In the winter of 1992, I went to Colorado for my Christmas visit with my Dad. He lived with his brother on a ninety year old ranch outside of a small ranching town named Elizabeth. In previous years, I would find the ranch to be a winter wonderland, white snow so deep that it had been left untouched, perfectly reflecting the sun like millions of little crystals, adding to the anticipation of the holidays. This winter was noticeably different. Snow had not fallen in a month, allowing the sun to melt the snow into patches that dotted the plains behind the ranch like little cotton balls.
The warmth of the sun was in stark contrast to the brisk, cold wind. The melted snow had watered the prairie grasses. Green grass was emerging in spots among the dried grasses which had died in the snow and on occasion little yellow and blue dots of prairie flowers would appear from among the new growth. The snow melt had softened the muddy hillsides the ranch house and barn perched upon.
One afternoon my uncle, with bucket in hand, took me to a particular hill behind the cattle barn. We began to dig into the earth when I quickly withdrew my hands in pain. The shadow of the hill and the melted snow made the mud so cold that my hands stung from the pain and instantly reddened. I looked down at my uncle’s weathered hands from years of ranching in cold weather, and realized he had not experience this kind of discomfort in years. He smirked at me lovingly, gave me his typical “you poor city kid” look and continued digging. He stopped when his hands found a clump of earth. He picked away the mud until I saw a sparkle of deep blue emerge from a corner of the clump.
I caught my breath and snatched the clump out of his fingers and frantically scraped the mud away from the mysterious blue object that had been impacted into the hillside for what obviously had been decades. As I smoothed away the mud, no longer caring that my hands were hurting, a deep blue bottle the size of my palm appeared. The sides were rippled while the face of the bottle was smooth where long ago a label once adorned it. My uncle explained to me, as he continued to dig, that the Union Army would set up camps and temporary forts as they traveled the plains. The medicine bottles were left behind, discarded off of hills in temporary trash heaps. As my gaze followed the hill upwards, it occurred to me that the camp had been right where the ranch house and barns now stood and my uncle and I were standing in the nearly 150 year old trash heap.
My heart skipped a beat when I understood what this meant. I fell on my knees next to where my uncle was already knelt and started digging frantically through the mud, completely ignoring the pain from the cold mud nagging at my knuckles and and the chapping of my skin over them. My uncle told me to slow down and work slowly so I wouldn’t overlook little clumps appearing just to be a rock. As we pulled apart the clumps of mud, we began to unearth many little treasures. Pieces of clear colored broken medicine bottles, two whole medicine bottles and arrowheads of varying shapes and sizes began to appear from the muddy hillside.
We took our treasures back to the house to wash them. We arranged our finds in a curio cabinet my uncle had constructed, already containing many bottles I had never paid attention to before. The arrowheads were placed into a coffee table with a glass top that we later gave to my grandparents. The blue glass bottle was the find of the day. It was placed in the cabinet next to two other blue glass bottles my uncle had found sometime beforehand. At first, I began to wish that we had found the blue bottle later in our little excavation, but I realized that the first glimmer of deep blue I saw peeking out from beneath the mud was the drive to push on through the cold and pain to find more treasures.