Once Upon A Day In Montana


July 17, 2011
Morro Bay, California

I’m supposed to be writing stories for the sci-fi editor in the next few days. He said I can write anything I want…just as long as I write something. He wants me to write something. That’s like a dream come true, but I’ve let everything else…anything else…take priority. Which doesn’t make much sense…because I love to write. And I have two story ideas in mind for him. But neither are sci-fi. I hate sci-fi. After feeding the horses, I went to the coffee shop where Glen and I always have breakfast, figuring I’d write after glancing through the Bay News and The New Times…I have a soft spot for the New Times after all the filming we did there. I feel connected to the New Times…even last week’s issue, which is all this coffee shop keeps stocked…always last week’s issue.

Finally it was time to write and this coffee shop is good for that kind of thing, because it’s not very inspiring here. It was re-painted a few weeks ago and it only made the situation worse. So without any outside inspiration or distraction, there’s nothing to do but look within and turn inside inspiration into a story…right? That was my theory.

Unfortunately, this coffee shop has windows and I happened to glance out just before I began to write the sci-fi I didn’t want to write, and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Stopped in thought…time…everything stopped. For there, on a yellow hill with a big blue sky…was Montana. I mean, cows. There, on a yellow hill with a big blue sky…were cows. Big beautiful black ones resting in the sun. Moving ever so slightly, but my horse eye doesn’t let any slight go without longing and appreciation.

I don’t know how long I was drawn into that mirage of Montana. It’s a phenomenon, the way memories and dreams and time and recall intertwine. Or maybe they don’t, and that’s the true phenomenon. There is one day in particular at the ranch in Montana that will forever be with me and it all came rushing back just now. I knew Montana would stay with me on that very day, so I tried not to think too much…and just let the raw mountains, land, sky, cows, and air imprint away. Just as they are. The day was well into September and it was the first time it felt like fall. It was the day fall arrived. The sense of fall is never so acute as it is on its first day. When summer is only a lingering feeling from yesterday—a long time past. Fall might be the greatest sense in the world. And this day was full of it. The sky was dark and made the yellow hills glow. The air was crisp and cool and crept under my Carhartt and long sleeved flannel shirt, creating an interface between me and the magic of the day. It was all the same. My horse glowed beneath me, too, and we kept each other warm. It was like the saddle wasn’t there. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and he began. We were all the same. We walked and long trotted and loped all around that day, brushing pastures for strays, climbing peaks to survey, racing…flying over the grass to head off a few disgruntled head. I hardly said a word all day and either did my horse…our thoughts were the same…we had a job to do, for in a few short days would be shipping day and four feet of snow. Somehow we knew that this was only one of four days of fall, and so, we worked with purpose, as if it was any other day.

The glowing yellow hills just kept glowing and rolling. Sometimes the grass got long and swayed like waves in the wind. Sometimes it was short and crackled under the stride of this steady, hearty horse. Whose great grand sire walked these same lands underneath real cowboys, and together they only feared bears and rustlers and blizzards and there was no other way to live. There was nothing more worthy to live for. Just like today.

We moved hundreds, maybe thousands of cows that day. And my horse and I passed plenty of other cowboys. Sometimes we were one of twenty pairs, for the entire county had showed up to help, and sometimes it was just us and one other. I started the morning, when it was still dark and cold, riding next to Sam. We rode in focused silence, though it was not really silent, for cowboys on horses on a cold morning with cows to tend make their own quiet sounds as they traverse frosted terrain. Sam and I did not know each other well, and that was mostly my fault. There was enough gossip on that ranch to haunt a ghost. I wanted no part in any of it, so I learned pretty early on to keep my head down and to focus on the dust in front of my boots. I learned too late that Sam was not like the others, and I could have trusted him.

But I finished the day with Sam, too…at twilight at a long trot back to the corrals. He talked to me and I felt my cheeks warm, though the temperature had dropped considerably. A smile came light and easy, and we covered Cornell (me), Yale (him), and a cowboy’s life, in five sentences. That’s just the right amount of talk at twilight. Sam and I knew each other after that, and I liked him an awful lot, but when the cows were shipped, I never saw him in Montana again.

Sometime earlier that afternoon, a big strange corporate fellow who sat exactly on his horse like he most certainly sits at his desk called my horse and I over to talk about Africa and politics because he had heard I had some connection to Africa. He was of little use on his horse, and I could not figure out why he was there. I’d never seen him before and he didn’t seem to associate with anyone there on the ranch, yet he had an air of authority and ownership, and I was afraid that if I didn’t at least approach him at his request, I’d later find out he was part of the corporation or something and I’d be kicked off the ranch for being rude or refusing orders. That’s how it worked out there.

He wasn’t a city slicker, but he certainly wasn’t a horseman. And he obviously had no appreciation for the sacred land or beast he rode upon, for all that was on his mind was opinionated, elite views on third world countries and a political agenda I knew he had no firsthand experience with. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone because I think he already assumed he was impressive, but he was desperate for someone to agree with him, and I could not. I felt trapped riding next to him, tangled in his gutless, pointless theories of the world, but until I knew who he was and if it was okay to excuse myself, I stayed focused on my horse’s ears. He had one on me, and one on this man. My horse didn’t seem to understand the man any better than I did, and I took comfort in that, but the ear on me told that me that he especially didn’t understand why we were meandering alongside this fellow when I was obviously so restless to be anywhere else. I could feel him slow up a bit as he rocked back on his haunches, ready to gallop forward at the slightest indication the restlessness won out. I let my body go limp in response, mostly to tell my horse I felt as forced as he did but partly because it was getting harder to pretend this man’s conversation was captivating and sit up straight at the same time. I was done with pleasantries by that point. Some guests would come through that ranch as wonderful as human beings can possibly be. Others would come and let you groom their horses and cook their meals before the sun was up and then ask you to eat on the cold dark porch because they preferred the hired hands out of their sight during mealtime. The best people were the ones that had never been around horses before (or at least, regularly), and the worst were usually the ones that lived with horses, back wherever they came from, but never noticed a saddle rub or a foxtail or could even see their own child filled with grief and loneliness and no desire to be around horses whatsoever.

Truly, this particular man (I never found out who he was) was nice enough, but I wished for a stray cow that needed to be galloped after or new orders or a glimpse from Sam or Brett that said he needed help—anything to escape—for nothing but Montana exists in Montana and its ridiculous to talk about a bigger world out there. New orders finally did come and sent me to a far corner of the ranch. I savored the escape and gulped in the crisp air and all the flavors of fall, as my horse and I followed a new path to freedom, and the sky warmly darkened into purples and blues, gently pressing and swirling around anything that wasn’t earth, imparting a feeling of heaven and peace. The day seemed to last forever, and for that, I will forever be grateful. The sun hung low in the sky, and the land reflected golden yellows of honey and cornflower. My horse and I went on for miles and hours, as did everyone else, but it never felt so. I can’t imagine riding a cloud would feel any smoother than the back of my horse, and I knew dying would no longer be something to fear, for God had given me a feel for Heaven.

There’s always a touch of melancholy in fall, and on this particular season it was that the horse, the old saddle, and the land underneath and all around me…would never be mine. It’s not that I wanted ownership, I just wanted a tie. I couldn’t think of any thing better to be than…Montana. A Montana cowboy that couldn’t separate herself from her or horse or the mountains or the tall grass. I didn’t want to lose who I was or where I belonged that day. Memories fade. But I guess imprints don’t. I knew the day and the magic would forever be with me…but I was afraid the restlessness of a civilized, noisy world might swallow me up before I could return to this life for good. Everything about that day was so crisp and beautiful and rugged. But today, this day in California, upon a glance at a yellow hill dotted with cows, it all came rushing back, and I feel what it’s like to be a Montana cowboy who can’t separate herself from her horse or the mountains or the tall grass. It’s a connection that feels far from human and so it sits just right.