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Some words with David Lavender

Article by John Nizalowski

David Lavender – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FEW WRITERS OF THE WEST have come to their subject with as much depth of experience and authority as David Lavender. Born on February 4, 1910, in the mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, Lavender witnessed the waning days of Colorado’s silver and gold boom. He even worked in Ouray’s Camp Bird Mine when supplies still arrived by mule train and trips to town were months apart in the harsh, alpine winters. Also, on his stepfather’s western Colorado ranch, he participated in the final years of the West’s open range.

However, along with his mining and ranching background, Lavender came from a family that included a judge and a newspaper publisher, and there was an expectation he would attend college. Graduating from Princeton in 1931, he discovered a skill for writing and a passion for research. But the canyons and mountains of western Colorado drew him back to the family ranch and a life of saddle leather and sweat instead of pen and paper.

Then, in 1938, the Lavender ranch failed because of the Great Depression and years of drought. So David Lavender headed to California, where he landed a job teaching English at Thacher, a private school in Ojai. There he wrote One Man’s West, a memoir, and The Big Divide, a history of the Rocky Mountain region. The success of these works launched a literary career that continues to this day, and includes nearly 40 books of history and fiction, two Pulitzer Prize nominations, and awards from American Heritage, the Western Writers of America, and many other organizations.

A number of key Lavender works have recently been reprinted or will soon be back in print, including The Great Persuader from the University Press of Colorado and Let Me Be Free: A New Perce Tragedy from the University of Oklahoma Press. A new book for juveniles, The Grand Canyon, is due out from Holiday House within the year.

John Nizalowski: In One Man’s West you give a personal account of the waning days of mining in western Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. What was it like living in the mining towns of Ouray and Telluride during the 1930s?

David Lavender: I can only say it was an era of make-do. Someone who did not go through the thirties cannot fully understand. There was a nearly total elimination of everything people depended on. In Telluride, the Smuggler-Union Mine closed in 1925, and there was no other major employer. So for the miners who worked there, the Depression started early, in the mid-twenties. The minerals were still there, so there were a few prospectors who struggled along. But they were pretty desperate, and didn’t know what else to do. Finally, in the thirties, the price of silver and gold went up, so some mines reopened, like the Camp Bird Mine in Ouray, where I worked for a time. But the problems of keeping that mine open year-round were enormous. They had to have pack mules to haul in equipment and supplies, and in winter it was an especially hellish job, but the packers did it every day. Those mule packers and miners were tough. That’s about all they had left to be proud of.

JN: You also describe the early days of American mountain climbing. What was it like climbing the San Juans in the 1930s?

DL: Really, it was my brother Dwight who was the true mountain climber. I just followed along. But I did do my share of climbing. In those days the center of the problem was fighting all the brush just to get to the mountain. And, back then, we had to manufacture our own equipment. We used to forge our own pitons, great big things. Climbers wouldn’t recognize them today. In addition, we used to run the ropes over our shoulders for rappelling, which resulted in some pretty bad burns. Today, there’s a great deal of change in the equipment, of course, and more interest in the route, in making it a technical climb. That’s the central change. We just wanted to get to the top of the mountain.

JN: You took part in the final years of Colorado’s open range, an experience that helped shape your first literary novel, Andy Claybourne, and a significant portion of One Man’s West. What are some of your memories of ranching in the twenties and thirties?

DL: Well, there used to be a saying, “Whatever you do, don’t go into the cattle business. You’ll die as fast as the cattle.” I never knew the new times, with scientific breeding programs and water projects. It was tough back then, especially with the Depression and the droughts in the early thirties. I remember in desperation my stepfather leased pasture land to a sheep outfit, since he needed to get every penny he could out of the land. There was a lot of overgrazing back then, but it was either do that or die.

JN: I imagine trucking cattle was another aspect of modern ranching you missed out on.

DL: That’s right. We used to run them on horseback from Paradox, near the Utah border, to Lone Cone in the San Juan Mountains. In the spring you just grabbed a bunch of cowboys and started in. We rode in pairs, and years of experience taught us where the cattle went. What’s so different from the movies is that you really don’t want the cattle to start running. They’d lose weight, and you’d lose cattle. Besides, you don’t want to kill yourself or the horse in the process of being a movie star. We’d summer in Beaver Park, which sits between Lone Cone and the Dolores Peaks. Then in the fall, we’d drive them to Placerville, north of Telluride, and load them into little narrow-gauge railroad cars. The stock train always annoyed the tourists, because they’d pull the passenger trains over on a siding to let the stock train through. We knew the date that our cattle cars were scheduled to arrive, and we knew we’d better be there on time. All summer we’d do nothing but watch the grass grow, and then in the fall we paid for it with the drive to Placerville to make the stock train.

JN: You make Beaver Park sound like a paradise.

DL: It was. There was one particular pasture that my stepfather never put anything in except the cattle we were about to ship out. The grass in the pasture was knee-high, and my mother used to grab mariposas by the armful. These days, it’s just weeds.

JN: Was your love for Beaver Park the beginning of the conservationist philosophy found in books like The Rockies and David Lavender’s Colorado?

DL: That’s one source, yes. Another was Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and her descriptions of the destructiveness of mining. Her work was certainly a shaping influence. Another was being educated in the East and encountering mountain climbers and hikers, who were conservationists back then as they are today. But this has always been a tension in my work, because it seems like city people want to tell country people how to live their lives, while rural folk have to deal with the hard realities of supporting themselves in what is often a harsh landscape.

JN: I would say that rather than creating a tension between urban and rural, East and West, your works act as a bridge between these worlds. After all, you have lived the working-class western life of a mine laborer and ranch hand, while being educated at Princeton, a combination that is certainly rare if not unique. Has this mixing of such disparate worlds had any role in shaping your literary vision?

DL: It was crucial. While I grew up in the sagebrush and all that, it wasn’t so strange that my brother and I went to college. After all, both my mother and natural father attended the University of Denver, and my maternal grandfather was a Colorado Supreme Court justice. However, it was a bad mistake in some ways, my going to Princeton. I was destined to be a lawyer, but when I got to college I wondered why in the hell I was there. What I did get out of Princeton was a love of history. After all, this is where all the stories are.

Still, when I left the ranch in 1938, I decided to write juveniles, and my first three books were juvenile novels. Then I wrote One Man’s West, just to get it out of my system. I knew things were never going to be the same in the West, and I wanted to write about what I had experienced.

After One Man’s West, Doubleday commissioned me to write a history of the Rockies. That became The Big Divide, and it was a real turning point. I enjoyed the research and writing enormously. But I still had this novel bug hanging over me, so I wrote Andy Claybourne. That, and Red Mountain in the early sixties, got rid of it. I’m not at ease creating plots, and I found that having your plots ready-made is a big help. So I went right on into historical work, with books on mining, Indians, and the rest.

JN: You explore the disturbing history of the Euro-American encounter with the American Indians in many of your works, most notably in Let Me Be Free: A Nez Perce Tragedy. What moved you to write on this subject?

DL: This goes back to The Big Divide. I always travel to the places I write about, so while I was researching The Big Divide I went to Santa Fé for the first time. I arrived in September, and found myself in the midst of the Fiesta and the burning of Zozobra, old man gloom. That was quite a time. Well, on that trip I got to meet a few Indians. I journeyed to Taos and Acoma Pueblos, and got interested in Canyon de Chelly. This was my first fascination with Indians. There were none around the ranch when I was growing up. That was just the beginning, and my research deepened my fascination.

JN: What are you working on these days?

DL: After the Nez Perce book I thought, “That’s it, no more. I’m ready to retire.” Then John Briggs, a former student of mine from the Thacher School in California, became the owner of Holiday House, and he asked me to write several juvenile historical works. So I went ahead and wrote Santa Fé Trail, Snowbound, and the latest, Mother Earth, Father Sky, a history of the Pueblo Indians from Anasazi times to the present. Then I told him no more. So he suggested I do a book on the Grand Canyon. How could I resist writing a book on the Grand Canyon? So that’s the next one…

John Nizalowski teaches creative writing and composition at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. His work has appeared in Inside/Outside Southwest, and New Mexico Magazine, among others.

This was originally published in the July/August 1999 edition of The Bloomsbury Review (1553 Platte St. Suite 206, Denver CO 80202; 303-455-3123) and is reprinted here with permission.