Death and the olden days

The thing about the olden days is that people were always dying. They died while they were working—in coal mines and cornfields, factories and trainyards, kitchens and plantation houses. They died while they were traveling on trains and boats and stagecoaches, and while they were fighting in wars. They died of Indian attacks and white man massacres. They died while they were giving birth and while they were being born. They died of the flu. They died of cholera, and tuberculosis, and syphilis, and exposure to the elements. People still die today, of course. But not, it seems, with such constancy as in the olden days.

Something about the Colorado landscape makes me reflect on the people who lived and died here in the past couple hundred years. For a while, I lived in Fort Collins and worked in Boulder, so I commuted an hour each way every day. The scenery consisted mostly of pastureland, dilapidated farmhouses, and miles and miles of prairie, with the Rocky Mountains in the far-off distance like a fake panoramic background, or a dream. I wonder what the first settlers thought of those mountains, which look so close, but are, on foot or even by horse, so far away.

One of the most interesting parts of my drive was the town of Loveland, about 15 miles south of Fort Collins. You are just driving along, and then suddenly you are bordered on either side by gravestones. It is possible that this used to be the perimeter of the city, and that the highway infringed upon these resting places. Or maybe this was a cemetery road that just took on more and more traffic over time. Now the people buried here are a part of life along Hwy 287, smack in the middle of town. (Click on the thumbnails for a slideshow.)

If driving through the graveyard every day isn’t unsettling enough, at the edge, just before the road splits into two one-way streets, is a 25-foot statue of a mohawked Indian warrior, triumphantly thrusting a spear into the air.

I had driven past this statue many times before I parked my car a couple blocks away and dodged the traffic to get a better look at it. Only then did it become clear that, wrapped around the warrior’s feet, is a dead man.

FritzWhite.net

FritzWhite.net

The statue is called “Winning the Iron Shirt.” According to sculptor Fritz White, it depicts a Pawnee warrior named “Carries His Shield in Front” having bested a Southern Cheyenne named “Alights on the Cloud.”

The iron shirt refers to a suit of Spanish armor that had been acquired by the Cheyenne around 1800. It had been passed among warriors of the Cheyenne and their allies, the Arapaho, for more than 50 years when Carries His Shield in Front killed Alights on the Cloud in battle and took the iron shirt as his reward.

There are just so many stories. So many people who have come and gone. So many things we can never and will never know about them.

Yesterday, I found myself in Longmont, so I went to the indoor flea market. I started taking pictures of a bunch of funny and cool old stuff, but then I began to focus on the photographs. As if to say, for just a moment—from decades or even a century away—I see you. You are real.

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