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?”

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