Tough Trails and True Tales by John M. Woodard

Review by Ed Quillen

Rural Life – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Tough Trails and True Tales
50 Years on a San Luis Valley Ranch
by John M. Woodard
Published in 1998 by the author

TO BE HONEST, when this book arrived, I dreaded reviewing it. Self-published books, especially personal memoirs, tend to ramble indefinitely into tedium or worse because there was no real editor. The typography is generally annoying or distracting, and the grammar is so fractured that it disturbs any flow the author might have otherwise developed.

Tough Trails and True Tales was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t ramble, the typography and general design are competent, and its voice is informal and authentic.

Author John M. Woodard was born in 1925 near Saguache, grew up on the family ranch, and after serving in World War II, ranched until retirement in 1979.

His introduction explains how the book came about: “About ten years ago, I was telling a story to some folks, and a fellow told me I should write these stories down in a book and leave them to my kids and grandkids…. They are only one person’s memories; my brother George often remembers things differently.”

Little wonder that someone did urge him to put these tales in writing — by and large, this is an entertaining collection of anecdotes, organized by categories that range from childhood memories to fishing and hunting stories.

Most are rather short, the sort of three-paragraph recollection you might hear when men are sipping whiskey around a campfire, and nearly all end with a line or two that produces a chuckle.

The tale-teller must have been one hell of a cowboy in his day. He liked taming frisky horses and he herded livestock throughout the upper San Luis Valley and nearby mountains. Blizzards, floods, mud, brutal cold, drought, breakdowns — they were all part of the job, and rather than complain, Woodard generally sees pleasure and humor, or at least a genuine sense of accomplishment, in the harshest of circumstances.

FOR INSTANCE, one winter they had cattle up at the head of Kerber Creek above Bonanza. Heavy snowfall came, hay was low up there, and they decided to move the cattle down toward Saguache.

“We gathered them up, and they were ready to go. They were tired of that snow. It looked like a nice route — it went right across a beaver dam, out a gate, and away we would go. So I led them out toward the gate. I looked back and saw they was kind of jamming upon the beaver pond. I went back to start them again. There was about 100 head out in the middle of the pond, and they weren’t moving. I was just about to go out in the middle of them and get them started when the ice caved in, and about a hundred head of cattle went under.

“It was cold. It was about 10 or 12 below, and cattle came bobbing up like hippopotamuses. They finally crawled out…

“Immediately their hair froze and made a rattling sound as they walked all day long. I think those 100 head that had on an ice overcoat got along better than the rest of the cattle… With the fog raising off those cattle, you couldn’t see from one end of the herd to the other…. I had a moustache and a beard, and they were froze clear over my mouth from breathing on them.”

To the best of my knowledge, John M. Woodard is a responsible and productive citizen, and that should come as a considerable surprise to those who are always wringing their hands about how today’s youth are so horrible.

Woodard’s childhood would have kept a battalion of modern social workers fully employed. He fought frequently with other boys in brawls that produced bloodshed; knives and guns were often brandished. His five-year-old brother nearly drowned while under his care. He and his friends explored old mines, and played with dynamite. He drank hard liquor in saloons when he was only 16.

And of course there was petty vandalism:

“One Halloween night when I was in high school, we boys were re-arranging some outhouses, loading them on pickups, and dumping them out on Main Street [in Saguache]. One of the things to do was just to tip over the outhouses. We were tipping them over that night, and we tipped over Mrs. Henry Clark’s. She was inside at the time, and the outhouse fell on the door. She screamed like a wild banshee. Of course, we took off like a shot.

“Luther Campbell, Saguache town marshal, saw us running away. He was in the back of a pickup. He emptied his pistol at us — we thought straight at us, but more likely above us. I could hear the bullets whistling. That really put a damper on the rest of the evening’s festivities.”

John M. Woodard didn’t end up in the penitentiary or even permanently victimized by childhood trauma. Instead, he’s given us 120 pages of good stories about a life that was hard but rewarding.

— Ed Quillen