• Home
  • Reset Retreat
  • Weddings
  • Equine Co-op
  • Events At CBR
  • Round Table Blog
  • Contact

Contact Today

Barbara Marshak, March 5 2024

Gifts More Precious Than Gold

I’d been granted a gift of time…to a writer, a gift more precious than gold. Eight full days and a small apartment to call my own. I’d won a writer’s residency with a view like none other in the entire world—Devils Tower National Monument. Living in the suburb of Lakeville with a job, family, and endless responsibilities, the wide-open spaces of Wyoming beckoned me westward that October.

The novel I was working on was set in Wibaux, Montana, a tiny dot of a town where I began my trip. I arrived at the onset of an early winter storm, eager to discover all things unique to the region. For three days I drove the quiet streets and trudged the cold, wet landscape of the Open Range surrounding the tiny town.

Coal trains, loaded full and coming from the west, barreled through the heart of town at regular intervals. Every so often, a train would pick up too much speed coming down Beaver Hill, a five-mile-long incline, and lose control on the descent eastbound into Wibaux. Whistle blaring, nothing could stop it. Empty trains headed west to the coal mines had to pull onto a siding, a set of tracks two or three miles long adjacent to the main tracks.

On the outskirts of town, the deep draws and coulees of the region served as the birthplace to the range stock industry. Two famous cattle barons, Pierre Wibaux and Teddy Roosevelt, first settled in the area around 1883, bringing with them “an indomitable spirit necessary to tame the land.”

The ranches in Wibaux County were so big they were measured in sections, 640 acres to

a section, each one divided by a gravel road. Lava scoria-covered buttes were crushed and poured on the section roads creating red ribbons of gravel that ran straight as an arrow, up and down the never-ending slopes.

Scattered farmhouses stood at various points, some empty or abandoned, most weathered and worn. Double-barbed wire fence lined the ditches, stretched tight between long rows of crooked cedar posts. A deep ravine looked as though a giant claw had come down and gouged the earth’s crust in a strange, crooked row. Eccentric-looking buttes filled an S-curve in the Missouri Breaks, the not-so-Badlands of Montana.

Iron-hard land as far as the eye could see.

With that imagery fresh in mind, I packed the car and headed toward Wyoming. Unusual sandstone formations offered a mystical elegance to my drive. The craggy outlines of the rugged landscape were covered in snow, creating a glistening white garment as though dressed for a royal occasion.

Dusk neared as I rounded the final curve and caught my first glimpse of Devils Tower. The boldness of it jutting above the earth caught my breath. As I neared, the clouds began to lift, and the sun, setting now behind this pillar of granite, shone through the lifting haze, basking the tower in a golden backdrop. There it stood, powerful and regal, giving the aura of a sovereign fortress, strength radiating from the cracked columns of stone.

A member of the park staff greeted me and showed me to my housing unit. Outside my window, red sandstone buttes and golden meadows followed the gentle curves of the Belle Fourche River. Ponderosa pines whispered in afternoon breezes, the bright sun melting the snow. I set up shop, thrilled to be there with the sole purpose to write. I had the sense that my being in that very place to work on the book was no accident. Inside the rough-hewn logs of the visitor center I discovered Devils Tower was the first national monument in American history, designated by none other than President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, neighbor and old friend to Pierre Wibaux.

The book I was writing was based on a real person. I’d brought items from his life that held deep significance: the rifle he nearly killed his father with; the razor strap his father used for whippings; a mason jar filled with wheat seeds once used as a cruel punishment; a rattlesnake skin; his roughnecking helmet. Together they spelled out the ways of a bona fide risk taker; a man who spent his life not afraid of anyone or anything, hiding his past from the world.

That is until one day in a Mexican village when he opened up for the first time and out poured the whole story. The abusive father. The hate and rage he carried for decades. A loving mother. Divorced parents; father the town drunk. A pretty cheerleader, his true love. College life far from home. A breakup that ripped his heart in two. Catching rattlesnakes—because he could. Late-night car races and the dangers of roughnecking. Cheating death more than once. Back injury; chronic pain. Loneliness.

A childhood scar, still visible, ran the length of his face. Emotional scars, invisible, ran much deeper. A chance meeting with his pretty cheerleader led to marriage and children. He tried hard not to be like his father, yet the rage surfaced unexpectedly.

Then came the news…his father was dying of cancer in California. He bought a plane ticket and made the trip to his father’s home in Salton City. In a private moment between father and son, his father shared his regrets. Son, will you forgive me?

Somehow seeds of hate and rage had transformed into seeds of love and forgiveness. He, too, had his own regrets. God, can you forgive me?

And there we were, this small group of people in a dusty alleyway in Mexico, captivated, spellbound, our purpose there to build a church. Or was my purpose something different? This man had never told a living soul about the tormenting memories, not even his pretty cheerleader.

So that was the story I carried with me to Devils Tower, along with the burden of how to retell a story on paper that had been told so powerfully in person. In that time and place, prompted by the reverence of my surroundings, I worked to capture the essence of this man’s life. We changed the names but kept the story his. Our purpose in writing the book was to offer others still hurting from past wrongs the courage needed to look back and find peace.

The gift of forgiveness, you see, is also more precious than gold. 

[Seeds of Salton was published in 2014.]   

Written by

Barbara Marshak

Older A Woman In Boots