Township 13 South, Range 92 West, Section 35

A home of mysteries and restless souls

  • The high desert mesa above Paonia, once home to the Foote family.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • An abandoned present-day house at Foote Fields.

    JT Thomas
  • Elizabeth Foote (marked with an asterisk) in a Paonia High School class picture.

    JT Thomas
  • Elizabeth's tombstone in the Bethlehem Cemetery.

    JT Thomas
  • The author and her daughter, Sylvia.

    JT Thomas

Page 4

"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. 
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