And the award goes to . . . Patrick Dobson


When Corby Skinner announced that Canoeing the Great Plains won the creative nonfiction category in the High Plains Book Awards, I felt a sudden lift. I looked around and people were applauding. The sounds came through tinny and indistinct. Someone hooted. People smiled. Someone patted me on the back. The woman next to me said, “Well, get up there.”

high-plainsI rounded my table and made my way along the wall toward the front. I shook Corby’s hand. Then the emcee’s. Corby said something. I dove behind him to the woman holding the plaque and the envelope. “Here’s your money,” she said. “Hold onto it.” She smiled at me. Corby was talking about my book. I didn’t hear what he said.

With my award in my hand, I stood to the side until Corby indicated I was to speak to the audience. Everyone was clapping. I waited a second. I took a deep breath. My insides felt electric. I stepped up to the podium.

“Wow! This is great,” I said. The announcement of the award so surprised me, I didn’t have anything to say. So, I said what came into my mind. “Thanks to the committee, the readers, and the judges. This is important to me because my community recognized that I did something. Thanks for being here for me.”

I shook everyone’s hand again and headed back to my table. The people there were still standing. I shook one hand after another. When I finally came back to earth, I was eating my desert. I looked at the award and couldn’t believe it. I really did something.

I don’t know that anyone writes a book for an award. I can’t speak for others. I write because I feel excitement at the possibilities of an empty page. All I need to do is fill it up with interesting stories. And, maybe, if they’re not interesting, they’re insightful. I sit down to a blank page and I never have any idea what direction I’ll go. Sometimes I don’t even start with an idea, just a few keystrokes. Sentences appear. Paragraphs lead one to another. At some point, it’s enough.

That’s the way a book comes. I muddle through. Somehow, I get to the end.

I write travel memoirs. Journal entries, observations from the road, give me a framework. Travel motivates me. I am not a good mixer. I can whack my way around a conversation, but I’m no popularity contest winner. I’m scared and shy. But travel breaks through all that. It gives my boring, deadbeat-self life. I write travel tales that center around self-transformation. That’s the only way, I think, I can be interesting.

Fortunately, book awards aren’t about popularity or personality. Hopefully, judges read the books and chose the ones that make contributions to the literature.

I wrote my book the best I knew how. It was just plain work. As I was rewriting the manuscript, I felt I was turning something decent that I’d written into literature. A comment in one of the peer-reviewer’s notes changed everything. I started to rewrite again. This time I was turning literature into art.

The deadline arrived. I wasn’t finished with it. A manuscript worthy of the work never really reaches finality. As I looked at the file, it begged for further attention. They always do. At some point, it just has to be done. I did the best I could with it. I was proud of it. Though it existed in digital form, that manuscript glowed.

That was three years ago. The University of Nebraska Press published the book on May 1, 2015, almost a year and a half ago. When it came out, I was busy on the promotion trail. Radio stations interviewed me. South Dakota Public Broadcasting did a magazine piece on me and my book. Libraries had me in for book talks. I did signings at bookstores.

And I sold books. It made me extremely self-conscious. Singing the praises of my material is one thing. Getting into your pocket is another. But I got over myself. I schlepped books around in the trunk of my car. My phone was credit-card ready. Even today, I can whip a book out and sell it to you. Just ask. Or I’ll ask you, “Want to buy my book? I’m proud of it. They tell me it’s a good one.”

About October last year, the events settled down. I had my last book talk in May, one year after publication. I accepted that, well, that was it. The books left in my trunk would be there for a while.

In the meantime, the press submitted my book to two contests. Both were important to me. Conger Beasley won the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award back in the 90s. I looked up to him. He gave me some very well placed encouragement during a critical time. Because of him, I formed two book manuscripts out of the pile of paper I had on my desk. I thought that if, one day, I could win the award, I would have achieved something.

My first book, Seldom Seen, earned a finalist position in the Thorpe Menn Award in 2010. At the ceremony, members of the American Association of University Women, who give the award annually, told me what a great book I had. I thought for sure I won. Then, when the award was announced, I was really let down. I went home that day vowing never to feel that way again.

In 2010, too, Seldom Seen won a mention in the High Plains Book Award. I couldn’t go to Billings, Montana, where the public library and the Billings Cultural Partners give the award. The books that won that year were all fantastic. I made it my mission to read the nonfiction books Seldom Seen was up against. They were winners, real winners. If I could win that award someday, I know I will have made it.

Six years later, the Thorpe Menn people contacted me and said I was a finalist. A few weeks later, the High Plains Book Award people told me I was a finalist in the nonfiction category of their contest. I went to both awards banquets. I convinced myself that other books had won. They were good books, deserving of the awards. In part, it was self-defense. I wanted to go home feeling as if being chosen as a finalist was enough.

In both instances, I won and was truly surprised. It felt good. Those plaques are now on the wall. I’m off to what comes next. I have a book written that needs a publisher. While I’m looking, I have to start another book. Maybe, I the book I’ve written and the one I will write will be award winners. Maybe not. One thing sure is that I write good books. That’s what really matters.

Grades: Just put your head down and grind it out


As a teacher, I sweat over student grades. It matters. Those grades become a permanent part of a student’s life.

gradesWhen my students go on to college or university—and I hope they do—the admissions people won’t be looking at what kind of people they are. Certainly, many colleges and universities require prospective students to essays about their missions and goals in life. The students must also document their contributions to family, school, and community. The students’ essays and resumes may make them shine. The work may portray them as great humanitarians. In the end, however, those admissions officers look to the bottom line. Grade point averages count more than the documents that demonstrate those students are great assets to society.

Knowing the gravity of the grade, then, makes me worry. I labor over the scores, worry about half points that may make the difference between grades. Has the student demonstrated they know and understand the material? If so, what is the depth of their understanding? Have they communicated their knowledge in a clear and concise way? Where does the student stand in relation to the material they are learning? Is it sinking in or is their understanding ephemeral? Do they walk away with the basic critical thinking skills that will help them in the halls of other institutions of higher learning?

As a community college teacher, I know that my students go a couple of directions. My class may be their only brush with higher education. Many of them finish their college experience at the associate’s degree and go on to jobs. Some move on to further college. They need to be prepared. I feel that I am part of their process.

I remember those brush-off classes I had in college. If I just showed up now and then, crammed a little before the exams, I did all right. I produced mediocre papers and got grades I was happy with. Classes I liked or that were easy, I pulled an A or B. Those I didn’t like or were harder, I earned a C. It all balanced out in the end for a GPA (until my last year in college when I got serious) of 3.0.

I thought I had the college thing figured out. I talked my way into decent grades with some professors. I dodged the hard work whenever I could.

Then I got to graduate school. I had to go back and relearn the things I’d forgotten and learn the things I didn’t from those simple classes. I found out the hard way that I didn’t benefit from teachers going easy on me. Those lessons go with me into the classrooms, and those poor kids have to learn from my mistakes.

So, I’m hard on them. I expect a great deal. While I put up a professional but strict façade, inside I’m still a pushover, which makes me miserable. Students have to write essays for their exams. Except for people who obviously don’t try, I want to give all the essays perfect scores.

There’s a problem with this. There are students who don’t have to try much to score well. Some students have worked very hard to produce their work. They understand grades matter and they strive to achieve that A grade. Others get it but struggle to get even average grades. Some even work hard just to pass the class.

It would be unfair to the disciplined, thoughtful students for me to give middling effort a great grade. I would be lying to a student who produced mediocre work, no matter how much effort went into it. A great grade for average work makes the student think they are better at the work than they are. I don’t want to fool my students. They need to know just what their efforts produce.

The principle of fairness even extends to the low achievers. If I give average work a great grade, this dupes poor students into thinking things are easy. Worse, they begin to believe I’m being hard on them. They get resentful and bring that into the classroom. They can poison the atmosphere. Once a class goes off the rails, it’s awfully hard, if not impossible, to get it back on.

I just graded 50 tests for two classes. My exams come in two parts: 25 multiple-choice questions and an essay topic, each worth 50 points. I literally give students the multiple-choice questions in an online study guide. The guide for each test contains 100 questions. Out of the 100, I choose 25 for the exam. They have complete access to the study questions for the three exams I have in class all semester.

Every week, I hand out an essay topic that may be on the exam. Students work together to figure out how to build a decent essay that addresses the topic. I do this for five weeks before the exam. Out of the five possible essay topics for the exam, I choose two to be on the test.

In other words, I give them all the information they will need for the exam. If they just do the heavy lifting—study the multiple-choice questions and prepare essays—they will do just fine.

In addition to the tests, students take a quiz every week. They can use their books for this part of the grade. It’s another giveaway. The catch is that if they don’t read the text, they won’t do well on the exam essays. I expect, since they are adults, they can make the choice to read the text or not.

The tough part of the class are four essays. The first demands that they read primary documents and compare and contrast them. For the second and third essays, they must respond analytically to scholarly articles that relate to the primary documents. The fourth assignment is a final paper where they use the primary documents, the articles, and one more article they find on their own to build an essay.

The tests and the papers give me pause. I never look forward to grading them. These assignments demand tough choices. I read them carefully, noting the content and the composition. The latter is important. I can’t know what the students know unless they write in an intelligible way.

Grading never goes the way I think it might. The class that I perceived not doing well did much better on the exams than the one I though was doing well. For the class that didn’t produce good work on the exams, the essays demonstrated just how much some of these people screwed around. Either they didn’t take the test seriously or they thought it would be easy.

The other class, the one I thought was struggling, did much better on the exams and the papers. They are, for the most part, quiet students, the kind you can’t know from the outside. Maybe this is why they are doing better. They are actually thinking.

I put these exams aside now. The grades are set. Some of the students will not be happy. They will face the fact of their lack of effort. Others will shrug off their crummy grades and go on to earn more.

I tell all of them at the start of the semester: It’s a good idea to find out what the teacher wants and give it to them. We can talk about the merits of learning over grading. In the end, I say, the grade matters. If you don’t like the class, if you don’t like me, so what? Put your head down and grind it out. The grade is what matters. I have set up a process in which you might learn something. Leave the rest to me.

Why I quit the Kansas City Star


My wife showed me the latest subscription notice for the Kansas City Star. I told her was going to have to think about renewing my tenure with the paper. I have been a loyal customer of the paper for 25 years. I love taking the dog out to the end of the drive every day to retrieve it. When I get out of bed in the morning, that dog is standing by the front door, tail wagging, waiting to take up her responsibility to bring the paper in the house.

startBut the paper just made my decision to end my subscription easy. The daily has been getting so thin that I have now long battled with myself over whether to keep taking it. I once depended on the daily to give me a view of the world that was far different than the one I could glean out of the noise and clatter of the internet. Sure, someone or multiple somebodies decided what they would reveal about our town, state, and nation. That’s the job of editors. At least, with the Star as a starting point, I placed myself in the world. I could go from there.

Not that the daily’s news coverage was every comprehensive or extraordinary. It was, after all, a mainstream news corporation with a mainstream view of things. I used to write for the weekly here in Kansas City. I would often start my stories by asking myself, what is the Star missing? There was never a shortage of material they didn’t approach. With the Star in one hand and knowledge of what they were missing, I comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable, including the daily itself. Many of the stories I started with the weekly, the Star would pick up because the writers and editors decided, hey, here’s news.

Since I turned my career toward academics and writing, I have eschewed the weekly. After I left the paper, it removed itself from in-depth and investigative news reporting and moved into show business. They were overly concerned with personality and the titillating. That left me with just the Star, which, on its own, was a flawed instrument.

(Fortunately, the weekly has changed hands and they’re doing a better job these days.)

It didn’t matter whether the paper presented me news I wanted, as many of the television stations bill themselves as producing. The paper gave me news I sometimes didn’t want. It was the whole that mattered. I read all the articles and op/eds. I felt informed. I knew I could make decisions based on information. I felt the highest service of the free press was informing the democracy. They didn’t do it well but they did it.

At least, I could count on getting some facts and information about the place I live. Years ago, the paper’s effectiveness began to decrease. The publisher reduced the number of pages in the paper. They eliminated the metro section, which was devoted solely to local news. The local and the national melted into the sheets of newsprint. Soon, I was left with a paltry selection of news.

The Star of a few years ago had several hundred employees and an expansive newsroom. After years of cuts, that newsroom must be a place full of tumbleweeds and dust. The journalists have scattered to the winds. Some of them went into PR, which I could never do. Being a shill for a concern, no matter how humanitarian, is a sin beyond sins for the journalist in me. Some have found homes on the internet. You can find them at the public radio station and other smaller news outlets. Many have turned to freelance work.

In other words, the Star and the McClatchy Corporation flushed all institutional and historical memory from the building. Now, the people who are supposed to inform us have little to inform themselves.

A while ago, the paper made a big deal about a reformat. Ever since I first subscribed to the paper, a reformat meant a reduction in the space devoted to actual articles. At first, the size of the paper the daily was printed on shrunk. Then, they added more air, which meant fewer articles. They got rid of sections of the paper over time. The last reformat reduced the front page, which included all the local and national news they sought fit to print.

That is, not much.

Besides the declining usefulness and relevance of the paper, the new paper management decided in the last year to get rid of the editorial board. Many have complained over time that the paper leaned to the left. If it did, I didn’t notice. But then, I am a real leftist, a socialist, a New Dealer who wouldn’t have quite fit with New Dealers. No paper in this town will ever be left enough for me.

If anything, I always found the paper’s editorial position to be milquetoasty, shooting for the middle of the road. Editors backed alleged civic leaders to the detriment of people and institutions that had little power. The editors pissed me off all the time with their choices and directon. At least, I could count on Lee Judge’s cartoons for a good dig at established wealth and power.

I did look forward to meaty editorials from Steve Paul, Yael Abouhalkah, and Lewis Diuguid. I opened the paper to the editorial section after reading the front page. I did this for 25 years. Then, earlier this year, Paul took a buyout and I don’t blame him. The plane had crashed into the building. Who can blame a guy for getting when the getting was good.

This week, the paper’s management went too far for me. They sacked Abouhalkah. I didn’t agree with him all the time. He was too middle of the road, too much the guy who asked everyone to keep their heads when they should be losing them. I hated the way he split infinitives with judgmental adverb—especially, “properly,” a word he seemed to love deeply. He seemed deeply afraid to stomp on someone to harshly. I could depend on him, though. His columns often included news that the paper didn’t cover, and that’s what an editorial should do—report news as well as opinion.

Then, today, the local public radio station reported today that Lewis Diuguid was stepping down Oct. 7. I have been reading Diuguid’s work for as long as I kept the paper. I became acquainted with him and found him to be a humane presence in an otherwise cutthroat world. His columns often offered a viewpoint from the disadvantaged and outcast. He reported on issues regarding race, race politics, and racism. He was steadfast in his opinions.

I just received word that Diuguid may not be retiring as the radio station reported. It’s up in the air whether he will quit on Oct. 7.

Writing this piece, however, has made up my mind. My newspaper subscription was up September 25. I tried to quit the paper just now but there was no one to call. The automated system, which I called at 4:15, told me the office was closed. I suppose I will go the way that most people who quit taking the paper will. I just won’t pay for it anymore.

Poof. No fireworks. No one to give an opinion to. No one who will hear my ire. They just don’t care the way they used to. I think they will get by without me.

Without the substance I once craved and now the departure of a good editorial board, my dog and I will have to find some other daily duty to sate her need for a job. The paper won’t be there.

Gasoline, the cornerstone of a perfect diet


The summer of 1981 liberated me from the pernicious influence of obesity. I graduated from high school, still one of the low points of my life. Still in the mindset of home, I didn’t think of international travel. That lay out of the reach of my pocketbook. I was raised to keep my place, and my place was at a job. I took up a gas pump handle and went to work at a place whose acronym stood for “Friends in Service to the Cars of America.”

gas-pumpThe heat came early and stayed late. By June, 100 degree days followed one after the other. Every morning, the newspaper told of old people dying, shut up in their apartments. Construction workers collapsed and died on the job died. Out on the drive at FISCA, we withered and had it not been for the paneled roof above the pumps, one of us might have died as well.

We sold gas. That was it. No pop or candy bars. There were no hot dogs sweating on rollers. The station had 12 pumps. We pumped gas. We didn’t wash windows. We sometimes checked and added oil or power steering fluid when we needed to make up for shortages in the till. I worked in a crew of five: the station manager, three guys who split up the evening shift, and me. The manager and I were on the drive at 6 a.m. and worked until 3 p.m., after which we cleaned up and did the books. The night guys came on at 3 and worked until the station closed at 10 p.m.

I worked fifty-six hours a week at minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, plus overtime. I was bringing home more money than I ever made. I learned financial discipline early on. I let myself have $20 a week for drink and gas for my car. I cashed the rest. I was able to pay my first year’s college tuition and buy books with what I saved.

We wandered the drive with wads of bills in our pockets and change-makers on our belts. The job consisted of pumping gas, lots of it. Ninety-five percent our sales were cash. There was incentive to be precise. The manager, Bruce, did the books every morning. If the numbers came up short, all of us had to split the bill.

Mornings, I walked from my house the mile and some to the station. I’d walk down Stateline to 103rd Street, take a right, and walk past the shopping center and the McDonald’s. Car dealers now sprawl over the length of 103rd Street, but at the time I worked at the station, Indian Creek and woods bounded a long length of the street. By 8 a.m., a constant line of traffic would fill the street. But in those precious moments before I got to the station, the street stretched out empty in front of me. Owls hooted in the trees down by the creek in the twilight.

After a month or so, feeling of anticipation and dread accompanied me on the walk. I knew the day would be hot and long. I swung my paper lunch bag in one hand and a jug of water in the other. The jug, no matter how much ice I filled it with, wouldn’t last. By 9 a.m., that water would be warm. Then, by about ten, I would have drunk it dry, which meant I had to get water from the spigot on the outside of the bathroom. Not only was it hot, it tasted like rust and dead birds.

I always hoped for a busy day. There was nothing worse than whiling the day away having to look busy. We had to clean and sweep, that was part of the job. Those duties only took a few minutes. To make up dead time, we’d clean the windows in the doghouse, a little metal and class enclosure that stood in the middle of the pumps. We swept again. No one ever used the bathroom, but we cleaned it anyway.

Bruce never said, “Time to lean, time to clean.” But crotchety station owner or Bruce’s boss took up surveillance in the parking lots across the street. If we stood around too long in one place, Bruce would hear about it.

The station owner and Bruce’s boss constantly watched us to make sure we weren’t stealing gas. It was almost impossible, given the business at the station, which really picked up and had us jumping all day after 7 a.m. Still, they feared that we might get away with something. So, we stayed on our toes, sweeping and re-sweeping when the business was slow and huffing and puffing, running between pumps when we were busy.

I notice a couple of weeks after I started that I was losing weight. I shifted my diet from whatever I ate at the time to a quart of eggnog and a salad every day. The fat melted off of me. I started working at the station weighing 250 pounds. By the middle of July, I was down almost forty pounds. I remember because I weighed myself the morning of the Hyatt skywalk collapse. Bruce and I stood at one of the pumps listening to the news on the radio. My overalls, which once fit me tightly, hung on me like a sack.

The hotel disaster that killed 114 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The station was going to open, and we would have to pump gas all day. We kept up with the radio when between periods when cars lined up on the drive. We were gas station attendants. People wanted gas. We served it to them. The tragedy would have to unfold on its own.

I continued on that diet until the end of the summer. The first day of college that fall, I weighed in at 180.

Six days a week, my routine was the same. I woke at 5:15 and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I made lunch. At first, it was a baloney sandwich with mustard and a baggy of chips. Once I got caught up in the euphoria of losing weight, I took an apple and an orange in my paper bag. I walked to the station and pumped gas for eight hours, the heat and the fumes staving off hunger. I arrived home again at 4 p.m. after closing out the shift. I took a nap and read the paper. Around 6, I made and drank my eggnog and ate my salad.

Every night, I hooked up with my friend Mark and headed over to Kansas to get a couple of six packs. We drank them hard and fast. I had to be in bed passed out before 10 p.m. if I was to get over the drunk and pump gas all day. How I lost all the weight drinking as much as I did was testament to how difficult that job was and how little I ate. How I was able to drink every day and still stand up in the heat for nine hours showed just what an 18-year-old body is capable of.

When I came out of that summer, I was a changed person. No longer the fat, lumpy lug in the mirror, I wore jeans that were several inches tighter in the waist. I had hardly talked to my family in three months. I was on my way to work before dad got out of bed and was gone on my night’s drinking binge by the time he came home. I can’t remember interacting with my siblings that summer. It’s as if they were part of a stage background. I learned how to work with a crew of equally exploited men. While I would go on to work a number of crummy jobs, this one transformed me.

I bounded out of that gas station on my last day full-time day. (I would work at the station for another year part-time.) I had been baptized in heat and gas fumes, in protestations from angry customers and overweening station surveillance. I went in one of end that summer a scared, overweight kid still dependent on his home and family. I came out on the other end seventy pounds slimmer. I had confidence in myself. I liked myself better.

When I took up my books for the first day of school, I entered my adult life. Gone was fealty to family and the feelings of inadequacy from four years of hellish high school life. I was an adult and nothing but myself could stop me.

A cottonwood led the way


A cottonwood stands at the end of the street up near the school yard. It’s a big tree, its upper boughs reaching, I would guess, sixty feet in the air. Boxwood and poison ivy hide the trunk, but they can’t conceal its size. This is one hefty tree.

cottonwoodThough it stands alone, it is not a lonely tree. Hundreds of people walk by it every week. The paved sidewalk that runs up underneath it used to go days without seeing one human foot. But as the neighborhood has changed in recent years, dog walkers, people out for a healthful stroll, and kids on bikes pass through the shade of the old cottonwood.

Back when my first book was published, someone made the comment that there were a lot of cottonwoods in it. Walking across the Great Plains, I couldn’t help but notice that the trees lining the rivers that snake through the prairies were cottonwoods. I came to love the tree. Nothing beats sitting under cottonwood, whose shade is so different from the shade of other trees.

You can hear the wind in almost any tree, but you can’t often hear a gentle breeze. That’s what makes the cottonwood special. The leaves have an oval petiole or stem (in the cross section). Most trees have square or rectangular petioles. This oval petiole and the length of the stem allow the leaf to turn easily in even the slightest puff. And they aren’t just flipping around in the wind. They are turning on themselves 180 degrees. That is, in a mild breeze the leaf can turn over on itself. Where once was the top of the leaf, now there is the bottom. And back and forth.

The leaves make noise in their motion, and they rattle and brush up against one another. Tonight, as I walked the dogs on our appointed route, I could hear the cottonwood a half a block away. The sound resembled that of a stream running over a pebbly, rocky bottom. A tree that can make a sound like water enchants me.

I have taken off my pack on a hot summer day underneath a copse of cottonwoods in the middle of Nebraska. The leaves twisting and turning one another move a lot of water through the tree. Where out in the grass, the temperature was over 100, underneath those trees, due to the shade and evaporating water, the temperature was fifteen or twenty degrees cooler.

There’s nothing that soothes a weary traveler than a break from the sun and heat. In Silver Lake, Kansas, where a farmhouse once stood, I stepped out of the sun into the shade of a number of cottonwoods. Once through the vines at the outer perimeter of the stand, I stood on bare or nearly bare ground. That’s another facet of the trees that amaze me. Their shade is so solid that little grows under them but mayapples and dogwoods.

All across the plains, I spent hours looking up at the leaves of cottonwoods, trying to divine the sky above. When underway to Montana, I stepped off the road into the bottoms of creeks and rivers to get a slice of that cool, dark shade, to hear the sound of the wind in all those leaves. You could almost say that I made it the 1,450 miles from Kansas City to Helena because of the cottonwood.

And they led me back to Kansas City. I don’t know that there’s an official tree of the Missouri River, but I know that there’s about 2,200 miles of cottonwood stands that run from Wolf Creek, Montana, to the Kaw’s mouth. Up to Montana and back, for five months, cottonwoods were a part of my life. They provided me shade during the day. Their sound alerted me to the oncoming weather. I lighted the night with their twigs and branches.

I’m almost certain that once, a cottonwood saved my life. In the desert outside of Cortez, Colorado, when my daughter and I spent the night at Hovenweep National Monument, we took refuge under a cottonwood. Granted, the western cottonwood is different than those that grow east of the continental divide. But they are close, close cousins and will interbreed with one another. We were lost in the sagebrush and the rocks. It didn’t matter much which kind of cottonwood was growing in the sand and rocks among the sagebrush. What mattered was that I was scared. Disoriented and without a compass, we had no idea which way to go. On top of that, we had emptied our water bottles on our long walk.

As we sat in the shade of that tree, I distracted myself. The wash where the cottonwood stood ran down between two gentle hills. I noticed that other cottonwoods followed the depression toward the ruin of an Anasazi house. A hot breeze swept down off the hill above, turning the cottonwoods into a symphony of sound. I thought of streams and rivers. I imagined rain running down the gutters of our house.

Sydney asked if we were lost. I told her, yes, for the moment. But let’s go look at this ruin and maybe we will find our way. We walked down the depression, the sighs and ripples in the leaves calming my worry. We would get out of this, I thought. It would just take time.

The ruin stood to one side of the wash under a clump of stubby cottonwoods. Below, evidence of a dam, a stair step in the sand and rocks showed me that for a thousand years, water ran through here in the rain. The cottonwoods gained purchase in those rains and sent their roots down who knows how many feet to the moist sand below our feet.

We knew we weren’t supposed to climb about on ruins in a national monument, but I told Syd that she could step inside and have a look. I had to distract her from what was becoming a dire situation. I was worried. What do you do stuck in the desert? Someone would find our car at the remote parking area sometime. A day? A week? How often did the rangers come around to check on these things?

I stepped inside the small square of rocks and mortar and tried to imagine for a minute the life of a family who lived before white Europeans, Spanish, most likely, ever saw this place. Back outside, I looked up into the cottonwood outside the door. Something caught my eye, a flash or reflection of the sun in the distance. My heart leaped. I knew the little beam of light reflected off the windshield of the car. I estimated we had about a mile to go. I sighted off the trunk of that cottonwood and we started that direction. I kept looking back at the string of cottonwoods to stay on track until we could see the car clearly.

As I opened the car door, I thanked that cottonwood. Had I not gained a fascination with the tree when I was walking across the plains and coming down the river, we might not have found our way back.

I think of those lonely copses of cottonwoods where old farmhouses stood when I walk under the grand tree up by the school yard. It reminds me of the flash of sunlight off the car window and the relief of being found. I am again the frightened father soothing his unknowing daughter, sheltering her from the danger facing us.

It’s just a simple cottonwood. I’m not sure many people notice it but for the branches that they have to duck under. I’m almost certain that most people don’t know it’s a particular kind of tree, only that it stands alone and casts a big shadow. But for me, it is a gateway to a million other cottonwoods and hundreds of stories that lay on me softly.