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Know the West

Township 13 South, Range 92 West, Section 35

A home of mysteries and restless souls


Elizabeth Foote was a homebody, and her home was on a high-desert mesa in western Colorado. Her house had a wide-angle view of the West Elk Mountains and overlooked a river valley and the raw, ambitious small town of Paonia. The mesa was sun-baked in summer, alternately snowy and muddy in winter, and windy all year round.

Elizabeth's father, George Foote, bought the land in 1907, when Elizabeth was 8 years old. The government had broken its treaty with the Utes a quarter-century earlier, opening most of their Colorado reservation to eager settlers. The choicest parcels of land in the river valley were already claimed, but cheap, promising acreage remained.

George registered a claim to 200 acres and cleared the scrubby juniper trees and sagebrush from the mesa top. He pried a small mountain of rocks from the hard ground, dug irrigation ditches to water his crops, and planted hay. He also championed the local fruit industry -- the valley became known for its cherries and peaches -- and dealt energetically in real estate, earning a reputation as an aggressive businessman. Before long, his homestead became known to its neighbors as Foote Fields.

The valley was remote -- the nearest sizable city was 70 miles away, and in 1910, there were only nine cars in town -- but life was busy. Elizabeth and her three younger sisters could go to sledding and skating parties in the winter, to ice-cream socials and baseball games and the marble-topped soda fountain in summer. The circus came to town, and the Kit Carson Wild West show; the annual chautauqua brought mind-readers and magicians, violinists and organists. But people said that Elizabeth was happiest home on the ranch. With her mother, Mary, and her sisters Barbara, Antoinette and Susan, she helped irrigate the fields and raise the cows. Sometimes, one of the girls would ride a Shetland pony around the mesa, their baby brother Dan propped in front of her on the saddle.

With the rest of the valley, the Footes likely battled measles, bedbugs, spring freezes and hailstorms. Following a run of disastrous fruit crops in the teens, so many people left town for better prospects in California that 30 former neighbors gathered for a picnic in Long Beach. But the Footes stayed on the mesa, perhaps buoyed by canny land deals, hard work, stubbornness, or a dose of each.

Elizabeth had her bold moments; in 1918, her senior year in high school, she played a bit part in a Civil War drama at the local opera house. She and Barbara both graduated later that spring, and their class pictures show girls with light, wide-set eyes and wavy, softly gathered hair. Barbara, a year younger, looks directly at the camera, a half smile on her face. Elizabeth looks slightly away from the lens, her face serious. It was a sad year; dozens of young men in town had volunteered or been drafted for the war in Europe, and the Spanish flu would soon burn through the valley, killing many.

Some graduating seniors left for college, some for teaching positions. Some signed on for the last months of the war. Some got married. But Elizabeth simply went home to the mesa and resumed her chores.
Six years later, on a nearly moonless night in late July, she disappeared.

When two college buddies from Oregon happened upon the mesa in 1993, they knew nothing of the Footes. The land was too hot and too cold, too windy and too dry, they thought, but it was quiet and had marvelous views. And without irrigation rights, wells, houses or pavement of any kind, it was cheap. They pooled their money with three other friends and bought 80 acres.

The friends each chose home sites and built their own houses, two from straw bales, one from mud blocks, one with a wall insulated by old refrigerators. They formed a loosely bound commune, founded on a common dream of getting off the grid and back to the land.

One of the Oregon boys built his bachelor pad in a sheltered spot, a hollow serenaded by coyotes. When I met him, five years after he and his friends had signed the deed, I fell for him -- and then for the mesa. The place had a spare, spiny beauty that I loved, and the scattered houses overflowed with do-it-yourself charm. I moved to Foote Fields, and I was thrilled.

We got married in the mesa's open field, and in the years that followed, we built friendships and accumulated shared histories. The land allowed us to live in a way that roughly matched our beliefs: Our power came from the sun, our drinking water straight from the sky, our vegetables from down the road. For me, the land provided the tranquility -- and the low overhead -- I needed to start and sustain a writing career. Though I traveled often, and enjoyed the time away, I always returned to the mesa with a sense of relief.

But a thread of ambivalence began to wind through my mind. I wondered if our life on the mesa was really as easy on the land as we liked to believe. I wondered if I was just hiding out from a more conventionally middle-class destiny in this addictively gorgeous place. I looked around the light-filled little house my husband had so lovingly built, and wondered if we were getting too old to have a composting toilet, mismatched thrift-store dishes, and a used futon couch.

When I got pregnant and had a baby girl, I finally understood my nagging dissatisfaction. I had come here for an adventure, for a romantic experiment in minimalist rural living. Ten years later, what I most wanted was a home. My grandparents grew up in Holland and the farmlands of Virginia; my father grew up in England and North Carolina; I grew up in New York state and, in a fit of wanderlust, moved to Oregon for college. I now lived more than 1,800 miles from all the ancestors I knew about. I didn't have much of what my Southern relatives called a "home place," a place where I knew the local dialect and the history of the land and the shapes of all the family trees. There was no one place I was comfortably from.

Could this dried-out, weedy mesa, with its scenic vistas and jumble of homemade houses, become my home place? I wasn't sure. Still, it seemed important, as it never had before, to do some geographic genealogy, and learn who and what had preceded us here. I wanted -- suddenly needed -- to know who had found a way to call it home.

So I dug into the very local past. I toured nearby petroglyphs, cracked open the heavy cloth-bound volumes of property records at the county courthouse, whirled through rolls of microfilm at the library.

I learned that for hundreds of summers, the Utes had used the mesa -- and the mountains and valleys around it -- as hunting and gathering grounds. They probably camped here in family groups, cutting juniper logs for wickiup poles, gathering grass seeds for flour, following trails into the peaks. I learned about Guy Hammond, a gregarious cattleman from a pioneer family who had owned the mesa in the 1920s and '30s, and used it as spring pasture for his herd. I learned about his wife, Lena Read Hammond, an Easterner who played the piano, grew her own hops to make yeast, and rode the range with her husband -- first sidesaddle, then in a divided skirt, and finally, on the occasional camping trip, in overalls.

And I met Elizabeth Foote.

July 28, 1924, dawned warm and sunny, with a hint of rain in the distance. Early that Monday morning, George and Mary Foote must have realized that their oldest daughter was not in her bed. They knew Elizabeth was prone to sleepwalking, so they probably looked upstairs and downstairs, hoping to find her curled up in a corner. Maybe they sent young Dan, who had just turned 12, into the nearest fields, to see if his sister had wandered outside in the night. Nothing.

I imagine the Footes kept looking for a while, hoping Elizabeth would come strolling out of the junipers, rubbing her eyes. Maybe, after an hour or so, George rode his horse down the mesa and over the canal to the closest house, where he put out the word that his 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth, dutiful Elizabeth, was missing.

The canal. The Fire Mountain Canal was a local wonder, a 31-mile-long, 10-foot-wide irrigation ditch that snaked around the border of the Foote land. In 1896, when the town was little more than a decade old, dozens of farmers and hired laborers had begun shoveling and dynamiting their way along the mesas on the north side of the valley, slowly carving a three-foot-deep trench into the rocky, close-packed hillside. Local farmers had even labored through the winters, waiting for thaws to melt the snow and soften the ground. The canal took five years to complete, but when it was done, it was by far the largest irrigation ditch in the valley, an artery of river water that turned 10,000 acres of desert into productive farmland.

That Monday morning, more than 40 neighbors joined the search for Elizabeth. 1924 was, in many ways, a furtive, nasty year in the valley. Prohibition was in full force, but rumors circulated that booze "flowed as free as water" in town. Marijuana made a local appearance ("The weed, converted into cigarettes, is declared to have a more powerful effect than the rankest moonshine liquor," wrote the scandalized editor of the local newspaper, in what may have served as an unintentional advertisement.) The night before Elizabeth disappeared, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on the hill above Grand Avenue as a warning to bootleggers, drawing a curious crowd from the chautauqua festivities.

The search party might have included coal miners and cattlemen, Klansmen and immigrant fruit-pickers. They must have been used to ignoring disagreements in the face of emergencies, for life-threatening misadventures and illnesses were common. People fell from their horses and from stacks of hay, were lost in snowstorms, and got into bloody buggy wrecks and car crashes and knife fights. They died in coal mine cave-ins and contracted diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid.

So the searchers were likely accustomed to assuming the worst. They might have reassured a distraught Mary Foote, telling her that Elizabeth was sure to turn up by midday. Led by George Foote, they might have combed the mesa, marching through hayfields and juniper scrub, feigning confidence that Elizabeth had suffered nothing worse than a sprained ankle and a bad scare. But as the morning dragged on, and the July sun grew hotter, the searchers probably admitted to each other what they had all been thinking. It was time to drain the Fire Mountain Canal.

By the end of the day, I imagine, the job was done. The diversion gates upstream were closed, and the proud canal was an empty, muddy trench. Yet there was still no sign of Elizabeth Foote.

On Tuesday morning, an elderly man by the last name of Peterson was walking alongside the canal, well downstream from the Foote homestead. Maybe he was taking his usual morning constitutional, or maybe he was wondering why the canal had suddenly gone dry. He saw a large, wet bundle lying among the rocks at the bottom of the ditch, and as he came nearer, he was horrified to realize that it was a body. Frightened, he went no closer but rushed to a nearby house, where he told rancher Arthur Purtee what he had seen.

Purtee recruited some neighbors and led them to the canal, where they gathered up the bloated body of Elizabeth Foote. Since her disappearance two nights earlier, she had floated eight miles from home.

The county coroner ruled the death a suicide "due to a temporary derangement," but the family disagreed. Elizabeth had been clearing a plot of land near the canal on Saturday, and George and Mary Foote believed that on Sunday night, she had dreamed of her work, risen from her bed, and walked several hundred feet to the edge of the canal in her sleep, determined to turn water on to the newly open ground. When she fell into the frigid canal water, family and friends said, the shock must have stopped her heart, or caused her to panic and drown.

The funeral service was held two days later, on Thursday morning, at the Foote home on the mesa. They buried Elizabeth in tiny Bethlehem Cemetery, a short walk from Foote Fields and the Fire Mountain Canal.

Just a few years after her death, the Footes sold the corner of their land that I live on today. George, Mary and their daughter Barbara stayed in the valley; Susan married and moved to California, Antoinette to Denver; Dan fought in World War II, then moved to southern Idaho. Today, George, Mary and Barbara are buried beside Elizabeth; Dan, the baby of the family, lies nearby next to his wife. Close by the Foote graves are the plots of friends and neighbors: the Hammonds, the Frys, the Roatcaps, the Bruces. On that long-ago Monday in July, many here must have helped search for Elizabeth.

I ask around town, but few people remember any stories about the Foote family; most barely remember the name. No one remembers any talk of Elizabeth, the home-loving girl with the serious face. So many people drowned back then, old-timers tell me. Babies fell into irrigation ditches, skaters slipped into icy reservoirs, houses washed away when the river suddenly changed course. Elizabeth was just one of many who vanished. Only she knew whether she fell, or whether she jumped.

One afternoon this past summer, Glena Ballentine, a descendant of one of the valley's pioneer families, unlocks the town museum for me. While I search the files for scraps about the Footes, she thumbs through an autograph book, donated by a local high school graduate, and hands it to me. The open page reads:

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
If the Devil don't get you
St. Peter must

Yours as a classmate
Dan Foote 1930

"Yep I'm the last one who knows nothing about nothing," jokes John Morrell when I call him. His family owned the mesa land for three decades, beginning in the 1940s. His grandfather, also named John Morrell, used it as spring pasture for his cattle, as Guy Hammond had, then deeded it to his son Jack for "love and affection and other considerations." The younger John began helping with ranch chores when he was 6 years old, just big enough to ride a horse. But when he graduated from high school, there was little money in the cattle business, so he began a career in the local coal mines. John and his wife, Charlotte, now live less than two miles from the mesa top, in a house with a similar view of the mountains.

John says that the Foote house was torn down long ago, but he remembers seeing its rock foundation as a boy, and tells me that I should still be able to find some remnants of the place. He gives me rough directions: right side of the road, east end of the cross ditch, middle of the old hayfield. One morning, I follow the shallow irrigation ditch, now little more than a shadow in the weeds, until I reach the spot, which turns out to be just steps away from where my husband and I got married. But aside from a suspiciously straight groove in the dirt, I can find no sign of the Foote house -- no foundation rocks, no debris, nothing. In just a few decades, it seems, the house has completely disappeared. I stand on the flat ground where George Foote might have dreamed his entrepreneurial dreams, and Elizabeth Foote might have, fatally, dreamed of irrigating her plot of land. I look to the west, where an overgrown gully leads downhill to the Fire Mountain Canal.

What had I been looking for in my stack of old deeds and newspapers? Even I didn't quite know. Maybe I'd hoped to find a wise grandmotherly figure, someone I could imagine advising me about diapers and baby food and all the demands of new motherhood. Or a farmer with a yen for world travel, someone whose example would help me stitch together my love of the quiet mesa and my longing for far-flung adventure. Instead, I found an uneasy ghost.

The holes in my history of this place are enormous. I have only a few clues to the individual lives of the Utes who summered here. I don't know how Guy and Lena Hammond felt about the land, or if, in the hubbub of their busy days, they paid much attention to it at all. I don't know if Elizabeth Foote really loved her home, as people said, or if, as a young unmarried woman, she felt trapped on this windy hill.

I do know more about the mesa than I did a few months ago, and the knowledge makes me feel both less and more at home. The families who lived here are not mine. This may be my daughter's birthplace, but she has no deep roots here, not in the usual sense. Somehow, though, the life and death and mystery of Elizabeth Foote brings me closer to home, for now I'm one of the keepers of her story.

When I moved here 10 years ago, the mesa looked, to my 25-year-old eyes, like a blank slate, a peaceful place with enough room to install our solar panels and cobble together our dreams. Elizabeth Foote reminds me that we were far from the first -- and will be far from the last -- to try to make the mesa home.

Our group of friends has owned these 80 acres for a decade and a half, and already most of us live elsewhere, pulled away from our shared land by careers or illnesses or family obligations. We're happy to see one another when we get the chance, but of the original group, only two families remain on the mesa full time. It's still a lively place, and, as in the Foote era, it's brimming with girls. Our daughter is learning to walk, our young neighbor is reading and writing, and a family with three little girls has moved a yurt onto the property across the road. The evenings are filled with happy shrieks. The grown son of one of our group brings his wife and daughters to visit every few months, and they talk about tearing down his parents' weather-damaged mud-brick house and building a cabin of their own. This land might pass to his generation and beyond, but before long, it will be sold again. Someday, our house will be torn down, too. Maybe, decades from now, someone will look for its foundation.

In my search for a home place, I sometimes catch myself longing for a place of no surprises, a refuge from uncertainty. But home -- no matter where we happen to find it -- is just as beautiful and dangerous and changeable as anywhere else, as full of mysteries and restless souls.

The Fire Mountain Canal still hugs the base of Foote Fields, and when it fills with snowmelt, its current runs smooth, fat and fast. Sometimes, on summer evenings, I walk along the canal road, my daughter on my back and my husband beside me. I often think about Elizabeth stumbling downhill in the dark toward the cold water, her feet bare, her nightgown too thin to keep her warm.


Also see "A conversation with Michelle Nijhuis" for an exclusive interview with the author and more of JT Thomas's photographs.