that’s my grandfather. Have you got a scanner? you can make a copy.” You’d thought I’d given them the Hope Diamond! “Wow! Oh REALLY? Say, would you like to see inside?” 
Oh, Man! One of the staff unlocked the padlock and with a flashlight, we went into the stygian darkness. It smelled of Old. That kind of mildewy, old pant, fustiness that long abandoned buildings have. I don’t believe in ghosts or any of that crappola. I didn’t feel any looming Presence. I DID feel a connection. Like a link with the past was restored. I felt more complete. sigh. 

We realized that it was about 2:00 and the day was getting on and we had miles of more twistyies to go, so, having hit the local Sonic Burger (well, it’s better than McD’s!) we headed for the next step in this Journey of Family Discovery. Sure enough, right out of town was the graveyard. We turned in. Now what? I remembered that Sierra Madre’s old cemetery had listing of grave sites in a small building. There was a small chapel looking building. Why not. Sure enough, there was a book of grave sites. I opened it to the “R’s” and there was Phillip Ready AND a Mary Ann Ready. She was his sister. I wrote down the plot number and looked for a map. None. Ah, man! Well, we got in the car to drive around. There were section numbers on trees, but they didn’t seem to have any order. Again, St. Serendipity to the rescue. The maintenance barn was open and there were a couple of guys inside. We drove up, introduced ourselves and one of them said he’s show us where. “Most of the graves in that section aren’t marked,” he said. Damn! We followed him down the aisle, he looked around and “Hey, here it is!” It DID have a marker! There it was. Grandpa’s dates were wrong, but who cares. We found it! We paused a bit there, silently reflecting on this new found connection with our past, Mounted the Mustang and were off to Tennessee Pass, site of the train wreck that killed the man buried at our feet. 
East out of town, we wound along US 50. Originally, we were going to stop in Salida, but because it was getting late, we bypassed that and headed north on US 24. This was the dreaded Tennessee Pass. One of the (if not THE) highest railroad line in the US. A nasty twisty bit of railroad that took a great deal of skill and maybe a modicum of luck to negotiate even in modern times. In 1902, air brakes were in their infancy. It was 6:30 on a January morning when, according to the Eagle County newspaper, one Philip Reddy (sic) took his train through the tunnel at the top of the pass. As he exited the tunnel, he “called for brakes” and there weren’t any. The brakemen walked across the tops of the ever accelerating train, trying to manually set the brakes. The cold January weather had frozen them solid. For seven miles, the train careened down hill, until two miles out of Pando, it hit an esse curve and derailed into a road cut. Great grandfather Ready was thrown out, landing in a tree, his rosary beads in his hands. He was alive, and taken to the railroad hospital in Salida but never regained consciousness. 
Using Google Maps, I’d found the spot described. After driving past it, we realized our mistake, turned around and found it. There was a turnout at the side of the road. I parked, got out and clambered up to the top of the embankment. The long sweep of the esse curve was there, the road cut, them embankment. Hardly any trees today, but clearly this was The Spot. I took a few pictures, but both of us were mostly silent. 

It’s times like this that we can realize just how tenuous our lives are. All the “What If’s” crowd round in your mind. Again, time swirls, wiblly wobbly. What If?