Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Loss So Profound: A Letter to My Bayley

To my sweet Bayley,

Over the course of the past few days as I try in vain to adjust to life without your large, ever sweet, physical presence in our lives, I’ve sat down to try to put into words what you meant to me. Not to anyone else – just to me. I haven’t been able to until now and still this doesn't begin to touch it. The grief is too profound. Too new. I haven’t been able to see through the hot tears that seem to be my constant companion. If they're not coursing down my face, then they're just under the surface. They’ve replaced the warm, living being who was by my side just a little while ago. I can still count your absence by hours and I know that soon it’ll be by days and then weeks, and life will go on without you. Every night, before I try, and fail, to sleep, I ask God to let you visit me in dreams to let me know that you’re OK, that you’re safe and loved where you are… So far, you’re elusive, my girl.

For now and always, I can still feel you. Your hair is still on the rug since I’ve been unable to bring myself to vacuum up that part of you that’s tangible and that I can still see and touch. I cry when I use the lint roller on my clothing to remove the soft fur that is still there so I can go to work…pathetic, but there you have it. I was only able to take up and wash your bowls yesterday and a few pieces of kibble remain on the rug where they landed when they fell from your floppy lips and where they’ll stay for a while longer. I miss the sloppy sounds of you eating and spreading kibble and drool all over the kitchen because you had to look up for me as you ate.  Just couldn’t keep that face in that bowl… 

I reach for your warm self all the time, both with my hands and in my mind. I miss the sweet sound of you breathing quietly and deeply, then snoring and snorting and chasing “something” in your dreams as you sleep. And I miss the surprising sound of your deep voice on the rare occasions that you used it to entice me to play or to alert your people of the presence of “something” that only you could see. I miss you waiting for me, without fail, just outside the bathroom door while I shower, and my body’s muscle memory still steps over the spot you occupied. I guess you always thought that somehow I’d escape through some non-existent window or door… It was always as sure as the sunrise that you would be there. And I miss you waiting for me, without fail, at the top of the stairs when I came home from work. I still open the door gingerly and slowly so that I won’t hurt you since you were always there. So does Bill. It seems you were always patiently waiting for us…

Today was my first day back to work after this long, hard weekend and I found myself avoiding eye contact with my co-workers and friends so that I could maintain some semblance of composure. People who have loved and lost a beloved companion have all been through the helpless feeling of losing control when someone gives you sympathy and that’s what I wanted to avoid. Most people got that and I appreciate it so much. And for the most part, I was able to get through the day focused on what I needed to do. Then I came home from work for the first time without the joyful greeting that I’ve grown so accustomed to. If you’ve shared your life with a dog, you’ve also all had that. But you were different, my sweet Bayley - not like other dogs. No running around in circles or racing laps. You would almost melt into my leg, pressing your face so close against me that it was almost as if we were one. And I would hold your face close to me and the love was palpable. And I would come away with hair and schmutz (or pupcus, as my friend Molly calls it) on my clothing and not care one bit. Then I’d change clothes and off we’d go on a walk… It was our routine and I think that’s why the loss feels almost more profound today. The weekend was terrible and lonely and I was deep in my grief… But the loss of our normal routine, our life together, the normalcy of it, has affected me more than I can say. The loss of everyday life with you, of the love I could set my clock by, is anguish to me. Now, I simply don't know what to do with the hands that always touched you.

The stories of your life, shared by many, are an amazing testimony to what you were: love, pure and simple. But those stories, while I will treasure them always and they will keep your memory a living thing, don’t speak to the deep love that you and I had together. Just the two of us. You were proof positive that there can be a connection so deep and so lasting that one is not right without the other. That one being needs the other.  And I needed you, my sweetest heart, just as much, if not more so, than you needed me… You had a huge life; one that most dogs can only dream of, full of love and life and adventure and wonderful memories. But the impact you had on my small life, and I on yours, is immeasurable..

In the days before you left us…you were pretty snowed with all of the medications that we used to try to keep the pain at bay, but you were still game for a short walk as long as we helped you up those impossibly steep stairs. But then you started looking at me as though to say you didn’t want to try but would for us. And so you did. I did my best to help you and our little family got into a routine as your strength started to wax and wane…in the days before you left us. Once we got going, you would stop every few steps and sniff the cold air for some smell only you could detect with your big, beautiful nose.  Maybe you were committing those scents to your memory…in the days before you left us. Walks took much longer, but I didn’t mind.  We were together and I loved you and I would take as long as you wanted so you could sniff and enjoy being outside. And we looked forward to the day that we would move upstairs and you didn’t have to climb those steps to go outside…in the days before you left us.

On the day before you left us, we went for a walk in the afternoon, just you and I. You seemed to want to, so we walked a little farther than we had been in the previous days – down the alley toward the home of your little lab buddy that you always liked to visit. I think you secretly loved to tease him by peeing on his fence – he had such a crush on you and would cry every time he saw you… Anyway, we had been walking close together, you and I, since you hadn’t been able to walk as far or as fast for the past couple of weeks and I wanted to be sure to be there to support you. Of course, that was the day you decided to try to chase a cat and I didn’t bring your leash with me – and so you did! Scared that little sucker and sent him under a car!! And hurt yourself in the process… But you made it to the little lab’s house and fence fought with a dog who was there for a play date and one last time, I got to hear that beautiful, deep voice that you rarely used! But we needed your dad to get the car to take you home and I had a sick, sinking feeling that the time that I hoped to be able to spend with you wasn’t to be… How thankful I am, looking back, that you were able to chase that cat, and bark at that dog, and visit with your friend, and ride in the car one last time on the day before you left us.

On the day we sent you with angels, you didn’t want to go outside to potty in the morning even though it had been since the afternoon before that you went, but we helped you up the stairs to try… to hold off the inevitable just a little longer. And then you wanted to just lay in the snow, so we let you and asked no more of you then, nor would we ask more of you forever. On the day that we sent you with angels, you told us very clearly that it was time for you to go and I made the call for them to come to you to help you leave this earth. We didn’t want to take you someplace foreign. We didn’t want to traumatize or hurt you; we didn’t want to make you try anymore. We wanted you safe and warm in your bed, home with us… So, you and I spent all morning together with your head on my lap, or with me lying next to you, or with your dad giving you love… You got some good ol’ wet dog food, a Greenie, some chicken, some cheese, water with chicken broth to entice you to drink, and anything else you wanted. I told you the story of your life and the story of how you healed my heart and how it was OK for you to go and that you’d always be by my side and in my heart. And that you should wait for me just around the bend and that I’d be there. And that you wouldn’t hurt anymore and that you could chase cats, and squirrels, and bears, and gophers. And how much I love you, and always will, and how I know you love me, too. So they came, and you were ready, but we were not.  We never would be. But we knew that releasing your spirit from a body that had failed you was the very best thing for you and that anything else would be selfish of us. I would have given anything to keep you, even for just a little longer, but you were ready to go, my sweet girl.

On the day we sent you with angels, you were gone in an instant, a heartbeat. Before I could take a breath, you were gone. You closed your eyes, those sweet, gentle eyes, one last time and you went to God.

On the day we sent you with angels, our little family was together, and we loved you, as we always did, as we always will. Nothing was different except that you went with angels…

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Bayley Beck, Ranch Dog Extraordinaire

Bayley Beck, Snow Dog on a road less traveled
As I write this, on a cold, snowy day in December, we are on day two of our Bayley’s osteosarcoma diagnosis.  After feeling as though I couldn’t breathe yesterday, today I am more together and able to function to care for our sick little girl.  And sick she is.  Osteosarcoma is a terribly painful cancer of the bone and the preferred treatment for it is amputation followed by chemotherapy, maybe buying a little time if your dog is younger than Bayley’s 10 years old.  The vet also recommended amputation strictly for pain…remove the cancer, remove the pain.  All of this is well and good if there are no metastasis but our Bayley has lesions in her lungs. Or you can try to manage the pain with medication until it can no longer be managed and then humanely euthanize your dog.  We’ve chosen this last option for our sweet girl.  After a conversation (via messages) with Suzanne, my golden retriever Sophie’s beloved vet in Tulsa, I feel more at peace with the decision that Bill and I have made.  Of course, the knee jerk reaction is to do whatever you can to keep them with you for as long as you can, but is that the fair and right thing to do for them or is the selfish thing to do for yourself?

When my Sophie was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, presenting as a highly vascular tumor in her heart that had ruptured and bled into the sac around her heart, I was shocked to my core. I had taken Sophie in to see Suzanne, who did an ultrasound of my golden girl and found that her weakness wasn’t caused by her hip dysplasia, as we had suspected, but was her heart, which was being compressed by the blood that had filled her pericardium.  I remember feeling angry that I knew too much medical terminology and the word tamponade kept popping into my head.  Medical emergency. With tears in her eyes, Suzanne explained that we could tap the blood, giving Sophie a little more time, or we could let her go.  I asked her then of Sophie, as I asked her today of Bayley, “if she was your dog, what would you do?”. And in the honest, caring, and kind way that I miss so much, she told me.  So, we let my lovely dog Sophie, she of the beautiful spirit, go with angels.  And when it is our beloved Bayley girl’s time to go, we will send her to God in the same loving way, thinking of her and her needs, and not our own.  Our own need is to keep her forever, but when you give your heart to one of these beings, your time together is finite.

Bayley and Bill, learning together
When I met Bayley, it was love at first sight.  I had come to Bear Creek with dear friends for vacation, soon after losing Sophie, and Bayley was more than willing to let me put my hands back on the familiar body of a dog – a feeling I had been missing so much.  When I moved there to be with Bill a year later, Bayley became my constant companion in a foreign land and I fell head over heels for her. She became mine. I changed her food, she got a bed and toys, access to the house anytime was hers. Still Bayley Beck, Ranch Dog, but also Bayley Beck, Family.  Bill often joked that I married him for his dog and he’s only half wrong – she sealed the deal!

Many of you know Bayley.  Many of you don’t and should.  Bayley is pure love.  Her heart is that of a trusting child – sweet, honest, free.  She gives her love to all she meets, which is wonderful because her job for the entire time she’s been with the Beck family has been just to love and be loved.  Bill’s son, Dane, his wife, Felicia, and our family friend, Johnny B, found Bayley in a Mountain Trader (or so the story goes).  She was living in the Flathead Valley with a family who had other dogs who picked on Bayley so they decided the best thing to do would be to find the gentle giant a new home.  They brought her home to live at Bear Creek and she bloomed and blossomed with people and no other dogs! 

Bayley with our wonderful friend, Linnea. Bayley is a wonderful surrogate dog!
She loves our guests and they, in turn, love her with abandon and with few exceptions.  Multitudes of people have threatened on many occasions to dognap her and take her to everywhere from Australia to Texas.  She is the very best surrogate for people who miss their own dogs back home.  Bayley loved to go on trail rides with us and our guests, and until age caught up with her in the last couple of years, went almost every time. She’s scared up little bears, chased a moose, and has a hate/hate relationship with the chipmunks who reside in the barn.  More people than I can imagine have photos of Bayley swimming in Buffalo Lakes! At Bear Creek, Bayley is a celebrity, a greeter, a watchdog, a giver and receiver of love.
Channeling Ferdinand, the Bull.  Stopping to smell the flowers and nap in the grass

In her time, she’s been an amazing bear dog.  Her size and her huge bark are intimidating to even a grizzly bear!  She’s a bit like Ferdinand, the bull, however, and would rather just sniff the flowers… Bayley is shameless in her insistence that EVERYONE must give her belly rubs and she routinely places herself just outside of the doorway to the breakfast room (where she is not allowed to be), rolls over, and waits for people to finish eating so they can get to the business of rubbing that tummy, because it’s not going to rub itself!  Those of you who have met her know exactly what I’m talking about.

Autumn is her color
Elias, Me and Bayley

When Bill and I wintered in Tulsa a few years ago, Bayley traveled in the car like a champ and made friends in Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma.  She and Bill walked the trails of the Arkansas River in Tulsa every day – for miles – and she was very briefly an urban dog. She loved my mother with abandon and my mom became a “Bayley person”, not a dog person, or so she said!

But the country is her home and she thrives at Bear Creek, wandering the property, sitting in the creek on hot days, hopelessly dreaming of actually catching a chipmunk or a squirrel or a gopher.  And Bear Creek is where we will take her when it is her time.  It’s her home. It’s where she’s happiest.  And it’s where she should be…

As I write, she’s snoring peacefully on her bed behind me and the sound is music to me. I don’t know how long we’ll have her but I tend to think not long. We won’t have her suffer and lose herself and her joy and become something she’s not. We’ll also give her a good life for whatever time is left.  We’ll take her to see the horses, let her potty in the tall grass, go for car rides, take short walks to see the little lab who has a terrible crush on her and we’ll simply love her.  Every moment with her is a blessing - she is our love and our family.  My heart is breaking at the thought of the loss of her. 
Spectacularly beautiful Bayley at her home at Bear Creek

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls: Back in the "City"

So the beloved and I are in the big city, population of 70,000, for a few months while he pursues his Master’s degree at the University of Montana, or as he likes to call it, The School of Nuts and Raisins.  Missoula is a lovely little town, full of quaint little shops, trendy restaurants and bars, and more health food stores than you can shake a free range, hormone-free chicken at.  It’s an eclectic, pretty town, with the beautiful Clark Fork River running right through it.  The university is a picturesque place, especially during this time of year when the leaves are changing to beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange, falling, and rustling under your feet.  The scent of fallen leaves is heady!  

Bayley likes to take advantage of the Autumn abundance and does her “business” regularly in the piles of leaves that are raked to the curb in our little neighborhood.  Thankfully, I don’t see too many kids playing in the leaves…  I DO pick up her more, um, solid, deposits, but for some reason, she feels the need to mark her territory in the maples…  Bayley is not a city girl and while she is a people magnet and draws them to her furry self like flies, she has also caused more than her share of hand-over-mouth reactions from various up-scale diners at a lovely little outdoor cafĂ© which is on one of our frequent walk routes.  Ah, diners at CaffĂ© Dulce, Bayley is a ranch dog extraordinaire and cares not that you are dining on your POACHED HALIBUT CHEEKS (wild Alaskan halibut cheeks poached in white wine, beluga lentils, grilled radicchio & a grapefruit & Serrano relish for $28).  She will poop right smack in front of you, shamelessly, half on the sidewalk and half on the grass.  And largely.  And be very proud of it.  The lesson I learned that day:  bring two bags or be willing to drive back…

One of the very best things about living in Missoula is the city's extensive walking/cycling trail system which is very dog friendly even if the bicyclists are not so much.  I find that I need some of those rear view mirror thingamabobs to strap to my head so I can see what’s coming up behind me.  The bicyclists around here are a different breed altogether from what I’m used to. Which is no bicyclists.  Albertans, yes.  Bears, yes.  The occasional imagined wolf, yes.  But none of those things will strike fear as much as a flip flop wearing, back pack sporting, dread lock topped, non-rules of the road obeying university student.  EVERYONE complains about them and I fear the day that the beloved clotheslines one who gets a little too close to his peacefully walking self.  Our landlord is a Missoula police officer, but I don’t think even he could do much for us if Bill was arrested for going all postal on a Schwinn boy.  For now, we have remained jail-free, but it may only be a matter of time.  Probably half of the population of Missoula would rise to his defense, though, since he’d only be doing what each and every one has fantasized about doing.

Missoula races chartIt fancies itself a progressive town, and it is, but one thing Missoula is not is racially diverse.  I wondered at the lack of that in such a university-centric place, especially because the University of Montana is a research oriented school, which usually attracts a very diverse student population.  Wondered so much that I had a look and came up with a handy pie chart and found out that one of the many things that Missoula shared with her sister in nutty raisin-ness and another town I have been to many times, Boulder, Colorado, is an overwhelming whiteness.  I have lived in Honolulu (as culturally and racially diverse as it gets), Tulsa (a hodgepodge of cultures and a surprisingly progressive city) and the East Glacier Park area (wonderfully, and also surprisingly, complex for anyplace, much less a very small town in far Northwestern Montana).  There are small pockets of diversity here in Grizz Country, but not many.  I have seen one non-Caucasian person in our neighborhood, which is a really nice little area with sidewalks and tree lined streets, and is populated with normal people who work for a living.  Seems odd to me.

Another lesson I’ve learned over the past few weeks that the universe has a sense of humor and smacks me with it every once in a while.  One of the few things that the Horseman and I disagree on is hunting and the issue has caused some slightly high pitched discussions in our home.  Now I am all for sustenance hunting.  Harvesting an elk or deer, while it’s not something that I care to do myself, is a rite of Fall in most areas of the country, and especially so here in Montana, and I say have at it.  I don’t agree with trophy hunting, but I don’t say a word to anyone about it.  If it’s legal, it’s your business.  I won’t do it, but I defend your right to.  Heck, I live with the trophies of hunts gone by right in my very own home.  However.  In the past few weeks I have been on the road behind vehicles carrying the following:  a dead moose on Hwy. 2, two dead mule deer, strapped very precariously to the back of a truck on Hwy. 93 and today, a dead elk on Reserve Drive at lunch hour.  Yep.  Me.  The animal loving, tree hugging wife of an ex-outfitter, forced to stare at critters that I am still in awe of being able to see regularly in the wild, now bereft of life.  There’s some irony, eh?  The universe reminds you to suck it up and put on your big girl panties once in a while.

I’ve been putting on a lot of big girl panties lately!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls:  Things that make you strong and little creatures great and small...

Things the Horseman says when no one else is listening give me strength…  Through the long, challenging days of this summer, when I don’t think I’ll be able to lift my head from the pillow to cook one more breakfast or make one more bed, when my heart is heavy with loss and sadness, and when I feel my resolve wavering, the Horseman is my constant.  He’s not an overly demonstrative man and not prone to many public displays of affection, which is just fine.  In other words, he’s not much of a hand holder. But privately, he gives me love, strength, and steadfast support.  I know and he knows, and that’s perfect for us.  And when I get wind that’s he’s told someone something wonderful about me, something private and from his heart, well, it just lifts me up.  I have certainly needed a little lifting lately.

Ponygirl and others I love…  We tragically lost our sweet Ponygirl two weeks ago now and I miss her little star faced self every day.  I think her blue roan boyfriend, Dylan, is heartbroken, too.  Seems that every time we give him a little mare to love (he thinks he’s a stud), we take her away…  Ponygirl’s penchant for escape, her wandering vagabond spirit, her fearlessness at being away from the herd, and her insatiable appetite for the grass on the other side of the fence, took her up onto the highway and away from us on a pitch black, moonless night and into something that she could not have known and I could never have imagined. 

Maybe Ponygirl was never meant for us – never meant to be contained – so she became a little spirit having flown. Her almost black eyes always held something wise and almost challenging, but far away, if that makes sense.  She was headstrong and stubborn, but also sweet and loving.  She never quite healed physically from the neglect she suffered before she came to us, and seemed to be getting a little worse.  In fact, the night PG was killed was the first time she had wandered from the corral area in some time, and on that night she made it through the meadow, across the creek, through the fence, up the embankment and out onto the highway.  A little burst of “something” that we didn’t think she had in her that ultimately cost our naughty girl her life.  I thank God that the elderly couple who hit her, in their very small Prius, walked away, understandably quite shaken, but with only a few bruises.  The car was totaled.  Bill and Dusty found PG in a little copse of trees an hour after it happened and she had been thrown quite a way, dying instantly. 

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to care for our little throwaway Ponygirl after her angels, Emma and Mara, brought her to us.  She was mine, but she belonged to everyone who met her or followed her silliness on Facebook.  She didn’t earn her keep, she broke into and out of everything (including Kris and Karla’s car, looking for beer), and she was constantly covered in burrs that I had to pick off, one by one.  I think she did that on purpose to get brushed and fawned over!  But her naughty antics brought a smile to my face every single day and I will miss her presence so very much…  I take comfort in the fact that she didn’t suffer, and that she’s free and whole now,  running with the big horses on strong, healthy feet, wind in her face and through that impossibly thick mane.  I’ll miss my stinkin’ cute, naughty, impudent, stubborn, little Ponygirl more than I can say.

I don't stay up too late much anymore since 5:30 a.m. comes awfully early around here and I tend to hit the bed a little before it's actually dark.  On the night Ponygirl was killed but before we found her body, I was standing on the shoulder of Highway 2 and I looked up and saw more stars than I've ever seen.  It's nice to think that her star is among them.

It’s a difficult thing, this giving of our hearts to these little beings with lives even more finite than our own.  When my dog, Sophie, died over three years ago, I thought I’d never heal from the loss of her.  A part of my life from the day she was born and for eleven years thereafter, she was my heart.  Then I met and married Bill and with him came horses to love as well as a beautiful, loving, gentle giant of a dog, Bayley, the Wonder Dog.  Bayley is perfect and loves any and all people she meets.  She’s a master manipulator when it comes to getting attention and belly rubs and brazenly places herself in the path to the coffee to optimize the chance of a stray hand finding its way onto her person!  Bayley is a 7 year old St. Bernard, as everyone knows, and her time with us is a nebulous thing.  Thankfully, she’s healthy and happy now but I think with fear in my heart of the day we have to say goodbye to her.  She’s my constant companion.  If Bill can’t find me, he’ll spot Bayley on the porch of a cabin and knows exactly where I am.  If I go for a walk, she goes with me - my little shadow. She’s here at my feet as I type this…  Saints are an unfairly short lived breed, but I think Bayley will break records with her longevity.  She has too many people to love and shamelessly entice into rubbing her belly.  She’s a little slutty that way.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls, Redux.

Well friends, it's been a while.  Much has changed in my Montana ex-pat world, and I've sorely neglected the time I give myself to update friends, family and the random rubberneckers who view my upside down life with something resembling shock, benign pity or maybe a little envy.  Life has changed, evolved, and grown into something I hadn't anticipated but am embracing.

Since about a year has passed since my last update, I'll give you a quick review:  most importantly, the Horseman and I were married on August 31, 2013, on our ranch in northwestern Montana, a lovely end to a summer of ups and downs, successes and failures, more than a few tears but more smiles and laughter than tears.  The love I feel for this complex and smart man is boundless and I am proud and happy to spend my life at his side. It was a perfect late summer Montana afternoon, warm and sunny after days of not so nice weather.  Surrounded by family and friends who had cooked wonderful comfort foods and donned their Western best, we vowed to spend our lives together, for better or for worse.  I was blessed to be able to have my mama, sister, brother-in-law and my dear nephew, James, there to sit on my side of the aisle as well as some dear, dear friends present to make the day even more special.  The glaring absence of some of our dearest was felt, too... Bill's amazing sons, mother and sister were simply too far away to be able to make it, but we know they were there with us anyway.  That leap of faith for love that I took when I first started on this adventure has resulted in a life I never in a million years dreamed of with someone I couldn't possibly love more.  It's a soft place to fall.

So what have I learned this year?  That when you have a bad knee, it's not a good idea to get off your unfamiliar horse to walk him down a hill (when his buddies have gone on ahead) and then remount to ride the rest of the way. When your horse is frantic to get to his equine friends and back in the herd, spinning and rearing on a downward sloping path, you end up dismounting (rather than being forcefully and soundly ejected from your saddle) and walking the rest of the way anyway, under the staring eyes of many concerned cowboys. All street cred is lost in a limping, wild haired decent in slippery soled cowboy boots, with one kind hearted and tolerant cowboy by your side.  I'm sure there was more than a little pity for my husband-to-be at his choice of city girl...  Just as I'm sure he just smiled sheepishly, rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders before walking out to meet me.

I've learned to pay attention to the non-ADA compliant stairs to our bedroom when descending with a full laundry basket lest one slip down a few steps, landing on one's tailbone.  Where one sits for a few minutes to catch one's breath and blink away the tears before continuing to the more public areas of the house. Orthopedically speaking, Montana has not been good to me.  Knees and tailbones tend to take a very long time to heal.  Clumsy, I am.  Clumsy, limpy and bent.

I've learned that chipmunks aren't smart and tend to have a Jim Jones Kool-aid drinking mentality when it comes to mass suicide in a horse trough.  They're actually more like lemmings.  Or little failed lifeguards. And they turn odd colors and lose their hair in water and the image remains in your brain long after they've been buried (in case Bayley, who has tried to drag a large SPINE of unknown origin home from a trail ride, finds them) and the trough emptied and cleaned and turned upside down - not to be used by traumatized horses.  Ugh.  And sorry for the visual.

Bayley, the Wonder Dog, beloved by all.  Except little dogs.
I've learned that Bayley the Wonder Dog will always be by my side unless there's a nearby living chipmunk or squirrel in need of chasing.  Mostly because her belly is not going to pet itself.  I've also learned that Bayley isn't terribly fond of small, yapping dogs. Happily though, she hasn't tasted a little terrier/rat dog/chihuahua morsel and we haven't had to bail her out of doggie jail!  Have also learned that Bayley, Ranch Dog Extraordinaire, is a fine travel companion on 5 day road trips!  She travels like a boss, winning friends and influencing people! But not little dogs.
Ponygirl, jonesing for beer from Emma

I've learned that the loss of one great horse can be devastating and heartbreaking.  Truman was a beauty, inside and outside.  His mother was one of Bill's mares and he was born on the ranch, raised and trained by the beloved.  A big, brown, strikingly beautiful, kind and gentle soul.  His loss was a sad and terrible thing, but he's pain free at last.  I've also learned that a little throwaway pony can worm her way into your heart, even though she doesn't earn her keep, breaks into the barn to steal cookies, will take down a guest's tailgate and a beautiful singer for beer (photographic evidence to the left) and squeezes herself through the fence to get to the lawn grass. Ponygirl is too stinkin' cute for words and has become a naughty, but beloved member (by me, anyway) of our equine family.

I've learned that you can get through anything that life throws at you as long as you reach down deep to find your strength.  And that the strength you find is only in yourself and cannot be found anywhere else.  But that you can give that strength to another when they need it most.  It would be nice, though, if everything bad didn't happen at one time!

I've learned that sometimes you lose those that you never thought you'd lose and that no amount of apology is ever enough.  And that sometimes, you have to stop trying when there is no desire to try from the other side. And that forgiveness may never come, but it's OK.  Sad, but OK.  And that expecting an apology for harsh words and actions sometimes means that you lower your expectations because "I'm sorry I hurt you" will never come. But I've also learned that most times, those who truly love you unconditionally, and whom you love equally in return, will accept your apology and the friendship deepens and grows in spite of your failings - maybe because of them.  See Julie at left.

I've learned that moving back to Oklahoma for the winter to work in my chosen profession and to get the Horseman out of the snow, may not work well for either.  It snows in Oklahoma (some) and my chosen profession has moved on without me. Three months spent in Tulsa has been wonderful in that it's allowed time with my family and friends, which has been priceless and rejuvenating for me.  Not so wonderful in that time in Tulsa is time away from the ranch and that hasn't been so great.  The Horseman gets his strength from the land at mile marker 192 (it is his Tara) and I find that I do, too.  I miss it.  The mountains and vast plains, the snow, the people, the space. No sirens, no traffic, no threats.  The peace of the place can't be measured, but it is palpable.

There are innumerable lessons that I've learned this year.  Mostly good, some bad, but all necessary.

So we'll be headed back to our little piece of paradise in a few weeks.  And although I'll be so, so sad to leave my Tulsa home, I'll also be glad to return to my chosen home.  My big beautiful Tulsa, sweet and curious Guthrie, stoic and reliable Two Medicine and the other horses will be coming home soon, too, and I miss them dearly.  It'll be good to see them and put my hands on them.  It'll be good to be back under that Montana sky.  It'll be good to sit by the creek and walk the pasture with the unhaltered, trusting horses, Bayley at my side always.  The ranch may be under 27,000 feet of snow now, but summer is just around the corner!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #14: A neophyte can learn that a horse is not a dog. And you gotta have friends. Part I.

Mind you, my experience with horses up until my move to Montana was with well broke, older guys.  Horses that had been around the block.  Who had seen their share of greenhorns and dudes and who had developed a benign tolerance for the inexperienced rider.  Horses who would bide their time, accepting me on their back, until they could get back to the barn and to their preferred vocation - eating.  I'm sure a number of them even rolled their benevolent, kind eyes when they saw me approach.  Fancied myself a decent rider, I did.  Mostly managed to stay on (there was one glaring exception, as my sister will probably remember), mostly managed to look like the real deal.  Ish.  I had the boots, anyway.  And I kept my back straight.

Baby boy, Tulsa
The Most Beautiful Horse on the
Face of the Planet
Then I moved to Montana, where horses are a way of life.  Where the Blackfeet and their horses are a glory to behold.  When a Blackfeet cowboy or cowgirl is horseback, they seem to share the same blood circulation and it truly is an amazing thing to see two beings in such harmony... Go to an Indian Relay Race at a rodeo in the west, and you'll see what I mean.  Cowboys and cowgirls will spend thousands on a roping horse or travel to Canada for a trailer load of bucking horses, and keep those horses better than they keep themselves.  These are not pampered, weekend horses like the ones I've known in the past, and it's taken me a while to wrap my mind around the fact that they are working animals, with a job to do.  I've tended to treat them like dogs, which I know is a mistake, but there you are...  There are, however, far too many unwanted horses out here, so that's been a harsh lesson for me, too.  Out of sight, out of mind horses, lost in the vast expanse of the plains of Montana, surviving (or not) difficult winters, predators, and injuries.

Happily, our horses have done just fine out on winter pasture, thank you very much, and are due here in a month or so!  It'll be so good.  It was a huge surprise for me when I discovered how much I missed having them here at the ranch.  (Although, when we turned them out, I was in tears and they just walked away without so much as a how do you do, so my missing them may be one sided!)  Looking forward to having another broken or bruised body part because I don't know enough to stay out of their way and not allow them in my personal space!  They need to come back - I've taken to naming the moose pair who have been crisscrossing the pasture.  Tulip and Lily.  I know...  An homage to my friend, Julie, an amazing gardener with a wicked sense of humor.

Our Allison with Bayley, Ranch Dog
Anyway, that first summer, I learned a lot about horses from Bill.  Lots of technical stuff, lots of just how to be around them, lots of how to ride, and lots of how to read them without losing sight of the fact that they're all individuals with unique personalities.  I also learned tons from Allison, who was Bill's right hand wrangler/cook/vet, etc., last summer and who has remained a dear friend.  Allison is wise beyond her years.  She has an amazing intuition when it comes to these magnificent animals and a lovely way of explaining things so that a neophyte like me can "get" it.  I remember a conversation we had while we were out watching Bill work in the round pen (we had lots of those "therapy sessions" as we called them)...  Horse herds are like high school kids, Allison says.  You have the bitchy, mean girl cheerleaders (a couple of sorrel mares we had for the summer), the mid-semester newbies and transfers who are unsure of their place (Tulsa and Pink), misunderstood bullies (Mouse, who has a terrible Napoleon complex), the followers (Two Medicine, Mouse's buddy and my favorite mount), the athletic boys who can't be bothered (Hombre, Lizard, Truman), the Greta Garbo (Whit, who wants to be alone and crib),etc.  You get the picture.  I loved that analogy!  Especially having been one of the unwashed masses in high school - the middle-of-the-roaders, neither the queen nor Carrie.

Bill, Allison and our hunter/jumper Pink

Horses are a way and a means of life up here at the ranch.  The beloved is an amazing horseman, mostly fearless (but cautious when required), in tandem with whichever horse he's working at the moment.  Of late, it's been my big, beautiful, aforementioned paint colt and baby boy, Tulsa who will be all of three years old this coming July 4th.  And Pink, a glorious sorrel filly that we came to own in a roundabout way.  Pink started out terribly fearful, probably five years old, although we're not sure of that.  She had never been handled by a human, never been away from her mother, and had to be caught and put in a stock to get a halter (a pink halter, hence her name) on her so she could get into the trailer that would bring her to her new home.  When Bill first started working with Pink in the round pen, she was terrified and looking for any escape.  She's not a tall horse, but she cleared a five foot fence with ease (see attached photographic evidence).  Cleared it multiple times.  

Pink and our yearling filly, Sweet Grass in the round pen

As the summer progressed, she calmed and learned, but remained a bit aloof and unsure.  She was at ease with Allison, and even learned to enjoy a bath (we have photographic evidence of that as well, but will  have to clear that with Allison!).  She was brushed and groomed and had gentle hands on her body - nothing in anger, nothing to make her fearful.  Bill was sure to work her with other horses in the round pen at first so that she would have a "herd" and a feeling of safety.  

She's come a long way, thanks to Bill's skills as a horseman and trainer.  At the end of summer, just before we sent her to winter out where the snow isn't 30 feet deep, he got on her back and rode her in the round pen.  I have no pictures - just some of him putting some weight in the saddle a few days before.  I was, as Bill says, in the moment.  She'll be a fine, fine horse, trained with patience and time, leadership, love and care.
Bill and Pink, trust at the end of the summer

Tulsa, hooking on
When Tulsa came to live at the ranch as a two year old, he and Pink bonded and are pretty inseparable now - he's her herd.  We keep them separate from the others for the most part, partly because they are Bill's "works in progress" and partly because they just really do well together.  They also get beat up a bit when they're with the other horses, so there's that.  They won't be part of the herd we use with guests of the ranch, but will be our personal saddle horses.  I identified with Pink on a number of levels.  Being the "new girl" and feeling ill at ease in that role, is probably the most glaring example.  I also bonded with Allison, who for purposes of this ramble, I'm putting in the Tulsa role.  I was fortunate to have found a friend (like a daughter, really) in Allison.  As Pink found Tulsa.  She helped see me through my hard transition from City Girl to St. Bernard Wrangler!  And like Pink, I have calmed and learned, but am still a little unsure of my place in the herd.  But I'm getting there!

This ranch and this country are places to learn.  About life in the West.  About horses.  About what it takes to be a true friend.  I've found that lessons abound in all of those things.

Me and Two Medicine.  He's reliable, honest, and takes good care of this neophyte!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lessons in Ranch Living for City Girls #211

  In Montana, even on a sunny day, you can be blind.

So, up here in the great white north, we have something known as a "ground blizzard".  Coming from Oklahoma, I never even knew this existed, but apparently, it's a common occurrence in areas with a lot of wind and snow, both of which Northwestern Montana has in abundance.  Conditions have to be cold enough so the snow stays nice and fluffy and blowable, also not a problem up here in the Arctic.  Up at the ranch, the wind is sometimes a factor, but the drive down the mountain to the east is where you may become airborne and blow to Kansas, or at least to Chouteau or the Steiner Ranch.   It's the wind that'll get you every time...  My daily drive consists of the ranch side of the Divide (as in the Continental Divide), the Summit, and the other side of the Divide.  Far and away, I would choose the ranch side every time.  At Bear Creek, the snow is lovely when it falls, and not so lovely when it doesn't stop falling and we get a heck of a lot of it.  But the road guys are on it like birds on a worm and The Horseman is on the driveway in the same way - he uses it as a form of winter exercise since he's an exercising fool.  It certainly can get dicey.  Slush, ice, curvy roads, Canadians.  But you can take your time and provided you're not a Hyundai SUV driving woman who passes me way too often, going way too fast, you're not likely to meet your maker on our little stretch of road up to Marias Pass and the Summit. 

It's the OTHER side...  You're driving along, minding your own business, singing badly to Adele, wishing you were snug and warm in bed, and until recently, you're also in the dark.  Suddenly, and with little warning, you simply can't see anything at all. Not just in front of you, but ANYTHING. In any direction. Except white.  That’s a ground blizzard. Using your brights isn’t an option - that just reflects a crapload of snow right back at you and you feel like you're in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon hits warp drive, or hyper-drive, or whatever, and you get that star field thingy.  You know what I mean.  So you slow and tense, until you clear it, and you pray that the snowplow driver who nicely pulled over (love those guys) so you could pass just a couple of miles back, or the SUV driving maniac woman (I've stalked her to the post office so I can see what crazy looks like), for that matter, don't slam into you.  Because you can't just stop since the people who may be behind you can't see either.  I've wanted to just stop where I am, cry, and take my chances, but thankfully the self-preservation instinct kicks in and I keep going.

Driving back from East Glacier one day with the beloved, we went through a true blizzard up from EG to the Summit and, although I'm thankful every day for him, I have never been so thankful that he was with me and doing the driving.  We had to roll down the window on my side so we could just make out the reflectors so we wouldn't fly off the road into oblivion, or at least into a snow bank.  And the windshield was icing since there was no way that the defroster could keep up.  Haven't been that tense in a while, but he got us home safe and sound, with nary a broken sweat, although he’s told me since then that he was a bit tense himself.  We heard later that a truck jackknifed up there just after we went through and that several people pulled over at stayed at the Snow Slip Inn because they just could not keep going.  Smart people.

On the curvy, mountain road, the blowing waxes and wanes and passes.  The road from East Glacier to Browning is another matter entirely.  The terrain is flatter, rolling plains out there, and as much I love those powerful plains that lead up to the Front Range of the Northern Rockies, that drive scares the crap out of me and I've feared for my little, insignificant life on more than one occasion.  Again, it's the wind...  My car, Flash, is little.  And while that's fantastic for gas mileage in Montana where a three and a half hour drive is “not bad”, it's not so good when you're driving in a ground blizzard with "range livestock" running around (there was a horse just the other day, cruising along, having a wrong-side-of-the-fence munch-fest, and I see cows out and about and gossiping over the fence on a regular basis).  Flash is light.  And so he literally blows sideways on ice in those not uncommon 70mph winds.  He's also vertically challenged, so when the big trucks and SUVs are above the fray, Flash and I are in the thick of it.  That's a new and not a good feeling.  I've been advised to "ride the rumble strip".  Uh, huh.  But, "make sure it's your right wheel and not your left, because that could be bad".  Yep.  I've also heard of a doctor and his wife, on their way to work, who kept going in those white-out conditions, again because you have no choice, wondering why they hadn't made it to Browning yet.  They eventually stopped, and discovered they were out in a fenceless pasture...  I guess they missed the rumble strip.   Conditions were that rough and they apparently were going very slowly, but it’s THAT kind of blind. 

So, when I make it to EG on the way home, stop in at EG Trading Company for some steak, I pry my fingers out of the grooves they’ve made in the steering wheel and share my harrowing saga of almost hitting Sasquatch or a horse or a FedEx truck or a cow or an Albertan (who just seem to cruise along in any kind of weather).   I get "oh, it's not so bad" and I'm a bit worried about what might constitute "bad"...

Obviously I have no photos of the harrowing drives since that would be insanity.  I'm crazy, but not THAT crazy...