There is a place on the ranch my family affectionately refers to as “Pots and Pans.” It is a big hill south of the little farmhouse that juts out over a stock dam and provides a fantastic view of the entire 3,000-acre ranch. It is a landmark, much like the special places many ranching and farming folks label with weird names and use to explain to each other where they spotted that stray cow, shot the big buck or where the truck broke down.
But Pots and Pans is special, if not especially weird. I wish I could tell you the proper origin of where on earth anyone got the idea to drag to the top of this hill old kettles, teapots, cheese graters, pie pans and flour sifters, but I have no idea the reasoning behind it. I always thought it was my grandmother, but maybe not. I suppose someone told me along the way, but I forgot.
Either way, to my cousins and I this place was an oasis of mystery, a far away land where, if you reached the top after gathering all of your little sisters and one little brother, packed the juice boxes and fruit rollups into your Smurf lunchbox and you all made it to the destination without a run-in with a cactus or someone peeing their pants, you could be transported back to a time where these antique contraptions were used to prepare meals and serve twelve children who once lived not too far from this very homestead.
And if we made it there, you know, after the twelve-hundred mile trek to the top, we sucked the fresh air into our small lungs, counted our followers to make sure none were stuck in the mud somewhere, and proceeded to pretend…
…pretend that I was the mom and my only boy cousin at the time finally didn’t have to be dressed as a girl for once and got to be the dad and we were homesteaders who arrived by covered wagon and had staked our claim on this perfect spot after losing oxen and horses and my piano in a raging, roaring river (the flair for the dramatic runs in the family.)
And then it was time for a supper of clover bits and wild mushrooms and mud and rocks mixed together to form a lovely soup and after the meal we would proceed to plow the field and make pots out of the gumbo in the hills to sell in town and become rich.
We would carry on like this until someone would, indeed, pee their pants or find a cactus or fall down the hill and the little ones would need to be lugged home via piggyback. And when we finally made it home, we would rehash our adventures as the sun dropped down below the horizon and our eyes grew heavy.
See this homestead, this ranch, this vast landscape as you can imagine is home to millions of stories and ghosts of times spent breaking ground, building houses, having babies, losing mothers, purchasing the family’s first car and learning to drive, getting bucked off of new horses, harvesting the fields, and leaving blood, sweat and tears to soak into the ground and onto the backs of the animals that helped keep the place alive and machinery that did nothing but break down.
And the remains of these past lives, these generations spent struggling, loving, living and dying on this very landscape remain here not only in spirit, but also in the pieces left behind. The old cars that took their last drive to town have been drug to their designated graveyard to be used for parts on the replacement. The feed pickups that stranded my grandfather on evenings when the air hit thirty below and the sun had left hours ago accompany the cars and the tractors with faded red paint and threshing machines that resemble half sunken ships anchored in the rolling prairie waves.
As children we didn’t see these things as remains of a life lived hanging on to a place that struggled as much as it thrived, but as an infinite playground stretched out before us.
The old cars became ours as we imagined ourselves whizzing past wheat fields on our way to fancy parties in town. Sitting behind the wheel of the rusty feed trucks we were transported twenty years ahead where we ran our own operation and needed to stop for fuel, a cup of coffee and supplies at the local feed store.
The old threshing machine transported us to sea where my oldest cousin was the captain and we fought for first mate status as the wind whipped through our hair and the big storm threatened a capsize.
And when we were on safari, the augers were undiscovered dinosaurs that roamed the horizons of the ranch and were curious about these explorers on two legs.
Yes, this place with its hidden treasures just over the hill, helped transport us into the lives of adventurers, circus performers, escaped convicts, performers and people who sometimes possessed the same characteristics and dreams of our mothers and fathers.
And as I was walking around the homestead last week, looking for the perfect location to build our new house, these memories of childhood adventures on this place came rushing back to me as I passed each piece of worn out machinery and each old car. We have been making plans to remove this “junk” from the place, and to most people who drive by, that is exactly what it is. It’s old junk that has to go.
But as I ran my hands over the bodies of my grandmother’s car, overcome by rust and my grandfather’s feed pickup with his work gloves still sitting on the seat and old farm papers stuck in the visor, I tried to imagine what those people I once knew looked like sitting behind the wheel in the prime of their lives while their vehicle glistened under the prairie sun, polished and new. I imagined my grandmother sitting in the middle of the old International next to her young husband, laughing as they drove down the reservation road to the river for a day of fishing.
I thought of my dad, taking his first drive to town on his own to play with his band while thinking to himself, “This is the life. This is freedom.”
And I remembered my grandpa, driving his feed pickup through the cattle in the winter, making tracks in the freshly fallen snow, yelling, “Come boss…come boss!” Bouncing along the rough landscape, the chains from the bale loader clinking on body of the vehicle and he would reach up in his visor and, magically, pull down a stick of gum, or some cookies, or a bar of candy to offer to the small grandchild in a purple beanie and matching mittens sitting beside him.
And as I missed him and felt a longing for my childhood, I huffed as I noticed that pieces of my life growing up here had made it to this graveyard as well.
The old Dodge pickup that had taken me to my first high school rodeo sat lonely and sunken in a bed of weeds. I opened its doors and found one of my dad’s old caps and smiled as I thought of learning to drive stick shift in that beast.
I walked down to the shop to find my very first car, a redish-pinkish Ford LTD purchased from my uncle for $1,000. It sat lonely, still wearing the stickers I placed on the steering wheel, the ridiculous amount of key chains dangling from the ignition, remnants of my high school memories hanging from the rearview mirror—a reflection on the girl I used to be, the girl I was when this ridiculous looking car drove me off of the ranch and into a world filled with heartache and drama and love and loss and change.
Nostalgic now, I looked up to Pots and Pans.
I had to be there. I had to see if some things never change. I wanted to pick up the pieces of my childhood and be transported once again to a time and place where I could be anything and my favorite partners in crime did not live hundreds of miles away from me.
I didn’t take the time to pack my fruit rollups into my lunchbox, because somehow the hill didn’t look as far away, it didn’t look as daunting.
So I ran. I ran past the dinosaurs, the pirate ship and the old cars that had taken me through so many lives. I disregarded the cactuses as my strong adult legs propelled me to the top. And as I sucked the air into my lungs I frantically searched around to find my favorite pieces. Where was the butter churn? The flour sifter? The old jar we used to catch grasshoppers?
They were gone. Gone. Pushed down the hill into the trees and washouts by the snow and water that drifted in with the wind and weather that comes with time passed.
And as I sat there, holding on tight to the worn out pots that had survived the time, I sucked back tears as I thought of the innocence that existed and laughed and screamed with joy going up and down this hill.
Wiping the tears, I looked out over the landscape that my great-great grandfather declared home, where pieces of him and his family are scattered, and I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and restless with the responsibility of keeping this place here and alive for generations to come.
I took the air my ancestors once breathed into my lungs and closed my eyes to imagine my cousins running wildly through the grass…and their childish faces turned into the faces of their children…and their children’s faces turned into the faces of my unborn…
I opened my eyes, let loose the grip from the remains of Pots and Pans and let my feet carry me down from the peak of my childhood.
And when I reached the bottom, I turned around to look up at it—a sort of dramatic way of saying goodbye to the innocent life I once knew. And the hill looked back at me. It was no mountain, no daunting cliff or magnificent, looming piece of breathtaking landscape, nothing to make a postcard out of.
But in that moment, feet planted firmly in the place where my roots took hold and have refused to let go, I tilted my head back, put my hands on my hips and kicked the dirt in anticipation, because I knew I had found the view I wanted for the rest of my life.
A home under Pots and Pans.