Lum: Wilderness welcome wagon
In late August 1962, my ex-husband Burt and I moved into a rickety A-frame cabin next to a Quonset hut that housed the school where Burt would teach 13 students in grades 1 through 8.
We had spent the bulk of the summer on our homestead, 10 long miles away, in partial fulfillment of our residency requirements.
There we had a sparse campsite and slept in jungle hammocks, where one night my hammock got soaked when my water broke, announcing the imminent arrival of our daughter Skye.
There was a big rush to get everything together in the Dodge Power Wagon — the vehicle from hell — including the dogs, a brand new package of cloth diapers (disposables hadn’t been invented) and some food and clothing.
Abandoned were a quart of high- and low-bush cranberries that I had picked the afternoon before and two bear skins soaking in tubs of a mixture containing sulfuric acid.
We called the nearest hospital in Palmer. “Call us back when something is REALLY happening, Mrs. Lum,” I was told, so we repaired to the Quonset hut, which had small living quarters behind the surprisingly modern classroom.
During the next five days, we got the school ready, moved into the A-frame cabin across the road and met all the neighboring homesteaders who stopped by to get a look at the new teacher and tell me my pants were wet.
When Skye was born, they brought gifts.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Lums — here’s this gigantic live jackrabbit that’ll make goldarned good eating. I drew the line at eating the rabbit, who cheerfully loped around the cabin knocking over coffee cups and homebrew bottles while the dogs went mad.
After several days, a friend of ours took it to Anchorage, and by then I didn’t care if it got eaten or not.
I was even less enthusiastic about the gift of a recently dispatched hen, which required not only decapitation and foot amputations but disembowelment tout suite. How can anyone give someone a chicken that hasn’t even been gutted?
Burt was safely teaching, our friend Callie was visiting and she and I played Odds or Evens to determine who would amputate and who would gut. I won the gutting chore and got out my Joy of Cooking while Callie went out with the hatchet.
The Joy of Cooking was my wilderness bible. In those early editions, author Irma Rombauer left nothing to chance and explained everything including exactly how to clean a chicken, specifically warning against piercing the intestine, which would result in the fouling of the fowl. And so it was.
Shortly after the burial of the chicken, I learned that one of the Laws of the Wilderness was that if you received a gift of food you were required to return the dish containing something even better — kind of like the complicated and daunting Japanese gift exchanges.
I was a semi-hysterical new mother in a waterless cabin with no electricity and only a primitive heating stove made out of a 55-gallon lard barrel (called, simply, a “barrel stove”). For cooking there was a temperamental, scary oil stove and a lovely old wood stove that could shoot from 100 to 400 degrees in a few seconds with the addition of a match stick.
Presented with a pan of cornbread, you are expected to return it holding an apple pie; receive a can of moose stew, return a moose meatloaf, and here she comes again with a platter of sweet and sour moose ribs.
Who would have thought that the most difficult part of wilderness living would be an excess of sociability?
Su Lum is a longtime local who loves the sound of a dripping faucet. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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