Experiences are the foundation of life. Even though I have been a native Texan for most of my life, it wasn’t until I moved to rural New Mexico that I cultivated a deep love, respect, and admiration for cowboys.
My life has always been on the periphery of cowboys and ranchers, but until I moved out of the Texas Hill Country, my experience was never developed to be up close and personal. In the small West Texas town of Denver City my mom became friends with a rancher’s wife. For several summers her friend, Linda, took me to her small, New Mexico hometown of Grady. During the week that I left my art projects and sleepovers we embarked on a family roundup. At the time I had no idea how influential the cowboy way of life would be on me because I was an immature eight-year-old.
I easily fell in love with a rancher’s son. Marcus was the most dreamy boy I had ever laid eyes on. In those hot New Mexico summers I had many first experiences with him. I rode my first horse, swam in my first stock tank, checked for rattle snakes in open fields, and eventually had my first dance. These are not monumental memories, but since the men in my life were absent, being around a cowboy family provided me with a level of male support that I had not known.
Watching men mount horses and roundup their family’s livelihood is a type of cultural experience that cannot be replicated in books. Cutting and roping with calves is one of the most beautiful dances I have seen in my short time on this Earth. Watching young boys proudly brand their cattle with a family emblem is a level of pride that few witness. Those same boys ate calf fries as though they were a delicacy to be savored. (To this day, I have not eaten calf fries.)
A few years later I felt like God answered my prayers. We moved to Grady, N.M. My mom specifically told me not to pray for the move, but I knew that Marcus was in Grady and so I prayed the prayer of a young girl. My junior high life began.
My first trip to real mountains was with Marcus, my first waterfall, my first cold summer night. The Pecos Wilderness outside of Santa Fe was maybe the first time that my eyes were opened to the spectacular creations of this Earth. We became friends in the smallest of communities. A grocery store or gas station was 36 miles away. We played basketball, and I was a cheerleader for his team. (Our school was too small for football.) We were always friends.
Our time in Grady was short, two years. For two years I loved Marcus from a distance. I was young and not ready to be anything more than friends with anyone. He was a great friend. He taught me that fear was an enemy. He taught me to dance through this world despite clammy hands.
Even though we wrote letters after I left Grady, I never told him that he was a gift to my childhood. I didn’t know how to tell him so I day dreamt about him for years instead. When I found out that he was battling a life threatening illness, he rarely left my mind for more than a day. Eventually, the illness took his life. And although he never knew, he gave me one of the greatest gifts than anyone can ever give, his time.
He was sweet and patient. He never made fun of my ignorance of the cowboy way of life, and in turn the cowboy way of life has always lived deep inside my heart.
A few years ago I revisited the Pecos Wilderness. I wanted to remember him. I wanted to love the impact his memory has made on my life. I arranged for a horse ride up the side of a mountain starting in Terrero, N.M. and ending at Hamilton’s Mesa. The ride up the mountain was intense because I had not been on a horse for years. Once we reached the beautiful mesa it was worth the difficult three-hour ride to the top.
In true mountain fashion a thunderstorm developed out of nowhere. Because the top was an open field, we had to start our decent before the storm hit. On our way down, just below the gate that lead back to the trail the guide had a few words of advice for riding through a storm. “If lightning strikes next to you then yank the reigns with everything you have.”
Within five minutes a huge fireball came through the ash and pine trees to my right. The thunder was deafening. My horse reared up, and I was powerless to control him. We somersaulted down the mountain 50 yards or more. Old Blackie did not land on top of me, and as I clawed my way back to the trail, I saw my horse on his back with his legs in the air. Panic set in that he might be seriously injured. We’ve all heard what happens to horses with broken legs.
Fortunately he was fine, and our guide was able to get him back up to the trail. The rain came down in sheets. And because I felt that Blackie had lost all respect for me, I chose to stay dismounted and walk the trail back to the owner’s property. The guide went ahead with the horses, and the coldest longest walk of my life began.
Soaking wet from cold rain, it began to hail. In a matter of minutes the hail went from pea sized to quarter sized. I was terrified. I had no idea what to do. The lightning was still flashing all around me, and the hail was getting bigger. Hugging a tree seemed ridiculous because of the lightning, but I needed shelter from the hail. Thoughts of death circled my mind like vultures.
Composure finally took over, and the walk in an icy trail began again. I finally reached a storm shelter about a mile up the way. The guide was there waiting for me. And even though I had to wait another two hours after trying to use a satellite phone to call for a ride, I thought about how I had handled myself in the 37 degree weather in the middle of July on the side of a mountain.
I was disappointed, and to make it worse, I was sure that Marcus would have been disappointed too. All the lessons he taught me in my childhood had vanished. I was so concerned with his memory that I forgot to apply those lessons to myself. Bravery was a distant ghost that I chased up the trail. I will always chase the lessons he showed me.
I may never arrive because after all, I am no cowboy.