Monday, September 8, 2008

Wide Open Spaces...

My friend Marie recently visited a good friend at her family's ranch in northeastern Colorado. (Marie, I hope you don't mind I borrowed a photo from your trip for this post!) From the joy in her voice and the comfort in her being following the trip, I think I'm safe to say she had a great, relaxing time in all that wide open space.

Upon her return to Iowa (on her way to Wisconsin) Marie came to town for a couple days visit. As we were sitting around with Laura one evening, listening to the tales of her adventures and looking at photos I started to feel a little homesick. And then I realized there is this part of my life story that involves sage brush and cows and "one-room" school houses and horses and LOTS of wide open spaces, that very few of my current friends know about. Nor do they know that a part of me will always be lost to that time and place and to those memories...well, I guess now they will know.

When I was in third grade, my Dad took a position as a Ranch Foreman 12 miles north of Hyannis, the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills. Ranch Foreman is a fancy way of saying this guy owned a big ol' cattle ranch but didn't want to actually live there and run it, so he hired our family to do the job. We moved in the spring. I finished out my school year (what was left of only a few days because schools in that area let out early in the spring to free kids up to help on the ranch) in a small school,Redmill Elementary, located at the end of the 3 mile dirt "lane" that led from the highway to our house. While the building itself consisted of more than one room (and yes, indoor plumbing) it was technically a one-room school house with one teacher and one aide covering the curriculum for all 11 of us students, ranging in age from Kindergarten to 6th grade. My class was the largest single grade with 3 students.

With a new batch of babies born just prior to our arrival, Dad and I spent many an hour out on horseback checkin' the herd and administering antibiotics to the calves with a condition referred to as Scours...aka diarrhea. Horses up until that point had always been a part of my life. In fact my mom has pictures of me up on our old mare, Grey, with Dad when I was but a few weeks old. Apparently when I was 2 (this hits home with me right now being as I have a 2 year old in the house...a fearless 2 year old mind you), my mom discovered me in the coral one day, standing under the belly of one of our horses, petting its belly. Imagine my delight when suddenly I was REQUIRED to spend hours and hours with/on my horse for the sake of herd.

Life on a ranch is a big old cycle. Spring brings calves, followed by branding season, grass/hay cutting season (usually twice a summer), the moving of herds to various pastures depending on the time of year, and of course winter...when all that summer grass is put to use keeping the herd fed and warm until spring rolls around and the cycle begins again.

Each season has it's highlights. Branding season, for example, is the ONLY time in my life that I can think of when I have WILLINGLY gotten up before the sun to load up the horses and head to a neighbor's to help them mark their herd. Hours on horseback rounding up the herd, separating mommas and babies, followed by several more hours of hot and dirty calf wrestling which allowed for branding, medicating, and castration for those sporting testicles. (You want FRESH Rocky Mountain Oysters? Go to a branding where they go from being attached to an animal to the brandin' iron grate for cooking in a matter of minutes!) When the day was done a huge meal was shared by all those who had gathered to lend a hand. I'm sure a few beers were consumed by the adults as they sat around and kids were too busy off playing after our hard day's work to really notice. Cows and calves reunited, quiet and content. Humans tired, dirty, fed, and content. We'd do this weekend after weekend until everyone's herds had been worked. It's honestly one of my favorite memories of our time on the ranch...the mental pictures, and sights and sounds and smells, safely tucked away in my heart.

We actually lived on 2 different ranches over little less than a 3 year span of time. Different houses, different schools, different herds, but with the same simple lifestyle. The memories are many. The sweet smell of the grass as it is cut and stacked or baled. The soft, warmth of the sand in washouts where Jason and I spent countless hours playing. The giant strawberries and tomatoes my mom grew in our garden. The snowy winter days spent sleddin' or playing in the "ice castle" that was created by the windmill behind our house. The many nights visiting other families, time when us kids would play and the parents would chat over a few hands of cards. The countless hours I spent with my best horses. A time before cell phones or the internet. When going to town was a once or twice a week occurrence for supplies or groceries and monthly trips to the "big town" of Alliance (a bit over an hour's drive...population 9,000) were a special treat in the months when clear roads could be assured. A time that holds many happy family memories. A time when I could truly be myself...and Daddy's little girl. A time that isn't all that long ago and for some a lifestyle that is still reality...though I'm sure even the internet, satellite TV, and cell phones are a common find among ranch families these days.

I still vividly remember the night my Dad sat me down and told me we were leaving the ranch to move back to the valley. The valley where my parent had grown up, where my grandparents lived separated by a mere 45 miles. The place we always returned to after following one of my Dad's adventures. The place from which I would graduate high school and where I still go to visit my family. The place that for most would be defined as "home", based on all of those factors. But home in my heart will always be the Nebraska Sandhills. That night I cried...heart broken to be leaving my home.

When Scott and I were in college we often had the chance to travel old highway 2 between Wayne and Gering. I think once I even took him on a little tour showing him my old "stompin grounds." The trips through that area of the state are now far and few between...though occasionally our travel route still allows for a more northern route than I-80. I can still point out the turn to one of our ranches, and still get homesick and teary eyes every time I travel across those hills which are part of so many happy memories.

As Marie, Laura, and I were talking about that time in my life (my dreams of being a vet, of marrying a rancher, and living happily ever after), I realized how strongly I still hold on to those memories and dreams. Dreams that may never become reality, but that will always be tucked away in a little corner of my heart. Memories and experiences that played a part in who I am today. Dreams and memories that warm my heart, and bring a few tears to my eyes, as I sit here writing.



Andrea Newman Sirls said...

Do you read's blog? If not, you need to - you might be able to live vicariously through her when you need a little dose of the ranch. Make sure you also read her "Black Heels to Tractor Wheels" stories. Enjoy!

Andrea Newman Sirls
PS Love your blog -- you can check out my blog at

Laura said...

I love hearing your childhood stories! What amazing memories.

Marie said...

love you jenn