An oven door to the past

By Randy Tucker

It’s not something people do very often in the third decade of the 21st century, but once hunters, anglers, and hikers took their gear, left their truck and walked into the wilderness alone. Now you’ve always got a link to civilization in your pocket or tucked into your gear in the form of a cell phone.

Most of us can’t get away from being constantly connected. The cell phone companies sell this idea with a mix of fear, fun and as an antidote to boredom. Who could ever get bored in the great outdoors? Especially if it’s just you against the elements using whatever tools you packed with you, along with the wit and wisdom of experience in learning how to use the surrounding environment to your advantage.

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It was a spring turkey hunt in eastern Wyoming. I packed my 12 gauge Remington 870 shotgun, with a few extra BB shot 2 ¾ inch shells in my pocket. A couple of Snicker’s bar, a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an old style canteen of water,  a film container full of strike anywhere matches cut to length to fit inside, and a backpack frame with a few dozen feet of nylon cord. It was just a day hunt, but when you’re on your own, you learn to be a little better prepared.

I drove to Lance Creek, the third largest city in Niobrara County, population 30, a wide spot in the road with an amiable bar. Amiable if off shift rig hands, or local cowboys weren’t getting hammered, looking for a fight, and a now abandoned K-5 elementary school. I once officiated a basketball game in that tiny gym. It had a floor so slick that the other ref and I agreed that if a kid slid only five feet when they came to a stop, it wasn’t traveling as long as their feet were stationary. It had a score clock that looked similar to a professional bingo parlor display with a high score of 50 points possible on both the home and visiting side.

I stopped for a cold one on the way home later that day after the sun at the Lance Creek Bar. It was more than amiable for the few moments I took a seat there.

I continued driving northwest towards another tiny hamlet passing as a town, Bill, on a well maintained gravel road I crossed Cow Creek. There are thousands of Cow Creeks in the west, along with Willow, and Cottonwood Creeks. This one was a tributary of the less than mighty Lance Creek that bears the name of the town I just drove through.

Friends from the area told me the turkey hunting was good along Cow Creek and that no one lived there anymore since all the homesteads had been abandoned. It sounded enticing, so I parked the truck, gathered my gear and headed out alone towards the north on the west side of the creek.

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Today I’d have my camera with me, but then it was just the imprinting memory brings.

I saw signs of turkey roosting areas below a couple of tall cottonwood trees, but no birds in the early morning. I kept walking. It was a near perfect late spring day in eastern Wyoming. The temperature was around 55, the sky a clear blue and there was none of the roof ripping, semi-truck tipping wind that the corridor from Evanston to Lusk is famous for.

I came upon an old cabin. The doors worked, but were closed, and most of the window panes were still in place. The glass panes had been there a very long time, possibly since the 1890s soon after statehood.

You can tell old glass because it is thicker on the bottom than on the top. We don’t think of glass as a liquid, but it can behave like one over time. Gradually glass will yield to gravity and slowly move towards the earth. Every pane of glass in this cabin had that look. The weathered frames were devoid of caulk, with only the diamond points carefully pushed into place by some long lost glazier to hold them in place.

It looked like someone had left quickly. There were a few piles of raccoon and coyote droppings, along with more bird droppings, but a kitchen table, a few weathered chairs, and a rusty cast iron cook stove were still in place.

I opened the stove on its rusting hinges. It screeched a little bit in protest, but opened without much effort. Inside I found a treasure trove.

There was a pile of a dozen or so Denver Post newspapers from 1939 and 1940. The headlines told of a vastly different era, “War Looms over Europe”, “England in Desperate Battle.” America wasn’t in the war yet, but would soon be. As a historian, it was riveting reading.

Maybe the most fun find were the comic sections. Four pages of full color comics, with a few that have survived 80 years until our time, but most who were discontinued long ago.

I wish it’d foregone the hunt that day and just tied all those papers to my backpack frame, but instead I just took a four-page section from May 1940. I later had them laminated and used them for years as posters in my classroom.

At the conversion of Cow Creek, and what must have been the major waterway, the legendary Lance Creek I spotted a large flock of turkeys.  Setting my backpack aside, I crept up on the birds, and took a nice gobbler with one shot from my 870 at about 35 yards. I picked him up, carried him back to my stashed gear and tied him to my pack frame.

I was out that day to fill my turkey tag for the spring hunt, but I came back with much more.

Every time I take a look at that comic section from 82 years ago, I think about the people who lived in that tiny cabin. It was a dream of someone long ago, a dream that never came to fruition, but a dream just the same.

The comics provided a connection to a much grimmer time than the one we live in today. The people who took that paper survived the Great Depression lived on the edge of the Dust Bowl and most likely sent their son or sons off to war in Europe or the tropical hell of the South Pacific. I checked at the Niobrara County courthouse in Lusk for records later, but couldn’t find any, only the comics remain of that memorable day of solitude in the wilderness.

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