Twenty years ago, northern Nevada came out of one of the coldest winters on record. Temps hit well below zero (-40 to -50) a foot of snow never melted, and barely an automobile ran that couldn't tolerate a cold start. At one point, the National Guard air-lifted hay to herds stranded on the Idaho range. That year, 1989, hubby and I worked for a million acre cow outfit, the IL Ranch in Elko County, Nevada. It was a bitter winter but spring came on like glory, with grass growing to the horses' knees, pools of lupines blooming on the hills, and the perfume of wild chokecherries filled the canyons as we rode.
1989 was also the year a remarkable TV mini-series aired: "Lonesome Dove." I remember the boys in the bunkhouse huddled each evening around that grainy little TV they had, and they'd debate the authenticity of every scene, every buckle and bullet, over meals in the cookhouse where I presided. Come spring, the chuck wagon rolled out, the cattle were moved to summer range, and hubby and I were stationed in an itty bitty camp trailer out in the middle of nowhere, bearing responsibility for a thousand yearling heifers.
We were younger then, and wild, and we had all the great, open range to claim as our own. Ranch headquarters was 70 miles from town, and if we rode anywhere out there, we went at a spanking trot. When we hit town, it was with all bells ringing, and oh, good lord, the hangovers. I loved that big country with all my soul, and if I'd tipped over dead one day whilst sitting horseback atop some windy ridge, I wouldn't have regretted it, nor lacked for a single thing.
Those were simpler days, and it's not just nostalgia that makes it so. Everything we owned fit in Tye's 1972 Ford F-250, which we fitted with a cabover camper shell and dubbed the "Ford Closet", and in my '73 Buick Skylark sedan. Put studded mud-n-snow tires on that Buick, and she'd claw her way up roads some pickups couldn't manage. We made about $750 a month, near as I can recall. I know we never made more than $15,000 a year. Didn't need much more than that. After all, if we had food, gas, pizza money, a little horse jewelry, and every so often a bottle of whiskey and a new cinch or saddle blanket, we were pretty well set. Sometimes we'd find a twenty dollar bill in our wallets that we'd forgotten we had, and that would actually be worth something.
It was hard life, a good life, the best life, but really a not much of a living. Somewhere along the line, times changed and so did we. I'll be 47 years old, this July. Back then, I never even considered whether I'd be here to say that. Neither Tye nor I can take the hits or falls like we used to, but most of all ... there just wasn't any money in it. Hubby is like a chameleon, able to put on lives like some folks change hats: he's been a marine, a cop, a cowboy, a cook, a miner, a mule packer and a private eye. He led and I followed to the changes in our lives, and now winters on the open range are things of the past.
But I still cling with fierce devotion to the things that make me feel settled inside, including a few good friends and a little piece of rented ground where I can plant a garden, keep some chickens, train my dogs, and not have too many neighbors. I've never learned Tye's tolerance for towns and folks and bustle, but even he needs to come home to peace and quiet. We both still own our saddles. Won't ever sell 'em. We still dust 'em off sometimes and go day-work for local outfits, moving cows or packing mules. We're older and more cautious and more thoughtful than we used to be, but ...
... It doesn't leave you, that country. All it takes is an old song or the scent of rain on the sagebrush, and we're back. Back twenty years to a day when we were pretty much poor all the time, but when we could sit up there on our handmade saddles, and revel in the sort of benign arrogance that belongs only to those who make a living on horseback. Hard to be humble when you see the world from a vantage point ten feet tall.
I don't know that I'd want to go back, or any chances to do anything over. But I'm glad we were there. I'm glad that part of life was ours. I'm glad we can one day sit, old and bent and gray, and look at photo albums of a place and time that might one day be gone, that has already changed, and we can remember our places in it.
It's a good feeling. Now I'm going back upstairs to watch "Lonesome Dove," and to remember where I come from and where my roots will always cling. Blessings to you all, those whom I call Friends. You are part of my peace. :-)
G. M. Atwater