Searching for Home from the Back of a Horse

Love and longing in the rugged landscape of the West.

December 2012

—Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

Ron disappeared after our trip into the Washakie Wilderness. For weeks after I returned to Oregon, I badgered him with emails, thanking him, then agitating about our future, then castigating him for his silence.

“It’s a long way from Oregon to Wyoming on a horse,” he finally wrote. The words flickered on the screen in my darkened living room—final, declarative, and, at least to me, cryptic.

Ron fell out of my life and Mel, my horse, grew more unruly. Riding him became too dangerous. Without Ron as a proxy trainer, I gave up. I sent Mel away for professional training and sold him a few months later. Our failure was a disappointment, but at least it was final.

I still wanted closure with Ron. I didn’t see then what is so clear to me now: I tried to will Ron to love me the same way I tried to will Mel to obey me—aggressively and with tunnel vision. I was wrong in both instances. Neither love nor horses can be forced. When he’d had too much, Mel threatened my safety by rearing up and bucking. Ron went silent. And with him went the scaffolding of the woman I was trying to be. Horseless and without my cowboy, I didn’t know who I actually was. Eventually I decided that moving home to Colorado, the state where I was born, and where I hadn’t lived in more than a decade, might ground me.

Within weeks of landing in Boulder I decided to sell my gas-guzzling Ford F-150, a truck I bought after my wilderness trip with Ron. The buyer came to my house and carefully counted out $8,000 in cash. I handed over the keys and placed the stacks of bills safely in my desk. Then I went to the garage to tune up my bicycle, which was suddenly my only mode of transportation. I rummaged around for chain lube and found it in a box that also held a pair of dusty, cracked cowboy boots. As I fingered the dry leather, I expected sadness. Instead I had the satisfied sensation of completion.

I didn’t know then that I would soon meet a scientist, geeky but handsome, who loved to ski and who would fall in love with me. That man, Jeff, would become my husband, and together we’d travel to Paris, Alaska, Italy. We would cook osso buco together and make biscotti at Christmas to give to our friends. We would plant an ash tree in our backyard. We would have two sons.

But first I had to settle into Colorado, and that meant admitting I was more comfortable riding chairlifts, not horses, in the mountains. It entailed lapping Boulder’s Mt. Sanitas and listening to Shawn Colvin at the Chautauqua Auditorium. I shot pool until 3 a.m. at the Sundown Saloon and dodged obnoxious rioting University of Colorado Boulder students one Halloween. The closest I came to cowboy culture was a beer-addled night listening to Robert Earl Keen croon ballads at Denver’s Grizzly Rose.

Naturally, it took time for the Front Range to become my home. But there in my garage, with the weight of the boots in my hands and with my bike perched upside down awaiting maintenance, I realized I knew something important. I understood what Ron meant when he wrote that Oregon was a long way from Wyoming on a horse. It wasn’t the distance that doomed us, and it wasn’t the horses. In the end, the journey proved to be more than too long. It was impossible.