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Red Ryder and the Cowboys

Integrity, responsibility, courage, compassion in relentless pursuit of justice — always defending those less able and fortunate than themselves—those were the values imparted by the cowboy heroes of the 1940s and 50s. Not bad values for a bunch of B movie actors and comic strip heroes to impart to impressionable kids.

Roy Rogers and Gene Autry dominated the singing cowboy era. Jimmy Wakeley and Rex Allen starred in a few B movies before the singing cowboy genre disappeared.

Many of the cowboys who never picked up a guitar: The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid, the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, Tim Holt, Rocky Lane, Johnny MacBrown, Monte Hale, Sunset Carson, Eddie Dean, and Lash LaRue, each had their own style, but portrayed similar values.

My favorite was the Colorado Rancher, Red Ryder. With his Indian sidekick, Little Beaver, and his crusty aunt, the Duchess, the redhead made that part of Colorado a better place in which to live.

Red Ryder was portrayed in black and white movies by Red Berry, Bill Elliott,and Rocky Lane. Jim Bannon portrayed Red Ryder in a few Technicolor movies. Red Ryder was also featured in comic books, a comic strip, “big little” books, and hard cover books.

Red Ryder was created by Colorado rancher/artist Fred Harman who once studied with Walt Disney. But Harman wasn’t interested in animation. He was more interested in portraits of Colorado ranch life, accurate down to the faintest detail, and his own creation, Red Ryder.

The inside covers of Red Ryder comic books that I still have featured photos of Harman’s Colorado ranch near Pagosa Springs. Since first viewing those comic books I wanted to visit Fred Harman/Red Ryder country, but never did.

Fate works in strange ways. Last January, my banjo-playing pal, Jerry Hastings, and I with my accordion, entertained a group of soybean processors at Turner Hall in Monroe. Their leader was Iowa native Elmer Schettler who now resides in Pagosa Springs. I informed Elmer of my long-standing fascination with Red Ryder and Fred Harman. In recognition of that, Elmer presented me with a painting of Red Ryder and Little Beaver, and urged me to visit Pagosa Springs. That was what I needed to fulfill a childhood dream.

On my periodic junkets to New Mexico I usually go by way of Fort Hood, Texas, to visit my daughter, the Army Captain. But since Kara had just been home on leave, my detour this time would be via Pagosa Springs.

I leave in late June, take my usual route west and south through Iowa, down to Kansas City, and over to Emporia, Kansas. Instead of the usual U.S. 54 or U.S. 56 through Kansas, I go directly west on State Route 96. It was 27 years ago that son Johnny and I took that same route on one of our summer trips.

It’s a week late to catch the peak Kansas wheat harvest, but the wheat stubbles are still golden brown in the dazzling sunshine. I recall an old-fashioned soda fountain in a Rexall Drug Store in one of those Kansas towns. I keep an eye peeled for it as I roll through the small towns along Kansas 96. Either I missed it or it’s gone — another nostalgic relic of the past gone forever.

Late afternoon, I cross into Colorado. There are at least three Colorados. The Great Plains portion, the mountain west, and the urban front range of the Rockies including Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

The wheat harvest in the Great Plains of Colorado is not as far along as in Kansas. The golden wheat fields alternate with stretches of grassy range country, contrasting with the cloudless blue sky. A few miles into Colorado, I cut south to Lamar, then west.

The lonely 63-mile stretch between LaJunta and Walsenburg rises perceptibly. Golden wheat fields are replaced by picturesque grassy meadows and range country with herds of beef cattle grazing contentedly. The sinking sun casts long shadows, enriching the bluish green of the meadows. The temperature cools; the dry, fresh air is invigorating. The first silhouettes of the Rockies appear in the gathering dusk, signaling the transition from Great Plains to Mountain West.

Through Walsenburg, with gathering darkness, my GMC climbs winding roads amidst junipers and mountain foliage. No use trying to make Pagosa Springs tonight. I want to see this scenic country in daylight.

I take a road less traveled to La Veta and find a Mom and Pop motel. My phone rings. It’s Elmer, checking on my progress. I assure him I will be in Pagosa Springs early tomorrow. He has arranged for lunch and a couple of other events.

Next morning, the mountain air is crisp, cool, and invigorating, temp in the 50s. The scenery — the aspens and junipers, alternating with picture postcard-like mountain meadows — is impossible to adequately describe.

I descend to the San Luis Valley, cross a broad, flat stretch, and climb again, this time serious stuff, to Wolf Creek Pass, a journey once arduous and hazardous, but now easy, scenic and beautiful.

Atop Wolf Creek Pass (elevation 10,850 feet), I stop at the brass marker signifying the continental divide, literally the spine of the North American continent. As I straddle the marker, rain falling on my left foot would drain toward the Atlantic, and on my right foot toward the Pacific. But it’s not raining. The sunshine is brilliant, the air invigorating, and the scenery breathtaking.

I climb back into my GMC and head down the Pacific side of Wolf Creek pass. Mountain evergreens, rushing streams, and cool mountain air. Soon I’ll be in Pagosa Springs and meet up with Elmer.

To be continued:

Monroe, Wis., resident John Waelti can be reached at