If Hugh Everett was right, and I have parallel selves who fork every time I make a decision–somewhere, I hope one of me lives like Polly Brinkhoff.
I imagine a life with more sun, music, sweat, and trees than money. I imagine a life of self-reliance, feral family, and urgent inspiration. A difficult life, but one that never lets you forget you’re alive.
Polly was a mountain woman living in Skin Gulch, between Rist and Poudre Canyons. Without electricity or indoor plumbing from 1953 until her death in April 1999, she raised 4 kids, carved gun stocks, repaired the roof with cast off license plates, raced donkeys, chilled her food in a cave, harvested pine boughs to sell in town at Christmas, and played harmonica and guitar.
She also liked to paint, and for her everything was canvas.
“One day, she asked me to leave my door unlocked,” says Norm Cook, one of her neighbors. “When I came home, there was a landscape on the piano.”
You might have seen her work up Rist Canyon, beside a curve in the highway. There, she saw a sea creature where anyone else would have seen a cracked boulder:
The whale became a landmark, so that the bend in the highway and a nearby spur road are named for it.
Skin Gulch wasn’t far from the rock if you count miles like a mountain person. And that’s how Polly thought of herself, swearing that a remote life was the only way she could stand to live.
Initially, she and her husband, Rattlesnake Jack, a WWI vet with a reputation in town, settled in the gulch as a mining claim. He died in 1970, and Polly stopped maintaining the claim. But it didn’t matter; the US Forest Service agreed not to notice, and Polly agreed to return the land to its natural state when she moved on.
The Fort Collins History Archives can give you her particulars. But Norm can tell you stories and show you pictures.
Like about the time a cow broke into the house and ate dessert.
Or about her television, something she acquired late in life. It ran off a car battery, using a coat hanger for an antenna, and received one channel out of Cheyenne.
Or about how Polly died when her truck went off the edge of the Poudre Canyon, almost exactly 10 years ago. She ran off a road she must have driven for nearly 50 years.
Friends thought she was transporting a chicken that day. “But nobody ever found it,” Norm says.
Still, it led to a hunch, and a relative checked her truck more closely the day after. He went to the impound, pulled the seat forward, and found a small shivering dog.
As for her house in Skin Gulch, to fulfill her obligation to the Forest Service, her children burned it to the ground and barricaded the access road with rocks and earth.