Childhood Musings…

The Gila Monster’s Shadow

By Jason Barron


Nothing was as I remembered it.

All that was left of our house was a sunken in deck of spruce pilings and moldy OSB sheeting. The walls had come down, and tatters of sun rotted Visqueen littered the ground and festooned nearby blueberry bushes.  The detritus of an old life, junk metal, pots and pans, a senseless heap of rusted Tang cans, lay scattered about and half-grown over by foliage and decomposing vegetation.

I stood looking at the mess for a long time with the rain pounding down and the light failing to the west, my shotgun feeling like a lead weight cradled in my arms. To my left was the embankment leading up to the old horse corral, and to my right was the path, now choked with overgrowth, heading down to the creek where we used to fetch water and I had once found the fossil of a prehistoric seashell as big as a dinner platter imprinted against a boulder the size of a car hood. Behind me was the narrow ravine overhung with the shaggy bulk of an old growth tamarack that used to shelter our dog lot.

It was the fall of 1995, and I stood there in the gloomy down pour with my future wife by my side and struggled to hold back the tears that suddenly assaulted me. I wanted to tell Harm that this was not it; I had taken a wrong turn and led us to the wrong place. This was not the place of my childhood that I had brought her to see, but instead some abandoned gold mine, a camp left deserted years before by some miner who had come seeking fortune and instead found only heartache.

We were deep in the Talkeetna Range in a narrow, nameless valley, a valley blessed with less than eighty degrees of open sky and overlooked by the massive hulk of Gunsight Mountain, a Herculean chunk of basalt and shale that thrust up from the earth’s crust in mute defiance to the laws of gravity and dominated the landscape for leagues in any direction. I had led Harm up here, a three hour hike from the Glen Highway, over the rugged mountain pass and through the mud and constant rain to show her this place. We were new to each other, and I was following some barely understood instinct, some vague idea of sharing with her a piece of my childhood so that she might gain some insight to my nature. But now that we were finally here, it suddenly seemed like a bad idea. Everything was so much smaller than I had remembered it, smaller and somehow….dirtier.

We were both very tired and hungry, and chilled to the core from the frigid August rain. We left the old home site and set up our little two man pup tent on the bank overlooking the creek, which was angry and swollen and crashing down amongst the rocks and boulders on its way to the valley floor. We had some difficulty getting the campfire going under such wet conditions, and by the time we had it crackling and food cooking, I realized that Harm had taken a chill from the day’s exertions and was now getting sick.

As the night settled upon us, we bundled into the tent with the two pet dogs and burled into our sleeping bags. By now Harm was shaking and her teeth were chattering together. We had not been talking much, but now she reached out and laid her hand against the plastic wrapping that protected my 12 gauge from the elements.

She had grown up in Northern California and was curious about the gun culture I had been brought up in. She wanted to know if I had ever used it. ‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘Many times.’  ‘Can you tell me about it?’

This was, after all, why I had brought her up here to the mountains of my youth. So, with the rain sizzling down against the roof of our tent and the dogs panting at our feet, we lay in the dark and I did my best to warm her. I told her about our gold-claim, Mom and Dad’s horses and how we got all of our supplies from the highway to here, how in the winter we had all taken up Spanish lessons by the light of a Coleman lantern after I had fallen in love with the novel ‘Gila Monster’s Shadow’. And I told her how death had stalked us in our secluded mountain valley……


….I was 10 years of age in the spring of 1982 when Dad started hauling gear from the trailhead to the new gold claim high in the Talkeetna Mountain Range. He used an old freight sled with half-inch thick iron runners, hooked up eighteen dogs to the bridle and careened his way over Gunsight Pass with all manner of assorted cargo, chickens and two-by-fours, gasoline and gold pans, tools and hard tack. You name it, Dad hauled it in. The amazing thing was spring was far enough along that the winter’s snow had long since melted, leaving him only gravel, rock, dirt and tundra to bounce across. For the two weeks that Dad was doing this dangerous job, Mom and my brothers and I remained at the trailhead tending to the horses and goats and living out of a small cab-over camper. When us kids finally left the dusty trailhead and made the climb over the steep mountain pass, we all wore rucksacks loaded with canned foodstuff and led the livestock in a long train. Mom packed the .41 magnum on her hip, a piece of iron that would be used many times throughout the years and still has a place near at hand, and Dad walked with his beloved Arab/Quarter horse cross Gemini who was loaded with gear, including a 12 gauge Remington shotgun hung from a sling.

The valley was like some fantastic dream; deep and lush, and waiting with the promise of adventure. It was narrow, barely a quarter-mile across, and surmounted by sheer walls over five hundred feet high. A lively river ran from one end to the other, and terrific box canyons complete with water falls let into it at regular intervals. The valley floor was rugged and rumpled, a mix of young birch and old growth spruce and tamarack blending into gentle fields of moss and wildly profuse blueberry bushes. Paradise.

We boys spent the long days of summer scampering about the hillsides, and Mom and Dad explored the valley from one end to the other on horseback. There had always been dogs in our lives, but until now we had never known this side of our parents. Dad, mounted up on Gemini, a spirited roan mare, looked like a character from a Louis L’amore novel, complete with a wide-brimmed Stetson and .32 Special lever-action carbine in a saddle scabbard. And the way those two moved together! Pure poetry. Dad’s passion for the equine animal was evident in his every action, and years later when I heard the description of the mythical beast Centaur, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

Summer passed and fall began to chill the air. Dad built a small deck and fashioned a rough framework of immature spruce saplings atop it, which he then covered with opaque sheets of four mil plastic Visqueen (very thin plastic sheeting). He lugged in a small Yukon stove for heating and cooking, and put in hooks for several Coleman lanterns. The horses were quartered on a small plateau with a steep embankment leading down to the house and the forty odd dogs and yearlings that made up Dads team were sheltered just to the south. We didn’t have houses for them, but we did our best to give them cover in the form of crude windbreaks constructed from countless spruce boughs.

Winter descended and the days grew dark and cold. By mid November the sun would only show its face for what seemed like a few minutes at a time as it cleared the walls enclosing the valley at noontime, than quickly slide from view behind the escarpment to the west.  After reading a book called ‘The Gila Monster’s Shadow’, a story about Mexican bandits at the turn of the 19th century, I was inspired to talk the rest of the family into Spanish lessons taken from an old battered English/Spanish dictionary. We would all sit around in the glow of the lantern, the thin plastic walls of our house shivering and flapping in time with the wind, eating moose steaks and sometimes if we were lucky one of Mom’s pan fried chocolate cakes, and delighting in the absurdity of learning this strange and beautiful language in such an unlikely setting. Sometimes, with my breath frosting and my nose crispy with cold, I would lie in my sleeping bag and watch the northern lights undulate across the roof of the sky and dream of distant places….

It was bitter cold the morning Gemini fell. I don’t know how cold, we had no thermometer, but it was cold enough that a stream of piss would burst into particles of steam before reaching the ground. Only minutes before, Mom and Dad had bundled Will, my youngest brother, into thick blankets in the basket of the freight sled and left for the day to go to town and gather supplies.

My older brother Laird and I were in the house trying to stay warm when something crashed against it, down low amongst the pilings, and we heard a terrible whinnying.

We ran outside to see what had happened. It was Dad’s horse, she had slipped and came flying down the embankment on her side and was now wrapped about the pilings underneath the deck like a child’s plaything. Her eyes were wide with panic and her cries were throaty, terrified squeals that will haunt my dreams until the day I die. She was in the process of trying to get back up, throwing her beautiful head up and bringing it crashing down with maniacal force. Blood streamed and splattered from her nostrils, flying in long streamers to paint the nearby snowbank.

Laird grabbed my shoulder, shook me. His face was chalk white and his one good eye was sick with horror. Go after them! He meant Mom and Dad. They were only gone by ten minutes or so. Maybe there was a chance.

I snatched the 12 gauge from the wall pegs inside the house, and then I ran. I followed the outbound trail, the one that led up out of the valley and then to the highway below.  I ran with my head down and my elbows tucked in close, the shotgun snug against my back, sucking in great lung searing breaths, trying to fight the panic that threatened to engulf me. I ran for Gemini’s life. And when I could run no more, when I reached the point where I could see the place where the trail climbed the valley wall and disappeared over the far side, I stopped, planted my feet in a shooting stance, and rattled off six shots from the shotgun so fast that it must have sounded like the roar of an automatic rifle. Then I screamed, my frozen tear streaked face turned to a sky as hard and uncaring as granite, and screamed until I thought my throat would burst.

Only the ravens answered me.

I returned to camp much older than I was when I left. Gemini was still stuck. Laird was frantically trying to subdue the poor girl, who was determined to batter her brains out upon the frozen ground. She was growing weaker by the minute, but still had the power to send Laird flying. Together, we were able to pin her head down, after fashioning a crude cushion, and then sooth her into ceasing her struggles. We brought every blanket we could find and wrapped her as best we could.

And try as we might, we could not free her from her trap. As the day wore on, we tried everything we could think of, pulling and pushing, block and tackle…but in the end, she was just too big. Laird and I stayed with her, stroking her face and crying, nearly hysterical with grief, unaware that our time as children was now over, that our innocence was dying out here in the cold with this magnificent beast.

The day passed. Mom and Dad and Will came home just before night fall. Dad saw right away what had happened. He let out a great anguished howl and dove headfirst under the deck. He pulled the cocoon of blankets from her, wrestled her hind legs out from under the pilings, than ripped her out from under the deck like she was made of straw. There was still a tiny spark of life in her, but it was fading fast. Dad built a great bonfire as close to her body as he could without burning her, then covered her with the blankets.

Night fell and the cold deepened. Gemini was so weak that she could barely nicker as Dad stroked her nose and murmured into her ear. He looked at me and Laird with a face as hard and cold as a block of ice. He picked up the 12 gauge, and then told Mom to get us all inside. Stunned and frozen, we followed Mom. Inside, through the walls of the cabin, the bonfire spun and danced and threw shadows across the floor. Dad and Gemini were stark silhouettes cast in relief against the backdrop of the night.

Time ticked by. Suddenly the silence was shattered by the shotgun coughing its terrible roar. It was much later before Dad came in…..


2 Responses to “Childhood Musings…”

  1. Jason I love this peice of writing—I read it before when I first logged onto Your Kanabear site. It is so vivid, heartwrenching, I cried the first time I read it and again today. I can really feel your panic, and your inability, try as you might, to help your fallen horse. Because I ‘ve met your dad on several occasions, I can see those blue, blue eys turn hard and cold. This is a tremendous piece. I could never had read it to my class, though, because of the tears.

  2. Thank you, montanigrani.

    Yes, this is one of those pieces you think twice before sharing–but ultimately a wise story-teller understands that it is precisely this kind of emotional honesty that builds a sense of trust and bonding with his/her audience.

    Thank you for your comment!

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