"The West Place"

-Nebraska-

I met with a good friend today. A long time friend. A friend of the family. A mentor. We met him years ago while my mom provided in-home hospice care for his father. From a family of ranchers, he has carried on the tradition, as well as passed it on to his children.

He would become a mentor to my brother Mike, and spoke of Mike like a son at his funeral, voice cracking from underneath his mustache as he uttered gracious words.  I'll never forget the moment he placed his jump wings, from his military service during the Vietnam era, on Mike's casket.

His daughters each spoke beautiful words as well that day. The intertwining of our families was evident. 

When I'm back in my small hometown of Broken Bow, I do my best to make the drive to see this family out in the country. Mom always comes with me. She Loves spending time with this extension of her family, and they're always welcoming.

We drive East out of Broken Bow, then turn left to head North, between cornfields, down a narrow winding highway full of patches and potholes. Giant wind turbines decorate the horizon, dwarfing the grey metal windmill I see in the field next to us.

We pass through a village that seems to be a memory of a time long passed, but still well Loved. The road turns into gravel. We drive by our friend's old home.  His daughter now lives there and she's raising a family of her own, continuing the ranching tradition.

We continue driving and head up a hill that brings back a memory. My mind works like a projector, and the memory plays out in front of me. The rancher's son and I are barreling down the hill on 4-wheelers. Perhaps too fast for our young age. A dust storm forms behind us as the tires throw dirt into the air.  I watch the memory of these two boys zoom passed us with smiling faces. I look into my rearview mirror.  They dissapear into the dust cloud that is behind me today.

So much has changed in the years since that memory, but it seems the dust stirring up behind us remains the same.

Once over the hill, the road comes to a t-intersection. We take a right. We turn right again at the first driveway. A large, well constructed sign bares their family name. The sign is significant. It reminds you that generations of hard workers have labored endlessly to make this place what it is today.

As we pull between the house and the bright red barn glowing in the evening sun, two cattle dogs greet us with wagging tails. Mom and I get out of my 4Runner. One of the dogs is shy and retreats to a viewing point from behind a work truck. The other is already at my feet to introduce herself. I know her. She belongs to the smiling boy I just watched ride next to me down the hill. Yet, he's not a boy any longer. I don't see his truck, he must not be here. He lives nearby, somewhere along that winding country road. He has his degree in agronomy,  working in the area to help farmers understand their soil conditions and what is needed for healthy crops. My nephew is taking that path, but with the two vs the four year degree. I often tell my nephew he should link up and get some advice and maybe mentorship from someone already in the field. I chuckle as I say "in the field." Get it?  Hashtag dad jokes.

I kneel down to give the pup some good ear scratches. Sometimes farm dogs guard their property ferociously. This girl submits for some good belly rubbing. The other dog gets a sense of us and comes out from behind the truck to take a closer look. He deems us okay to enter.

Mom and I walk up to the porch and I knock on the door. He's a bit surprised to see us. He didn't get his daughter's message saying that we would be coming out to see him, nor that I came with an agenda.

He invites us in and I shake his hand and hug his wife. My mom comments on how much this place has changed. He now lives in his mother and fathers old house. The house that mom spent years helping in long ago. They've done an incredible remodel. We've seen it several times since then, but it's like the first time for mom each time we visit 

When asked what brought us out, I come clean.  

I'm working with a website, capturing photos of animals for their veterinary services. I need photos of horses, and I ask if I can photograph theirs. I tell him he can have any he likes, but inform him I'll need him to sign a release that allows the website to post them. We make a quick joke about lawsuits, and he approves.

He had just come home from a long day's work, minutes before our arrival. Only enough time to clear one dinner plate. I tell him I'll be fine on my own, but he insists he drive me out to where the horses are. He knows how bad I can be with directions. He likely thinks I won't find them. "If you want to see a horse, there's one over in the corral. If you want to see a band of horses, you'll want to come with me."

Of course I want to see a band of horses.  

He puts on his boots and I follow him outside to the side-by-side atv. (A Polaris Ranger) I apologize for interrupting his dinner only to ask for a favor. He tells me he's just happy to see me. He sits down behind the wheel. I hop in the passenger seat. He starts up the atv and we head off through the pasture to the gravel road, back down memory hill, and toward "The West Place."

The West Place is an old abandoned farmhouse. It's not just any farm house. It's the one he grew up in.  There's a large pasture next to it where the horses roam free amongst acres of tall grass.

We open, and drive through, a solitary gate to the pasture. There's nearly a dozen horses gathered nearby. Maybe less, maybe more. They're herded so closely that they kind of blend together in a single multiheaded shape.

They are magnificent. 

I approach them with a bit of caution. I know they need to understand that I'm not a threat, but also that I'm confident enough in myself that I'm not going to be a detriment to their herd. As prey animals in nature, they need to make sure that someone has control of the situation. If you don't, then you're a liability, and they don't want a liability in their herd. At least that's what I've been taught. So, I try to approach with respect and confidence.

I bring my camera to my eye and they radiate a majestic energy as I peer at their soulful eyes and muscular bodies through my viewfinder.

The sun is lowering behind the structures and the horses are half in and out of the shadows. I make clicking noises and even try calling them like a dog with little effect. I hate to be a nuisance but I take my friend's advice and remove my hat. I wave it between me and the horses. It works. They move out of the shade. Darn it. Too far. Now I am seeing nothing but horse tails as they gallop deeper into the pasture.

My friend knows exactly where the horses are headed. The south hill. He says the horses like the hill because it gets them away from the bugs. Perhaps they appreciate their vantage point as well. Today I'm the bug they're trying to avoid. 

He takes me on the side-by-side down into a small ravine and sure enough, we see the horses climbing the hill. He dodges deep ruts and drives through passages in the trees. He knows this terrain like the back of his hand.

I ask him to stop a ways back, I don't want to chase the horses away all evening. They're in perfect light as the sun shines yellow on their bodies. Yet, they are once again bunched together in an unidentifiable mass.

I crouch down and focus on a seed pod of a yucca plant in the foreground. The old Minolta film lens I'm using on my Sony digital camera creates a beautiful effect called bokeh. Bokeh is the blur of the portions of the image that are not in focus, creating an uncanny depth of field within the photograph. If the shapes of the individual horses are going to be mixed together, perhaps making them blurry in the image will have an effect that doesn't make you look too closely at what's what. I take the photo and I'm pleased with its results, but I need more. I need an individual face or body or sillohoutte of a horse. It can be multiple horses. I just need to have them look like separate animals so there's a distinct image for the viewer at first glance.

I walk closer. The horses are standing head to butt. I'm told they do this to help each other be on the look out, as well as swatting flies off each other's faces with their long tails. Still, I need a horse face without a horse butt.

My friend starts his side-by-side and drives to the other side of the herd. The horses split. Here's my chance. I snap a few photos. Got one! Ok. Now I just need a couple more. The sun begins to set and I try my hardest to get a good sillohutte shot. A hundred photos and twenty minutes of pestering these beauties later, I think I've got a shot or two that will work. My favorite likely won't work for the website due to the lack of space left for graphics. That's okay. That one is for me. To print for my wall and perhaps to offer up for sale so that others can own that moment on their walls.

I hop back in the side-by-side and we drive back down through the ravine and out through the gate, shutting it behind us. I offer to chain it up, but it's easier for him to just do it in the particular way it's always been done rather than explain to me.

As we start driving back he tells me stories of how they used to have so many horses, but as people ride them less and less, they are slowly disappearing on the farms and ranches. I could sense such sorrow in his voice as he reimagined having nearly 40 horses in years past. He tells me the horses he has left are called "The Last of the Mohicans." I understand the reference to the film about a dying Native American tribe, and it tugs at my heart. Not much more wild and free than picturing a Native American out in those pastures with these horses. Not much churns the guts than envisioning them both slowly ceasing to exist.

As we turn down the gravel road, he shows me the route where he rode his horse to school as a young boy, and even his children, not much older than me, were able to ride before their tiny one room school house down the road was closed. My imagination projects their images on the road, riding to school with the rising sun. 

When we drove by his old place, where his daughter's family now Lives, he pointed and said "That fence there is the last thing your brother built for me out here. Before he left for his third tour."

The tour he didn't come back from.

Again, I sense sorrow in his voice.

As we continue back toward the ranch, I share a special story about a moment that recently happened with me in relation to Mike's life and passing.  A moment that took years to manifest, but it happened in such a serendipitous way I knew it was meant to be. 

He cracks a smile and says, after a deep breath in, "What's that country song, 'I'm already there?'"

Yeah. I was already there.

(I'll share this story in my next post)

We arrive back at the house and chat for a while before mom and I finally say our goodbyes and let them get back to their peace and quiet. There's not much quiet when the two of us get to jabbering. I bend down again to give the cattle dogs a farewell scratch, and then mom and I load back up in my 4Runner.

On the drive home, keeping watch for the glowing eyes of deer, I can't help but think of how great it feels to have just had that experience.

It was such a beautifully peaceful little moment, going back in time with my friend, the rancher. Picturing him as a youngster amongst dozens of horses. Picturing his parents living in that old abandoned house and what it must have looked like years ago. Picturing him riding his horse to school, then his children decades later. Picturing my brother building that fence with his famous smile, likely accompanied by a few flare ups of his equally famous temper.

It feels good to have the past visit every now and again, and it definitely feels good to be home.

Traveling to the major cities across the country I often hear remarks about where I'm from. People assuming we're ignorant without an understanding of the world.

Yet, if they could only see how beautiful the world can be...outside of the city, and outside of their own perspective. Perhaps then they may learn, that ignorance is a two way street.

 

 

"The Last of the Mohicans" 

"The Last of the Mohicans" 

A Battle Lost...

 "Did you hear about Matt? He's gone, brother."

 

"Matt who?? Not Matt Dean?!"

 

"Matt Dean."

 

Fuck.

 

 

This. This, right here, is why I do what I do. This is why I am who am. This is why I share so often and as openly as I can.

 

This man lost his battle with post traumatic stress this week. It's scary as shit when a man as strong as Matt loses the fight. I met Matt a few years ago at "Save A Warrior," a holistic healing program for Veterans, that's practice has now been adopted in a few different organizations I've been involved in. They're teaching some of the most important lessons, values, tools, and perspectives that are invaluable in not only the healing process, but the Living LIFE process.

 

When I met Matt, he was physically intimidating with a large, muscular frame, arms covered in tattoos. He bore the history of a Warrior from 1st Battalion 5th Marines, and stories of being a rough-necker in the oil fields. He had all the ingredients to be the cocky testosterone fueled meathead. Without knowing him, you could easily peg him as "that guy." Yet, Matt wasn't that guy. Not even close.

 

Larger than Matt's physical presence, was his Heart. The man I met was nothing but kind and caring. Matt was a Shepherd. A guide and protector to his fellow Warriors. 

 

To think that he felt he couldn't Live in this world, or perhaps that this world wasn't worth Living in any longer,  breaks my heart. It breaks my fucking heart.

 

I get it. Boy do I get it. I battle with depression DAILY and sometimes wonder if it's really all worth it. I keep going because I believe it is. I truly do. I believe that Life on this amazing planet with these incredible animals, beautiful landscapes, and inspiring humans is WORTH Living in.

 

Yet, if I read headlines on any source of media, it looks as if the world has come to shit, and who would want to continue living in such a place full of gloom, doom and despair.

 

Now, I'm not blaming suicides on media, but I am saying that I'm sick and effing tired of it grabbing any and all of the negative stories they can find, fueling conflict, immortalizing murderers, and putting outrageous ideals of radicals into homes and on cell phone screens across the world.

 

It's an unfair representation of LIFE on this Earth. Over the past two years I have visited nearly every major city, several rural areas and national parks, met people from all races religions and creeds...and we were all amazing to each other. Views may have varied greatly, but actions spoke otherwise. Welcoming, Loving, encouraging, inspiring, Beautiful effing PEOPLE!! 

 

 

I've seen some of the most INCREDIBLE sights here in the United States alone. The entire world is left to discover. I may never get to see it all, but I'm working it into my Life goals to try and see as much of it as possible.

 

I don't want to do this just for me...but for those who can't, maybe wanted to do but never got the chance. I also want to continue to do this for everyone who just may be INSPIRED to KEEP LIVING. That's why I share what I share. It's always been with a purpose.

 

Bella and I's journey...that wasn't just for Bella...it was for me as well...and it wasn't just for us...it was for everyone.  Especially for those who have lost Hope. That's why I shared it. I wanted to share that Love still exists!! Humanity still Exists! But we have to be open to it! We have to experience it! We have to believe in it!

 

As I've been on this journey I have had critics who tell me to get a real job so I "know how other people feel." They obviously don't know or have forgotten that I know exactly how that feels. I've worked countless jobs. Most of which left me depressed and longing for more. Dredging through the workday with disappointment in myself:  "This isn't why I am here. There's more out there for me. I have a larger purpose, I know it!"

 

So...I set out to find it.

 

The journey over these past few years hasn't been easy, or as fun as it may seem from the outside. It hasn't been a vacation. It's been   a search. Yet, I believe those years of searching have been purposeful. I believe they've been making a difference in myself, and all those I share with. In fact, I know it's making a difference… Because people commonly reach out and tell me that it is.  To keep going. To keep sharing. So why would I stop? What could be more purposeful?

 

After experiencing death in many ways, a brother in the war, a sister in a car accident, grandparents to cancer and old age, friends to suicide, my perspective was blown wide open. Why are we here? What really matters. What really effin matters. Life. Loving and appreciating Life. Loving this planet, its animals, its lands, and its people. Loving BEING ALIVE.

 

That's why I spent so much time with Bella...because no one reminded me to Love being Alive more than her.

 

That's all I want to do, Love being Alive. and that's what I want to help others do. This is a gift. I truly, truly, truly believe Life is a gift, and we are so fortunate to be experiencing it together. I don't want to waste it. I don't want to feel like I want to end my own. I don't want anyone to feel alone in their struggles. I don't want people to give into cynicism and give up on humanity. I want us all to wake up, drop the petty differences, and realize that we are all in this together. This tiny blue speck. This is it. We're all in this...together.

 

I don't claim to have the answer, by any means, and I struggle with these idealistic viewpoints. But, I do believe that as I continue to travel, see new places, meet new people, smile into the eyes of strangers, Love on pups, and share stories and photographs along the way, that I am living my own answer. I am doing my part to feel purposeful. I feel it is part of my mission. For all intents and purposes, it is my job.

 

Matt, I'm sorry I wasn't able to help you, brother. It kills me that we didn't link up in Texas, that I didn't take that extra hour or so to come see you. Yet, I take solace in knowing you're hearing and feeling everything I have to say. I'm sending Love to your family, as I'm sure you know how much pain they are experiencing with your absence.

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Update November 2016

Wow....here we are...in November. It's hard to imagine that my last actual blog post was in July. It seems like yesterday, and also a lifetime ago. So many things have happened since then, mainly our story "going viral." My posts largely being on the instagram platform and telling short stories on there, live updates to over 100k followers. It was easy to neglect my blog of only 2 dozen followers in order to update a global audience. Yet, the blog can tell so much more...and I want to get back into that process. 

Folks joined in with us in the Keys and followed us up the coast of Florida and through the panhandle, on west and up north through Texas and Oklahoma. A quick stop in KC, then packing up in Nebraska. A trip with my Nephew to the Dakotas, and then finally on to Colorado. We had planned heading to the Pacific Northwest to finish our cross country trek...but Cancer came back in Bella's mouth and held us up in Ft. Collins for 6 weeks as we treated that. Unfortunately...the day we packed up to head down to Denver for the weekend to make our final decision on where we would go next, whether we would stay in Colorado near the CSU Vet school, come back to Nebraska to be around family, or make our final trip to the west coast to let Bella run around the Redwoods and sniff the PNW coast line, would be our last "road trip." We only made it down to Denver before her lungs were finally, yet suddenly, too effected by the masses growing in them to properly breathe. 

I said goodbye to her early the next morning, and it broke my heart. As much as I said that I wanted it to grow my heart rather than break it...I suppose I didn't realize that it had to break first before it could mend. 

Now, here I am in Denver...wondering what will come next in this journey. I just purchased a new computer, so I can finally have an easier time writing blog posts, as well as editing photos. I have a few things planned, a few ideas in the air...and am looking forward to what comes next. Yet, before I get deep into typing about my experiences....about the loss of Bella, I wanted to type this quick post to check in with everyone and see if the new subscribe button is working and if people are getting e-mail notifications when I post a blog. I'd like to type more on my blog...but also want some reassurance that it's being read, and those who want to read it are being notified of new posts.

Therefore, please comment below if you received a notification for this. I appreciate you helping me out with this, and this will be motivation to encourage me to update my blog, my photos, and my entire site more often. I miss the days when I had more focus on building the site, as it was very therapeutic, and I was honestly proud to building something that I could call my own. So again, please comment that you received this...where you're from, and how you found the blog. I'm already thankful for your help in advance.

Again, thanks for everyone who's been along for the journey so far...it's only just begun.

 

Much Love,

 

-Rob K.