I was a lucky kid. I grew up sharing the house and front yard with animals. In particular, I was a lucky little girl to have been given “rights to” a pony—note, I was not given my very own pony; the pony belonged to my mother. But I was the only person small enough to ride her. It was a control thing. I get that now. Heck, I am that now.
But getting back to how lucky I was, I was lucky in the friends who came to me, not necessarily because I was such a cool kid, but because we had horses. Even though we lived in town, just across the street from the grade school, we had horses. This meant that all the horse-crazy, townie girls took a special interest in me as a means of worming themselves onto the back of one of our horses. It worked. I had a number of townie friends who learned to ride horses under the tutelage of my mother and my older sister. Sometimes a horse-crazy, townie girl managed to talk her parents into buying a horse after she’d taken some lessons. Naturally, these horses were stabled at my mom’s property, which further cemented our horse-crazy friendships.
Of all my townie friends, my most poignant memories are associated with the Hurwitz sisters. Carolyn was a year older than I, and her sister, Barb, was about four years older than I. They came to our property on Skyline Drive for horseback riding lessons, on the heels of which came their family’s first horse purchase; Carolyn’s bay yearling called Percy. Later the Hurwitzes purchased a huge old Palomino mare, aptly named Pal.
The Hurwitzes became my second family. No matter how many people crowded their small stucco home, I always felt welcome there. Mrs. Hurwitz was a bastion of round warmth with indomitable spirit, cozy hugs, and an obsession with feeding people. No sooner was I in the door of their home than she was badgering me about how skinny I was and how I must have some nice brownies or oatmeal cookies or an egg salad sandwich. If I were lucky enough to be invited for dinner, the five Hurwitzes scrunched a bit closer round the dining room table to make room for me. Every inch of the table would be laden with scrumptious home-made dishes conceived in a tiny galley kitchen behind us. It was never enough to take a small serving of everything that came by. Before you could polish off the first round, Mrs. H was pressing the serving dishes around for second and third servings. Having been taught to always clean my plate, I ate until I thought by belly would burst and waddled away from the table, humbled and ashamed by my inability to consume each tidbit on my plate.
Mr. Hurwitz, aka Red, alternately scared the pants off me and delighted me. Red was an inveterate jokester, but at this time of my life, all men were a frightening curiosity to me. I’d be hiding behind my overburdened plate, quaking in the aftershocks of Red’s big voice and belly laugh. Then he’d catch me up in some yarn that would have me giggling in spite of myself. The dinner conversations were always lively, even though for the life of me I can’t recall what they were about.
The Hurwitzes owned property about 50 miles northwest of Laramie in what was left of an old copper mining community called Morgan. I was often invited to join Carolyn for long, magical weekends at the cabin complex, which consisted of four historic buildings, two of which they used, and one of which they planned to use for the horses. The main family cabin was beautifully paneled and furnished with rustic hooked rugs and cheerful curtains. A single small bedroom bunked the entire family. The main cabin had electricity, but all heating and cooking derived from an old wood stove. A tidy two-holer stood behind the main cabin. Cold, woodsy water was bucketed from a nearby spring. A tumbled-down blacksmith shop intrigued me because it was boarded up and I couldn’t see inside it.
Guests slept in a dark, hulking building up the hill from the main cabin. In its heyday, Morgan boasted a population of 350 people. This building had served as the central meeting area. It had housed the general store, the post office, city hall, and served as general meeting and dance hall for the community.
During my visits to the cabin, Carolyn, Barb, and I slept together in a big brass bed in the “general store.” This building lacked the spit and polish of the main Hurwitz cabin. Rough, grey planks gave off a warm, dusty smell and there was no electricity or heat. But there were fascinating and finicky gas lanterns, which the sisters fairly skillfully mastered, and which cast eerie shadows on the walls and on us. A pile of blankets and quilts, combined with our body heat, eventually took the chill off the tight, icy sheets. The girls had inherited a bit of their dad’s blarney and delighted in telling ghost stories as we squirmed under the blankets. Best of all were moonlit nights, which created scary shadows even after the lanterns were turned off. One night the deafening booms of a mountain thunderstorm jolted us awake and we huddled close while rain pummeled the corrugated sheet metal roof and plashed to the ground beside the cabin.
The addition of horses to the family meant that each spring they had to be transported from Laramie to Morgan. I’ll never forget the first time my mom, sister, and I traveled the road to the cabin in mom’s old stock-racked GMC pickup. Percy scrabbled for footing in the back of the pickup. Behind him, Pal was accordioned into a blue, handmade, single-horse trailer. We departed pavement after about 35 miles.
A series of barbed wire gates punctuated the remaining dirt road. We followed the Hurwitzes in their sedan, so one of them hopped out and argued with the gates for us. With passage through each gate, the road grew more rustic and tenuous until it became little more than a double track through prairie and rock. At one point, I could swear our entire overladen rig felt like it was teetering on the outer rims of the downhill tires. To avoid high-centering where the tracks were deeply worn, mother aimed the tires at the high edges of the tracks.
We bumped around the eastern base of Cooper Mountain on pins and needles, passing a series of quaint log cabins that belonged to other families whom we rarely saw. Finally a small wooden sign announced that we had arrived at Morgan.
Mrs. Hurwitz must have bustled into the main cabin before the wheels of their sedan stopped turning, because by the time we had the horses unloaded and settled into the old barn that would be their summer home, she had a spread of food laid out that would have staggered a battalion. We all squeezed onto the benches in either side of a wooden table that just barely fit into the entry area of the main cabin and set about trying to make a dent in the feast. As always, the serving plates boomeranged around the table, Mrs. H. encouraging us to clean up so we’d enjoy a clear day on the morrow.
The addition of horses provided us girls with greater range on the trails that cut through the thick pine forests around the cabins. Sometimes it was just Carolyn and I, but occasionally Barb joined us and we’d double up bareback on Pal, arguing over who got stuck in front, where Pal’s backbone felt like the narrow side of a two by four. Sometimes we rode to a small mountain lake where we’d stop for lunch while the horses gorged on the verdant grass that rimmed the water. For years after, I would secretly fantasize about meeting boys in this idyllic location. I’m not sure what I thought we’d do with boys, but a girl can always dream the impossible.
One day we woke to find the horses missing from their usual hangout in the barn. We trudged up the steep, grassy sides of Cooper Mountain, assuming that from its nearly 10,000 foot top, we could see the world and everything in it. But we never saw the horses. We crossed the saddle of the mountain and came down on the other side, rubbernecking and calling in vain, and growing more concerned with each blistered step. By mid-afternoon, as we drug our hot, thirsty, famished, and noodley selves around the base of the mountain toward the cabins, the sight of both horses’ asses assaulted us. There they stood, contentedly swishing flies while they mouthed their hay in the barn! What the ….? We never did figure out how they put the slip on us.
Time and teenage distractions distanced me from the Hurwitzes. But I have always cherished idyllic memories of the loving shelter of their family. I remember Mrs. H., always in a dress, crinkling her nose as she peered inquisitively through her round bifocals at me. I remember Mr. H., dressed in a plaid shirt and chinos, his bushy red eyebrows raised in mischief at some joke he’d just played on me. I remember the time Barb and I rode down a steep canyon wall, crossed two downed, barbed-wire fences, and then circled the perimeter of my mother’s property for hours, unable to pass through the moat of locked gates that belonged to neighboring ranches. I remember Carolyn’s brother Mike, trying unsuccessfully to teach me chords on his guitar and the whole family trying to teach me the rudiments of chess. Most of all, I remember a childhood that was made unspeakably special by the kind heartedness of the entire Hurwitz family. I wish I had shared this with Mr. and Mrs. Hurwitz before it was too late.