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Out of the hills

A trip to town when I was a child on a Western wheat ranch offered more than the excitement of venturing from country quiet to sidewalk bustle or exchanging, however briefly, the atmosphere of farmyard, barn and outbuildings for general store, hardware, millinery shop. There was the sensation of being not surrounded for a few hours by swooping, dipping, sky-carving hills that folded one into another to the distant horizons on all sides.

The front porch of our square brown farmhouse faced, across the big dry yard, beyond the county dirt road, a hill that tilted the head if one wanted to see where it touched the sky. Too steep for farming, that hillside was given over to native bunch grass. (Mama said the butter tasted best in spring when the cows ate the green bunch grass. Hot weather later rendered it dry and useless.) After the snow was gone, we children picked bluebells and birdie bills there, walking great scallops over the shank of the hill on our two- mile trek to school. Even the schoolyard, in this land of hills, was sloped at an angle perfect for sledding. In summer we girls prodded into the mysterious holes gaping like miniature caves in the hillsides. We had heard that badgers and owls lived in them, but we never found anyone at home.

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At the edge of our backyard, beyond a gully where water trickled in spring and halfhearted willow trees draped listless fronds, rose another hill, gentle enough to bear a crop of alfalfa, yet of a pitch to give rolling down its slope an element of daring.

Our mode of transportation for the six-mile ride to town was a two-seated hack behind Whiskers and Weasel, Papa's most tractable team of workhorses. Mama sat proper and prim beside Papa in front. We three girls perched, best-clothes conscious, on the back seat.

As the horses clop clopped along the winding road, high hills curving away on either side, we inspected our widely spaced neighbors' farms with great interest. Here a barn newly painted. There a long clothesline of dazzling white diapers proclaiming a new baby in residence. Papa beamed at the shiny mailboxes perched atop posts along the way. He had worked hard to help bring rural free delivery to the district.

Finally the wheels clattered over the bridge spanning a small creek, we rounded the last bend of the last hill and came out to great flat fields surrounding distant rooftops and tall grain elevators. So much sky, I remember always thinking.

Then here came houses in rows. Churches on corners. And stores clustered together. Our parents held a serious conference after Papa stopped the horses. He would drive on to the blacksmith shop to have one of Weasel's shoes attended to. We would all meet again for grocery shopping. Papa liked to get in on that.

We girls clustered shyly around Mama as she made her way from store to store and finally came to the dry goods part of the general store. I looked with longing at the wooden sidewalk leading all the way down the sloping street to the yellow depot. What fun it would be to run its length. And perhaps arrive just as the train came puffing and hissing into the station. But I must follow Mama and go sit demurely to try on my new Buster Brown shoes. Then watch fascinated as the clerk, at Mama's bidding, unwound yards and yards of bright plaid gingham for our next year's school dresses.

The grocery side of the store, with its peculiar smell of apples and kerosene and a hundred other things, was no less interesting. Here was Papa waiting for us, nonchalantly whittling a sample of cheese from the great yellow wheel on the counter. When Mama's modest list had been filled, and if this was the time after harvest when Papa paid the grocery bill, we girls waited, breathless with suspense, for then we always received a bonus of candy. Sometimes a few peppermint sticks in a striped paper bag. Once it was dear little woven wood baskets filled with paper-wrapped candy kisses. No child in this day of too-much can imagine the utter delight with which we carried our baskets out to the hack.

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Surfeited with the sights, scents and sounds of town, we were content to settle back as the horses started up, the wide sky receded and we were once more back among the enfolding hills.

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