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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Cimarron River

Leaving the interstate I entered the high plains of New Mexico where each clump of trees sheltered a house, many of them abandoned.  The branches bent to the northeast, holding the shape of the wind even when the air was still.  In this wide-open country every direction disappeared into its own vanishing point. 

Where the road curved down to the Cimarron River, I suddenly found myself back in canyon country among cliffs and angular mesas.  I followed the river into Oklahoma and entered the town of Kenton, population eighteen.  It was the type of place where they leave the truck keys in the ignition in case a friend needs to borrow it.  I parked next to the Kenton Mercantile, the town’s only store.  Each Sunday the locals, many from outlying ranches, gather here for a community dinner.  The families already seated tried politely not to stare at the stranger as I entered.

The general store served as a post office, museum, and cafe.  Mail boxes lined the back wall and canned goods filled another.  An old poster advertised Sunflower Shoes, “You Can't Better The Best.”  Shelves on the opposite wall held a collection of fossils, pioneer relics, and a pair of mammoth tusks curving in ten-foot sweeps.  Tables had been set up for today only near the wood-burning stove.  I found an empty seat next to three generations of one family, and being on assignment started asking questions. 

The grandmother described her experiences as a young girl during the Dust Bowl.  “I was there when that famous dust storm came through,” she said.  “  It wasn't wind.  It came boiling over and covered the town.  You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  You couldn’t see car lights.”  The only reason they didn't leave was because they had no where to go. 

“You can’t imagine how it was,” the owner of the store added.  “It was terrible.  The dust was so thick inside the house that you had to be within two feet of a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling before you could see it.”  He tried to seal the windows with rags and flour paste, but nothing worked.  To sweep the floor, he first had to shovel the sand out of the room. 

Others joined in the conversation, and I heard about the man who used to run the store.  Someone asked him what had happened during his lifetime.  “I lived here ninety years,” he said, “and I’m still waiting for something to happen.”

Several people offered to show me a nearby dinosaur trackway and the wagon ruts still visible along a branch of the Santa Fe Trail.  They also made sure I saw the ruins of Robbers Roost, a fort built by the bandit king Captain William Coe.  If the number of place names is any indication, robbers like to roost as much as lovers like to leap. 

Next day I headed back along the Cimarron.  On the drive, I thought about my travels in the far corners where the lives of people are deeply rooted in the landscape.  Ranch women and dry farmers, stone masons and santeros, cowpunchers and horse whisperers.  And I remembered a young cowboy who had hit upon something fundamental during an interview. 

Sitting in his home, I asked about the difficulties of running a small ranch.  He was reluctant to talk at first, but finally opened up about the struggle to keep his operation going.  I asked why he didn’t move to town where he could make more money and work less.  He looked at me like I had missed the point.  “It’s how I want to raise my kids,” he said.  “This way of life will draw out the best in them."

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.