No Place Like Home
Notes from a Western Life
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: University of Nevada Press
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A brief version of “Selling the Ranch” appeared in some western news-papers as “A Dispatch from the New West Battleground,” syndicated by Writers on the Range for High Country News. “Dear John: How to Move to the Country” appeared in slightly different form as “Dear John: Moving to the Country,” in the “Death of the New ...
Prologue: A ’54 Chevy Named Beulah
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I’ve lived in western communities most of my life. During my practice marriage, I dutifully accompanied my first husband to central Missouri, eventually escaping from that swampy region pursued by hairy spiders larger than my hand. In the three decades since, I’ve stayed in the high western plains, writing about the quirks of humans, animals, and plants of this arid ...
Selling the Ranch
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In April 2000, I attended the auction of a ranch near mine in rural western South Dakota. That single sale changed our lives, put an end to the community where I grew up. The ranch owner whose death caused the sale—I’ll call him Paul—had been one of my father’s best, and most close-mouthed, friends. I remembered his parents, square-built, hardworking, red-faced Germans who ...
Dear John: How to Move to the Country
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I’m liberated enough to interpret such behavior as an effort at intimidation, so I turned my head to direct your gaze to my vehicle. Right away you noticed the woman observing alertly from the passenger seat, and her German shepherd with his head out the window staring at you, lip curled and hackles raised. ...
The School Bus Driver
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One warm spring day, driving north to my ranch on a Wyoming back road with all the car windows open, I was thinking about unpaid bills when I noticed someone mowing the borrow ditch. When hay is sparse because of drought, many ranchers and farmers take their mowers into the roadside ditch (“borrowed” from the highway right-of-way) to harvest the hay there. After all, it belonged to the landowner before the government decided to ...
Laughter in the Alley
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Soon after Jerry and I bought this house on Warren Avenue in Cheyenne, I began working on the gardens that would eventually dominate my time outdoors here. Our house stands on the corner of a busy street, across from business offices for the school system and a high school for problem students; so a lot of people walk by at all times of the day. ...
Tomato Cages Are Metaphors
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My next-door neighbor’s car windows are open. Snow is falling briskly, blowing in the windows to fringe the seat belts, piling up on the shoulders of the stained front seats. This is not the first time she has left the windows open. Krissy is a single mother, chronically short of money. She often has car trouble. Her landlord is her grandfather, with whom my relationship has ...
A Rocket Launcher in the Closet
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Jerry and I speak of Darrell as “a good neighbor” and grin at each other, acknowledging that the description means something different in town than it did in the country. And it should. Glancing out my study window on the second floor, I see him hustle across the street. His feet move rapidly, but his torso is rigid, arms held at his sides. I can visualize him as a coyote, zipping from one form of concealment ...
The Beauty of Responsibility
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My father abhorred “breaking” a horse; we “gentled” ours. When the big sorrel filly with the gold mane was born, I registered her as a half-Arab. Nostalgically, I named her after the mare in the work team my father had been driving when I moved to the ranch. For months we petted and haltered her, training that had turned other ranch horses into trustworthy partners in our work. She was so tall and showy I daydreamed about riding ...
Watching for Grizzlies Anyway
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I’ve always been intrigued by the way connections can be forged even between people who disagree. The buckskinning camps where George and I vacationed drew a cross-section of some of the most cantankerous outlaws not behind bars. In camp, however, people from every conceivable economic and educational level of society were polite to one another, respected the camp rules, and usually avoided discussing politics and religion. ...
He Pinched the Burning End
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On the ranch, I did a lot of thinking on horseback. In the city, I think best while working in my yard. During our first summer on Warren Avenue, I developed a nodding acquaintance with an old man who lived in the apartment house across the street. He was at least seventy, maybe eighty; sun-tanned, wind-twisted, snow-scoured. He looked like the old cowboys who used to drift around the country working awhile as hired ...
Shoveling Snow in the Dark
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One of our friends recently told us about a couple who had moved into a Cheyenne subdivision nearly fifteen miles out of town. After the usual rituals of marking their new territory by painting the house inside and out and placing new carpets, the family invited the neighbors on their road to a get-acquainted party. The narrator of this story cynically remarked that probably everyone came because the people who had owned ...
Stalking Coffee in Sitka
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Listening, I was suddenly more than a bleary-eyed stranger with jet lag; I was part of the neighborhood. I’d been on Sitka for only twelve hours, and I not only knew Caroline, but she’d invited me to her wedding. Smugly, I sipped my coffee and wrapped myself in nostalgic thoughts. ...
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By night, wearing jeans and dark turtleneck shirts, I joined scruffy long-haired folks of all conceivable genders and colors to publish an underground, antiwar newspaper. I learned the hard way never to drink from a glass or bottle left sitting on the table; no telling what drug had been added to enhance the drink. Most of my drug ingestion experiences, in fact, occurred ...
Tattoos and a Thong
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When tension rides our necks, Jerry and I sometimes head for this small town built around hot springs that have been reducing stress for generations. Legend declares that the West’s hot springs have always been considered zones of peace, where Native American tribes at war could relax without bloodshed. Lovely metaphor: these pools of pleasure are born of the West’s violent volcanic heart, but the peaceful tradition continues. ...
Learning the Names of Cows
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One fall day I stood very close beside my new father in the center of a corral beside the barn and pretended to be brave. Dust swirled around us. A hundred nervous Angus-Hereford calves galloped back and forth, bawling for their mothers, who bellered answers from another corral on the west side of the barn. ...
How to Live at the Dump
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Making pasta sauce in my city kitchen, I’m thinking about the latest environmental news. As usual, a dramatic headline predicted the end of life as we know it, a tired tactic to scare readers into reading adjective-choked paragraphs about the latest crisis. All threats these days are “grave,” all public officials “worried.” Citizens who live next to giant smoke stacks spewing poisonous vapors don’t understand why their hair is falling out ...
It Doesn't Just Happen
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One Wyoming night, as I tried to sleep above our busy street, a howling roar penetrated through my earplugs. I sat up and looked look out the window. Two men knelt beside a city utility truck in the center of the avenue, holding a huge hose and peering into the manhole to the waste line. ...
Making Pottery out of Sewage
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Waste. We all create it, and experts are always searching for ways to make us forget it. In the 1980s, one of my more vivid lessons in septic folly involved the state of South Dakota and the—er—residue created by citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Officials in those Twin Cities were overwhelmed by waste disposal; they were incinerating raw sewage, but even the ashes of human waste take up a lot of space. Sprinkling them ...
Pray for Me I Drive Highway 79
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After my husband George died, my father became unpredictable, pounding the table with rage every day, sometimes weeping sentimentally. Later, I realized his heart was misbehaving, but at the time his actions were confusing and often seemed mean. Sometimes he called me “child,” and ordered me to follow him around all day. At other times he treated me like a partner in the ranch. ...
The Stolen Canoe Mystery
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My father had neglected ranch repairs, or done them poorly, for a long time. So one of my first tasks after I acquired the ranch was to decide what needed fixing first, and to earn enough money to pay for repairs. ...
Playing Pool with the Cat Men
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On my five-hour drives between Cheyenne and the ranch, I had a lot of time to consider the concept of home. Determined to make a life with Jerry, whose career was in Cheyenne, I also wanted to stay connected to my ranch community. No matter how carefully I read the county newspaper, though, I can’t keep track of the community mood as I could when I went to church or visited on the phone with my relatives and neighbors. Yet my ...
Sounding the Writing Mudhole
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In Cheyenne, I met two women who’d read my first book, Windbreak, and wanted to see its setting. We agreed that they’d come with me on a visit to my South Dakota house in June of 1995. They knew me only through my diary of a year of my life on the ranch with my second husband. On the drive, I told them more about coming back to the ranch with my first husband, our divorce, and how I built and then left my house after George ...
Investigating the Heron Murders
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Life in the country is almost guaranteed to make one cautious about leaping to conclusions. So I knew better than to make the particular mistake I made about the herons. Even as a child, I’d often overheard my mother tell my father a juicy piece of gossip she’d gleaned at a church gathering or on the party-line telephone. “Remember,” he’d say, “there may be more to ...
Who's Driving the Subdivision
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In July 2007, I celebrated my sixty-fourth birthday at the ranch with Jerry, contemplating our move back to my home when he retired in 2008. We decided to live in Windbreak House, and to move the writing retreats to my parents’ ranch home, tidied up and renamed Homestead House. We’d brought along a trailer load of possessions: his blacksmith and woodworking tools, furniture, some of my books and writing files. For a week, we ...
Overlooking Antelope Ridge
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Finally home on the ranch, I wake before dawn when a Say’s phoebe perches on the deck railing to announce its hunting plans. My hair flows across the pillow, ruffled by a breeze sweet with scents from drying grass. Unusually heavy rains all spring have nourished smooth bromegrass nearly as tall as Jerry. The lightest breeze makes the bobbing seed heads ripple, like a dense pack of tawny animals running ahead of the wind. Beautiful, but as ...
Epilogue: Waiting for the Storm
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Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2009