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Looking out my Backdoor: The wiley side-hill gougers


January 30, 2020

My first husband was quite the — uh — storyteller. Some of you knew Harvey and can verify my statement. Some of his stories even had elements of truth. Others were pure fabrication, even when they sounded verifiable.

I was 18 when we married. A naïve 18. This was back in the day when the farthest most people ventured from home was the county seat for official business. Worldly, I was not.

I was well-read. However, the majority of books available to me in our little library in Harlem were Victorian literature. Sir Walter Scott was one of my favorite heroes. I tended toward a romantic and believing nature.

One fine autumn day, Harvey and I were riding horseback in former buffalo country, checking cattle on a grazing lease out toward the mountains. That is when Harvey told me the story of the side-hill gougers.

“See those paths circling the hills?” he asked.

“Well, sure, can’t miss them. Those are not deer trails. What caused them?” I often fell with complete gullibility into his stories, much like Alice down the rabbit hole.

“Hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago, side-hill gougers roamed the land. Strange animals, hairy, with legs shorter on one side than the other, so they walked more comfortably around the hills never following a straight path … ”

I am simply too embarrassed to finish the story he told me. Surely you get the idea. Hook, line and sinker, I swallowed. And this is only one his fabrications, with which he must surely have enjoyed fooling me with ease.

These past five years I have considered myself to be one of his mythical side-hill gougers, one leg shorter than the other, picking my way carefully over the terrain, trying to gauge where I can walk more easily, circling when possible.

I am an incredibly fortunate woman. Saturday, I saw my orthopedic specialist who gave me a goodly report. He’d told me plainly I’d have not the ordinary surgery and that it would be very hard on my body. Those words were meaningless to me until I’d experienced the aftermath. Now, a full month later, I get to start physical therapy.

For the sixth time in my eventful life, I get to teach myself how to walk. Seventh. I forgot the baby years. That may not sound lucky to you, but whether fate, karma, destiny or whatever, I know how blessed I am.

I had the kind of anesthetic that allowed me to be aware when Dr. Francisco picked up my leg and pulled it to proper length. “How much did you stretch it?” “Ten centimeters,” his answer.

Do you realize that is just under four inches? Do you question that for those years, I truly was a side-hill gouger? Do you see how fortunate I know myself to be? Every day I raise my feet together to make sure they are still the same length.

Do you believe gullibility might be a genetic trait? When I told my friend Jane that Dr. F. said to me, “I can fix it,” she laughed and said, “This is Mexico. Every man will tell you he can fix it, whatever ‘it’ is.”

Gullible or not, I am fixed and ready to begin the arduous task of strengthening almost non-existent muscles in order to walk. I am hardly ready to charge like a buffalo, but I need never again be the rare, elusive, pre-historic side-hill gouger.


Sondra Ashton grew up in Harlem but spent most of her adult life out of state. She returned to see the Hi-Line with a perspective of delight. After several years back in Harlem, Ashton is seeking new experiences in Etzatlan, Mexico. Once a Montanan, always. Read Ashton’s essays and other work at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com/. Email [email protected]


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