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The Ranch

Hungry

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Hungry

In the fat redolent days of summer, it was easy not to kill an elk. I watched them move through the flickering brown landscape so familiar to my heart, and thought, twice, not today. Not now.

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Turkey Hunting

IMG_6063I am trying to be very quiet, and very still. It's not that hard to be still--to let the edges of your consciousness and physical being bleed into your surroundings, so that the tiny, infinitesimal movements the body makes are no different than the bending of the grass, the flickering of a bird wing, the rustle of tree limbs in the wind. But to be very still is another matter entirely, to not just blend in, but become transparent in the landscape--to be one of these striated blocks of cooled magma, the thick ridged bark on a tree--that is the stillness I am seeking. The golden hour has already progressed to the thick amber light that signals the coming of twilight, the gossamer threads of early sunset have deepened into bold lines, by the time we start heading into the timber. We hem and haw for a minute before going--the porch is wide and inviting, the beer cold and crackers salty, and besides, the dogs have been running wild all day, so if there is a turkey on the ranch he'll be extra spooky--but in the end, it's difficult to resist the rise of blood that is the call of the wild. While we're debating, the hobbler gobbler knuckle drags his way across the lower field and up over the deer saddle (so named because this particular dip in the ridge line is the perfect spot for mighty bucks to pose for us while we sit on the porch, their branching antlers backlit by the sun as if they were growing down from the trees, tangled in with the limbs rather than up from the forest floor--they wait for us to notice and once a hush has fallen while we pay our respects they bounce off to some secret place, which of course, is not for us to know).

I do not want to shoot the hobbler gobbler and I say so. It isn't really that he has a name, although you'd  catch me a liar if I said that wasn't part of it, but more that I am rooting for this old turkey underdog, who has beat the odds of survival despite a genetic deformity that should have doomed him at hatch. I care about my prey, it's true. I want a fair fight. Nature has no reason, no conscience, but this defines our humanity--we do not kill the too young, the mothers, or the deformed. A cougar cannot care, because he hunts for survival, and he'll take the weakest link. But I am well-fed and healthy, a good strong girl, I'm not scrapping to live through another winter. I have the luxury of mercy.

It has been cool all day, the sky turbulent and threatening to storm in various shades of blue and steel gray. Only in the last hour or so has the sun won out, the clouds retreating to the very edge of the horizon. While we hike up the ridgeline--or maybe it's when we're on the road--Uncle Jay shows me his impressive array of calls, hidden deep in the many pockets of his vest, like a collector (or a watch salesman) they keep coming out. He names each, explains its use. The Tom Coffin, the cedar box, a call that sounds like a woodpecker. Any noise, really--he says to my confusion--will rile them up, so you can hear where they are.

Uncle Jay is leading us, this is his domain. Normally we both trail after my Dad--I am his daughter and have been taking his directions my whole life, my Uncle is his younger brother, and I have a feeling he's been taking his directions his whole life too. But where my Dad is intuitive for the long-legged four hoofed beasts, my Uncle knows the skies, his kinship lies with those that take to wing. I wonder with which I’ll have an aptitude for, but really I want both, and all—plants, rocks, trees, birds and beasts, I want a name for each thing.

Three enormous juniper trees sit fat and gluttonous, surveying the valley, when we reach the top of the ridgeline. The balsam root is blooming, yellow heads nodding lazily in the breeze, riots of color dotting the hillside. White blond cheat grass ripples down to meet the highway, the faded black tar curving around the ridges and ranches all the way out to Hood, over the John Day and the Deschutes and beyond. Today is quiet, mostly--there's some activity on the Johnson's across the road, a herd of cows move in slow undulations of black dots across the vibrant green of the newly-planted field, decked out in spring splendor. And us in the middle of it all, the three of us, watching, waiting.

I try and stay still, and quiet, but I’m finding it hard to suppress the soft exhalations of air that accompany the expansion and depression of my chest, and I’m finding it hard to also suppress the questions that keep occurring to me as we sit and listen. My Dad has stretched out to our left, napping, my Uncle to my right, his head cocked, straining for sound. Once, out pheasant hunting, he showed me a Harrier twirling like an acrobat through the sky, snapping at a rooster who made the mistake of taking to the air. The other weekend, when we spotted the owl, he tells us for certain that it’s a Barn owl, has to be. A sparrow hawk has been haunting the lower field, or so we discover earlier in the day when my Dad points him out to us and my Uncle identifies it. Now, while we sit with legs flung out in front of us, he says, “Do you hear that bird that’s saying cheeseburger? Black-capped chickadee.” I tell him about the legislation I just read about that’s trying to increase sage grouse habitat in Oregon—but I thought you could hunt grouse?—he clarifies the difference between ruffed, spruce and sage grouse, and which lives where.

Turkey, he tells me—I remember from last year—have sharper eyesight than most, based on movement. Hence my current practice of stillness. My Dad and Uncle, they’ve been watching the turkey for a while on the ranch, have figured out some of their patterns. They have a runway here, he says, I’m pretty sure, pointing to the break in the trees we’re looking at. They take off from here and glide across the valley to the other side, a turkey super highway. I try to picture it, the big bird beasts floating down from the sky.

Alright, he says, after my limbs have stiffened and the shadows have lengthened to swallow the whole field in front of us, cows now nearly invisible in the dark. Let’s go try one other spot.

We move, still quiet although now I am acutely aware of every twig snap and brush crunch my boot makes. The context has changed for every minute sound—earlier in the day I paid no mind to the chorus of noise I create and am a part of, now it is consuming my awareness. When we hear the first gobble—that perpetually surprised eruption—it strikes so loudly in my sensitive ears that I too, am startled. We each three freeze, try and pinpoint where it is. Very slowly, my Uncle moves to pull the cedar box out of his vest and begins mimicking the creaky scratch of a hen’s call.

The tom gobbles again, faint enough that we think he is probably on the other side of the highway. We relax a little, now that we’re sure he isn’t right behind us—he won’t cross the road, my Uncle says with a snort. Not now. The air is cooling with the onset of true dark, the skies quieting from the raucous cacophony of other birds. Out there some big puffed up male is still gobbling though we’ve put away our calls, a breath or two between each.

When it comes, the shot explodes without warning through the air, all stillness shattered. Waves of sound echo in deep reverberation across the valley while all the creatures hold their breath–a new kind of stillness settles over creation while we wait, all our instincts roaring, and when nothing follows, we let out a collective sigh.

That Tom, whoever he was—I hope, with a sense bordering on panic, that it is not the Hobbler—has met his turkey maker (we hear no more gobbling), a second shot ringing out just to be sure. At least someone’s having turkey tonight, my Uncle says, while we head back down the timber.

Early the next morning, through a gray fog of sleep, I hear my Uncle go out to the porch to see what stirs in the dawn light. All quiet, I can tell--no one shakes me truly awake, and I settle back to dreams for another sweet hour.

We end back up on the ridgeline after spotting six jakes near the fish pond, my face still flushed with sleep—I am sure the stillness will come easy this morning, so near am I to the deep, slow rhythm of that different consciousness of late night. The world glitters in the sun of early day, a soft purple wild orchid waves nearly translucent in the sea of surrounding grass—I sit, taking it in in a kind of haze, while my brain works to reconcile the landscape of today with the landscape of last night, an ever-changing stretch of texture, color and light.

Maybe they stayed in the timber, we speculate, while waiting for the jakes. It’s just Uncle Jay and I today—your Dad, he says, is one of the most impatient, well, he’s too impatient for this. A half-smile and a shake of the head—that stillness, the waiting, doesn’t always find each of us right when you need it. He comes with us, I know, just in case—just in case we see one, and I get a shot, he does it so he can see me. Today we’re back by the runway, watching the strip to see what moves. Have you ever noticed how as soon as you start hunting all the turkey disappear? he asks me. I am idly picking at a dry stalk of bunch grass, the silvery blue of the rest of the bunch prickling my thigh through my jeans. I shift my leg underneath me, can already tell it will fall asleep in minutes, the weight is just right.

Yes, I say, I guess I have. Those jakes this morning made a quick exit as soon as we headed out in camo, face masks hot in the morning sun. They knew something was up.

It’s intention, I think, they can sense your intention.

I believe this—to me, it’s the same cosmic thing that lets birds fly in whirling tandem as they wheel across the sky, how schools of fish relate even as they’re spread across seas, it’s the prickle on the back of your neck when you feel sure you’re being watched. Turkey, anything really, must know when they’re being hunted. Wouldn’t you?

Stay still, stay awake. The Verona leans against me comfortingly, a reassuring heat warmed up from the ground. I hear a very faint gobble, from across the highway, a whisper of turkey brought on by the wind. So faint I’m not sure I really heard it—Uncle Jay doesn’t, his ears still thick with a cold. Too far away to be interested in, we start picking ourselves up off the sandy tan of the ridgeline, calling it a morning. It’s a nice way to spend an hour, watching the day wake, letting your senses absorb as much as you can of the world around you. The timber, when we get back down into the deep of it, is dark and deliciously cool after the exposure of the ridge. I follow on the way back, my head down and lost in thought—all alertness shed—watching for where my Uncle’s boots have left neat depressions in the steep slope for me to sink my own boot into. Abruptly, they stop.

There, where we are about to break out into the open light of the field, are two of the jakes we were after earlier. He says nothing, points back up the ridge, and his meaning clear, we charge forward with long, purposeful strides, our intent like a red flag as we move through the trees.

We stop, listen—they are gobbling but it’s hard to tell from where, the forest dampening the sound and misdirecting it. In an instant, I watch my Uncle take it in—the turkey, the direction they went into the timber, the light filtering through the pine, the sweet heady scent of spring in the air, my face, an open question—and weigh it against all the other thousands of birds he’s watched, all the other hundreds of heart-hammering decisions made when you become a predator.

Sit, he whispers, put your back against this tree. The trunk is reassuring, a good thing, I’ve never shot my gun from the ground before, something I’ve just realized, now with my heart somewhere between the vein throbbing in my neck and the pounding of blood in my temples. The barrel of the Verona is dark and unfamiliar here, reflecting the quiet dark green of the woods—I am so used to seeing her flash brilliant against a wide open sky, wiped clean by the wind and higher than the clouds.

If they come between that log and us, you shoot, he tells me. This one, I say, pointing in the direction of a felled pine, a deep Y splitting to the left. Yes, he whispers back, and then really, for what feels like the thousandth time, I take a deep breath and try to stay very still.

It must only be seconds but it feels like an eternity, watching those jakes move across the top of the ridge, their light bird bodies a dark outline against the sun. They move the way birds do, heads nodding forward with the jerk of each step, gobbling as they go. We are invisible as they pass, two hearts racing amid the quiet beat of trees around us. They stay high, past the log. I don’t have a shot. Still, my hands are slick with sweat and excitement, my head dizzy with anticipation.

We stand and brush ourselves off once they pass, buckle the pads we’ve been sitting on back to our vests.

Should we go after them? My Uncle asks, a real question and not a statement. We might as well, I say. So once again, we head uphill, after those elusive dinosaurs, our evasive feathered foe.

And again, at the top, my Uncle pulls up short—met face-to-face with the jakes themselves, about to take-off from the runway we’ve been so diligently watching. It is hard to tell who’s more surprised. He turns back to me as if to say both I told you so, and can you believe it. We weren’t quick enough to head them off, and we weren’t patient enough to wait for them to come to us. I can believe it, I can’t.  I had the stillness in me, I was transparent in the trees—but we lacked the patience, this time.

Before we head back down through the timber for the last time today, we’re headed West to the valley tonight, I pause for an instant to see if I can spot them, soaring to the other side. No, they’ve disappeared again, though now my intentions are good. I missed the turkey, this year, but gain more each time I go. I catch up to Uncle Jay and walk side-by-side down the through the deer saddle, the road a stark hazy tan in the sun, already thinking about how to tell this story.

 

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First Walks

IMG_5979The first walk when we get to the ranch is always my favorite. Whenever we leave, the quiet settles back in around the cabin and across the hills, no dogs racing across the fields after squirrels, no tractor trundling up the road. We can be a startling presence here, no matter how strongly we believe we belong. But our noisy humanness makes for good wildlife viewing, a good chance to see what’s out there while we’re gone—once we pass through, all the animals go to wherever they go when they hide, and we have to work harder to see them. Ten or so turkey are on the road when we get there, fluttering their wing tips at how uncomfortably close the truck is, and we crawl over the gravel, trying to get a count before they disperse. They head into the timber, almost all jakes except for one—the hobbler! my Dad says, pointing him out as he lurches up the hillside. A birth defect, I think, he explains as we make our way to the garage. He walks on his knuckles, the claw is bent over—he curls his fingers into a gnarled fist, demonstrating—but he’s old, his waddle hangs low, he’s made it for a long time. A wizened old hobbler gobbler indeed. IMG_5700The cabin is as the cabin always is, which is to say there is a thin line of dead bugs outside the door and the distinct scent of pine logs and still, quiet air inside, an opened sleeve of saltines ready in the cupboard. There is something soothing about this sameness, a return to the inside pieces of my heart, when we’re here—standing on the porch, looking out at the road curving away into the little valley we call our own, well. You know what it means.

First—after we eat questionable hard-boiled eggs and feed the dogs—we take to the fields, which Farmer Lee has recently planted. Alfalfa from last year has grown in bunchy, low patches across the furrowed ground but what we’re looking for is evidence of the seed that was just sown—a native grass and plant mix that Lee says is going to take this year, as long as there’s rain. Crouching low over the field, we dig with tentative pointer fingers through the clodded dirt, hoping that a week is enough time for even just one those sweet grasses to unfurl from the seed and seek the sky. Here, Dad look, I say, and show him the two miniature green leaves—looking impossibly delicate against the expanse of this wide earth we stand on—but stalwartly growing anyway. That good be something! and we walk away proud of those little plants, beating the ground squirrel and seven-year drought odds just by getting started.

The first walk starts in the field and takes us winding through the ranch, disturbing all that big peace and quiet with the very quality of our being. At the pond, we startle a rangy Canadian Goose out of the water—he takes to the sky in a flurry of honking, both dogs staring wistfully as he beats the air. His mate is hiding in the reeds, we discover a few seconds later walking around the far edge of the murky green, she has a tight nest woven with a clutch of milky blue eggs tucked inside. She takes off too, the honking now reaching a raucous fever pitch as it echoes off the ridgelines, and we lengthen our strides while calling the dogs off the nest (Dexter, his little brown nub of a tail rigid as he points the eggs (dare I say) doggedly), only to be met with the talons of a Tom who has been startled off the road and interrupted in his flight path towards the timber by us (the disruptive, disruptive humans).

Turkeys, as it turns out, are very ominous flying dinosaur birds when they put their minds to it, even though their gobble is a noise I find very, very silly.

IMG_5956The red-tailed hawk from the upper field comes to see what all the fuss is about, landing on a branch not far above us while we make our way out towards the second piece, and sees fit to add his warning screech to the cacophony of noise already erupting from every flying creature in a two-mile radius. It is raptor city, my Dad says, waving a hand overhead as if to ward off them all off, and we don’t seem to be welcome here.

On the second piece, when the road starts curving up to meet the trees where they touch the sky, it starts to snow a little, spitting ice from pearly gray cloud cover. Mister Owl glides across our path, silent and deadly, to perch on the other side, from which to better watch us pass. I have my head down, on account of the snow, but my Dad sees him (he is better attuned to these things, I have discovered) but I catch the tail-end of his whisper flight through the trees, and I can feel his cool and steady gaze on our backs as we keep walking.

IMG_5662My Dad still asks why I want to come out with him, which baffles me. How many times, how many ways, do I have to say the reason is this, all this, always—the chance to see an owl in daylight, to watch the wind whip new cheatgrass flat across the hill, to feel the tangible connection to something larger than myself, to see the glory of all the universe has to offer spread out at my feet. To shed the cagey feeling that wells up too often in the city, held in as I am by concrete and commuting, to walk and not see another soul for miles. The same reason you do, I want to say, but then again—we all have our reasons, things to run from and to. Different shades of the same color, though, and we’re all painted through with pictures of this landscape.

This too—I learn more out here, walking around, than I have most anywhere else. I’ve been following my Dad through the woods for as long as I can remember—first at the old cabin, when I had to look up at the teasel by the nut hut, to now, hiking up to an elk wallow my Dad found last spring. These are the times that live deep in my chest, at the center of my soul, where I pick up the things that I think I must have always known—that ponderosa pine smells like vanilla in the sun, what an elk track looks like, how to follow a game trail—and new things too, the difference between pacific ninebark and bitterbrush, how many gallons of water a day juniper trees pull out of the ground. It’s a homecoming of sorts, these first walks—all of them really, whether I’m eight, deer hunting with a hammering heart and Rachelle and my Dad under a tree while coyotes yip just beyond us, or 23 and chukar hunting a hard ridgeline in Cottonwood Canyon . Back to land, back to my family, back to myself.IMG_6019

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At the Ranch

It was late when we got there, late enough that I was heavy with sleep all the way over—every blink an invitation to slip back into the twisted tangle of dreams lurking just beyond my eyelids. I kept fighting to stay awake for Darren’s sake, so he didn’t have to fight the same battle I was—plus the long, windy road—alone, but the cozy warmth of the car and the reassuring weight of puppy on my lap made it nearly impossible. Each time I surfaced to consciousness I opened my eyes on a new flash of shadowed, curving highway—a familiar road turned ghostly and strange in the night.

When we arrive, a new energy invigorates me. I’m wide awake and confident getting Darren up highway 19, knowing exactly which turn was ours, anticipating the bend—this other home to me, the smell of cold, sharp air, the dark outline of hills I know well. The night is almost day in moon shine, the crunchy layer of snow underfoot casting light all around us. Puppy runs happy laps while we pack our bags into the empty cabin, the soft glow of embers in the stove the only sign that life has touched this place. I know the rest of the crowd is up at one of the summer slash piles, burning the night a thousand shades of flame. It’s late, remember, so we tuck puppy in to bed and then chase the fire and my family up the road—I don’t quite know where they are, but I remember slash piles higher up than they’ve ever been—so we just keep driving, swaddled safe in the Jeep, the forest, and the stars, until we see the tail lights of the truck. The big shorthairs jump out from the backseat, a blur of barking, wagging tails and jumping, they lick our hands and circle our feet. And here is the legendary band of brothers, the raucous and rowdy, their familiar faces licked by firelight as the dark is consumed by the flames. My cousin Spencer is here too, and his friend—someone I met once, maybe—and everyone is happy, easy in companionship. I delight in the company of this group of Uncles, I’ve known them for so long, you see—and they’ve known me. The lucky benefit of a tight-knit family, so many people to remind you of where you’ve come from, and how far left you have to go.

IMG_4255The fire eats into the ground and dances for the sky, smoke roils up to the above—meeting no clouds on this starry night, only the moon to whisper secrets to as it passes by. We stand around and listen to them tell stories, bullshit mostly, as one does in the presence of beer and fire, until the cooler drifts towards empty and the circle grows quieter and quieter. Muckle Matt tells my Dad he’s driving the truck back to the cabin—like hell you are—this pack of animals play fighting like any other. We follow them back down the road in the Jeep, my Dad hunched on the tailgate (of my own damn truck!), my Uncle Matt the victor.

In the morning Darren leaves early to elk hunt and I let that little puppy into my sleeping bag, until the combined heat of both our bodies is too much to handle in one down cocoon and we break out of the little cabin gasping for cooler air. The day hasn’t quite started yet, early dawn light washing the world blue, but we are up. I need too much from this place to be able to sleep in—we have so much to do and so little time to do it in, or so it feels. Cedar has no fear here, something instinctive in him has sparked, and he runs hard up the hill, free from cars and sidewalks and the noise of people. I have no fear here too. His ticked coat blends in too well with the patchy snow on the ground, and now big fat flakes are flurrying down from above, so I can hardly keep track of him as he speeds around the drive, nose to the ground. I whistle for him, whistle again, until he appears at my side (as if by magic) and we go into the big cabin.IMG_4261

A slow starting morning for those of us here, though we keep an eye on the porch for the elk hunters. My Uncle has a tag and is leading a bit of a war party out there—the boys all clamoring for the experience, thrilling at the thought of sighting one, hunting something, connecting to that primal animal that lives in each of us. I am content here, today—the cabin heated by the fire, coffee in the pot, my garden book begging for my perusal. The familiar voices of my family swirl and settle around me, boot stomping, a little puppy yelp once in a while from the dog wrestling happening on the floor. We’ve got a bird hunt to go to a little later on—well, really I don’t think I can go. I’ll be sacrificing today to spend with Cedar in exchange for many more seasons hunting behind my own dog, but I’m excited for the others. I know how their hearts will beat a little quicker at the ROOSTER call, how they will start (can you help it?) at that harried flurry of wings, how they’ll race towards the dog, standing stock-still in the cover, every cell in their bodies concentrated on a smell (the most delicious of all).

I know how it will go, and I know I’ll feel a brief pang of frustration while I watch them walk away—their backs a line of orange vests and camo, the men easy and open as they get started, the boys tense with anticipation—I will feel left out. Puppy will be at my feet, whining as the big dogs walk away, we’ll be united in our mutual unhappiness—standing here on a bluebird sky day, a weather-beaten barn casting shadows to our left, a hundred birds missed for the shots I won’t be able to take. And I also know that this will give way to wistfulness, and then optimism, as I head back down the highway in the Jeep with my dog riding shotgun, a day at the ranch open and all mine.

I have no time to waste on disgruntled unhappiness, not when I have an open road ahead of me and that wide blue sky above, a good dog snoring gently by my side. The local radio is playing something twangy, the black and yellow ticks by steadily as I curve down towards that land I’m tied to. Quiet again when we get back, a dead fire in the stove and breakfast still all over the counters. We were out there at Skip’s—was his name Skip?—for an hour or so, after the elk hunt proved fruitless and we drove the highway for too long looking for the right turn-off. Cedar did enough romping around that he’s tired now, and he sleeps on Dexter’s bed in front of the fire I get started again, rote in my actions although I rarely am here alone. Outside my hands are cold as I chop kindling, my nose runs constantly, my face gets a little dumb while I stand on the porch with an armful of wood. So much of this place is colored by the people who love it—this view, of the road carved out through the valley, racing away from the cabin and into the beyond---I’ve walked it a hundred times on foot and a thousand times in my mind. This view that my Dad made his legacy, that Uncle Ollie caught in oil paints, that Uncle Jay gets up early to see. The view that my Mom looks out on and recognizes the person she loved first—before all the rest of us—all the wild in an almost untamed heart, all the dreams that were made reality. And I stand here, and I see all this, but I see more too—I see what it means to me, something intangible and unspeakable, and all the things it will be to me.

These trees and rocks and dirt, they don’t mean anything until we make them something. Humanity’s gift and curse, this fight for reason—our reason to be—in a world that asks us to accept only because. But here in front of me, stripped bare and sacred, is my reason. Because I am alive and I am a part of this, more than anything else. Because I know nothing but contentment among these wild things, because to walk for miles on rocky ground is to know the only God I do. I think we are all seeking the same things, out here, though we walk different roads.

Cedar whines from inside, I’ve been gone for too long. I go inside, feed the fire through the black yawning maw of the wood stove. I make tea while Cedar wakes up, and then whistle for him outside—we’re going for a walk.

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Driving at Night

photo 1While we drive to the ranch I watch out the back window at the sunset, glorious in pinks and golds, setting the wheat fields on fire as we race along the highway. It’s long enough to make my neck hurt after awhile, but I can’t make myself move, can’t force myself to break the spell that’s keeping me here, petting Dexter’s head as he breathes slowly, in his dog way, while my Dad talks about his Dad and all the sadness that’s left there. I think about what that must be like, to not have your Dad like you and I can’t imagine it, which is something I think would make my Dad happy to know. At the very least, he hasn’t made the same mistakes that his Dad has. My siblings and I live in a world where we have a soft place to land, someone to guide us and give us rules, and of course, we’ve always had lots of love. What else do kids need? I wonder, because really I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone knows for sure—but it seems like my childhood was a pretty good place to start. The problem is, of course, I think while the highway is fading into a thin black ribbon, cascading behind us, rippling through the hillside and out into the sun while we head into the dark, that eventually you stop being a child even though you still have your family. The reason this is a problem is that you have to learn how to be a part of a family when you’re all adults. It changes things, it really does. I wonder, as dusk settles in and deer start dotting every field, at what point you stop needing your parents? Two huge bucks appear, eyeing us while they pose in the lower fields, and Dad tells us they all come down at this time of year to the open fields because their antlers are in velvet and very sensitive, so they avoid the timber, where branches are thick. We pause by the side of the road and then keep driving towards the ranch, hitting Condon before dropping back down into the canyon and wending our way along the river. Never is the answer here, I think. You never stop needing your parents, which is I think, one of the hardest realities of life we all face.

Fossil is the same as it always is, although cooler now that the sun has pretty much gone down and night has started creeping around the edges of the houses and the trees. Highway 19 welcomes us in, the burned tree a talisman and a practical marker for where our gate is. When we pull in, gravel crunching under the wheels of the truck, Rachelle spots a huge herd of elk eating in our lower field. Quick, my Dad says, quick how many were there? We stop, barely breathing, Dexter’s nose pressed against the glass and look for their big bodies shadowed in the grass and trees. One bull is there, although I don’t see him, but Rachelle has sharper eyes than I do and she spots him.  I can barely see in the daytime, so now that it’s almost full dark I’m pretty much useless, although I imagine I can see the curve of the road as it follows the lower field, and I can pick out the outline of the ridge against the sky. Little pricks of light are starting to hover above the horizon, guide lights in the night. It’s almost been a year since I stood on this same porch and looked at the sky, hoping for a sight of my Grandma. I think of my Dad and how he needed his Mom, and still does I think all the time, even though she really only nailed one of the three.

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was leaning on the rail, thinking about Brian Doyle and all those stars. It seems like it was both yesterday and a lifetime ago, that it all happened to a different person. Maybe it did. It’s been a big year for growing in this family, of figuring out how we’re going to live and love each other. And I think part of it is because in the last year we’ve seen, I’ve seen, my parents become people. Not just my Mom and Dad, but Claire and Nathan. And it’s horrible, a painful thing sometimes, something you want to rail against. I’m lucky, I think because I’m 23 and just finding this out, although there have always been glimpses of those people—when they’ve been angry at each other, when they’ve dropped a piece of your life puzzle, and when they’re desperately sad. Some people find out too soon, that their parents are just people and not Gods, not the sun and the moon, not the reason for why the world turns. But when you start growing up, the way it should be, you start becoming a person with wants and fears and hopes, dreams and love of your own, and you recognize that your parents and your siblings and everyone around you have their own wants and fears and hopes and dreams. When you start to grow up all the pain and sadness and lost hope begins to reveal itself to you, the injustice in the world, the death in life, it all becomes apparent. Your Dad cries at funerals and your mom tries to put him back together, and they talk about the things they still have left to do before they die too. But will I ever want them to stop being those raw, complex beings and go back to being only my parents, my Mom and Dad? Simple, my soft place to land? Yes, always.

All this that I see. But still, this weekend at the ranch, I don’t believe it, not really. Here we are all together, my life still revolving around this sun and moon I have been so blessed with, my sister and brother anchoring lights in the little constellation we make up. And so I leave the drive behind, smell the juniper in the air, wake up early and we go for a family walk.

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