Monday, October 20, 2008

Winter Rides

I'm in a creative nonfiction writing class this quarter, and recently wrote an essay about my when the ranch I grew up on in Oregon was sold. As I wrote I became very nostalgic, missing the ranch dreadfully. Here's a section of the essay (set in winter 2003).

***

At the end of the semester, I drove to the ranch headquarters; it was late afternoon, three and a half hours out of Boise. As I was hauling my duffel bag into the house, I saw a pickup pulling a horse trailer coming down the lane. Since I never seemed to pack a coat when I needed one, I threw on my dad’s brown Carhartt coat and pulled my knit cap further over my ears and went out to meet the pickup.

My grandparents greeted me with joy and warm hugs as I helped them unload their two horses from the trailer.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked, not seeing my parents or my cousin Cody.

“They’re still riding. Trailing the cows over the highway to the feed grounds.” It was nearing dusk and thick storm clouds began rolling in. It was about three and a half miles from the highway to the feed ground.

“I’ll go help them.” I offered eager to get on horseback again.

My grandpa laughed, “Girl, you’re dad will probably fall off his horse; he’ll be surprised to see you.”

I grinned. “That’s the idea.”

Grandpa handed me the reins of his horse, Rawhide. I tightened the cinch on the colt, remembering just a few years ago I’d halter broke the colt, but I’d never rode the horse before.

“He’ll take good care of you.” Grandpa said, “He’s a good horse.”

I rode out of the yard at a relaxed trot, getting used to Rawhide and letting him get used to me. The fog rolled in ahead of the storm, making ghostlike images in the dusk. I rode past the ranch buildings, down the little lane between feedlots. I remembered playing here as a child, in the summer trying to catch tadpoles in the creek, or helping grandma weed her hug garden plot. I rode past the old cattle chute, one we never used in my seventeen years on the ranch, the wood cracked and weathered with age, but a favorite play area for my brother Thane and I. The willows lining the creek were overgrown and much thicker than when Thane and I built elaborate forts and playhouses in their midst as children.

Rawhide and I climbed out of the little valley where the houses and ranch headquarters were nestled. Once out of the draw, we could see across the flat plain of withered crested wheat and dry sage brush. Storm clouds were continuing to roll in, billows of gray white rolling off the mountains to the west and slowly moving across the plain. The sun had just set, and I squinted through the growing mists to see moving shapes of cows and horses. I saw nothing. I began trotting towards the highway, hearing only the footfalls of Rawhide as he broke dry sage and hit the soft earth. Grandpa’s saddle creaked beneath me. Hearing nothing else, I stopped and listened for the bellow of a cow or the sounds of the herd passing. Where were they? I tried to guess the time, to figure out where they would be.

The mists and clouds were coming closer and the storm muffled all sound. It was so utterly peaceful. There wasn’t a sound except what we made; Rawhide’s steady footfalls beat like drums against the earth as we continued on. We trotted. We walked. We unfortunately didn’t go in a straight line as I kept doubting myself. Maybe we should go closer to the fence; they might be coming up the road. Or further out in the crested wheat field as they might be going straight as an arrow towards the gate into the feed grounds. So on we trotted, in this zigzag crazy pattern, while there was no real sense of urgency; I felt that whenever I found them it’d be good enough.

As the snow started drifting down, I still didn’t worry. I knew this land better than I often knew myself. This land in south east Oregon was often known as the Owyhee High Desert, one of the most isolated places in North America. But it was my playground; I’d ridden over this land since I was six and allowed to ride off by myself. No matter how long I’d been away at college, this land was part of me, a place where I felt truly like myself. I didn’t feel like a stranger here. Even if the ranch sold, this land would always be my home.

It turned out that I missed the cattle herd completely. By the time I’d left the headquarters, Dad had the herd of cattle almost to the feed grounds. We met at the top of the ridge heading back to the headquarters, just a quarter mile from the barn. They all laughed at me as I approached at a slow lope of Rawhide. The cows were already tucked away in the winter feed grounds and the work was done. “I’m here to help!” I announced, laughing at myself and poor timing.

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