It was that chance meeting with Pagosa Springsresident Elmer Schettler that brought me to the top of Wolf Creek Pass (elevation 10,850 feet) that bright sunny morning.
One of my childhood heroes was Red Ryder whose creator was Pagosa Springs rancher/artist, Fred Harman. It was that connection that prompted Elmer to invite me to Pagosa Springs to visit the Fred Harman Museum.
On top of Wolf Creek Pass, I stand on the brass strip that marks the Continental Divide and marvel at the fact that raindrops falling on one side of the marker will drain toward the Atlantic Ocean and raindrops falling a fraction of an inch away will drain toward the Pacific.
The temperature is in the 50s, the cool, thin mountain air refreshing. The green mountain foliage contrasts with the cloudless blue sky. I climb back into my GMC and head down the Pacific side of Wolf Creek Pass.
There are two places in the world where scenic beauty exceeds that depicted on post cards — Switzerland and parts of the Rocky Mountain West. The descent from Wolf Creek Pass reminds me of the Alps and prompts me to slip the yodeling CD by Toni Blum Seitz into my player. It’s just the right background music to accompany the last leg of this journey. Besides, I’m determined to learn every one of those great songs on my accordion.
Mid-morning, I roll into Pagosa Springs. It’s easy to see why people like Southwestern Colorado with its dry mountain air and gorgeous scenery. The San Juan River flows parallel to the main street with its hot springs. Pah-go-sah means “healing waters.”
I meet Elmer for lunch and we have great Mexican food. Elmer has lined up a tour at the Fred Harman Museum located on top of a hill toward the west end of town. Adorning the entrance are carved wood statues of Little Beaver and Red Ryder, complete with his trademark leather chaps, red shirt and broad white hat.
The present museum was once the studio where Harman created his portraits and worked on his Red Ryder series. In addition to his portraits of Colorado ranch life the museum houses a rich collection of western memorabilia and sketches of his early comic strips. There are photos of the movie stars who portrayed Red Ryder during the 1940s and early ’50s. These include Don Barry, Bill Elliot, Rocky Lane, and Jim Bannon who Harman considered the best representation of the red headed cowboy. Photos of the actors who portrayed Little Beaver and The Duchess brought back memories. I best remember Bobby Blake as Little Beaver, and Martha Wentworth as Red’s crusty aunt, “The Duchess.”
The museum houses letters and testimonials from stars including Gene Autry, and several U.S. presidents. There are historical photos, including one of Harman studying art alongside Walt Disney.
Many kids, including myself, were first introduced to “firearms” with a Red Ryder bb gun. These are still manufactured and are the only association today’s kids have with Red Ryder.
The museum also has a collection of Red Ryder “big little” books and copies of his hard cover books. I’m glad that I retained my childhood collection in good condition.
Fred Harman died in 1982. His son, Fred Harman III, did not pursue an art career but enjoyed a successful career in radio in New York. He occupies his present days as curator of the museum bearing his father’s name.
I was in for a pleasant surprise. Elmer introduced me to Fred Harman III, and we enjoyed a nice chat about his own experiences as well as his father’s work and the positive influence he had on so many kids of the ’40s and ’50s. It was a real thrill to meet a family member of a man who positively influenced so many impressionable kids.
Early evening, the warm, dry mountain air free of flying insects, Elmer arranges for dinner at an open-air cafe with jazz music. He introduces me to his musician friends and we exchange a few obligatory bad jokes about accordions.
Elmer’s other dinner partners arrive and we enjoy the music, great food and conversation. This, in the delightful mountain air all ends too soon.
Among my Red Ryder books is one entitled “Red Ryder and the Adventure at Chimney Rock.” It was years after I had first read that book at about the age of ten that I realized there is a real Chimney Rock. Like the celebrated western novelist, Louis L’Amour, Fred Harman’s stories are set in real geographical places.
I must visit the real Chimney Rock.
To be continued.
John Waelti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.