Postcards from my summer not-vacation

Sunrise at the ranch, looking down the valley toward the Absaroka Mountains in the far distance.

I’m home after spending two months working at Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center nestled high in the Torrey Creek valley of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. The ranch operates like a guest ranch, with guests coming for a week or two, to stay in comfortable cabins and take horseback rides, hikes, flyfish, paddle the lake, or just sit on their porch and relax in what the ranch calls “sacred wilderness.”

The ranch’s horse herd comes to visit, grazing around the cabins.

What makes Ring Lake Ranch different than most guest ranches are two things: First, the weekly programs, seminars on various aspects of spiritual life offered by a variety of well-known thinkers. Topics range from reinventing the Christian church as a more compassionate and welcoming community to the study of enneagrams, and the culture of the nearby eastern Shoshone people. Second, guests participate in some of the ranch chores, including dish-clearing and washing after meals, and helping clean and set up their cabins for the next set of guests. (Those activities build community and keep the costs relatively affordable.)

Trail Lake, at the upper edge of the ranch, after sunset.

What was I doing there? Working as hike leader and housekeeping coordinator, two theoretically part-time jobs combined into one way-more-than-fulltime position. As hike leader, I took groups on excursions ranging from rambles into the shale badlands across the river to more rigorous hikes into the high country. Along the way, I interpreted the landscape and the community of our more-than-human relatives who bring the place to life. I see reconnecting people with the community of the land–our wilder kin and their relationships–as my “ministry.”

Lake Louise, a popular hiking destination, six miles round-trip and over 2,000 feet higher than the ranch. A hard climb, but worth the sweat!

As housekeeping coordinator, I maintained the ranch’s linen closet, providing supplies for all the guest cabins and staff housing; cleaned the public toilets every day–something I decided quickly that in order to not grow resentful, I would treat as an act of love; hauled bins of dirty cabin laundry to the laundromat in town and picked up the clean laundry; washed the kitchen laundry every couple of days; and supervised the cabin changeover every weekend, which meant cabin checking and cleaning. I came to see housekeeping as another form of ministry, part of welcoming guests to this place of rest and renewal.

The view from a cabin porch of Trail Lake and the ranch’s labyrinth.

Still, I worked six days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day. Weekends were my crunch time, with all 18 cabin spaces needing new linens and cleaning since one set of guests left on Saturday morning, and the next week’s set arrived on Sunday afternoon. Some weeks I had volunteer help–thank you Sarah and Katy!–which meant I might actually finish work before bedtime.

One of the perks of being up before sunrise was the wildlife encounters, including this young great-horned owl perched by the corral one morning. 

Between hiking and housekeeping, I walked eight or ten miles a day. Despite the ranch’s delicious meals and fabulous desserts, I lost weight. I just couldn’t eat enough for the exercise I was getting!

On Sundays, my only day off, the Guy and I got away from the ranch on hikes, rides, or trips to the nearby “cities” of Lander or Riverton for meals out and errands.

Rest time on a Sunday ride into the wilderness.

Leading hikes brought the joys of spending time with wildflowers of all sorts, and wildlife too.

Fringed gentian, one of my favorite mountain wildflowers.

One day, the youngest member of our hiking group, Lucas, aged nine and a budding herpetologist, found this horned lizard on a badlands hike.

A tiny short-horned lizard, a cold-hardy species of “horny toad” found in the badlands.

Another day, a grizzly bear heard us coming, and hustled off, leaving just footprints in the trail.

A grizzly-bear front paw print (note the claw marks to the left of the toe pads), less than a minute old. 

It was an exhausting and exhilarating two months, full of hard physical work, fascinating people, mind-enriching seminars, and the balm of time in the wild.

The back side of the Pinnacles on the way to Bonneville Pass in the Absaroka Range.

Would I do it again? I don’t know. But I’m glad I had the “time away” and the nourishment of my whole self.

If you are looking for a place to go to renew your relationship with the wild, shed your burdens, and rekindle your spirit, consider Ring Lake Ranch. It’s a magical place.

Ring Lake at sunset.

Time Out (from writing)

Sunset over Torrey Rim, from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch

I’ve been on an extended time-out from income-producing writing for much of the past year. (Other than promoting my new book, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying.) It’s not that I haven’t been working, I just haven’t been forcing my writing to pay the bills.

I thought when I first began this time-out from freelance writing that I would spend last winter thinking and reading (and finishing renovating my house outside Santa Fe). And then come spring, I would be ready to dive into book promotion and begin writing the next book.

I did read and think, and I did dive into book promotion, but I couldn’t make myself start the next book. The fire that has always driven me to write and revise, and write and revise until the story sings was not there. I wrote in my journal (I’m up to 145,000 words for the year), wrote my daily haiku for social media (I’ve written more than 5,000 of those over the past 15 years); and wrote some manuscript reviews, and blurbed a couple of books. But no book.

After Bless the Birds was published, I wrote up a plan for a series of monthly Living with Love author conversations that will eventually become podcasts. The first two conversations were in May (with memoirist Kati Standefer) and June (with author and fellow Quaker Sharman Apt Russell); the series will restart in October.

The cover of Bless the Birds, with a stunning endorsement from author Lyanda Haupt

Then I sold my house outside Santa Fe, and moved home to Cody, Wyoming, where I bought a sweet house on a bluff overlooking the Shoshone River. While I waited five weeks for my belongings to arrive, I started renovating that house, rather than writing the next book. (Do you see a pattern here?)

Five days after the big truck arrived with my furniture and cartons of books and other household goods, I headed to Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center and guest ranch in the wild Torrey Creek drainage of the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming, to work for the remainder of the summer season.

Torrey Creek falls through a narrow chute on one of our regular hikes from the ranch.

My official title is hike leader and housekeeping coordinator, which means I wear at least two hats.

My work day starts at 6:50 am when I walk to the corral with the Guy to help he and the wranglers with horse chores–scooping poop and spreading hay to entice the ranch’s 30 horses to come into the corral so it’s easier to catch and saddle them for the day’s rides.

Sometimes the horses graze just outside our cabins.

After horse chores, I put on my housekeeping coordinator hat and head uphill to clean and restock supplies in the public bathrooms. And then collect the kitchen laundry and put it in the washer.

Then comes breakfast (which I don’t have to prepare, thank heavens!), after which I trade for my hike leader hat and fill my knapsack with first-aid kit, water, sunscreen, bug repellent and other hike-leader supplies, and then lead a group of guests on a half-day or over-lunch hike. Along the way, I “read the landscape,” telling stories about the geology, history, and the relationships between plants and other species that make up the community of the land.

After the hike, I switch to my housekeeping hat again and hang the kitchen laundry on the line. Then I work in the linen room, organizing dozens of sets of sheets, towels, and other cabin linens, plus maintaining vacuums, mops, and other housekeeping tools.

On Thursdays, I head to town, a 20-minute drive down a winding gravel road and then up the highway, to pick up garbage cans full of clean and folded cabin linens. On Fridays, I check the incoming guest list and make up supply bags for each cabin with sheets, towels, and other supplies, and hand them out to departing guests with instructions on cabin cleaning. (Guests generally leave Saturday morning and arrive Sunday afternoon.)

On Saturdays, I haul the garbage cans full of dirty cabin linens to the truck and then drive to town to leave them at the laundry. And then I check each cabin to make sure the beds are made, re-stock soaps and other supplies, and finish cleaning (the guests help, but the truth is that everyone’s definition of “clean” is different!). I also clean the living room (our main meeting place for the weekly seminars and other programs) and the chapel.

The view up Torrey Creek above the ranch.

If you are getting the idea that each day’s work swallows up most of my time and energy, you are correct. There are compensations though: Not only is the place gorgeous and brimming with the rejuvenating energy of wild mountain landscapes, the community of humans is inspiring and nurturing as well. The food is great too, and spending time with the Guy is a bonus in itself.

I’m not at all unhappy to be working here. But I am also not writing the next book. I remind myself I can write this winter when the nights are long and the days short, and the snow flies. For now, I’m storing up time in the wild, and new ideas and experiences. And that is more than enough.

*****

I want to share two extraordinary write-ups about Bless the Birds:

First, a tweet completely out of the blue from Jacob J. Erickson, Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College, Dublin (Ireland):

“Been spending time reading Susan J. Tweit’s heartbreaking and love-wrapped book this week. Such a story of personal and political love for our earthy lives, terraphilia made intimate. ‘Love couldn’t heal all wounds, but it could carry us through.’ [A quote from BtB] Amen.”

And then my friend and fellow writer Len Leatherwood recommended Bless the Birds on her blog, calling it “exceptional,” and writing praise about the book including this passage:

“Susan’s book is peppered with wisdom, warmth, honesty and a generous dose of reality-based humor. It also tells a real love story of two people who face losing one another far sooner than they had anticipated and how they savor the time they have left. I laughed, cried and excused myself from several family gatherings so I could sneak away and continue reading. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to have a glimpse into a world where consciously living in the present teaches us how not to be so terribly afraid of dying.”

Wow!

Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and for your support. I am honored. Blessings.

4,000 miles in ten days

Sunset from my Eldorado house

I love a road trip across the open spaces of the West. The time spent in my truck watching these expansive landscapes pass by out the windows with Emmy Lou or Carrie or Ian or whomever on the stereo is curiously restful and energizing. “Windshield time,” a friend of mine calls it.

It’s time unplugged, because I’m usually solo and I don’t use my phone to surf the internet or text while driving–for reasons that should be obvious, but clearly aren’t to the hordes who text while at the wheel. I let my mind wander from the balsamroot and lupine blooming gold and purple on the hillsides to the hawks wheeling overhead to the trucks passing by–what is that huge lumpy thing under the enormous tarp on that oversized load, and where is it going? My imagination soars over the horizon; my memory conjures other times when I’ve traveled this road or worked nearby….

Red Canyon on Wyoming’s Wind River. Seriously inspiring windshield time!

Road trips are my dreaming time, my relaxing time, my solo time (unless I’m traveling with the Guy). But sometimes I overdo it, and I have to say that’s the case for this last one. Before I left Santa Fe last Wednesday afternoon, I took Rojita in for her 10,000 mile service. This morning I looked at her dusty odometer screen and realized with a start that I’ve driven almost 4,000 miles since then. In ten days.

No wonder I’m tired.

But what a trip it’s been! First, north to Salida, where Richard and I lived for the better part of two decades. That night, my dear friend Sheila Veazey opened her She-la-Vie hair and skin studio to give me the great haircut that only Sheila can. We spent two hours catching up and drinking Cava (Spanish sparkling wine), which may count as the best spa experience I have ever had. The haircut is insanely great too.

Sagebrush bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia) in bloom at Ring Lake Ranch

From there I headed north to Ring Lake Ranch, where the Guy works in summer with the horse herd. The spring wildflowers were in full show, and the peaks were still splattered with snow, which was seriously refreshing after months of brown and dry in northern New Mexico. But I had miles to go, so after a night there I pushed on. (And was in such a hurry that I left my laptop on the table in his cabin. Big oops.)

First to Cody, in far northwest Wyoming, where I had work. And then, on a hot Friday afternoon, I aimed Rojita north and way west on the long trek to my brother and sister-in-law’s land above the Columbia River Gorge in eastern Washington, a patch of meadows fingered with oak and ponderosa pine forest with views of the snowy cone of Mt. Adams.

Mt. Adams from the meadow where we buried our dead.

The Tweit clan–four generations of us–gathered there to bless their new house, and to bury our beloved dead in one of those meadows under a gnarled old pair of Oregon oak trees, with the last of the golden balsamroot blooming around them, along with pale frasera, purple lupine, and other wildflowers. As we placed the porcelain jar with Richard’s ashes in one hole, and co-mingled our parents’ ashes in another hole, black-headed grosbeaks sang their robin-like songs as swallows dipped and swooped overhead.

Mimosas are a morning tradition for we women at a Tweit-clan gathering.

The weekend was rich, with lots of time to catch up and be outside on the land, and only one major meltdown, which I figure is pretty good with all of us together. The less than pretty parts of our messy family relationships are bound to come up when we gather, and that’s healthy, I think. It’s how we respond–with as much love as we can muster–that makes me proud of my clan, even when we screw up.

From Klickitat County, Washington, Rojita and I headed back to Cody, only this time via the longer southern route across Oregon and Idaho, passing through Jackson Hole and down the Wind River to Ring Lake Ranch to retrieve my laptop.

Coming over Teton Pass from Idaho into Wyoming, the shades of green were almost intoxicating.

With the high desert desperately dry this year, I thirst for water and green, and I savored both in the mountains of western Wyoming, and walking the trail along the river with friends in Cody.

From Cody, I headed south to Lander, Wyoming, for a weekend of teaching workshops at Wyoming Writers annual conference. And then, after that immersion in words and creative energy, Rojita and I made one more long push to return to Santa Fe.

What’s next for me?

On Thursday, June 10th, at 6 pm RMT I’m talking with Sharman Russell, author of Within Our Grasp, for the second Zoom-based conversation in my monthly series. We’ll be looking at how childhood malnutrition affects our economies, cultures, and the future of the planet—and also the very reasonable solutions for this global problem, as well as what it all has to do with living with love. The event is sponsored and hosted by Women’s International Study Center.

Join Sharman and me for a Zoom-based conversation on our new books Thursday, June 10th at 6 pm RMT.

And on Friday, I hit the road again, headed back to Wyoming for my summer work. More on that in another blog post!

Where’s Susan?

Ring Lake guests and staff

As in, Where’s Waldo? Except that I’m easily spotted in the front row of the photo above, shot at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range outside Dubois, Wyoming, last night. That group of people includes many of the participants in my week-long seminar, “Cultivating Sacred Stewardship of Nature in a Time of Climate Change,” and some of the staff and children of Ring Lake Ranch, a dude ranch with a mission of offering “refreshment and renewal in sacred wilderness.”

(The photo is missing several people, including RLR director Andy Blackmum–he’s behind the camera; and multi-faceted ranch wrangler/horse whisperers Mo Morrow and DeWitt Daggett. DeWitt is presenting a seminar in September of 2020 on a spiritual practice of belonging, using horses as teachers.)

The view of Trail Lake and the high peaks of the Winds from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch.

I can attest that the ranch fulfills its mission and then some. There’s the setting, which is spectacular and wonderfully “apart” enough from ordinary life to be restful just by itself. And the people, both staff and participants, who are not just warm and welcoming, but capable and playful and interesting, and intellectually and spiritually deep. And then there’s the hiking and paddling and riding and food…

I came away feeling quite refreshed and renewed–full of ideas, new connections, and excitement about the work I was teaching and the people I met. (And also a bit saddle-sore from some great trail rides, about which I am not complaining one bit!)

Stopping on a ride to take in the view… 

Before going to Ring Lake, I was, frankly, a bit intimidated to be offering a seminar at a place that hosts noted thinkers, writers, and artists in the Christian tradition, especially knowing that among the participants in my group would be faith leaders from various mainstream Christian denominations and other traditions. Honestly, I wondered what I, a scientist and writer who considers herself a Quaker Pagan, would have to offer.

Plenty, as it turned out. The group bubbled over with energy and excitement, ending the week with a new understanding of how restoring healthy nature nearby, including on our church grounds, can also restore us humans, our communities, and the Earth we share. I think I learned as much as the participants did, both from their responses and ideas, and from the work of examining and organizing my thoughts in order to teach.

Sheepeater petroglyph image (circa 800 to 1,200 years ago)

Part of the magic of Ring Lake Ranch is that it has been a sacred site for at least a millennia. The ancestors of today’s Eastern Shoshone people chipped petroglyphs of sacred beings they saw into the sandstone cliffs in and around the ranch. Those rock spirits, some with wings, some masked, some with clawed or curled feet, and many with curving “tails” like smoke leading out of a natural crack in the rock, have the feel of a sacred gallery, an assemblage of wisdom and visions we may never truly understand, but which offer wordless information and inspiration.

I am still processing what was an extraordinary week. I feel as if the time at Ring Lake Ranch was a kind of sacred pilgrimage, one taken without knowing at all what I sought, and despite that, I found just what I needed.

Looking across Yellowstone Lake this afternoon toward the wild Thorofare Valley, where I once walked alone, with only a friend’s dog, on another week-long pilgrimage. 

Tonight I am in Gardiner, Montana, writing with the rushing voice of the Yellowstone River coming in my open door, as a quarter moon sails in the still-blue sky after sunset. Tomorrow I will head to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and begin a week of digging invasive weeds. Despite a gloomy forecast of rain and cold temperatures, I look forward to the hard physical work. It is good thinking time for me, and I will use it well.

As summer edges toward fall, my wish for all of us is that we find ways to nourish our hearts, minds, and spirits, no matter these difficult times. And that we each cultivate an active relationship with the sacred community of nature around us, and find ways to nourish and restore that community, as part of the work of healing this battered planet–and us, too.

Blessings to you all!