Three weeks flew by in Lamar, Colorado. It took a week just to figure out what we wanted to do about the engine and find someone willing to do it. Every mechanic was booked at least two weeks out, so we had plenty of time on our hands. I got caught up on work (and this site), but we also got out to see some of the local sights, like the local end-of-the-season rodeo.
The community college in town has a rodeo team (natch) and hosts this rodeo, which pulled in competitors from all over the place — Wyoming, South Dakota, there was even a contestant from Australia. We missed the first day, but Saturday I took the kids over to watch their first rodeo.
We saw everything from goat tying and barrel racing to bull wrestling and riding, but I think the favorite was the bronco and bull riding. There’s something about watching someone try to stay on a bucking animal that I think everyone can relate to, at least metaphorically.
It had been a long time since I’d been to a rodeo and forgot how physically brutal it is — by the end of the day my spine was hurting from just watching those guys get thrown around like rag dolls.
The first day we went no one managed to stay on a bull for the full 8 seconds. We had so much fun the kids insisted we go back Sunday morning to watch the final rounds of all the events, where the top three finishers from Fri and Sat squared off. This time one young man — and only one — managed to stay on for the full 8 seconds and went home with a trophy.
The next weekend we headed about an hour west of Lamar to see something called Bent’s Old Fort. Fort is a bit of a misnomer though, it was really a trading post, the largest on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The only really. From the last signs of city in Missouri, to well into Mexico, Bent’s Fort was the only permanent settlement.
The fort was abandoned in 1849, primarily due to a bad cholera outbreak. The original adobe structure long ago crumbled to dust, but at one point it housed a young man who recorded all the dimensions and architectural details in a journal. That was used as the basis for rebuilding the structure for Colorado’s centennial in 1976. There were only two when we were there, but much of the year it’s well-staffed with historical re-enactors as well.
I am going to sound like a broken record here, but once again what made Bent’s Old Fort such a great experience was the fact that it isn’t all roped off. The kids could touch things, feel the furs, try on a hat, pick up the super-sharp two-tined fork, walk up to the stove, work the blacksmith’s bellows and loads more.
It was quite a contrast to our other recent historical building visit, which was in Theodore Roosevelt National Park where you can walk in Teddy’s original cabin and… look at all the stuff behind the plexiglas walls. That was so uninspiring I didn’t even mention it. Apparently it pays to come to out of the way places if you want to interact with them.
I particularly enjoyed the kitchen, the blacksmith’s shop, and the carpenter’s shop for this reason. All the tools were there, or in the case of the blacksmith, the tools to make the tools. The kitchen actually incorporated the original limestone fireplace stones into the floor, which were worn smooth from years of cooks working over them.
The spider pans and cast iron pots were mostly period correct, though I did notice a couple of Lodge brand skillets. Cast iron hasn’t changed much over the years though so there isn’t much difference between what they had in the 1840s and what I have in the bus right now.
The other room I found fascinating was the council room, the room you would have been taken to when you first arrived at the fort, especially if you were from a local tribe or up from Mexico. The purpose was to sit down and present gifts to the visiting traders. This was expected, though where that expectation comes from I’m not quite sure. I assume it was just how the tribes had always done business. The purpose was to establish at least a business relationship, but often, from what I have read, friendships.
It reminded me of some of my experiences in India and Nepal, and for that matter much of the world. Commerce is not just an exchange of currency for goods, but a kind of relationship. You go in a shop in India or Nepal and you will have to bargain to establish a price, and you usually bargain over tea. If the shopkeeper thinks you might spend a lot of money you might also get some bread and chutney.
These days it’s very fashionable to hate capitalism, and I am not here to defend the current brand of capitalism, especially in the form of online commerce, but I do think it’s worth remembering that where we are isn’t the only place we could be. The free market was absolutely the driving force behind any frontier trade (the nearest regulatory body being thousands of miles away), and yet somehow what seems to have emerged is a system of exchange that had elements of a gift economy and elements of more traditional barter. Personally it sounds a lot nicer than what we have. I’d rather sit around a fire on bear skins talking than stare at a screen, clicking buttons until a bunch of plastic crap is delivered to my home.
My contention would be that we will get back to Bent’s Old Fort style trading sooner or later. The totally lack of humanity in today’s commerce makes it deadening to our souls. That’s usually a sign of something that’s not long for the world. In some ways there are aspects of the old ways lingering in our current system. A lot of the hardware stores and auto parts stores I end up at have a bunch of older men sitting around on stools, talking. I’ve always preferred Napa auto parts for exactly this reason, you come in and pull up a stool. That’s inviting. Except in smaller communities most of the stools are taken. There’s a gathering of some kind in progress whenever I come in. Perhaps those men came in to buy some little thing, but I think mostly they’re there to talk. I imagine those relationships may have started a little like the old council room gatherings at Bent’s Old Fort, where there may have been a commercial origin to the relationship, but it didn’t have to end there.
Of course while musing on all this I ordered a bunch of engine gaskets from Rock Auto rather than going to the Napa just down the road. In my defense, Napa wanted almost double what I paid, and for inferior gaskets. But even in the old days, I’m sure some traders never made it past the council room. Not every deal is a good one. Still, after our trip out to the trading post, and thinking about these things, I started buying what I could locally here in Lamar, sitting on a stool in Napa. Sometimes I know I did pay more, but it was more enjoyable and if we want to find our way back to commerce with a bit of humanity, we might have to pay a little extra. I mean, who really wants to win a race to the bottom anyway?