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.