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Autumn officially arrives this week, and you can feel it in the air.
As I walk through the woods these days I can see the turning of the year in the slant of the morning sun and the snap of twigs under my feet.
It’s at times like these that I think about Johnny Grant and I wonder what he was like.
In 1913 Johnny Grant homesteaded the place where I live on Big Owl Road.
He had to build a house, clear and plow the land, and live here. That was called “proving up” a homestead.
He did it all, and then he sold the whole works to my grandfather in 1917 and disappeared forever.
He left behind the one-room house, which we called “Cabin John,” in his memory.
Over the years my grandfather added to the cabin, but then WW II came along, and the cabin fell to pieces and grandfather died. Nothing now remains except the fireplace and the outline of the original cabin, a 15 X 15 square of native stones lying on the ground.
Tucked away beside Roaring Fork, it is a sad place, waiting for a new occupant to come and build.
No trace remains of the place Johnny Grant plowed up, although it must have been near the cabin. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a plow being able to turn more than an inch of this soil without being broken by the granite which lives just beneath the surface of the pine needles.
For 23 years my grandfather roamed these woods during the summers, as I do now. He searched for the twisted ends of pine stumps as they lay uprooted. In those roots he saw the figures of animals and he cut them off and decorated the screened porch of Cabin John with them. Some of them became figures in a fountain in front of the cabin, and a few became part of the cabin itself; a giraffe’s neck became the banister for the front stairs.
A friend sketched them and they survive in a charming book of poems and pictures titled “Wild Animals I Have Sawed.” Recently, with the help of Lew Dakin, I have copied them and created a new and expanded book, which includes the story of how my grandfather came to this place.
All those old stumps are gone now, burned long ago on crisp summer nights in the dozen fireplaces and stoves that came to this acreage.
Still, I wonder about Johnny Grant. Why did he come here? Why did he leave? He was Katherine Garretson’s nearest neighbor, yet her journal makes no mention of him at all. Where did he go? Did he come to this isolated spot to escape the pain of a lost love? Perhaps his wife had died in a flu epidemic and he came here to mend a broken heart.
Over the years I constructed many such fantasies about Mr. Grant. One of the stories I was told when I was a child was that he sold the place so he could pay his way in an old soldiers’ home down below, and that he took the money and quickly drank himself to death.
It is as good, or as bad, a story as my romantic scenarios, and for all I know it may be true. We will never know.
He exists now only as a signature in a cramped and none too steady hand on a deed in the Boulder County court house. The rest is a mystery.
I am certain only that on days like this when I walk through the woods, I feel his presence here, as I hope others will feel mine when I am gone.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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