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.”
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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Leading hikes brought the joys of spending time with wildflowers of all sorts, and wildlife too.
One day, the youngest member of our hiking group, Lucas, aged nine and a budding herpetologist, found this horned lizard on a badlands hike.
Another day, a grizzly bear heard us coming, and hustled off, leaving just footprints in the trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and for your support. I am honored. Blessings.
Last winter, as the snowstorms that once sparingly but reliably watered the high-desert around Santa Fe failed to appear, and the soil blew skyward in hazy clouds on the winds, I realized I felt uneasy. Restless. Anxious, even.
My body, always a reliable barometer, began to send “all-is-not-well” signals: I developed a chronic sore throat, blood clots in my sinuses, nighttime fevers, and a grinding burn in my lower esophagus that no change of diet alleviated.
I ignored these signals. For weeks. My body is always way ahead of my brain’s ability to acknowledge reality.
A dry winter turned to a hot and windy spring, and the Guy and Badger and the horses departed for Colorado, leaving me with no distractions.
I woke one morning with pain flickering along the nerve channels in my legs, like lightning igniting thin internal wires. That got my attention.
I asked my body what was wrong. The word I heard was “homesick.” I saw a familiar image: a sea of big sagebrush stretching west to the uptilted ridges of Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River canyon a dark gap splitting them. (Like the photo at the top of the post.)
“I can’t go home,” I said out loud. “It’s not practical. The winters are too cold. I haven’t finished this house. My book is launching soon: I don’t have time to move.”
The burning in my esophagus notched up, and a storm of pain raged down the nerves in my legs.
Homesickness may not be a diagnosable illness, but it is more than mere sentiment. The word itself, writes Carolyn Servid in Of Landscape and Longing, allows the truth that when we are away from the places that nurture heart and spirit we feel “unhealthy, ill at ease.” Americans are a restless culture, moving constantly in search of new opportunities, which we define in terms of money, possessions, and power, not the richness of connection. If we valued roots — attachment to place and the community of species who live there over material success, we might well be happier, less driven to accumulate things and more able to be nourished by what we have and who we love. The malaise that captures us when we live in a place or culture that nurtures neither heart nor spirit may be telling us that we, like ET, need to honor the call to go home.
My roots have always been in northwest Wyoming, specifically from Cody west through the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. I wasn’t born there, but I attached to that landscape stubbornly in childhood, and have lived there more than once over my adult life. My heart soars just thinking about those expanses of sagebrush and rugged volcanic plateaus, the resident grizzly bears and sandhill cranes.
The idea of moving home stuck. I couldn’t do it now, I thought, but maybe sometime in the next few years…. I began idly surfing real estate websites, looking at property for sale around Cody.
One day in late March, as I was plotting out a native-plant pollinator garden I had promised the Guy for his farm, I saw a house listed for sale on a bluff above the Shoshone River right in Cody. It was an ordinary ranch house, with small rooms and 1990s dark paint and trim, but the backyard ended in a fence overlooking the river, sagebrush in view and the mountains on the western horizon. A cottonwood tree shaded the front yard.
“I could live there,” I thought. And half an hour later, I noticed that the burning in my esophagus was gone, and my legs didn’t hurt. “It’s not practical,” I said, curious about how my body would respond. Within minutes, the burn and the flickering nerves were back.
I called my friend Yuliya Martsul, a real estate agent in Cody. The house was already under contract, she said. Ah well. If it’s meant to be mine, it will be, I reminded myself. And I went back to looking, my mind finally accepting the idea of moving home.
I talked to the Guy: “If it’s what you need to do, we’ll adjust our home range to make it work,” he said. That night, I slept soundly, with no fevers or two-am anxiety.
In mid-April, I was driving to the Guy’s farm, hauling flats of plants for that pollinator garden, when Yuliya texted to say the house was available again. We arranged a video walk-through. By which time it was under contract again.
Still, Yuliya video-toured me through the house. I could see it needed more light and a connection to the outdoors, but otherwise there was nothing alarming. And the location above the river was perfect for me. It felt like I could make it home.
I made a back-up offer, and by the end of the day, the house was under contract again. This time to me.
There were a few obstacles. The biggest? I can’t afford to own two houses. So I’d have to sell Casa Alegría, my house outside Santa Fe, to make the Cody house deal work. And I wasn’t finished renovating. Plus the back yard was still dirt, not the charming native pollinator meadow and borders I imagined.
Also, I was still in Colorado, planting the Guy’s garden. I wouldn’t get back to Santa Fe for another week. Oh, and the owners of the Cody house needed to close the deal by June 1st, then six weeks away.
Still, I was sure I could make it work. Somehow.
On Earth Day, April 21st, I was back at Casa Alegría organizing the last major renovation project with help from my friend and handyman, Carlos Ornelas. I pulled out a legal pad and made a long list of other things that needed doing, including planting that pollinator meadow, and finishing landscaping the back yard. Every day, I checked a few items off of that list.
Four days later, my friend and Santa Fe real estate agent Agnes Leyba-Cruz and her husband Gil came to look at the house. By that night, they had listed it. Within 24 hours, it had shown four times, and the first offer was in. At the end of the week, we were under contract.
Then began the craziness of racing to finish the house and yard, dealing with appraisers, septic inspectors, and the house inspection, which happened while I was away in Cody inspecting the house I was buying. There was a last-minute plumbing crisis, and I had Bless the Birds, my new memoir, to launch. And I had a household to pack up and move. (Plus a 4,000-mile road-trip for work and a family reunion to fit in there.)
I didn’t sleep much, but I did get my massive to-do list whittled down.
Ten days ago, I watered the pollinator meadow in the backyard at Casa Alegría for one last time, carefully loaded Arabella, my huge Christmas cactus, into my truck; hitched the truck to Cabanita, my teardrop trailer filled with all I would need until the movers brought my furniture, books, and household goods; and hit the road for the long, slow trip north.
When I came over the last divide and saw Heart Mountain, one of the four “corners” of the land I call home, on the horizon, I am not ashamed to say I cried. My heart filled. I let go of tension I had probably been holding ever since I left Cody almost three years ago, bound for Santa Fe.
The late Barry Lopez, who I miss very much, described what I feel in Arctic Dreams:
For some people, what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land. … Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers, and they live in a kind of time that is not of the moment, but in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime. To cut these fibers causes not only pain but a sense of dislocation.
Home is not some abstract place or community for me. It is part of who I am. I am less me when I am away from the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming. Less grounded, less present, less whole. Even less well.
Arabella is now settled in the living room, and I am busy painting and designing renovations. My furniture and household goods have yet to arrive, but I’m managing. I am home, and grateful to be here. My longtime community of friends has folded me in as if I never left.
Each morning and evening, I walk trails through sagebrush and along the river. My symptoms haven’t returned, and the anxiety that woke me every night at two am is gone.
My body knew that I was homesick. My brain just took a while to catch up. All I needed was to move 900 miles to northwest Wyoming. Home.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And on Friday, I hit the road again, headed back to Wyoming for my summer work. More on that in another blog post!
At the end of our summer work in Wyoming, the Guy gave me what may rank as the best birthday present ever: a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness, part of my old fieldwork area in the Absaroka Range southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Just the two of us, his four horses (two for riding, two for packing), and a stretch of glorious days away from cell phones, internet, news, and other humans. (We did see three other people on our last night as they rode by our camp.)
I haven’t been on a backcountry pack trip in decades, since the years when I traversed these mountains in my work for the Shoshone National Forest, before graduate school and meeting Richard and Molly. Who–bless their hearts–did not have the same need for time away in wild places as I do. As I write in Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my forthcoming memoir:
We managed just one family backpacking trip, a weekend outing to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, for my birthday that fall in West Virginia. Richard and four-year-old Molly were so miserable that I took pity on them after the first night, and we packed out. On the way home, we stopped for “real food,” in Molly’s words, and Richard’s favorite dark-roast coffee. I never tried backpacking with them again.
For me, this trip into the South Absarokas, home to more grizzly bears, wolves, and elk than people, was a dream–and another step in reclaiming the part of myself that I had set aside during my nearly three decades with Richard and Molly. I never expected to get back into the wild country I learned so well over the miles of hiking and riding for my work back then, and came to love so deeply that it has been the home of my heart ever since.
When the Guy and I first started talking about taking a backcountry trip last winter, we imagined something more ambitious, a through-ride that would trace the route of a solo backpack trip I took in my mid-twenties, cutting through the Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone. But as the time for the trip got closer, we scaled back those plans, deciding that for our first pack trip together, it would be wise to plan a shorter and less rigorous route.
So we did some day-rides into the mountains to hone our skills and to get the horses in shape. Then we picked a drainage were we could ride in, establish a base camp, and explore from there. We scouted the area first, riding the trail we would take, and found a meadow that looked perfect for our basecamp: big enough that it offered abundant native forage for the horses, a creek tumbling through, and several good sites for our tent and cooking areas (which needed to be far apart so that we were not sleeping next to anything that smelled like food).
Once we knew where we were headed, we went into trip-preparation mode: pulling together maps, food, emergency supplies, and pack gear; we checked the tent, and pulled together our sleeping bags and pads, and personal gear. The Guy inspected the pack saddles and supplies, and did a test-pack of the panniers and bags, and weighed everything to make sure we weren’t giving the horses too much to carry. The night before we were to leave, we loaded the gear into big horse trailer.
The next morning, we fed the horses early so they would have time to finish their hay before we left, and then finished preparing. We were on our way by the time the sun began to warm the late-summer air, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning. It took about an hour to get the horses saddled, the packs on and lashed down, and then we were off, riding up the valley toward the distant peaks and high plateaus, and away from people and wifi and cell phone reception.
At first, the horses were jumpy, starting at deadfall, and hopping sideways when some ducks took off from a nearby pond in a rush of feet slapping the water’s surface. But pretty soon we all settled into a good trail rhythm. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and the forest smelled of pine sap interspersed with musky threads of other animals.
We stopped for a snack near a lake with a marsh full of birds, and lupines, pussy-toes, and other wildflowers blooming in the forest. The horses grazed the lush grass hungrily, and when we rode on, they were all still munching. I led our small string on the way to the lake, and the Guy took the lead from there on.
We reached the meadow where we planned to camp by mid-afternoon, unsaddled the horses, arranged the tack on a log where it could air out, and then set up the highline for the horses, the overhead line where they would be secured at night.
Once the horses were settled, we ate a late lunch, pitched the tent, set up our camp kitchen area, and relaxed in our camp chairs in the shade of a big lodgepole pine tree. I wrote and the Guy meditated, and then studied the maps. We both absorbed the quiet.
Around dinnertime, we unhooked the horses, put hobbles on their front legs, and let them graze the meadow, keeping an eye out to make sure none hopped far enough to get to the trail. The Guy got out the stove, boiled water from the creek, and I “cooked” dinner, pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Thai-style chicken dinner, and adding some fresh vegetables. Ten minutes later, we shared a surprisingly delicious hot meal as the pink light from sunset faded from the peaks and then the clouds, and the moon sailed across the evening sky.
Before dark, we hooked the horses on the highline, and then we each brushed our teeth, took one last foray into the woods to pee, and headed for the tent and our cozy sleeping bags.
And so our days went: Up with the sun, set the hobbled horses to grazing, make breakfast, decide on the day’s ride, catch the horses, saddle up with lunch in our pommel bags, and hit the trail. Back by late afternoon, set the horses to grazing, relax in our camp chairs, make dinner, hook up the horses, and crawl into the tent and curl up together.
One morning we woke to rain pattering on the tent, so we didn’t start our ride until ten, but we still had time to explore the big meadow at the head of the valley (the photo at the top of the post) and the smaller meadows above it, green and boggy and filled with elk sign–wallows, scat, and tree-bark scars where the bulls scrape the velvet from their antlers. We rode past the end of the trail, forded the creek multiple times, ducked under branches and worked our way around deadfall timber as far as we could go, just seeing what was there, and then headed back to camp.
Another morning we got an early start and took a steep trail that zigzagged up a side valley, climbing up and up and up and up through the forest, and then traversing a narrow ledge of trail high above the cascading creek. “That’s real mountain riding,” commented the Guy when we were safely past a particularly vertiginous stretch.
We stopped to let the horses graze in a sedge and hairgrass meadow surrounded by dead whitebark pine trees (killed by white pine blister rust, an invasive pathogen). I commented that this was prime grizzly bear habitat despite the dead forest. Just above the meadow, I spotted one of the largest piles of grizz scat I’ve ever seen smack in the middle of the trail. We stopped to look, and reassured ourselves that it wasn’t that fresh–only later did we admit to each other that it had probably been no more than an hour or two old.
We rode on, listening and looking for bears, and saw none. Just more piles of scat, berry bushes everywhere–raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants; and a several-month-old kill of an elk calf, with not much left but some pelt and scattered bones with tendons attached. I’m pretty sure that big boar grizzly who left the poop knew exactly where we were. We rode with all senses alert, in the knowledge that we could be lunch if we weren’t careful.
That trail took us high into an alpine basin above tree-line, where we stopped for lunch and let the horses nibble alpine turf while we ate. A golden eagle soared above the high ridges, and a peregrine falcon whizzed by on the hunt. Far in the distance we could see the next mountain range to the south. The wind whistled among the rocks, and storm clouds began to built overhead, our signal to head downhill.
That evening it rained and then hailed, pea-sized pellets hurled on chill winds. The next morning, we woke to frost on the meadow. We ate breakfast as the horses grazed, and our tent dried in the sun. Then we packed up and headed out, the horses frisky because they knew we were on our way back to the trailhead.
By the time we reached the truck and trailer, the weather had shifted and the wind was gusting hard, and we were ready for a shower and a good dinner. The next morning, snow dusted the peaks above where we had camped, a foretaste of fall.
I call that trip my birthday present because the Guy provided everything: his horses, the packing gear, even the food. All I had to do was show up with my personal gear, ride well, and be good company.
And because it brought me something I had forgotten how much I needed: time away from the hustle of the human world, the bad news that deluges us every day, and the pressure to respond to every signal in our culture of instant communication. For those days in the wild, my system returned to solar time, and my senses tuned to the weather and the shape of the landscape, the sound of elk bugling and the smell of bears.
(On my actual birthday last week, the Guy gave me another perfect present: an increment core for sampling trees, but that’s another story.)
I came away from our wilderness time tired but happy, feeling competent and alive. The trip reminded me of what matters most: living with love and kindness, and practicing stewardship of this Earth and we who share it. I needed that time to refresh my spirit and strengthen my heart for whatever comes.
This was a crazy week, as befits a week that includes a total eclipse of the sun passing across central Wyoming (the exact center of the zone of totality was just about two hours south of where I live in Cody). I spent last Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday madly working to get the house ready for a family visit from my brother, sister-in-law, youngest niece, 89-year-old Dad, and my sister-in-law's two Italian greyhounds, Sarge and Pepper.
(The photo above is the fam atop the Beartooth Plateau, the largest alpine plateau in the lower 48 states, on Wednesday morning. From left to right: Alice, my niece, holding Pepper; Lucy, my SIL, holding Sarge; Bill; and Dad)
In the midst of my family-visit-prep frenzy, I also had a lovely visit from Harry, Nicole, Ethan and Diedre Hansen, incredibly talented metalsmith friends from Salida. (Check out their work at Sterling & Steel.) They were on their way to a show in Bend, Oregon, and came to Wyoming for the eclipse.
Sterling & Steel candlesticks paired with "Prosthesis," a tabletop sculpture by my late love, Richard Cabe.
I had intended to take time out on Monday to drive south with Cody friends and see the eclipse. Only I woke that morning feverish and chilled, feeling very, very punk, and not up for going anywhere farther than from my bedroom at one end of the house to the kitchen at the other end to greet my contractor, Jeff, when he arrived at seven am to work on the basement bathroom.
Work that had to be finished by Tuesday evening, when the Subaru bearing the Washington crew was scheduled to arrive, since Dad would have the upstairs guest bedroom and bathroom, and Bill, Lucy, and Alice (plus Sarge and Pepper), would occupy the private and cozy family room downstairs with its own bathroom.
Family room now…
The family room was as ready as it was going to be, having already made the transition from ugly to comfortable over the past couple of months.
And when I first saw it last October (the photo does not really do justice to just how ugly the room was!)
But the bathroom… Well, honestly, it was so awful that until I realized that the family visit would come in August, I had tried not to think about it. It wasn't just ugly when I bought the house, it was downright scary; only one of the fixtures worked and was actually something you'd want to use. (Not the sink, nor the shower.) And the disgusting floor and termite-nibbled walls… Ick.
The basement bathroom when I bought the house, a room I described as one you'd want a tetanus shot before entering.
Improving the bathroom involved basically starting over within the existing shell. So I watched the shadow of the eclipse sweep across northwest Wyoming in between helping Jeff as he built a new shower in the gutted bathroom, and began laying new floor.
(I've seen a total eclipse before and it definitely put the "awe" back in awesome. Seeing the stars come out in the middle of the day, hearing the birds make nighttime sounds, and watching a 360-degree "sunrise" simply are unforgettable, one of those experiences that changes the way you understand the world.)
Bathroom post-demo, mid-renovation
As it turned out, everything took longer than either Jeff or I expected (that darned eclipse!), and it was mid-morning on Wednesday before the bathroom was finished enough to be usable. Which was actually fine because Bill et al. didn't arrive until a day later than expected: they were in eastern Oregon watching the eclipse when Dad became unresponsive. He ended up watching the total eclipse through the windows in the back of the ambulance ferrying him to the clinic in Fossil, Oregon.
(He's fine. At 89, he sometimes forgets to drink enough water and notice when his chronically low blood pressure goes into the danger zone.)
So instead of them arriving in Cody Tuesday evening in time for dinner, we rendezvoused in Red Lodge, Montana, the next morning, and took one of our planned field trips–driving the Beartooth Plateau–as a caravan on their way into Cody.
Arctic gentians (Gentiana algida) on the Beartooth Plateau
Despite a serious haze of smoke from huge forest fires in western Montana, it was a glorious day up on the plateau. The tundra was already russet and gold with fall, but we saw arctic gentians blooming, black rosy-finches, and a small family herd of mountain goats, the latter so close that Dad, who is losing his vision to both glaucoma and macular degeneration, could see them through Bill's scope.
Mountain goats grazing a still-green swale in the tundra atop the Beartooth Plateau (that pointy arete in the background is the "bear's tooth" for which the plateau is named).
And when we got home, Jeff had finished enough of work on the bathroom that it looked great, so everyone was impressed. (Me included.)
The basement bathroom, much improved…
The next day we wandered downtown, toured the Buffalo Bill Center for the West (actually, we only toured two of its five museums, the Draper Museum of Natural History, which I could easily spend a whole day immersed in, plus the museum about "Buffalo Bill," the stage persona of Col. William F. Cody, and Cody's fascinating and difficult life).
Friday morning, we split up. I drove Dad and Bill up the North Fork and into Yellowstone National Park, while Lucy and Alice and the two dogs headed south to Colorado to visit Lucy's sister TD. (Lucy and Alice wanted to go to Yellowstone too, but they had committed to being in Colorado Friday night.)
It was another gorgeous day, complete with an afternoon rainstorm which cleared out the smoke haze and opened up the distant views. I didn't take many photos–I was driving. But I enjoyed showing Dad and Bill "my" park. They have both been to Yellowstone a number of times before (I think we visited as a family for the first time when I was 8 years old and Bill ten). I took them to some favorite and lesser-known sights, and showed them the areas where I have been weeding these past two summers.
Lake Yellowstone, an azure sheet of water-reflecting-sky, from Lake Butte Overlook.
We saw bison and pronghorn and loons and swans and elk and all sorts of late-summer wildflowers. The traffic wasn't bad, and the rain was a true delight.
Lewis monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii) and fivenerve sunflower (Helianthella quinquenervis) on Mt. Washburn
On our way home, as we wound down the Clarks Fork River (one of the West's few un-dammed rivers) and up and over Dead Indian Hill, Dad said, "I understand why you wanted to move back to Cody. I can see that you're happy here."
I am. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to come home to the place that has held my heart since that first family trip to Yellowstone fifty years ago. It makes me happy to think that Dad, who was quite worried about my move, now sees the place I love through my eyes.
The next morning, watching he and Bill watch birds at Alkali Lake just outside Cody, I realized that this likely is Dad's last trip to visit me. I'm grateful to Bill, Lucy, and Alice for bringing him, and grateful to have been able to show him my house, my town, and this beloved landscape.
And on a current news note: My heart and thoughts are with southeast Texas, and to all affected by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey. Please be generous in your support: Here's a round-up of ways to help.
Sometimes you just need time to do tasks where your mind can let go and wander.
Shantel Durham, my house-painter, made that wise comment this afternoon when she was in the floor-to-ceiling closets in my guest bedroom, painting the dingy grey walls and shelves a clean white.
We were talking about how much I appreciate her work. Over the past six months, Shantel and her roller and brush have transformed the interior of my long-neglected house from a place so unappealing that my realtor and friends shook their heads when I declared I wanted to buy it, to a place that makes people smile when they walk in the front door. (The photo above is my light-filled and colorful office, which was a dingy cave before Shantel painted it, and her dad trimmed out the gaps in the walls and built the shelves.)
Shantel's a single mom raising an active and smart pre-schooler, and she's going to college–she graduated at the top of her class in the pre-nursing program at the local community college this spring, and is starting to study for her RN this week. So she's got plenty to do in her life.
I said something about how grateful I was that she devotes her precious weekend time to painting for me, and she responded with that nugget of wisdom.
Her words reminded me of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield's book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, about how enlightenment lies in the mundane moments of our every day lives, not just those rare "aha!" moments when we feel a spiritual kick.
Which may be why I spent today, the day before the total eclipse of 2017, which crosses central Wyoming tomorrow mid-morning, doing ordinary things.
Ordinary things like washing my sheets, shaking out my blankets, and rotating my mattress. (And yes, those lovely green walls that make my bedroom feel like a treehouse Shantel's work.)
Eclipses are extraordinary astronomical events–seeing the stars come out in daytime as the sun is eclipsed entirely by our moon is a wondrous and truly awesome experience, in the original meaning of that word, as in "full of awe."
Many spiritual traditions regard eclipses as times of great change, opportunities to focus inward, to harness the shift in the sacred, the energy of the cosmos, the beyond-words-power that moves us in ways we often do not understand, and sometimes are not even aware of until afterwards.
For me, a day spent tending to the mundane in a mindful way is part of preparing for a shift I feel coming in my own life. I can't see what it is yet, but I can feel it in a kind of inner awareness, a listening within that I notice especially when I am engaged in tasks that allow my mind to wander, "where it will go…" as the Beatles wrote in "Fixing a Hole." ("I'm fixing a hole/ where the rain gets in/ and stops my mind from wandering/ where it will go.")
So after I tended to my bed, I scraped ears of fresh local sweet corn I bought at the Farmer's Market on Thursday, and bagged cups of kernels to put into the freezer for this winter, when having frozen corn that tastes as sweet as summer sun will be a treat.
Ears of fresh sweet corn headed for the yellow bowl, where I will scrape the kernels off the cob.
Quart bags in the freezer, giving me that satisfying feeling of having food put by for winter.
I pitchforked up more turf in the front yard and planted the rest of the irises that I divided last weekend from a bed of rhizomes packed so tightly that they didn't even bloom this year. My digging-up-and-separating efforts yielded enough irises to cover three times the area of the existing iris bed!
While I had my pitchfork out, I dug up more unwanted turf in the rock-garden part of the front yard and planted blanketflower seeds from my former yard in Salida to add to the clump of blanketflower I got from friends here, which is blooming like mad right now.
A sunflower bee on the blanketflower, happily collecting pollen (you can see the orange clumps of pollen filling the "baskets" on her hind legs).
So this mellower me is listening to the inner feeling of change coming, and letting myself relax into it.
Whatever is ahead, I am grateful to be here in the house and yard I am bringing back to life with the help of Shantel, her dad Jeff, and others. I am grateful to be at home in the landscapes that hold my heart, in a community of friends who have welcomed me back warmly.
This place is my refuge, my quiet center, the sanctuary that allows me to live even in these turbulent times with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, to continue my work of restoring this glorious blue planet and celebrating its vibrant diversity of lives.
May we all find our place of refuge and sustenance, and may we all go forth into the world with listening ears and giving hearts. It will take each of us to heal this world, working in our individual ways, bringing our unique talents, at our own pace. Thanks to you all for adding the gifts of your hands and hearts to the changes to come!
In times when the human world seems to have gone crazy, I head outside for the balm of nature nearby. I always return inspired and energized, humbled, and remembering (again) that life, the capital L kind, the web of interacting species which make this planet a vibrant sphere, is an astonishingly creative and tenacious community.
Tuesday, a baby Bobcat lured me outside. Not the feline kind with four paws and a deadly pounce, the diesel kind with tracks and a bucket. (That's a selfie of me grinning as I operate the machine.)
Knowing I had yard-healing to do, my contractor had put us on the waiting list at the rental center for the MT55, a walk-behind mini-bulldozer. On Tuesday morning, Jeff got the call that the machine was ours for the afternoon. I asked if I could play.
"Sure," he said. He showed me the throttle (a lever with a range between a turtle symbol and a jackrabbit symbol!), forward and reverse, how to steer the tracks, and how to use the bucket.
And then he set me loose. So there I was in my sandals, skirt, and nice sweater (I know, I know, but I was dressed for a meeting and I was very careful), moving and dumping fill, smoothing it with the bottom of the bucket, and running the baby dozer back and forth to tamp things down.
And grinning like a maniac, because using that baby Bobcat to mend the utility-trench scar in my backyard surely is fun. (Who knew?)
When Jeff came back, I had to go to my meeting. By the time I returned, he was at work scalping turf from the front yard for my lawn replacement project, carving out the paths and patio I had outlined with fluorescent green spray paint.
I grabbed a shovel and tidied edges, cut roots, and cleaned up stray bits of turf.
By the end of the evening, the two paths and the patio were ready for gravel, and the robin mama who insisted on building a nest over the side door to the garage had figured out that the newly scraped soil made perfect worm-foraging territory.
(She was completely unafraid of the noisy mini-dozer.)
Today I led the second wildflower walk I've offered in a week. A snowy winter and wet spring have made this one of the best bloom years in decades for the high desert, and I want share this ephemeral miracle–its beauty and its balm–with as many others as I can.
Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) dotted with sulphur yellow western wallflower (Erysium sp.) and prairie Junegrass
Including you. Here's a quick tour of what's blooming in my "nearby wild":
Bessey's locoweed (Oxytropis besseyi)
Fuzzytongue penstemon (Penstemon erianthus)–you've got to love that common name, which alludes to the furry stamen that leads bumblebees inside the flower
a fleabane (Erigeron sp.) I haven't identified yet
An annual lupine (Lupinus sp) that's only about three inches tall!
Scarlet guara or lizardtail (Guara coccinea)
And the adult bald eagle we unintentionally disturbed from her perch in a cottonwood tree on the canyon rim. Look for the white spot of bald eagle tail in front of the cliff mid-photo.
The wonder of nature–spring wildflowers, bald eagles, and all–is in just that flourishing of diverse forms of life, growing and blooming, hunting and eating, mating and dying, each in their own unique way. Spending time outside reminds us that even at our worst (and global climate change certainly falls in that column), we are not everything.
Life continues despite us. Not unchanged, but determined and creative, impelled by the need to thrive. In every corner and pocket and place.
That determined flourishing as exemplified by the myriad kinds of wildflowers blooming among the sagebrush this spring gives me great hope. Hope in the active sense, the sense of encouragement to redouble my work of spreading love in the world, of healing this battered planet and my species in the doing.
For me, that's the balm of bobcats and wildflowers, bald eagles and the miracle we call life.
scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), also called cowboy's delight
Progress on my house and backyard is stalled right now. The backyard is still partly torn up from trenching for my new underground electric service because we’re waiting for the City to re-connect my raw water line (Cody has two distinct sets of water delivery pipes, treated for in the house and raw or untreated for irrigation water).
(Backyard destruction: The photo at the top of the post is my contractor, Jeff Durham, smiling from the trench he just dug, and his son, Allen, on the left holding the sawzall for cutting tree roots. In the background are Sam and Dustin, hooking up the new electric service and meter box to my house.)
In the house, we’re waiting for my plumber to rough in the fixtures for my en-suite bathroom.
While I’m practicing patience–never my best talent–I’m getting started on the front yard, which is basically on the lawn-and-shade-tree landscaping plan.
There’s one skinny flower border along the fence by the garage, and an oblong bed in the middle of the other side of the lawn with a teenage spruce tree beginning to shade it. Both are over-run by lawn grasses, with numerous volunteer Russian-olive sprouts plus a few Canada thistle sprouts too, just to liven things up.
Lots o’ lawn–boring! But what are those green lines? Read on…
As you can imagine, I’m planning a complete yard makeover. I envision colorful landscaping that uses less water, provides more habitat for pollinators and songbirds, and is less welcoming to ambling deer and munching cottontail rabbits. No easy task, but I’m beginning to see a plan.
Inspired by two small, triangular, rock-edged beds (also over-run by lawn) on either side of the drive where it meets the front sidewalk, I decided to plant a rock garden along the front edge of the yard between one of the new access paths (outlined in green above) and the sidewalk along the street.
My neighbor Jane Dominick donated two wheelbarrow loads of local rock from her yard, and my friend Connie Holsinger, visionary co-founder of the Habitat Hero project, gave me a generous gift certificate to High Country Gardens.
I ordered more than two dozen native plants plus a few non-native lavender (which will serve as deer and rabbit-deterrent), piled the rock near the rock-garden-to-be, and thought for a couple of weeks.
Yesterday afternoon, I got started laying out plants, and cutting through dead turf to plant them. I worked for a couple of hours, and then, before I had entirely worn myself out, I cleaned and stowed my tools, and went for my regular Sunday run.
The bricks mark the edge of a new path; the rock garden extends from the path to the sidewalk, to the existing triangular bed–also newly planted, and to the driveway.
After work this evening, I took some time to admire what I had done, and to start placing rocks. I’m going to need a lot more of them, and more plants, but with plants and gardening, I can be patient.
Renovating this yard is a long project, but oh, how rewarding it will be!
The future rock garden viewed from the other direction. The new plants are in dark circles of removed turf.
In the meantime, I am inspired by the sagebrush desert just outside town where I run. This year’s spring green-up is the best in decades, colored by the prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and dotted by an ever-changing show of wildflowers.
The Shoshone River and its canyon from my running route.
I am taking notes and photos, and planning to collect seed for my rock garden. Who could resist attempting to grow these charming and beautiful native mat-plants? Not I!
Hooker’s sandwort (Areneria hookeri) with its starry flowers, all of two or three inches tall
Stemless four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), a minature blast of spring sunshine
Waxleaf penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), not a mat-plant, but oh, that blue!, growing in front of Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. Wyomingensis).
Last Friday morning, I backed out of my garage promptly at nine am, headed for Colorado. Specifically, for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities to attend the annual Colorado Authors’ League Awards banquet. It’s an eight-hour drive to Arvada, and the first six hours were glorious. (The photo at the top of the post is the Wind River Canyon, about two hours south of Cody.)
Wyoming has many spring moods, ranging from howling wind to blizzard, to bluebird-blue sky and mellow. Friday was the latter, and my state had on its spring green, freckled with wildflowers and grazing pronghorn. As I drove, I watched for soaring hawks (I saw two golden eagles and three balds), counted pronghorn until 200 and then lost track, thought about geology (it’s hard to drive through Wyoming and ignore the geology, because rock layers and the structures they form are so obvious), and mused about writing and life.
Then I got to Colorado, and I-25 turned into a major traffic jam. Those final two hours of the drive were not fun. Still, Red and I made it to the Arvada Center, where I changed into my dress and sparkly sandals, and went inside to join the throng.
We ate, we talked writing, we listened to keynote speaker and former Rocky Mountain News sports cartoonist Drew Litton on the creative process of cartooning. And then came the awards.
I was a finalist in two categories: Blog (for this blog), and Essay (for “No Species Is An Island” in Humans and Nature). The competition was stiff, with fine writers in both (including Page in Essay), so I didn’t expect to win either. I hoped for one award–we always hope, I think. I was honored when my name was called as the winner for Blog, and then stunned when it was called again for Essay. Wow–Thank you, Colorado Authors’ League!
The next day I drove over the mountains on the familiar route between Denver and Salida, a drive Richard and I took dozens of times in our last years together as we commuted back and forth for his cancer treatments, and to care for my mom, who died the winter before Richard did.
I reached Salida just in time to rush to my first meeting of a weekend packed with meetings, teaching, and catching up with Salida friends. When I agreed to return to work with the finalists for the Kent Haruf Memorial Writing Scholarships, I imagined having time to hang out and read and write.
Not a moment! Still, it was a rewarding, if intense weekend. Especially the time working with four talented high school writers: teaching them in workshop and consulting with them individually on their work, and then selecting a Scholarship winner and another writer as Honorable Mention. (Congratulations, Berlin VanNess of Buena Vista High School and Mike White of Cañon City High School!) I also MCed the Awards Dinner…
By the time I left late yesterday afternoon, I was exhausted. And very eager to be home in Cody.
North Park and the Park Range yesterday evening
It’s a 9-plus-hour drive home, so I wisely didn’t try to do the whole thing last night. Instead, I drove to tiny Walden, in Colorado’s North Park, a sea of sagebrush rimmed by mountains that reminds me a bit of my home territory. I tucked Red into an inconspicuous spot behind at the Forest Service Work Center there, climbed into my nest inside the topper, and fell asleep to the chorus of spring peepers from a nearby pond.
My treat for getting an early start this morning was an extended stop at Split Rock National Historic Site between Rawlins and Riverton. (Split Rock is a gloriously eroded granitic dome rising above the Sweetwater River that was a landmark on the South Pass portion of the Oregon Trail.)
Spring wildflowers blooming on Split Rock
The “seams” in the nubbly granitic dome were bright with wildflowers and I happily climbed and wandered, reconnecting with plant-friends just as I had reconnected with writer friends on Friday night and Salida friends through the weekend: spring buttercups and chickweed, round-leafed saxifrage and stoneseed, Nuttall’s violets, and wax currant.
Ranunculus (buttercup) and Cerastium (chickweed)
Meadowlarks fluted their bubbling songs over the voices of sage sparrows, and tiny fence lizards hunted for insects among the rocks. It was the perfect way to recharge my batteries for the last four hours of the drive home.
I pulled Red into the garage at four pm and began to unload the truck. Inside, I found Shantel Durham, my wonderful painter, at work on the finishing touches of the new paint in the bedroom hallway. Once that hallway was a dark and uninviting corridor. Now, as Shantel said, “it’s like the sun came out.”
The newly painted bedroom hallway (I refinished that floor myself, by hand).
That pretty much sums up how I feel about my life since moving home to Cody: It’s like the sun came out. And I am very, very grateful to be here at home at last.