McElmo Canyon, in the southwestern corner of Colorado, was not much different from the rest of rural America in the 1990s. Traditional demographics—generations of farm families accustomed to outhouses and unpaved roads—were giving way to hordes of urban transplants who had left city life behind “for the tranquility of a small town.” That’s how William Celis, a former New York Times reporter, puts it in his new book, Battle Rock: The Struggle Over a One-Room School in America’s Vanishing West (PublicAffairs). Problem was, the just-arrived didn’t want to give up all the amenities of so-called civilization. In 1999, Celis observed the “struggle” between old and new residents from the vantage point of what was then an 84-year-old school, which, as described below, was a world unto itself.
When teacher Stephen Hanson arrived that first day of school, I was already there. I woke up early that morning and stopped at the Texaco Amigo Mart in Cortez, the nearest town to McElmo Canyon, to buy a brown-bag lunch. Then, driving through the empty streets of the shuttered town, I started the 30-mile trip to Battle Rock. I helped Hanson unload his Explorer and then stood back and watched him work hurriedly on paperwork. In about an hour, 26 students in kindergarten through 6th grade were scheduled to take their places at the half-dozen tables that served as their desks.
Because I had already visited the school a year earlier, I knew what to expect that first day. The children pursued different lessons at different times of the day. The teacher launched the younger kids on reading or grammar lessons. While they worked on their assignments, he tested older students on reading comprehension. Hanson answered the phone, he responded to e-mail, and he greeted visiting parents. He opened and sorted the school’s mail. He served as accountant, paying Battle Rock’s bills. At the end of the day, he sometimes even helped the janitor clean up.
Hanson made teaching in a multi-grade classroom look deceptively easy, but he had help. Battle Rock boasted several part-time instructors who taught math, science, Spanish, music, and art. When they weren’t on-site, and when Hanson was on the telephone or working intensely with a student, the older kids helped their younger classmates—the theory being that children had a language all their own and no adult could speak it. But someone had to orchestrate this symphony of learning, which sometimes looked and sounded chaotic, and Battle Rock’s conductor was Stephen Hanson.
When he took over Battle Rock in 1993, the school was country, heart and soul, but it had traveled miles in its sensibilities. Gone were the days when children arrived shoeless and on horseback. Central heat had long replaced the potbellied stove that had squatted for decades in the middle of the room, though the burn marks from its three legs were still discernible on the hardwood floor. No longer did the teacher make lunch in a large cauldron with whatever the parents had sent to school that day—beans, potatoes, or perhaps a bit of chicken, venison, or elk. These days, microwave ovens warmed the lunches the children brought from home. The school had long surrendered the militarylike line of wooden desks in favor of round tables. Sitting along one wall were five computers stuffed with educational software that transported students far beyond McElmo Canyon. The school’s emphasis on outdoor education was perhaps the only vestige of another time.
Hanson used the surrounding canyon for geology lessons and the dimensions of the ancient Battle Rock Cemetery to formulate and calculate math equations. Wildlife, dead or alive, offered opportunities for study. One year, the children dissected a flattened fox found on McElmo Canyon Road. The bushy hide still hung from a nearby tree. Hanson led hikes up the canyon wall, to waterfalls and deep shimmering pools and the well-preserved ruins of the Anasazi, an ancient people who inhabited the region a millennium ago.
Battle Rock was not a typical one-room school, but neither was Hanson an average one-room school teacher. As the sun’s first rays spilled through the narrow windows and fell across the shiny hardwood floor, he looked at a wall clock, its hands approaching 7 a.m.
“If you want to catch the bus with the kids, you better leave now,” he told me. I hurried to my Jeep and drove back to town to catch the bus. The canyon was bathed in warm sunlight.
A half-dozen cars and trucks sat along a chain-link fence near a Mobil Corporation field office at the western edge of Cortez as children and their parents waited for the Battle Rock bus. Bus No. 9 turned on McElmo Canyon Road from town, sputtering as it pulled into the parking lot. I boarded and waited for the kids.
Kayla, a 6th grader, climbed the bus’s black rubber steps, followed by eight other students. The rosy-cheeked girl smiled at Debbie, who had driven 18-wheel rigs for a living before driving buses for the Montezuma-Cortez School District.
“Hi, nice to see you again!” said Debbie, whose face was framed by wavy red hair. She greeted each of her young passengers above the cacophony of the motor. “Did you have a good summer?”
Shane, Kayla’s younger brother, followed at his sister’s heels, and one by one the remaining students climbed on. The kids were all “townies” whose parents could have elected to send their children to schools in town. Instead, they chose a one-room school some 20 miles deep into the heart of the canyon because of its special blend of education.
The bus began its descent into McElmo Canyon, past the bobbing sunflowers, the boulders and cedar and juniper trees, and a weathered sign that read, “Winding Road Next 25 Miles.” The road veered sharply around a large boulder that leaned over it and towered above the bus. Beyond the boulder lay an expansive canyon with deep gorges, soaring walls, and spectacular outcroppings in hues of pink, red, and white. The children had seen the canyon so many times before that they were indifferent to the spectacular sight that unfolded before them. I had driven down the canyon a handful of times to meet with Hanson, but this marked the first time someone else was doing the driving, which allowed me to take in the extraordinary scenery.
The surrounding terrain kept McElmo Canyon a well-guarded secret, for there was no indication that a yawning canyon sat at the western edge of Cortez—with more than 8,000 residents, the closest town with amenities. The late-summer wildflowers, gray-hued sage, and rabbitbrush topped with yellow blossoms grew so thickly that sometimes the luxurious growth spilled onto the edges of the twisting road, a welcome mat for the children of Battle Rock.
The canyon was largely untamed land, the rolling terrain giving way to sheer walls that soared, at their highest points, some 1,000 feet or more above the canyon floor. Every few miles, the swells gave way to level land. It was here that the earth was tilled for crops and gardens that sat next to the newer vineyards planted by urban residents. Cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed alongside the ostriches and llamas that the transplants had introduced to the canyon’s livestock. Restored, century-old stone houses made from the canyon’s colorful Dakota sandstone dotted the landscape. So did expensive, custom-built log cabins, straw-bale homes, and mobile homes of farm laborers who nurtured harvests from the land, made rich by the interlocking irrigation ditches. Towering above the canyon was the Sleeping Ute Mountain, a behemoth that rose 9,977 feet and, from a distance, resembled the profile of an Indian chief, headdress to toe, sleeping on his back.
The bus stopped, and 6th grader Hoshi climbed aboard wearing oversized jeans and a dark shirt. He made his way to the back of the vehicle, where Shane enthusiastically greeted his older classmate.
“Hi, Hoshi! Long time no see!”
“Hello,” Hoshi responded. He silently sat in one of the last seats of the bus and looked out the window.
The bus stopped four more times, rumbling past apple and peach orchards, and picked up several more children, including two tiny, blond-haired brothers, Tim and Staton. Their shirtless father, Chris, stood with his young sons at the end of a gravel road that led to their farmhouse just over a mile away.
Debbie guided the bus to one of its final stops, a lonely-looking house that sat just off the road. She had stopped at the home of Harold, another 6th grader.
“Is he coming to Battle Rock this year?” she asked her passengers, hollering over the rattle of the bus windows.
“Yes, he’s coming,” Kayla yelled back.
There was no Harold, so she picked up the two-way radio that sat on the dashboard and called the school district. A disembodied voice told Debbie above the static that Harold was indeed enrolled at Battle Rock this year. The radio was a necessity in this far-flung district, where school buses traveled 2,087 miles a day across canyon lands, through valleys, up mountainsides, and down again. As bus No. 9 idled in front of Harold’s house, Debbie peered through the cedar trees and honked twice. No one appeared. So with a couple of lurches, she steered the bus back onto the blacktop road. Turning from the canyon’s beauty, I realized from the tittering of children’s voices that the bus was fairly full. But when I surveyed my fellow passengers, I saw only one or two. Most of the kids were so small they disappeared behind the backs of the seats. When the bus hit a bump, the tops of their heads, sometimes full faces, popped into view.
Thirty minutes after beginning our descent into the canyon, Debbie came to a stop in the parking lot. The children ran from the bus to join the other children on the playground who had been brought to school by their parents. Moments later, Hanson appeared on the school steps with a handheld brass bell and gave it several rings; its musical clang carried on the wind. Kids ran to the school from every direction of the Sticker Patch, the name given to the playground because of the abundance of goat-head weeds. They bounded up the steps and spilled into the classroom, along with seven parents who had also come for the first day of school.
Stephen quickly launched into the morning, which included a tour for the children of the two-acre school grounds. Safety was the theme. Off-limits was the Battle Rock Cemetery, which sat next to the school and where many of McElmo Canyon’s founding citizens rested amid askew headstones, native grasses, and purple and yellow wildflowers. Nor was anyone allowed near the ditch, the six-foot-deep irrigation canal that ran next to the school.
“Stay behind the fence,” the teacher told his students.
“If you fell in, you would pwobably fwoat,” said Troy, a tiny 1st grader who early in the school year established himself as the one student Hanson could always count on to render an opinion on the topic at hand.
“I’m sure you would float,” the teacher told the student, “but we don’t want to take that chance. You older kids watch out for the younger ones.”
The children were banned from getting too close to the propane tank that sat at the edge of the Sticker Patch and from climbing Slick Rock, the smooth, sloping canyon wall located behind the school. The students listened dutifully until one of them spotted movement. Two coyotes, partially hidden by trees and boulders, navigated Slick Rock with ease. The children oohed and aahed.
“Good eye!” Hanson exclaimed, wrapping up the tour as the coyotes leaped over some small boulders and disappeared into a tangle of shrubs and trees.
Excerpted from Battle Rock: The Struggle Over a One-Room School in America’s Vanishing West, by William Celis. Copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.