At first, I hated living in Idaho. The autumn day we arrived, it rained sheets and buckets; I remember looking fearfully out the back car window at the cliff edge we scaled. Grandma lived miles out of town, on an old gravel logging road that slithered up the face of a mountain. I remember asking my parents if we would fall, which they casually dismissed as silly because it was ‘just’ rain. Looking out the window at that sheer cliff, dropping steeply some thousand-odd feet to the river below, I had my doubts. Roads were supposed to be flat, with street lights and signs and yellow and white lines marking where the cars were to go. Above all, they were not supposed to be gravel and dirt!
How little I knew.
I remained skeptical for the rest of that year and into spring of the next. Like most children uprooted from their familiar lives, I missed my friends, I missed my old house, and I despised the difference in routine. Not only did Grandma live outside of town, the town was so small that if you needed anything special, you had to drive an hour to the next town over to get it. But then spring came, and with the warmer temperatures came a thaw in my outlook. Because springtime is when babies arrive, and nearly every one of my grandmother’s fifteen mares was with foal.
I remember that first birth. It was dusk, the rains had made the grass green and the lingering clouds took on a soft pink glow. Grandma and Mom took me by the hand, and we walked down into the lower pasture where Amy, a sweet-tempered chestnut, turned and fidgeted with the early stages of labor. With a huff, she lay down, and Grandma quietly led me to where I could see as she explained the mechanics of how a baby horse was born. I remember watching in wonder as two feet emerged, followed by a little white nose. In short order, the rest of the foal’s body slithered out onto the green grass, his brown coat slick and shiny with fluid. His mama got up and began cleaning him off, urging him to his spindly feet, and we watched as he began to nurse.
He looked just like one of my favorite model horses, and so when Grandma told me I could name him, there was no hesitation: “Speeding Bullet!” I crowed. What better name for that amazing little foal than the best name for the fastest horse in the world that a five-year-old could think of?
Suddenly, country life was cool. It meant horses and sunshine days and in short order I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. I learned to ride (although not extremely well), enrolled in 4-H, and vowed I would always live in the country. While all my friends couldn’t wait to leave that little rural community, I wanted to stay. When I was twelve, my parents and I took a family vacation to Yellowstone, and on the way through Montana I saw my first cattle drive.
Watching those cowboys and cattlemen, I was envious. I wanted that so bad. Grandma never liked cows (she insisted they were stupid), and I had only seen them rarely at the county fair. But those herds in Montana were beautiful. Coats glossy in the sun, gentle eyes looking right in the car window as they crossed the road under the watchful eye of their herders… I wanted that. I wanted to do that. Never mind that I had no idea why cows got moved from pasture to pasture. Never mind that I had never seen one up close. I still wanted that life, and after we came home, and Mom and Dad filed for divorce, I filled my daydreams with barbed wire fences and horses and noble cattlemen who watched over their gentle herds. I even went so far as to declare I would never date a man who didn’t want to own livestock in the country.
Then I became a teenager and life got really confusing for a while, as I’m certain it does for most young adults. My parents’ divorce was finalized (a messy, drawn out process), I was a social outcast in school despite having a couple really close friends, and I struggled to make sense of the world. Music became more and more important to me — it kept me sane through the emotional trauma of my parents’ breakup — and when I realized I had a talent for it, I wanted to study it and play it professionally… And country life gradually ended up on the back burner, because (at that time) you couldn’t be a musician and live in the country. As it came time for me to attend college and choose a career path, I had resigned myself to a life in the city. My first night spent in my dorm room bed, I stared out the window at the light-polluted sky I could no longer see the stars of. I felt a little like I had just given up on something I couldn’t pinpoint, but I attributed it to a touch of homesickness and filed it away for later.
The next day the resident assistant had organized a welcome barbecue, and I shyly hung on the fringe. Everyone seemed so much older, and I’ve never been that good at interacting with crowds outside of a music performance situation. One young man — who also seemed on the fringe, though he obviously knew some of the people there — kept glancing my direction. I didn’t introduce myself; I was still seeing a boy from back home, and I didn’t think it would be appropriate to associate with another guy. That didn’t stop the attractive young man, though. The next day we met in the hall and I learned his name was J. He was someone I really wished I could get to know. Something about him seemed familiar, though it took me a few weeks of observing him before I could place it:
He was a farm boy.
So I did everything in my power to avoid him.
He was just too nice, too smart, and too familiar. He was friendly. He was a gentleman. I knew I’d get myself in trouble if I didn’t watch out. His family owned a cattle farm they had homesteaded back in the 1800s. I used to eavesdrop on his conversations with another of the farm boys also living in the dorm and I was fascinated. I couldn’t help it. He liked music, he liked books, he liked the outdoors. We seemed to have so much in common, and I found myself wishing he would be bold, all the while knowing it would be a recipe for disaster. And I would try, again, to avoid him, with no luck. Everywhere I went, it seemed like he was there.
Then I got dumped. It was the worst feeling in the world, and I holed up with my music and my homework for three months, trying to piece together why relationships fail. You can only subject yourself to so much misery, though. Eventually I decided to get on with my life, and I began hanging out more in the common room.
And J was there.
We got married the next year in my grandmother’s rose garden. The next day my husband and I returned to the farm, and my cow-sense education began.
This is an installment from my serial, “A Baby in the Basement: My Life as a Cattleman’s Wife.” Catch up via the Serials page.