A Day in the Life of a Rancher: The Branding

A day in the life of...

I got to experience my first calf branding the other day. I was unnaturally elated and felt like this was the height of cowboy culture—other than perhaps moving cows by horseback which I am also dying to do.

I am not sure why I went into it so full of pep, as the very words, calf and branding together don’t exactly speak to a lot of joviality. I knew branding would probably be intense but I still wanted to see this iconic ranching experience.

Upon arriving I noted a smell similar to that of being in a dental chair having a cavity drilled. I could see billowing white smoke coming up from the backs of where the calves fur was being singed. Then I noted small trickles of blood coming from both their ears and lower extremities, having just been castrated and dehorned as well. The testicles were then thrown into a Folgers Coffee container. My eyes kept going from Folgers container of testicles to the calves’ eyes. I watched on trying not to get shook-up when they struggled on the calf table.

Every time I could feel myself being slightly taken aback by the very rawness of ranching and that animals would indeed need to experience some pain in their lives—much like us humans—my rancher friend who was castrating, would smile reassuringly when he caught my eye, in a way that seemed like a shrug, what can ya do?

What can ya do, is right? This was the rancher’s job and all of the things taking place needed to be done. For starters, I myself, like almost everyone in America enjoys cheeseburgers; and I know that a cow doesn’t simply lie down and die in a field of daffodils on a dewy morning, only for a rancher to stumble along and go, hey, this would make a fine meal! I happily and blithely enjoy cheeseburgers with no thoughts of the dirty work involved. All that aside… Castration, I learned, prevented inbreeding, or breeding too early and allowed the bulls to focus on their feeding versus breeding. The dehorning had several purposes too, involving safety for the ranchers and the cattle’s ability to move through chutes unencumbered at meat-processing plants.

The calves were given two shots during this process. This is where I got put on in the lineup. Shot detail. I filled up the shots for each new calf about to have his first real-eye opening experience about life in the Wild West, just like I was having my own. I felt helpful in this way, though, and like I was doing something of import and healing for the calves. Every time I got to fill a new vial and see a calf hop off the table, I felt a little better.

They were corralled into a small pen that doubles as a table which flips up. Then the calf is held down with prongs while all the necessities take place. A lot of bellowing goes on and their eyes get slightly bulgy. But the interesting thing about their bellowing is it doesn’t get that loud. I thought, if that were me on the table getting branded and castrated and dehorned, they’d hear me bellowing clear over in Thailand, that’s how much I wouldn’t be having it.

Now here is the really interesting part. Once the calf is let go, he’d hop off the table and scamper away looking no worse for wear. Truly. And all of this is only a couple minute process. Either calves are great pretenders, or they really are quite resilient even if they’re hurting and they simply go back to the business of being young’uns who curiously run around the yard and play or go looking for their mama. I couldn’t believe it. About 97 of the 100 or so calves that were being branded that day all looked right as rain and like nothing at all had just happened to them.

About one looked as if it had gone through some sort of ordeal, while two others had the grandiose notion to perhaps lay in the sun and take a well-deserved nap. If I was a calf, not only would I be the single calf in the herd looking as if I’d just had an ordeal, I would also be the one napping and I would be running and bellowing to my mama about said ordeal. I probably wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks. The other calves would roll their eyes and think I was a pansy-ass. But it’s true. I now knew that one of my “bad” days was nothing in comparison to a calf’s bad day.

I was also informed that sometimes the calves get diarrhea and spew all over whoever happens to be at that end of the table, either brander or herder. My friend told me that one year her young son—who was also helping that day—was standing decently far away on herding patrol and still got diarrhea splattered all over his face. His face. I can’t even… Although her comical response to this, was that it probably boosted his immune system. Ranchers, gotta love ’em.

But all of the shock of what very real ranching and branding looked like aside, I had a whole new appreciation for my cushy life that had hardly touched on real farming, or any truly harrowing experiences. I had never been branded, thank God, but I also had never had to brand anything either.

My day of branding may have been the first day I wasn’t altogether romanced by ranching. But on the tail-end of this sobering thought was that it was okay. I didn’t always have to be romanced by ranching, because like the ranchers had been saying over and over to me, there were lots of aspects of ranching that didn’t look particularly romantic. They were gritty and filthy and tough and bellowing and covered in diarrhea and/or blood.

And if I thought I was the only one struggling to see the calves struggle I would’ve been wrong. I later talked about it with my rancher friend in charge of the castrating and he agreed, branding was a tough thing to see and an even tougher thing to do, but it was a necessity for the herd. It had to be done in order to prevent their animals—their assets—from getting lost and unrecovered or stolen and it was the best way, where other ways, like merely tagging weren’t nearly as reliable. He confessed he didn’t like it any more than I did, but that it did have to be done. And I admired him deeply for that.

He also pointed out that our culture as a whole was getting a bit too soft over the animal killing thing. He said, “Nowadays, I’m afraid if you put a couple people in a room with a gun and a rabbit until they starved, several people would choose to starve or end up shooting themselves before they killed the rabbit. And we have to get away from that.”

I thought that notion was slightly comical, but probably true. I will admit I recently ran over a rabbit on my way home from work and felt horrible about it. But, I would have no problem killing a rabbit if that was my only means of sustenance. Especially if I was starving. If you have ever seen me when I am starving you’d understand that I’d probably kill you if you got in my way of some juicy meat over the notion that it was cruel. Ask my sister Kia about this, when she dared to eat a bagel in front of me during competition on The Biggest Loser and I wasn’t allowed to touch a carbohydrate. Needless to say, Kia probably now has a complex about bagels because of how poorly I reacted.

And don’t get me wrong now either. I am an animal lover through and through. I think Sea World and zoos are incredibly cruel for animals and I don’t support that shenanigans. I don’t however think ranching, hunting or eating meat as sustenance is in any way cruelty to animals.

As the day wound down, and mama cows got reunited with their calves and everyone seemed content, I noticed my friend’s young son snatch what I thought was a calf testicle and pop it in his mouth. Now it was my turn for my eyes to bug out of my head. I thought I was mistaken and watched intently as he went to do it again, singeing it first on a still-hot branding iron, and even offering me one. I shuddered and said no thank you. He laughed and said, “I betchya I could get you to eat one by the end of the day.”

“It’s highly unlikely,” I said while leaning over a fence leaning into the warm sunshine, but smiling at his gumption anyway. I later learned they were full of nutrients and all the ranchers seemed nonplussed by his eating them, even noted that it’d probably be good if I ate one too.

I couldn’t bring myself to, even when the young lad cooked them over a handmade grill instead of a branding iron. I knew I was inching ever closer to the vicinity of my dreams of being a rancher/farmer, but yet… I still had a long ways to go. At least until I could ever dream of branding a calf or eating one of their testicles… but maybe one day. Stranger things have happened.

But for days after, I thought a lot about the branding in particular and the romance of the West. Was there a romance to be found in branding? The calves being branded was not terribly romantic perhaps… But then about a week later, I found myself sitting in a rancher’s home having been invited by my friends to a jam session. There were about ten musicians in a circle playing banjos, harmonicas, a bass and guitars while singing old Western tunes. I had just eaten the most unbelievable steak that my friends I did the branding with had brought and cooked perfectly. I sipped on cool white wine while watching the makeshift band tap their toes in time to the music and wondered how I could burn this memory to my brain? I didn’t want to forget the music in the large and open log cabin facing the Wyoming mountains with the April sun on my face.

And that’s when my brain answered back, you could brand this to your memory. And I smiled on the word brand. Alright. I will somehow brand it to my memory bank, burning it there with a hot, hot iron, singeing it into my neurons, so I could draw it up one day for the same warmth the sun and the sounds and the wine had given me. And just a few songs later, the band wanted to dedicate a song to our beloved Merle Haggard. They played Merle’s, “Branded Man.” I couldn’t help but think maybe the universe was with me on this one. Maybe the romance could still be found. Even in things branded.

The Avoidance Trip

Musings

If someone had told me as a child that I would one day have a real compulsion to not only know ranchers but to potentially be one… well I probably wouldn’t have laughed it off as I have always been wildly imaginative and I might’ve seen the merit, even then, but I may not have entirely believed it.

So when an opportunity came about for me to potentially apprentice with some real Wyoming ranchers, I threw my bags in my car—having been hunkering in Colorado Springs until just such an occurrence gave me reason to leave— and put the petal to the metal.

I had a brief pit stop in Fort Collins to see my beloved lil sis Kirst who now resides there. She made me laugh until I cried and plied me with craft brews, whiskey and homemade tacos. Then bought me coffee and one extra large donut the following morning after too much whiskey and tacos, while generally confirming my suspicion that my sisters are my soul mates and always will be. There’s no love like that.

Anyhow, even though Kirst and her new beau wanted me to stay another night I was anxious to get on the road and only lingered until about 10:30 in the morn, knowing I had a 6.5 hour drive ahead of me and not wanting to travel after dark.

I had already looked at my GPS and even talked about what route I would take with Kirstie’s man, having settled on coming up through Thermopolis to my new destination. This route would take me through some areas I hadn’t seen before which was promising, however, going through Thermopolis and the Wind River Canyon had me less than thrilled. You see the ex-cowboy took me on my favorite date of all time there and I already had a pit of doom about driving through it and thinking of him and all the ways in which he used to make me laugh.

But obviously I wasn’t going to let the ex-cowboy ruin any of my plans or my love for the Wind River Canyon just because he told me inappropriate pirate jokes there and held my hand and smiled at me in a way that made me forget about what wind and rivers and canyons even were.

That was until I double-checked my GPS and saw that there was a third route that wasn’t an option before. And it shaved off half an hour. It didn’t go through Buffalo or Thermopolis. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a new way too, and no uncomfortable ex-boyfriend memories. We have a winner. I happily cruised along on the sunshiney day listening to podcasts and planning my future as a rancher.

When I got to Casper I noted that gas was $1.42 a gallon, which was good but I was at half a tank and didn’t feel like stopping yet. I left the city of Casper and passed another gas station touting gas for $1.53. I kind of regretted not getting gas at the $1.42 place but still didn’t want to worry about it at the moment, though I suspected it would only get more expensive from there.

I also had to go to the bathroom, but not terribly bad so I kept on. Now this is when my GPS had me turn down a road off of the main highway. The road was in disrepair, looked rather desolate and seemed an odd road to take, if I were going to listen to my intuition, which I did not.

If my life were a horror movie this is where the eerie music would pick up signaling the heroine was about to head into serial killer country while you the viewer clench your midsection knowing that she’s an idiot and should have never turned down that road, but you watch on anyway to see what ghastly scenario she finds herself in.

When I crested a hill and saw not a hundred sheep in the road, not five hundred, but a gaggle of sheep so thick and dense that I could only surmise thousands, I began to wonder further about this road choice of Google’s. But I chose to be charmed instead, eyeing up the sheep blocking the road as if I were in Scotland. I slowly inched my car toward the sheep and a farmer nearby on a four-wheeler. I rolled down my window and said hello.

He smiled and asked how I was doing, I said good and asked him how he was doing.

“Couldn’t be better,” he beamed, looking at his sheep. This charmed me further and so I disregarded that this was a bad road and thought, this is a Wyoming road with a lovely sheep farmer that’s welcoming me back to my state that I love so much. Where the traffic jams involve sheep and happy farmers instead of road-raging idiots and blaring horns. 

He asked if I was heading on up the road and I nodded, though I hesitated wondering if I should ask him about this particular road and if it was okay… and my now half a tank was at about 100 miles until empty. Would I make it 100 miles on this road before another gas station, I almost asked and then didn’t, but just watched mesmerized while he parted the sea of sheep like Moses parting the Red Sea.

But soon after exiting my sheep jam, the decrepit paved road turned to dirt. I again wondered about this and wondered why my GPS surmised that this was faster, but kept going, against my now better judgement which was pointing out there was a gas station back the way I came, where I could pee, and fill my tank, and also this couldn’t be right.

But now I felt sort of stubborn and adamant about where this road could be leading me, so I kept following the cues provided by Google Maps. I went deeper into what seemed pretty wild Wyoming territory, passing a historical sign about the Sand Creek Massacre. If that wasn’t some pretty intent foreboding, I don’t know what else could have been. I was also listening to a sermon at the time about not letting your negative thoughts become words and instead having faith in God’s favor.

At this point, every new road that I turned on was another dirt road, leading me further into deep canyons and gorges and further and further from civilization—or gas stations—of any kind. The sheer magnitude of my surroundings began to frighten me, because though my GPS claimed I would reach a highway of sorts before my now 88 miles til empty, the sprawling, mountainous wilderness before me looked as though there couldn’t be a gas station for some several hundred miles.

Plus the road was getting worse. It seemed the only vehicle that should be back there was an all terrain vehicle or a four-wheeler. This is when the road wound down the side of a canyon, covered in sheer ice. My fingers white-knuckled the wheel while I stayed as close to the canyon wall as possible while reminding myself not to think negative thoughts and instead have faith.

I could no longer listen to the sermon as I was too tense and now very negative-minded about what I had gotten myself into. I waited to see if the next turn was perhaps pavement or had a neon glow sign for gas and vodka, because I now needed all of the above. Instead I saw a sign for a town with an arrow. It said the town was 26 miles away. Instead of immediately turning toward the town, I listened to my GPS one more time thinking maybe just over this last hill I would be homefree.

Except just over the hill was a nightmare of a road that was all tore up, had enormous rocks everywhere and soon was completely covered in snow. At this point, I had 71 miles left til empty and so I naturally hit the panic button and called my mom as I had two bars of service—I had had no signal for almost the entirety of this “joyride.”

“Mom,” I practically screamed, “I am on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere Wyoming; It’s like a farm road or something; I am lost; I have 71 miles until I run out of gas; This is the only spot with cell reception and I passed a sign for a town a ways back and I need you to find out if Armington has a gas station!”

“What?” she said patiently, “I am only getting every other word. How do you spell Armington? A-R-M-Y?” she started spelling.

I tried not to reach hysteria as I yelled, “no like an arm, an ARM! A-R-M-I. Armington! Mom I am going to lose you, or fall off a mountainside. These roads are really scary and I don’t have time to dawdle. I have hardly any gas left!”

“Armington is in Montana,” she informed me while I made the executive decision to precariously turn myself around on the mountaintop. “Are you in Montana?”

“I don’t see how I could be… but maybe I am really lost and Montana is now close…”

And this is when the call failed and I could not get my mom back.

I gingerly maneuvered my car back down the mountainside while trying to force my negative thoughts that were now circling about me like goons about to do some knuckle-breaking, out of my head and instead focus on my faith.

I got back to the sign and it did not say Armington-26 miles, it said Arminto-26 miles. The sign also said Kaycee- 31 miles. I felt sort of happy about that because I knew of Kaycee, however the arrow pointed back the way I had come from before and I had seen no signs for Kaycee and I was driving on that road for a long, long while.

I decided to take my chances with Arminto, though something ominous inside of me now suspected that Arminto could be anything: an old wagon post, a historical marker, a factory… who the F knew? I sure didn’t.

But I went ahead and started driving toward Arminto while nervously eyeballing my gas mileage that was dwindling with my hopes of ever seeing another life form again.

Eventually I passed cows, which seemed a good indicator. Cows meant people. People meant maybe I would have help if I did run out of gas. I passed some guest ranches but was too nervous to stop in case they were seasonal ranches and no one was there. With every bend in the road I prayed Arminto was around the corner and I would be saved, but still it was more vast open nothingness, with some red rocks and mountain ranges far, far in the distance. At this point my gas light came on and my mileage disappeared as it does when I am 30 miles until empty. I rounded a corner and saw a rather large animal skeleton stuck on a barbed wire fence.

You’re going to die out here, I thought miserably. This is where things go to die.

But I tried insisting on my faith instead of my rampant fear that this was some sort of sicko plot by Google maps to lead me to my death. As I rounded yet another bend and saw only more emptiness I wanted to bawl while considering whether to turn around and go back to one of the ranches.

But that is when I saw something faint and black and square-ish in the far distance. Could that be Arminto? Was it a truck? Or a house? Or a sweet, and beloved gas station? I decided to take my chances that it was Arminto and that I was saved.

But as I came into what was indeed Arminto, I again felt absolutely sickened. It looked like nothing more than a ghost town. As I crept through I looked around and saw a teepee in the distance and then to my right a sort of tin looking house with an old car graveyard, but also some new cars in the driveway.

I wondered if I was on a reservation. Now normally this would not have scared me as I love Native Americans. However, I was already in a wild state. And I also would like to throw a lot of blame on the ex-cowboy here for getting me in a tizzy of worry over reservations anyway with his advice of “you stay away from the reservations. You’ll get thrown in Indian jail and never get out.”

I had no choice though. I couldn’t go a moment further if there was indeed no gas station in my foreseeable future. I had to ask the residents of the tin house where in God’s name I was and if I could make it to a gas station, otherwise they were driving me. Or murdering me. Or throwing me in Indian jail. But I had to take my chances.

I parked my car in their driveway. I clutched my keys and nervously walked up to the door, when it swung open and an old man walked out and said point blank, “you must be lost.”

“Uh, yes, very,” I said relieved that he wasn’t cuffing me and dragging me to a teepee for disturbing his land. “Do you happen to know if there is a gas station within 30 miles of here?”

“Well…” he didn’t look convinced that there was. My stomach began to drop thinking about what a flaming idiot I was for choosing to take the so-called shorter route to avoid painful ex-cowboy memories, when in reality this route had added almost three hours to my trip, caused me considerable more grief than simply recounting a Wind River Canyon date, and would surely cost me ample more in gas money. “Yeah I think you can make it. There’s a gas station in Highland, about 18 miles from here. Stay on the pavement. Don’t get off it. And at the stop sign turn right.”

As if I was ever going off the pavement again, I thought as I thanked him profusely, got back into my car and gunned it to Highland. It was a dilapidated motel/gas station combo, with gas pumps so old I could hardly read the prices, which had me slightly relieved, because I didn’t want to know what this was costing me.

I got a paper map and went over the directions to Hyattville with the gas station attendant.

I had to go through the Wind River Canyon and Thermopolis anyway. And yes I thought about the date with the ex-cowboy and his silly pirate joke, and his smiling and hand holding and how much I still adore the kid though I hate that I do. But I also thought how happy I was not to be stranded somewhere in the deep wilds outside of Casper. And how my mom being the super sleuth that she is, deduced I wasn’t in Armington, Montana from that brief phone call, and that I was near Arminto—population 5, she later informed me—and that had I run out of gas back there, Mama Sturos would’ve sent a helicopter for me before letting my bones rot in a canyon.

And so my so called shorter 6 hour trip in fact took me 9.5 hours.

But guess what? This story would be the story I told to the ranchers the next morning over coffee, while they laughed and shook their heads, but seemed delighted I was there. But more on that later.

Where I belong

Musings

So remember how I said I had two days of being a bawl-bag and then I was fine? A-okay? A juicy peach ripe for the picking? Okay that last one I don’t even know what that means, I just wanted a third thing indicating A-okay-ness.

Well that was before Illinois. I had two days on the road dallying in the West, drinking fine coffee in Sioux Falls, then spending the night at a friends house in Madison where we talked relationships and how bleeding fickle they are, while he plied me with wine and hand cooked vegetables.

And then right about the time I exited Wisconsin, accidentally leaving my favorite insulated water bottle at a Dickey’s in South Dakota and leaving my makeup bag at my friends house in Madison—because God knew my brain was losing functions—I merged into Illinois and began to feel it. Wrong. It all felt very wrong. And I am not even talking the actual breakup from my boyfriend anymore, I am talking about the breakup from Wyoming. This one felt like a huge mistake and like I wanted to call Wyoming and say, I didn’t mean it! I’ve loved you all along! It has always been you and it took leaving to truly know for sure.

With every highway sign that said East and not West, my stomach lurched and my brain begged me to turn around. With every billboard that popped up touting adult superstores and gentlemens clubs because we were nearing the big cities, I felt a queasiness that could not be quelled. With every smokestack puffing fumes along the dismal grey horizon, my soul sunk into a kind of sadness that was entirely matched by my surroundings. It was like Illinois could sardonically point out, hey I’ve got ill in my name, this is natural. (And I mean no disrespect Illinois, I am going through a breakup you see and I feel very melancholy and prone to these bouts of sad punnery).

One of the toll-booth operators along the way asked what part of Wyoming I was from and I explained the Bighorns, not wanting to reveal that I wasn’t actually from Wyoming. He said he was from Laramie and that he owned some land in Wyoming but that he didn’t get there much as his wife liked to vacation in Grand Haven or Florida. I wanted to tell him his wife was an idiot and that she didn’t deserve Wyoming and could I have his land if it wasn’t being put to any use?

By the time I reached my exit for Fowlerville, I was in a state. Boy was I in a state. Underneath the sign for my hometown I was surprised I didn’t see lettering in parentheses (where dreams go to die). I told you I was in a state. Grim was now where I was located. Not Fowlerville, Michigan.

I walked into my house and looked at the walls and my siblings eager to give me hugs and I was kind of quiet and shaky. I sat down at the counter and tried to picture the comfort I was supposed to feel in my childhood home that my mom had decked out to look like a shabby chic lovers dream.

But amidst the cool whites and turquoise antiques I felt nothing but panic. Like a deer who thought he had time to cross the highway into the safety of his forest and then headlights come around the bend and he knows. He just knows he made a mistake in judgement.

I have left places before. Many in fact and each time I have felt a certain kind of acute sadness for leaving people I loved and a place I had grown accustom to, but none like this. None with such a strong urge to get back in my car and turn around immediately. I said it to my sisters as I sat in my old room, that was now occupied by my fourteen year old sister and a slew of stuff that didn’t belong to me.

It wasn’t just that the West is grand and open and full of an untamed beauty that is both bold and inviting, perhaps mirroring my spirit, it was that the West is kind. And not oppressive, because it is vast. And it held me in a way that made me feel like the kind of person I am supposed to be. The kind of person that can flourish because I hiked two hours to the top of a mountain by myself. And that kind of thing bolsters a girl.

I have to go back, I wept into the pillow, mascara staining it in splotches. My sister rubbed my back and said, “then go back.”

I didn’t have a plan at first. I still don’t really have one now, but as I lay on a little carry-away bed on the living room floor of my parents house, having begged my sister to get me one of my mom’s Xanax so I could sleep, I felt in my heart that the West was where I belonged, knowing it more than I ever felt in New York City or Virginia or any other place I’ve roamed. I adored those places sure, but for the entirety of my time in the West I have known it was my home. The home for me. Maybe not my sisters, maybe not anyone else, but it is where I belong.

And if leaving created in me such a vile, hostile, almost allergic reaction then I know what I’ve got to do. I am not saying I am just turning around, though that is very flippant and like me and I probably could wing it. But no. I fear maybe I am getting too old for that.

I am just going to find a way, a better job, a situation in which I can take care of myself and save for land. And my ranch. And my horses. And a barn. And a dog. And then some goats and probably an old Ford pickup, but one thing at a time.

Here is the thing though. I am a very determined person. Especially when I am agonized. And last night I lay there feeling like my entire existence was hurting me. Everything hurt. All of it and I felt overwhelmed to a degree where a Xanax was definitely in order. However, in the cool (admittedly still grey) light of day, I had fiery action pulsing through my veins.

My mom must’ve sensed it, because before I could even tell her how wrong it all was, she said, “you want to go back? Just go back.”

Just like that. Supportive as ever and not for one second believing me to be the idiot I often deem myself to be—one who doesn’t really think big life decisions all the way through and instead relies on her emotional state and then second guesses it anyway.

I couldn’t think about the suckage this morning, instead I focused on action plans combined with thankfulness that being home meant that my mama had a constant pot of black coffee on and would fill my cup (both literally and figuratively) every time I needed it.

So I don’t know what I am doing or how long I will have to do it, but the West is my great love, and if you are foolish enough to leave your great love, just know that if they’re truly great they’ll take you back, forgiving your tiny little misjudgement.

And at any rate, I had the best naysayer before I left the West and if you know me at all, you will know how much I adore naysayers and how much they motivate me. But more on that later. I have to rope you in somehow. See what I did there? Rope you in. Like a cowboy—I don’t feel like saying cowgirl, because I think they’re a little too flashy and fringey for me. So yeah, like a cowboy.

I meant what I said.

The Breakup

Musings

I knew leaving Wyoming would feel like a very bad breakup, with me agonizing over what I could have done while looking back the whole way. What I didn’t know was that while I was breaking up with Wyoming, my cowboy would break up with me.

He opted to do it via email three days before I was due to leave Wyoming. Leaving Wyoming, in fact was about him in part and being closer to him and a relationship that had felt like it was moving steadily forward in love and commitment. Ironically, I was wrong. When I got the email upon arriving to my morning shift at work three days ago, I had already had a pit of doom in my stomach, almost sensing it coming for some reason.

While I won’t go into the particulars because they are all cliché and unimportant and along the lines of it’s not you it’s me, I did nonetheless have a smallish breakdown. The restaurant felt like it had suddenly tipped on its axis and so I stumbled into the bathroom and held onto the door. And all my thoughts went in a rapid-fire succession like this: you’re an idiot/he would break up with you when you are moving back across country to be closer to him/you’re turning 30 soon and this is a really nice cherry topper on the anxiety sundae that is your life/now you’re not just a loser ex-waitress and leaving Wyoming and a wanna-be-writer, you will also be bunking with your parents again (and your cats)/ did I mention you’re an absolute fuck-up loser?

I could feel tears and I saw the mascara instantly blackening my under-eye. I wiped them away and feeling very much near nausea, went to locate my boss and tell her something, anything, but that I just had to go. I couldn’t find her and I felt dangerously close to high-hysteria, so I found her assistant, told her I would be right back and ran home.

Upon rousing Kia, by whipping open her bedroom door and whispering, “he just broke up with me in an email,” I began to sob.

And I cried for the next two days straight.

I couldn’t write about it at first—technically I could have but I fear it would have been nothing but F-bombs and I know some of my readers don’t cotton to that (hi mom)—because I was so deranged with agony. Also I was angry. Really, really angry.

I wanted to be angry at the cowboy for the coldness I felt in being emailed that our relationship was over, but instead my anger was mostly directed at God. Just a few months prior I had sat down on the bathroom floor and cried—exasperated with my experience with men—petitioning God to only send me serious suitors from here on out. Ones who weren’t half-wits or assholes, or defamatory to God, or who liked ESPN more than they liked me. I pleaded with Him to simply not waste my time, because I was tired of the let-down.

And then voila! In walked the cowboy. As if hand-delivered by the Lord himself. A God-loving, horse owning, uninterested in sports watching, riot of a man who also seemed taken with me in the worst way. But I didn’t want to believe it, you see? I almost refused to believe it. He was too handsome. He was too funny. He knew how to build things with his hands and he sent me love letters and he made me feel cherished and oh so beautiful. And he was insistent. I was nervous that he wasn’t real and that I would have my heart pulverized again and I voiced as much. I said I was scared. I had been burned before. I told him I didn’t want to believe that something so good could happen to me.

But when he invariably convinced me anyway, convinced me that he wouldn’t be cavalier with my heart, that I was unlike any girl before, that I was worth loving and would continue to be worth loving, I let down my guard and let him in because he seemed steadfast and true. I went full hog into the perilous waters of love.

When he sent me a Christmas card that said all the beautiful things that I had ever wanted said to me, things that in only two months time, I had never heard in a year and a half with my ex, I cried on the couch and told my sisters I couldn’t believe I’d found the kind of love I had always looked for and didn’t think I deserved.

So when three days before my move, he told me he’d let me down, and though I was perfect and he loved me, he couldn’t do it, he just couldn’t, I naturally put all the blame on God. You did this God, I wanted to snarl and shake my fist (except I would never shake my fist at God—that seems disrespectful even in worst-case scenarios). I was hot with anger and rage, where normally the first thing I do during a break-up is hunker down with God, like I’m British and blue and he’s my hot cup of tea.

It was different this time. My anger was there and beside it was guilt. I couldn’t be angry at God, though I wanted to because it was all His fault for getting me in this mess in the first place. But anger directed at God felt foreign to me and unacceptable and so I settled on disgruntled. I told God I was disgruntled with Him. But all day the anger persisted anyway, hot and pulsing beneath the surface, refusing to leave me. Until finally I confessed to my other sister over the phone that I felt so angry at God for letting this happen when there was no point. I had already had ample heartbreaks and why did I need another especially when all felt so right? I pointed out in an epiphany that maybe if I could be mad from time to time at my brothers and sisters and mom and dad and even my ex-cowboy, that perhaps I was allowed a little anger at God.

She told me it was okay to be angry at God.

And so I stopped saying disgruntled and got mad. I am so angry with you, God! I said over and over and over again. I felt like a petulant child kicking rocks when their parents said to come in for dinner and they wanted to still play. I knew God was being patient with me because He knows my heart, and He knew full well I’d come around but if I needed to be mad at Him he could take it.

In the midst of my anger and crying I attempted to do that whole pick myself up by the bootstraps bit, but unfortunately I was utterly consumed with my anger and fresh rounds of tears and that took up all of my mental space. Also the tears were like the flu. Purge and feel better. Get nauseated with the sadness and compulsion to sob again while feeling surprised because I thought I’d got it all out on the last purge and so I’d purge again. And again. And again.

My darling sister Kia tried to console me on the first day by taking me for pizza and a movie to distract from my pitiful state. I had no appetite and could barely choke down bites. Then she took me to see Joy, which seems un-aptly named for a post-breakup flick, but despite the heroine’s pluck and overall success the film did depress me a great deal anyway. Holding back tears for two hours in public however, led to my immediately exiting the movie and crying again in the parking lot.

My sisters even had the decency to cry with and for me. When I had first burst into Kia’s room to tell her the news, she saw my shoulders hunched and my face dipping down between my knees for breath, because I was crying like a just-gunned-down banshee, she too began to bawl and later told me that during my shift (the one she offered to cover so I could stay home and be a psychotic sad sack) she had to take repeated bathroom breaks to cry herself. Kirst confessed that she sobbed while doing the dishes later that morning and tried to rationalize things with God, telling Him I didn’t need this.

I betchya don’t have sisters that feel your hurts as keenly as you do. Or if you are broken up with feel as if they too have been broken up with. And if you do have those kind sisters, consider yourself one lucky fool, because that my dears, is love of the finest quality and caliber. I may not have won the man lottery, but I definitely won the sister lottery.

But here’s the thing. The two days post-breakup came and went and while I cried because of the break-up and then cried for Wyoming and the thought of leaving her and cried because I assumed I was a fuck-wit and cried also because I assumed I was a fuck-wit who happened to be unlovable, I came back to myself and came back to God.

I hadn’t been able to see reason or have understanding for the why’s of heartbreak or why some people stay in your life and why some people leave, but because I am prone to happiness and not despair and prone to love for God and not anger, I came to this conclusion while sniveling my final little snivels the other night in bed:

I am lucky.

Yup. I said it.

If knowing what I know now, if I could ask God to have gone back and intervened and given the cowboy’s table to someone else or prevented me from knowing him, I wouldn’t do it. I would start over and do it all again.

And not that bullshit that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. I hate that phrase, because the losing really reeks, folks. I mean, it is truly rank. No. It’s that with the cowboy I felt more love in three months’ time and experienced more of the kind of things I had searched for in every other relationship and had never found. And if I got three months with a man who made me laugh so hard I cried, and took me flying and wrote me love letters and sent me heart-shaped things, and made me feel more beautiful than all of the Kardashian girls combined, well then by golly it’s a start.

And my mom, God love her, said the best thing. She said, “but Cassandra, your boyfriends are getting better each time! Like significantly better. Your next one is going to be AMAZING!”

I like her logic, though I gotta say I want to go back to simply dating the mountains and my cats. Eh, you’ll have that.

Forever West

Musings

I have loved my time in the West so immensely, that I naturally wanted to do a salute to my experience here. I am mostly at a loss for words as to how to tell you of my deep and abiding love for this place and so without the words for it, I have instead rounded up some (errr a lot) of my favorite photos from my time spent here in the mountains.

I hope you sense the love.

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Ms. Adventure

Musings

I am sitting in the bar sipping a mojito whilst writing. Okay I actually despise when people start out their stories with either what people are wearing, eating or drinking. I mean, really who cares—unless you’re Ernest Hemingway—what does your drink have to do with the price of rice in China? But because it is summer, because I have my bathing suit on underneath my clothes in prep for an impending swimming session and because I am atop a mountain I felt like it could be said. Also it most certainly feels very Hemingway-esque, as I have never written in a bar before. Much less while drinking. So salud Hemingway. This one’s for you.

This is all to say that mountain life suits me. I don’t know that it could suit me forever, as I miss great big bodies of water, but maybe I will find myself someplace where the mountains meet the sea and then I will marry the sea and the mountains can be my mistress.

I went on this hike yesterday with this fella I enjoy, let’s call him Francis, or France for short-ish. Francis has become my new hiking counterpart. Nearly every day after work we go find some undiscovered part of the mountain to traverse and explore. Yesterday’s hike was Black Mountain Lookout. Perched atop mounds of rock 9,500 feet in the air stood an old fire tower lookout. That was our destination. There is a forest road that goes up most of the mountain and then you take a trail the last mile upwards. Unfortunately, or fortunately for my cellulite, the forest road was washed out by a river and so we had to park the car at the base of the mountain. Well. We were already atop a mountain, so not the literal base as that would be a hike for a much fitter gal. But anyhow, we were heading higher into the mountains.

When Kirst and I first accepted this job we were told it was atop a mountain, but maybe we didn’t really believe it as we were slightly dumbfounded when we drove up the side of a mountain to get to our new lodgings. But when we saw how far the mountain stretched, peaks this way and that, it seemed the mountaintop was never-ending. I told Kirst how the mountains seemed to go on and on, even when on top. She confessed that she too was perplexed by this and when she considered living on a mountaintop she thought it would be more like living at the top of a jagged point. I asked her if she meant like where the Grinch lived—in a cave on a high, high snow-capped peak—and she said, “yes, just like that. I thought where we lived would be just like the Grinch.”

Where we live is nothing like where the Grinch lives. Though there is a Grinchy-Grinch on our mountain, but I won’t mention names, she just likes to scowl a whole bunch and snap orders at people. But that’s the only similarity.

I digress of course.

So our hike. We parked at the base and got out in order to scale the flowing rapids that took out the entire road—okay I kid, they weren’t rapids and the whole road wasn’t taken out, it was more a babbling brook that ever so inconveniently crossed the road because it could. And Mother Nature does what she wants anyway, so we were happy enough to oblige her.

The forest road up didn’t feel too taxing though naturally the moment I started exerting myself I was perspiring. We came upon the trailhead feeling good. Feeling strong and capable. Maybe even a little cocky. Then we went further into the forest and up. And up. And up. And where was this fire tower? Wasn’t a mile supposed to be easy? Not a mile straight up a mountain apparently. Okay to be fair we weren’t going straight up. We were on switchbacks, but it didn’t feel much better. I felt hot liquid pooling down my face and instead of making the natural and logical conclusion that I was sweating profusely—my usual M.O.—I panicked and thought I was bleeding from the skull. I touched the liquid and inspected my fingers. Nope, not blood, definitely just copious amounts of sweat.

We went left and went right. Climbed higher and then a little higher still. We made the assumption we were close. But with every turn, we only saw more forest and more rocks. Then through a break in the trees we saw the tower. You would think the heavens parted and I burst into euphoric bouts of symphony but when I saw how high up the tower still seemed to be the only word that came to mind was, “fuck!”

I turned to France who looked startled and I apologized for my profanity. And we trudged on. Switchback after switchback. He asked me if I needed a break as I huffed and puffed. I felt I could use a break to keel over on a rock lounge, but feeling a little pissed and determined, I declined the offer of rest and insisted we keep on keeping on until the top.

Soon we were near the summit and it required a little rock climbing. Or to be fair to rock climbers everywhere, rock finagling. But when we came around the last of several bends, all we saw was an outhouse—well and stunning 360 degree views of pine laden mountaintops in every direction—but the fire tower seemed to be out of reach, perched atop a pile of jagged grey rocks. Now, if it weren’t for the jaw-dropping views in every direction I would’ve let out a stream of F-bombs for my frustration at all that and still not being able to set foot on the fire tower.

We climbed some rocks and I sat attempting to enjoy the view, but itching to get to the fire tower. Francis surmised that maybe this was as far as we could get. I fumed. Not so. I would sooner break my neck rock climbing to the tower than admitting defeat after all that. So as he began to work his way back down the rocks I lingered and inched toward the towering rocks to my left. He caught me and issued warnings about how if I broke my leg he’d have to give me a piggy back ride all the way back down the mountain. I don’t think he was as worried about carrying my heft down an entire mountain of switchbacks as much as his worry about me breaking my neck instead of a leg and then having a corpse on his hands.

I had a hard time heeding his warnings though and told him I needed to suss out the situation and see if I could indeed climb the rocks. I climbed a few and then looked at the straight wall of imposing rock looming large and daunting in front of me. I wanted to do it. I wanted to get to the fire tower. And most times in my life I was willing to risk life and limb for adventure but I glanced sideways at my fall if I lost my footing—which would be precarious at best—and it would definitely result in my being maimed or worse. I lingered a beat longer while I could feel my pal’s tension behind me. And then I turned around and said, “fine. I won’t risk breaking my neck. But we are getting to that fire tower.”

He agreed and then moments later he discovered a rock path right up and around the seemingly impossible rock faces. And just like that we were up and on our way to the tower. And in a few breaths we were there. I could not rightly fathom that people actually lived up here in order to keep watch for forest fires. Now this was the exact top of the mountain. The tip-top. The pinnacle. Where the Grinch would probably reside because no one would want to make that trek to bother him. I was speechless. Or maybe I was breathless. Who could even tell?

And then I needed to lie down. Not exactly from sheer exhaustion, but perhaps because I had convinced myself there would be a hammock at the top, and I was dismayed to find there was not. After a spell of enjoying the mountain vistas on the deck of the fire tower, we made the trek down. Maybe it was the exertion. Or maybe it’s the fact that I always want to blaze new paths, but I kept finding myself off trail. Suddenly I was in the midst of a gorge of rocks looking about for a safe way down and I glanced behind me and Francis smiled and asked where I was going.

“Is this not the trail?” I asked.

“No.”

Oh. How weird.

I accidentally went off-trail three more times while Francis patiently waited for me to re-route myself.

“Where are you goin, Ms. Adventure?” he would ask. I chuckled and then turned myself around. I did not know where I was going; it just seemed right. Hmmm. Isn’t that a grand metaphor for life though? I mostly don’t know where I am going, but it seems right. And somehow despite rocky terrain and many, many missteps, I always make it back down the mountain safely.

Consider Me Wooed

Musings

Okay so the great thing about Wyoming is she is so unbelievable that I find myself in a constant state of awe and wonder. I am perpetually wooed by the state of grandeur, old world charm and epic mountaintops. Furthermore I feel so present in every moment of my existence that I find myself enamored just to be. As someone who has always struggled to stay present in a singular moment, but instead, worries and ruminates over the future, or obsesses over the past, it has been downright shocking how perfectly present I have felt in all of my moments here in the West.

I am present when waitressing and meeting new people and hearing their stories. I am present when off gallivanting in the mountains. I am present when beneath the star speckled night sky in front of a crackling fire, surrounded by towering pines. I am present when sticking my toes in every stream, flowing river or body of water I can locate.

I feel hyper-aware that I am alive. I almost tingle with it. And as someone who is prone to anxiousness, when I am doing something mundane like running an errand, or grocery shopping, I find myself getting anxious to get back up the mountain and continue my tree-hugging, free spirited, high on mountains existence.

But… there’s always a but. I feel somewhat guilty and childish about it all. I know I wax a lot about how I am getting older and how I suppose that means things like I ought to lock down a mortgage or a man. But instead I am flitting about the country. Playing in the hills with a country boy who happens to constantly pick me wildflowers and helps push me up hills when they are too steep and I am out of breath, or brings me a shot of tequila when I have a bad day and joke that I need a shot of tequila to deal with my frazzled nerves.

But I in no way want to lock anything down and that makes me feel like a somewhat useless adult. I want a home sure. I ache when I watch HGTV. But then I love my propensity to roam. And right now my roaming led me to a mountaintop in which my sis and I have been gifted with a beautiful 1950’s style trailer surrounded by hordes of pencil sharp pines, and complete with turquoise appliances and a fire pit . And yes I want babies. But then today in the coffee shop where I am writing, someone came in with a newborn who, while quite cute, kept screaming and I overheard the mother say she hadn’t gotten sleep in 34 hours. I nearly choked on my coffee. Thirty-four hours?! I freak out if I get less than six hours and pretty much go on a war rampage for coffee and then insist on a nap. Actually my new life of high mountain adventure and long work days waitressing has led me to take daily naps again. How could I nap or flit off to Jackson Hole and the Tetons with cute boys and a car full of pb&j’s, wild game jerky and blankets if I had crying newborns?

Okay, realistically of course I will do anything to have my own crying newborns and fixer-upper worthy of HGTV renos one day, but in the meantime, the bonfires, sticky s’mores, spontaneous road trips through jagged peaks and winding rivers, horseback rides, hand-holding with a bearded outdoorsman, and hail-soaked hikes to places called Garden of the Gods seem otherworldly in their present perfection.

And maybe that’s the point of all this anyway. If living on a mountaintop has taught me to be fully alive in the moments of wildflowers and adventure as much as the moments of hail and tequila necessity then I reckon I am exactly where I ought to be.

If This is 29…

Musings

My twenty-ninth year has arrived. And in style I might add. Admittedly I was getting a wee bit skittish about inching ever closer to the nervy thirty, simply because I am so goal-oriented and feel that I am not quite where I ought to be for thirty-ish. Sure 401K’s and babies seem appropriate but I am not giving much thought to either of those at the moment, even if I should. No. My only thoughts seem to center around my writing career taking off and well, adventure.

This is only natural as adventure has been my long time beau and damn if he isn’t good to me. Celebrating a birthday as a new transplant to the West was as enchanting as one might expect with all these mountains and old fashioned gents about. A girl could get downright spoiled if she weren’t careful. In fact that was most definitely the theme of my birthday. Spoiled, spoiled rotten. Just how I like it.

But before you get the wrong impression in thinking I’m a birthday brat, although I am a little bit of a birthday brat, understand that my favorite part of my birthday isn’t about being spoiled with presents. It’s the fact that I get spoiled with love and affection from all my favorite people across the globe. And if that isn’t about as humbling and awe-inspiring as standing before a mountain top, then I don’t know what is.

Then my main man, God went and did one better and spoiled me with Mother Earth. I already adore my birthday so I was off to a swell start with my waffle heaped with strawberries and whipped cream and piping hot cup of Joe in my cowboy mug. I was so full of pep and pizzazz that a coworker of mine asked me in all seriousness if I was on drugs. I resisted replying that I was high on life—I am corny but not that corny—but did indeed explain that, no I did not need drugs to feel this good and why would I ever need drugs in a world where birthdays and mountains coexist?

I proceeded to take myself on a date down the mountain. I stopped in town at the old Mercantile and visited a little with the old men lounging there. Then I wove my way into a canyon with raging rapids flowing past me on my left and jutting red rock faces sprouting up in front of me on all surrounding sides. I gasped in delight and felt an abundance of gratitude to share my birthday with the canyon and endearing locals.

A couple hours later I drove back up the mountain to pick up my sister so that we could then drive right back down the other side of the mountain into wild horse territory. I had spoken with one of my best friends on the phone and told him if I did indeed spot wild horses on my birthday then I really was the most spoiled birthday girl this side of the Missip.

When Kirst and I made our way down into the bright and blazing sunshine of the valley, Kirst couldn’t contain her excitement over the landscape in front of us. She kept squealing that she needed to marry the land, and run through the vast fields before us, and kiss the ground and gather good Native American spirits. I pulled over so she could do three out of the four. I really would marry Wyoming too, but who would perform the ceremony?

Kirst true to form bounded out of the car and ran straight for the nearest field where she wove this way and that. She laid down and jumped up, kissed the ground and pointed to cactus as this side of the mountain was dry, hot and barren, while the other side I had just been on was lush with green and misty with low hanging clouds. When I caught up to her she was lying on her poncho staring at the sky.

I felt giddy with her enthusiasm for the striking nature before us in every direction. The mountains stretched as far as the eye could see and boasted every possible color. Deep blue in some areas, red and speckled, green and rolling, grey and jagged, white capped with snow or shadowed from the clouds above.

I knelt down to kiss the earth too. It seemed only right. I wanted to honor Her. And maybe Kirst was right. Maybe Native American spirits or Mother Earth or some force much bigger than us would take note of our love and shine favorably upon us.

We made our way back to the car to head into the wild horse range. There we crossed over into Montana. We stopped at Devil’s Canyon, a canyon so deep, my mind couldn’t fathom that there are canyons larger, like the Grand Canyon. Again I was humbled deep into my core for my existence and my part in the universe, however small it may be. And standing next to that gorge of rock, I felt very small indeed. In that beautiful way of feeling small, like maybe sometimes that is exactly the size you ought to be.

We moved on and yes, we did spot two wild horses. While my romantic, fanciful brain expected them to be running or kicking up their legs in obvious wild abandon, the two black beauties we came upon were casually munching on some grass oblivious to me and Kirst’s ogling.

After staring for a spell, we wound our way to the bottom of the canyon where the river spliced through rock. We turned around to head back up and passed a herd of horses being led around the winding road by cowboys. But wait… wait. Upon exiting the wild horse range I spotted a massive rainbow taking hold of the sky to my left while Kirst dozed in the passenger seat. At this point, the sight might’ve been overkill, with the canyons and wild horses and cowboys, but it was simply an affirmation that the West had won me over, fully and implicitly.

Being that both Kirst and I are somewhat poor planners, nothing was open for dinner in the small town at the base of the mountain, as it was Memorial Day. We feasted on gas station hot dogs and Coca-Cola’s in a Veterans Memorial Park. We beamed at each other because it felt fitting and perfect. Like the rest of the day. Like the West. It fits and it’s perfect.

If this is twenty-nine, saddling up to my thirties with mountain ranges and desert flowers and earth kisses, then yes please. I will take more of this. Who needs a 401K anyway?