Feature

Searching for Home from the Back of a Horse

Love and longing in the rugged landscape of the West.

By
December 2012

I eased my car down Ron's dusty driveway and cursed the ache rising from the seat up my back, a consequence of the 900-mile drive from Bend, Oregon, to northern Wyoming. The road cut through two horse-filled pastures surrounded by barbed wire. Tall cottonwoods fanned out on the horizon. I was in the heart of Wyoming’s broad Greybull River valley, and the mountains were mere backdrops.

My mind flashed to Mel, my dark, fiery young thoroughbred in Oregon. If not for Mel, I wouldn’t have been piloting my car toward Ron’s house. In the year since I’d met “my” Wyoming cowboy—on a trip that had us riding horses deep into the Yellowstone National Park backcountry, me as a journalist, and him as one of several cowboys—Ron and I cultivated a friendship over email. His gentle approach with horses both captivated and confounded me. Somehow he didn’t grow tired of my struggle to subdue Mel. I appreciated his generous advice, though it never seemed to work.

I saw the barn first, then the dogs, a tangled mess of barking herding breeds equally excited and frantic at my arrival. I saw Ron before he saw me. He had milky white skin and red cheeks. His tight Wrangler jeans were tucked into cowboy boots that laced up almost to his knee. His green button-down shirt looked black in the light, and a bushy mustache topped his ruby lips. He wore a white 10-gallon hat.

I peeled my fingers from the steering wheel, rolled my shoulders, and fumbled with the door handle. When my sandaled foot finally hit the ground, his booted one was already there.

“Howdy,” he said with a grin.

We hugged, and it was the first time we’d ever touched. I was aware of pressing my chest against his then pulling it back. I inhaled the scent of hay, sunshine, and man.

“Howdy.”

“Good trip?”

I nodded.

“Hungry?”

I shrugged. I couldn’t peel my brown eyes from his blue ones, and my mind leapt ahead to our future children. Would they have my rosy complexion or his pale Scandinavian one?

I found my voice. “It’s so good to be here.”

“Well yeah,” he drawled, that kind smile lingering. “Long drive.”

We headed toward his home and a wispy blond girl rushed through the door. Behind her I saw a miniature version—her sister, I guessed—giggling from the shadows. That’s when he introduced me to his daughters.

I’d known Ron was a single father. He told me about being a dad when I first met him. His story was unusual only in that he had full custody. Otherwise it followed a typical script: Cowboy marries pregnant high school sweetheart. Two babies later, someone leaves. She left. He stayed. His girls were his life.

When he talked about his daughters, I marveled at his commitment. The men I knew scored dime bags of weed, fretted about Ultimate Frisbee games, and were more committed to mountain biking than family. My admiration was part projection. I’d never had a dad—neither my biological one nor my stepfather—say I was a priority. That this solid cowboy did so with ease stunned me.

“You think you’re committed to your horse?” he said. “It’s nothing compared to your kids.”

Coming from him that was huge. Ron raised his gelding from a colt and trained him to be unflappable. His horse picked his way along rocky trails and trundled through the wind and rain. When we were in Yellowstone, I envied their partnership for an entire day before complaining about my problems with Mel. Then I stared at Ron expectantly, hoping he’d offer me a quick fix. He simply said, “Horses like to test a person, don’t they?”

After the yellowstone trip I started emailing Ron under the pretext of picking his brain for horse-training tips. He answered my questions with thoughtful suggestions and sweet observations that made me think he was a horse-whispering poet.

“Horses read body language,” he wrote. “Your job is to relax, breathe, and forget about your problems. Your horse will follow your lead. Hell, horses are to forget the pressures and slip into another world.”

Ron gave me exercises to build trust with Mel, efforts that took hours, days, months. With the best intentions I tried them, but I always gave up. I didn’t have his commitment. I didn’t have his patience. I didn’t trust they’d work. I didn’t trust myself. Mel remained confused and recalcitrant. I continued to lean on Ron, whom I’d come to adore. By the time I drove up his driveway to embark on a five-day horse pack-trip in the Washakie Wilderness (under the guise of researching a magazine story), I was certain I was in love.

After a dinner of tacos (made with beef from a steer the girls had raised), Ron and I went to bed early in separate bedrooms. Ron’s parents were there, too; they’d be watching the girls while he was gone. The next day at sunrise, I scampered out of Ron’s way as he shuttled saddles, bridles, and brushes into his horse trailer. Then he loaded his steel-gray gelding, the mules, and the horse I’d ride, a skinny, dark brown mare. Our awkward silence disappointed me. I’d expected the fluency of our emails to translate into a personal connection. I followed when he climbed into the truck cab. When we rolled into the gas station and he said, “breakfast,” I almost bounced out of my seat.

“What do you want?” I asked, yearning to feed him.

“I’ll take care of myself.”

I eyed his breakfast burrito with envy as he climbed into the truck. The mini donuts and burnt coffee I inhaled left me with the bitter snap of a caffeinated sugar high. I questioned why I was sitting on the bench of a three-quarter-ton pickup with a loaded gun in a rack over my shoulders. Ron whistled into the morning.

The ice broke on our second day. We rode to the headwaters of the Greybull River, slid off the horses, and stared at the crack in the ground where pure water seeped into the creek bed. Ron dropped to his hands and knees, pressed his lips to the water’s surface, and drank from the source like he was a wild animal, and I did too.

That’s when he told me about Donnie, his brother. When Donnie was in his early 20s, Ron, Donnie, their dad, and their oldest brother went on a hunting trip. It was fall. The ground was icy. They were climbing a steep hill when Donnie’s horse lost its footing and fell to its knees. Donnie stayed calm, but the horse panicked and tried to scramble to its feet. Instead, he and Donnie slid over the cliff’s edge.

Ron and his crew dashed out of the mountains to call for help. A helicopter came. It was hell. Donnie and his horse were dead. The rescuers lowered a person to load Donnie’s body. They left the horse after they removed the tack.

Ron wanted to stop talking about it, but I wouldn’t let him. I wanted to know who loaded the body, and if Ron saw it up close. I wanted to know if he’d been close with Donnie. How had it changed him, I probed, to have his brother die on a family hunting trip?

I felt entitled to know. It was as if by returning my emails for a year, and letting me invite myself on this trip, and humoring me when I waxed on about Mel, Ron invited me to unearth his most devastating experience. Then, when I’d heard all I needed, I holstered my questions. (I would later record the story in my diary.) My mind wandered to the grumbling in my stomach, my crush on Ron, and whether we’d actually sleep together.

We did, on our last night in the wilderness. After dinner, we checked on the horses and mules. The stars in the night sky stitched together like a lacy blanket. We went inside the ramshackle cabin where there were two twin beds. I tugged on one to see if I could push them together. Nope. We were running out of time, riding out the next day. He looked at me, and I looked at him. Still nothing. So I trilled, “I’m cold,” and he said to c’mon over there and get warm. And I did. And it was so forced. I wanted it too badly, and he didn’t want it badly enough.

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.