Peter Shelton

Say Goodnight, Gracie

Posted in How the West was Lost, Watch columns by pshelton on November 4, 2009

In mid-summer I got a call from a friend of Grace Herndon’s inviting Ellen and me to Grace’s 85th birthday party up at Miramonte Reservoir. I told her I was sorry, we were going to be away, and she said maybe in that case I ought to give Gracie a call soon, because they were thinking she was pretty frail and might not last much longer.

Turned out she refused to die for another three months. She not only went to her birthday party at the lake, she insisted on staying the night up there in her camper, something her husband Steve decided was not for him. When I got back and phoned, Gracie acted as if nothing was amiss, her answers to my questions “short and sweet and to the point,” as her son John says of her style.

“Yeah. Oh. OK. That’s great,” she said in her usual staccato. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the call, she just didn’t want to talk about her breast cancer returning or how many times in the past she had beaten it into remission. She was eager to get on to the next thing, which happened to be a question about the price of hay over on my side of Dallas Divide. And who should she call about that. And were the horsy people in Ridgway rethinking their expensive hobby as some of her newer Norwood acquaintances were in these recessionary lean times.

She was thinking about writing a column on the subject. She wrote right up to the end. Stirring the pot. Asking interesting questions, whether or not she had any answers. Her last column for the Watch wondered how in the world we were ever going to reform healthcare for the nation as a whole when we couldn’t sustain government-backed home-health services in her part of western Colorado. She didn’t mention the fact that she had terminal cancer, that she needed those home-nursing services. That would draw unnecessary attention to the writer, when it should be on the problem.

She was a small woman, even, by the end, tiny. But you got the sense that she enjoyed it when people underestimated her. Especially people in positions of power, like Tri-State Generation and Transmission executives, Forest Service honchos, Louisiana-Pacific clear-cutters, local politicians and bureaucrats. She wrote about all of them in a 40-plus year career as wide-ranging as her beloved Wright’s Mesa.

She wrote about sustainable farming and cowboy fashion; the new solar panels in her yard and the battle between a neighbor-rancher and protectors of the Gunnison sage grouse; watching her children learn to ski at Ski Dallas in the 60s and watching unsustainable aspen harvests on Lone Cone in 80s. (The Herndons and four or five other ranching families built the Ski Dallas T-bar out of scavenged mining equipment and helped create a generation of skiers in the years before Telluride opened its lifts.)

She was able to embrace so much, in part I think, because of built-in dichotomies. Raised a purebred city girl (son John’s term) on the north side of Chicago, she married into a hyper-rural ranching family. Grace and Steve met at Colorado College just before World War II. In Norwood on the Herndon ranch her innate liberalism had to make peace with the landed conservatism of the area’s pioneers.

It took a while, but she became an indispensable member of the Herndon “outfit.” She could speak vividly about cow camps and cow-calf units, and “gathers” and working dogs and hand-made Pekkarine boots from Telluride. Her laugh became a hen’s cluck. But she also wrote Cut & Run: Saying Goodbye to the Last Great Forests in the West, a bitter indictment of the nation’s largely unquestioned logging practices. Her instincts on social justice and the environment made her seem “younger” than many of her contemporaries.

Just as she mastered it she knew the Old West was fading. The New West, she also knew, came with destructive tendencies of its own. She called the four-wheelers modern cowboys ride “motorized geldings.” She and Steve became stalwart members of the conservation group Western Colorado Congress. Near the end she was approved to take medical marijuana for her cancer but refused. Maybe it scared her. Maybe it was generational prejudice. “I wouldn’t touch that stuff!” she said, typically stubborn.

But she also welcomed change, welcomed her children back home after they’d gone out into the world, welcomed high-speed internet, welcomed the conversion of the old livery barn in Norwood to a playhouse/performance space. She welcomed me years ago to the staff of the Telluride Times as she always seemed to accept the people she knew as peers. She was ageless that way—not of another generation. Eye to eye, and to the point.

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