Old Jeeps and Hearts of Gold

Article by, & photos courtesy of Myra Wood Bennett

There is an old saying that your “there” is no better than your “here.” It is a belief held by those whose main requirement in life is to live within a short distance of the nearest big box store. For others, it is a place that speaks to mind, body and soul. For me, it is the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Committed to the all-American road trip, I have many times found gems and jewels along the road to somewhere else. The crown of my travels came at the northern end of the Million Dollar Highway of southwestern Colorado. Around that last bend and below lay a small mountain town that drew me down into its open arms. Driving along Main Street, my head snapped back and forth, taking in a scene that looked like a life-sized Victorian doll house. Nearing the end of the small town’s nine blocks, to our left was a large outdoor hot springs pool full of happy activity. We rounded one more curve and it was gone. I spent the next two miles looking in the rear view mirror yearning to know where I had just been and pledging to return. The next year we did just that and I felt without doubt I had found my new “home” in the Rockies.

That next summer my husband and I found ourselves back again surrounded by the beauty and splendor of the area. We took our first jeep tour into 13,000 foot peaks. I saw wildflowers and played in July snow. In our hotel room was a guide for tourists. Along with advertisements for places to eat and stay, there were features of local citizens. One article told the story of a jeep tour driver, another featured a former mayor and songwriter, but it was the third article whose picture drew me in.

Roger and Angie Henn

Roger and Angie Henn

The picture featured an older couple in years. The body language however told a story of a couple young at heart, very much in love, and full of life in the mountains. I noticed the turquoise bolo he wore in place of a tie and her tam smartly cocked on the side of her head. He held her close and she beamed in his embrace.

On our last day in town I sought out the newspaper office to buy a subscription to the town’s weekly. The three humans working there were all friendly and kind, the dog working in the editor’s office even more so. That night as I packed, I saw lights shining brightly from a new townhome being built. Windows covered the front of the townhome reaching all three of its stories. An older couple was inside watching a worker high on a ladder. How wonderful I thought it would be to live in this magical town.

Once home, I looked forward to receiving my weekly paper from the mountains. I studied job openings, the real estate market, and dreamed of a life for myself in Ouray. But one week I saw a glaring front page headline. A woman had fallen down a three story elevator shaft, and as I read; a sick feeling came over me. I began to rummage through vacation treasures looking for the tourist guide. Once found I quickly turned to the page of the loving couple, compared it to the newspaper, and felt tears well up in my eyes. The woman in the tourist guide and the woman who had fallen down the elevator shaft were one in the same.

The article spoke of how the couple had recently moved into their new townhome. Taking a city map I realized that the townhome I had seen from my motel window was theirs and the couple I had seen looking up and smiling brightly in the glow of the chandelier was them. I sobbed. When able to read further I was relieved to learn she had survived! Then I thought of the man whose embrace was so tightly around her in the picture. What must he be going through?

In a month or so the family placed a notice in the paper thanking people for all they had done and suggested she had improved and hoped to return home soon. Shortly thereafter, the paper told of her homecoming. I was so happy for both of them!

The town seemed small enough I hoped if I sent a card simply with her name, it would find its way to her, and it did. I explained we had never met, was sorry if it seemed too forward, but that I had read of her accident in the paper and wanted to send my regards. As I mailed the card I thought to myself that would be it, but two weeks later; I found that not to be true.

A letter came from her husband thanking me for seeing to “his Angie” as I would come to hear countless times in the next decade. He told me of all the many injuries she had acquired, how and why the accident happened, and encouraged me to stay in touch.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, I decided to send her some flowers. The next day I was surprised to receive a phone call from her husband telling me the flowers had arrived just before the Bridge Club had gathered at their home for her first meeting since the fall. I came to find out that these same women retaught her how to play and also helped her regain speech. One of her several injuries had been brain damage.

In the weeks and months that followed, Roger and I became pen pals. I would share how much Ouray meant to me and in turn learned from him; it is the same feeling for those who live there. As spring approached, he and I began to look forward to our return that summer.

Frank Bennett, Myra Wood Bennett, and Roger & Angie Henn at Ridgway St. Pk., no. of Ouray, CO. June 2003

Frank Bennett, Myra Wood Bennett, and Roger & Angie Henn at Ridgway State Park, north of Ouray, CO. June 2003

July finally arrived and I was going back to Ouray to do something for the first time. I was going to visit friends. We arrived in late afternoon and as I pulled into the condo I saw an older woman sitting on our doorstep. She stood up, came toward me with open arms and said, “you must be Myra, I’m Angie.” I was enveloped in a bear hug by someone about the size of a cub. She said to quickly unpack and come to their home. She and Roger were hosting a dinner party for us and everyone was already there. Jumping into their Subaru Outback, the official family car of Colorado, she was off in a cloud of dust.

Upon arriving we were introduced to several family members, wine was served and we sat around their table together, joining hands for grace, and Roger’s serving of the ham. Following the meal, some helped clean the kitchen while others wandered outside on the deck. Peering out her kitchen window, Angie began to shout, Alpenglow, Alpenglow. All those accustomed to life in the mountains ran for the window or the deck’s railing, began looking up and smiling. I jockeyed for position within the group looking up to see the very top of the mountains glowing a deep orange red from the sun’s rays, as dark ominous clouds loomed above. I learned in that very moment that no matter how long you have lived in the mountains, others need never wonder if you find them as breathtaking as a low-lander. They do, they certainly do.

As we thanked them for the evening they said they would pick us up early in the morning for a jeep ride. Now mind you, both were in their 80’s, one had just survived a three story freefall down a shaft and the other had lived through it. True to their word, they arrived the next morning in a 1974 Willys jeep with their dog, Ginger. We ventured from town on the highway, left it behind and began to climb a steep old mining road.

Upon reaching the summit Roger pulled into an area explaining that for many years they and their best friends would come to this spot every Saturday morning and cook breakfast over an open fire. Three of us ventured out for a short hike leaving Angie back at the jeep sitting with their dog in the back. Angie gazed out over the open terrain lying below her and smiled with a look of pure contentment.

Tomorrow’s plans, we were told, would be hiking Portland Trail and to pack a lunch as we would picnic along the way. Once again we were given the best taxi service in town, their Willys, stopped by to pick up their niece and off we were into the mountains to play. We crossed a small creek and Angie was off, in the lead, trekking up that mountain as if it were her own. She led the way the entire hike and I later learned that the previous day’s jeep ride, and this particular hike, had been her first of each since the fall. I was honored to have shared that with her.

The next evening brought us to her favorite place in town to eat; a small campground café with a tree growing in the middle and through the roof. It was during this meal as town’s people came and went I realized everyone knew, and loved, Roger and Angie.

Saying good-bye that time was difficult. I had fallen even more in love with the town and realized that when your friends are in their 80’s one should not carelessly talk about or assume there will be a next time. But for the following decade there was a next time, there were many more next times.

In between July trips, Roger and I continued to exchange letters which came to number over 100. He always started with a weather report concerning snow, the golden Aspens, which pass was open or closed. He would then share something with me about the town’s history; there was no one better to tell of it. He established Living History nights presented each summer for tourists, was responsible for getting almost two-thirds of the town placed on the National Register, and was one of the founders of the county museum now considered “the best little museum of the West.”

There were more jeep rides, hikes, and dinners around the tree growing through the roof. I knew Roger’s morning routine and would look for him as he walked their dog. We shared in good times and we shared in some bad. We all four shared in our love of dogs. They had Ginger, and we had Macy and Charley. One of Roger’s letters brought news that Ginger had cancer and they had put her to sleep. Their vet felt they needed another dog, but nearing their late 80’s they wondered if this one would survive them. My husband and I sent word that if they wanted to adopt, we would take care of the dog should it outlive them.

Roger’s next letter brought news their vet had traveled with them through a snowstorm over the pass at Hotchkiss and up to Glenwood Springs, where they met Denver rescue. Tika was then mentioned in all future letters.

I had come to learn that as people in Ouray aged, they moved north to the town of Montrose which was lower in elevation, not as cold and with not as much snow to contend with. And so it was with Roger and Angie as they began their 90’s. They moved to an assisted living center. Tika was right there with them all sharing a room together.

In time, Angie moved into the Memory Unit. Roger would go each day and visit, but could not stand being separated from “his Angie”. He was allowed to move in with her, and for the first time in the facilities’ history, a dog, Tika, was allowed to live with them.

We had two visits with them there. The first was sad for me. The doors were locked. The mountains were barely visible 30 miles south peering over a high wall in the outside courtyard. Could the eyes of someone in their 90’s see that far?

On our last visit I found Angie asleep in a chair. Roger didn’t seem to know us at first but was his usual cordial and polite self. I had let my hair grow longer, and although Angie had not seen me in a year, when she opened her eyes, she looked at me and said, “You’ve let your hair grow. It’s much more becoming”.

We had a lovely visit and as time passed, they began to tire. We all walked to the door together, Roger holding Angie’s hand. An aide closely followed and opened the door for us. She gently coaxed them back, I turned to look over my shoulder as the door closed, and saw them for the last time.

Angie passed a few months later and Roger followed in under a year. Today Tika lives with us in Illinois. We have taken her back to Colorado on vacation and she lay against their tombstone half an hour not moving. She has helped soften the blow of having lost Roger and his “dear Angie”.

So some might say your “there” is no better than your “here.” But I beg to differ. There is family we are born into and family that we make. My fondest “family vacations” were those I had with my Colorado family, and my best souvenir ever, lies beside my bed at night.

(Editor’s note: Ms. Wood Bennett joined RMOWP in 2015 and, when not in southwestern Colorado, resides with husband Frank  in Grantsburg, Illinois.)