Lessons from the Ranch

I spent my summer working at Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center high in the Torrey Creek Valley of the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. The ranch is a gorgeous place, true to its tagline, “renewal in sacred wilderness.” (The photo above is Trail Lake, one of the two lakes the ranch borders, at dawn a couple of weeks ago.)

Some fun facts from my summer:

  • Number of miles I walked each day (on average): 6.5
  • Number of flights of stairs my pedometer tallied daily as I climbed hills and mountains: 24
  • Number of times I got my saddle out of the tack shed to go for a ride: 6 (that’s just sad, in 16 weeks at the ranch)
  • Age range of guests I led on hikes: 2 years old to 82!
  • Largest hiking group: 27 guests and staff
  • Most beds the staff and I changed in one morning: 41
  • Average pounds of cabin laundry hauled to the Dubois laundromat each week: 180
  • Average hours I worked each day: 10

You may gather by those data that I didn’t get much renewal this summer, and you’d be right. I didn’t get any writing time either. We were short-staffed, and I filled in wherever needed, including working the kitchen and helping the wranglers with the ranch’s herd of 32 horses.

It was, honestly, grueling in terms of physical and emotional effort. The exhaustion was lightened by some really beautiful moments on hikes, in conversations over meals in the dining hall, with staff on our rare off-times, and during evening seminars. Still, the summer’s work left me bone-weary and seven pounds lighter than when I arrived at the ranch in May.

One of those beautiful moments, and a rare time for me in the saddle, on the annual wrangler ride at the end of the season. This is Dundee Meadows, in the Absaroka Range.

I took the job of housekeeping coordinator/hike leader (which equals a more than full-time position, and requires very different skill sets) as an act of service, to use my skills and talents to help the ranch evolve in changing times.

I also figured I’d have some fruitful time to reflect on a question that has troubled me for the past few years: Where is home?

As it turned out, I was much too busy working to have time to reflect. Still, the question surfaced in the moments between waking and sleep each night. I saw the same images and heard the same words over and over, but it took me a long time to realize they gave me the answers I had been seeking.

Where is home? I kept seeing the view of Mount Lamborn over the hayfields of The Guy’s farm. I thought, I miss that soothing green. But I don’t want to live on the farm. Where is my home?

Mount Lamborn in the background over the farm.

I heard “private,” “quiet,” “secluded,” “shady refuge.” But where, I asked my thoughts in frustration. Where is this place?

Then it dawned on me. The place that fit those words and that brought the image to mind was a place I had not considered because it was too close to The Guy: Paonia, the small town surrounded by orchards and farms, home to around 1,500 people, that has been his community for nearly 30 years.

Paonia was his place, not mine. We had been so careful to give each other lots of space, to not encroach on each other. Could I find a place of my own there, both a physical space and a community?

I called him that weekend: “What if I moved to Paonia?”

“Why?” I offered the words and the images that had appeared over and over again in my mind. “I’ll think about it.” he said.

A few days later, he texted, “Okay.” Just one word. Enough.

“Are you sure?” A thumbs’ up emoji appeared by return text. More than enough.

I began obsessively looking at houses for sale in the former mining town colonized by hippies back in the day, and once home to the environmental newspaper High Country News; a town where pot shops coexist with hardware stores, an old-fashioned lumber yard, art galleries, bakeries, wineries, and a community theater.

Peonies blooming in Paonia.

A town named for peonies, one of my favorite heritage garden flowers. Where the streets are narrow, potholed, and shaded by huge old trees. Where the town park hosts “Picking’ in the Park” every weekend through the summer.

After weeks of hounding the real estate websites, and two quick trips south, I found my place. The image in my head of a shady backyard with a deep porch, and even, wonder of wonders! A writing hut tucked away under an ash tree next to the garage. A room of my own….

My 1920s bungalow, where the shaded front porch will be my library.
And the open living room/dining/kitchen will look homey with my sky-blue leather couch, Sam Bair rustic furniture, and my saddle on its stand!
The deep porch and shady backyard
And tucked away under a crooked ash tree, my writing hut.

By a stroke of very good luck, I was the first buyer to see it, and my offer was accepted. So I’m finally moving home. Where I will stay. And yes, it needs a little work (there’s a small matter of 1920s floor beams that need support after a kitchen renovation a few years back installed a very heavy quartzite counter, plus an aging garage roof). But mostly, it’s just where I need to be.

As soon as my sweet Montrose cottage sells, I’m packing up for one last move. And then I’m going to settle in and see what words come next…. And plant peonies to bloom in the garden next spring. At home.

30 thoughts on “Lessons from the Ranch

    • Art, “Outsiders” have been discovering Paonia for decades. Which is what kept the town alive when the coal mines closed in the early 1990s. I’ve watched the town grow and change since the early ’80s, and it has managed to retain its funky charm through it all. And yes, it is quiet still!

    • The building is still there, and there are a few admin staff still working there, but they’ve gone to a distributed model with the editorial staffers and most others working from all across the West. Which has advantages in some ways–more even coverage of the region and our issues–and drawbacks in others (no daily personal contact between the staff). It seems to be working for them though.

  • Ah. A new home for your heart and your art. Paonia! One of my favorites (both town and flower) and almost home when I was displaced from Colorado 20 years ago. May you thrive. May abundant art flow from your settled soul. Bless you and I wish the very very best of nourishment to you and for you. With much love.

    • Querida Jeanne, Thank you for that lovely benediction! I am ready to settle and grow roots. It’s funny, Richard and I looked at Paonia in 1984 (almost 40 years ago) when we were wandering the west and looking for a place to settle with Molly. I voted yes, he voted no (no nearby university to teach at), and that was that. And here I am, finally moving there. Closing a circle!

  • How wonderful, Susan! The house definitely looks and the town sounds like your place! I wish you much joy and peace there. I will hope to see you sometime when we’re visiting Steve’s son and daughter-in-law who live north of Denver. Sending you a hug!

    • Chris, Thank you so much! I would love to see you and meet Steve whenever you come to Colorado. Paonia is about four hours west of Denver, but it’s a glorious drive over the mountains, through Glenwood Canyon, and then up the Roaring Fork Valley to Carbondale and over McClure Pass and down the North Fork Valley. So plan on a day–or more, as I have a guest room. Much love!

    • I hadn’t thought about food security, but you’re right: Paonia is a place where I’m not likely to starve! (As long as I have a way to freeze summer’s bounty, which I do because I’m putting solar panels on my roof.) And thanks. I’m happy. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debra. As I said to Penny, I feel very fortunate to become the steward of yet another wonderful house and yard. And if everything works out, my Montrose cottage is going to a teacher who is a single mom with a ten-year-old daughter. They are both in love with the place, and that warms my heart.

        • It’s true, and part of why I’m so excited about this sale. I love the idea of passing on my place to someone who it will shelter and nurture. I hope that the mom and daughter thrive here!

    • Thank you so much, Mary Jo! After almost a decade of wandering, I’m ready to settle, and I think I’ve found a wonderful place to do just that. 🙂

  • Wonderful news Susan. A place to call home is a true blessing. May your new home welcome you with an abundance of love, joy, prosperity, good health and many fruitful years writing. I’m looking forward to visiting you there.

    • Thank you, Susan! I’m thrilled and very eager to settle in and slow down. The slowing-down part won’t fully happen until after the Women Writing the West conference in Oklahoma City Oct 20-22, since I’m part of the conference committee. But as I head back West after that conference, I’ll be breathing deeply and inhaling the joy of going home at last. 🙂 And I’ll look forward to sometime when you can visit!

    • Thanks much, Joyce! I’ve been pretty nomadic for the past eight or so years, and it’s truly time to settle, and grow a garden and some roots. (Plus more writing.) Hope to see you at the WWW Conference in Oklahoma City next month. 🙂

    • It is a funky place in many ways, from the water system that the town neglected to maintain for a couple of decades and now needs a big investment of infrastructure cash to the wildly-creative-use-of-junk-as-art vibe, but that makes it, well, unique. I’m looking forward to settling in and keeping a low profile, reading, writing, and gardening, and spending a lot of time with the horses and the Guy. 🙂

  • Wonderful, Susan. I just happened to see this on Linked In (where I go to give away PDFs of my book to people interested in the subject of childhood malnutrition, a very select group). I’m so happy that you have found a home. Colorado has always been a song in your heart.

    • Dear Sharman, Thank you! I am glad you have connections on Linked In for your childhood malnutrition book, because it’s an important one, and beautifully written. I hope that it’s finding its way around the world and into the hands of people who can use it well and continue to spread the word.

      We’re under an intense thunderstorm tonight, and I’m enjoying the sound of rain on the metal roof of my Montrose cottage, which will only be mine for just over another week. I’m very excited about being able to pass it on to a single-mom school teacher and her pre-teen daughter, because they both love the place. That makes me very happy!

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