What you’ll need: boots, chew
It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.
Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.
When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.
On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.
We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.
I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.
It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.