The next evening, after my last day of work before Christmas vacation, I stood amidst a stack of clothes, each scattered into different piles around my large bedroom.
"What the hell do I pack to go back to a ranch?" I dug through the pile nearest me, finding clothes that were of little help: black slacks, silk shirts and nylons.
Although I had spent most of my recent Christmases with my family, it had always been them who had done the traveling. I knew it had put a significant amount of strain on them, but they had understood my need to work during the holidays, and had made the sacrifices to spend Christmas with me. Now that my business was successful, I was able to get away for nearly three weeks.
It was wonderful, but it left me wondering what on earth I would pack. In the six years since I had been gone my wardrobe had changed significantly. Gone were the wranglers and boots, replaced with suits, high heels and fancy silk blouses. If I wore them, I would stick out like a sore thumb.
I finally settled on a few pairs of comfortable khakis, some cotton blouses, and the one pair of jeans I was able to dig up. I found a single pair of tennis shoes, and added in my black doc martens.
After digging through my walk-in closet for several minutes, I finally found a duffel bag. Just as I picked it up, a piece of paper fluttered out of the open front pocket, landing underneath my bed skirts.
I got down on my hands and knees, and after reaching under my bed, pulled the mysterious paper out.
It was not a paper, in fact, but a picture. I moved to sit down, leaning my back against my bed as I stared, a small smile playing at the edges of my lips.
I was wearing a lavender, sparkling, floor length dress in the picture. My hair was pulled up into a million tight curls, piled on top of my head. A corsage adorned my wrist, with a white rose and silver ribbon that perfectly matched my date's corsage.
"Shawn." I whispered quietly to myself, a name nearly forgotten. He wore a white tuxedo, which contrasted greatly with his dark hair and tanned face. I knew without studying the picture that the tan was natural. His own family had a ranch, even bigger than my parents', and he worked long hours outside.
I tossed the picture quickly aside, not wanting to think about him any further. I hadn't heard from him, much less thought about him, in the six years since I had been gone. Why start now?
With a new resolve, I set about cramming all of my clothes into the duffel bag that I had set out. It quickly filled to capacity, and after struggling for a few moments with the zipper, it was shut. I walked out of my bedroom door, across the expansive living room, and set the bag near the door, where I wouldn't be able to miss it on my way out the next morning.
My stomach began to growl as I passed the kitchen, and I couldn't help but laugh out loud. I had spent so much time packing, I had nearly skipped dinner. I turned back, my socks padding across the cherry colored hardwood floor and into the kitchen.
When selecting a new home in the city, I had been especially considerate of the kitchen. When I had finally settled on the penthouse suite I now lived in, I had been pleased with the results. It had taken a bit of convincing once I saw the price tag, but it was well worth it. My loft boasted 2000 square feet, jetted tubs, slate counter tops, cherry wood floors, and two fireplaces. It was a bit silly that I was so frugal with my office space and yet so generous with my home, but the balance some how worked out for the best.
After settling for a quick meal of a chef salad, I returned to my bedroom to sort out the mess I had made. It took me another hour to fully clean it up, and by the time I had finished, I was ready for bed.
I climbed between my Egyptian cotton sheets, a recent splurge that I thoroughly enjoyed, and got comfortable underneath my thick down comforter.
But even as I willed my weary body into sleep, my mind did not cease to race with thoughts. The duffel bag near the front door, now stuffed with fancy clothes, had not been used in six years. Six Years. What a long time it had been since I had been home!
And yet, even as I thought about it, I knew that was not the reason for my racing thoughts. The picture that had fluttered from the bag had brought old memories to surface, ones I didn't care to think about again.
I grumbled to myself, tossing and turning, for nearly two hours before my mind finally lost the battle to my tired body, and I settled into a deep, dreamless sleep.
The drive to my little hometown outside Walla Walla, Washington was a long one. My black Lexus navigated the freeway with a comfortable ease, and I found it increasingly more difficult to concentrate. The hours ticked slowly by, one after another, until I had been on the road nearly six hours.
Finally, just when I thought I could bear no more driving, I saw a sign: Welcome to Prescott. I breathed a sigh of relief, while at the same time, my stomach began to do a few excited flip flops. How long it had been since I was at home!
I navigated the familiar roads with ease, and after one more turn, began down a long, dusty driveway. Large fields spanned on each side, filled with hundreds of white-faced beef cows. I smiled, watching some of the younger ones play a bit, before turning my attention back to the road.
My new car was seeing a gravel driveway for the first time in its short, 18 month life, but I felt as though I was driving down it for the thousandth time. I had forgotten how good it felt to be in the country, far from stop lights and sirens, where every star in the sky shone brightly each night.
As I pulled up to the house, I was pleased to see what good condition it had been kept in. During several times of my child hood, when beef prices plummeted, things had a tendency to get rundown. Now though, from what I'd heard through my family, the beef market was soaring, and they were quite profitable. The house had a beautiful new coat of blue paint, and the barns had new roofs.
After pulling to a stop near the front door, I climbed slowly out of my car, taking in my surroundings. It was so quiet! The only sounds were coming from the cattle in the fields, or the distant hum of farm machinery.
"Halley!" My mom's voice broke my silent reverie, and I turned around, my face in an instant grin. My mother rushed down the porch steps, enveloping me in a huge hug.
"You look wonderful mom." I said, hugging her back.
"Nonsense, you look great though. Is that silk?" She asked, motioning to my dark pink blouse. I blushed, nodding.
"I may have to drive into town this week and buy a few more suitable outfits." I said, shrugging.
After quickly getting my things out of the trunk of my lexus, I followed my mom inside, where she led me to my old bedroom.
"You may feel like your in a time warp, but I thought you could stay in here." She said, opening the door.
I stepped into my old bedroom, and instantly knew what she meant. Not a thing had been changed since I had moved to Seattle all those years ago.
"Thanks mom, I'll just unpack and be right out." I said, putting my bag down on the bed.
"Ok, take your time, I'm just baking a casserole right now." She said, leaving me to my own devices.
I sat down on the bed with my bag beside me, silent as I took in my new, but familiar surroundings.
One wall was completely covered with 4-H ribbons, exhibitors numbers, and pictures of myself on Mesa, a beloved horse I had throughout my school years. I smiled to myself as I got up, taking a closer look.
The main picture, an 11x14, attracted my interest. Mesa and I were rounding the third and final barrel in the barrel race, a timed speed event at a local rodeo. Mesa was nearly sideways as he slid around the barrel at the highest speed possible. My hair was flying everywhere, and my upper body was leaning as far forward as possible, as if urging Mesa to let loose and give it all he had.
Just above the picture was a large blue ribbon, the one we had won that day for getting the fastest time.
I began to wander around, taking in each item as though I was seeing it through a stranger's eyes. On the opposite wall of all my 4-H ribbons was my old track Jersey. I had loved to do long jump, hurdles, and pole vaulting. I smiled, thinking about the fun I had at each track meet, laughing as our team lost time and time again. Prescott's track team was known for its horrible losing streak, but it was fun just the same.
Just to the left of my Track Jersey was a collage of pictures. I skimmed over some of them, stopping at a picture of me on the hood of my first Chevrolet Pickup. It was a '72, with an orange and white paint job. A huge dent adorned the driver's side door, and the handle on the passenger's side had been broken. I smiled again, remembering the pure joy and freedom I had felt when I first got my truck onto the open roads.
Was this all really me? The girl who only owned one pair of jeans? The girl who drove a Lexus into the parking garages each night, and then the elevator up to her pent house? The girl who left home 6 years ago and never looked back?
I lay back on the bed, staring at the ceiling, as that last thought had crossed my mind. The truth to that statement hit me with its full force.
I had left without looking back. I was such a different person now! No one in my present life would ever believe that I was the same girl in that picture. I hardly believed it.
"Halley?" My mom asked, knocking quietly on the door and breaking through my thoughts. "You're dad just got back to the barns; maybe you should go see him." She said, rubbing her hands on the dish towel she now held.
I sat up, dismissing all of my previous thoughts, and nodded my head.
"Yeah, I think I'll do that."
"Good, maybe you too can go on a ride or something…catch up." She suggested, before turning and going back into the kitchen.
"Yeah, maybe." I said softly. I reluctantly got up from the bed, and walked slowly out to the barns, where I knew I could find my dad. He was always elbow deep in some sort of grime and grease, constantly working to keep everything in running order.
I found him, as suspected, underneath the tractor, a grease gun in hand.
"Dad." I said, leaning against the door frame.
He looked at me, and even though he smiled, I could see his posture visibly stiffen.
"Halley. What brings you to this neck of the woods?" He said. Although I'm sure he was trying to make a joke, the bitterness in his voice pierced through anyway.
"I'm here for Christmas. You know that, Dad." I said.
"Oh, right, your mother told me." He said, getting up and dusting himself off. "Well it's nice to see you, but I've got to go ride out and check the back fields."
"On the quad or on horseback?" I asked, following him as he walked towards the end of the long driveway.
"Horseback. You know those back fields are too rough for the quad." He said, making me feel like I had asked the same question yesterday. It had been 6 years, not 6 months.
"Oh, right. Can I come?" I asked. I knew my mother would be happy if I at least made the effort to make amends with my dad.
"Yeah, I suppose you can ride Mesa." He said, and I immediately stopped in my tracks.
"You guys never sold Mesa?" I asked, staring, wide-eyed.
"No, why would we? A good cow-horse like him only comes along once in awhile." He said, staring at me as if wondering why I would ask such a "stupid" question.
"I just, well I thought that since I said I was never coming back….." my voice trailed off, and I stared at the dirt on the ground. I couldn't believe Mesa, who had once been like my best friend, was still on this very ranch. I was shocked at how happy that made me, but pleased at the same time.
"Nonsense. Mesa was a good horse, there's no reason to punish him over it." He said, and then began to walk towards the paddocks.
I followed him, picking up a halter along the way, and then stopped just inside the fence when my dad's shrill whistle pierced the air. For a moment only silence followed, and then the sounds of pounding hooves. I watched expectantly, waiting for the small herd to crest the hill in front of me.
I sucked in a breath of air and held it when I saw the six of them gallop over the peak of the hill, and then begin the descent to the small level area in front of me. Mesa, as always, was leading the pack. His glossy chestnut coat reflected the late afternoon sun, his flaxen mane and tail streaming behind him, as if failing to keep up with the blazing pace he was setting. The broad white blaze and tall white socks contrasted greatly against his body color. He was absolutely beautiful.
As the horses reached our area and began to slam on the brakes, I found it hard not to step back or jump over the fence. I shrunk down a little, despite my best efforts, as instinct took over and fear kicked in. Mesa's back legs slide under him slightly as he screeched to a stop, the other horses following suit. My dad stood tall and confident, waiting for them to stop so that he could put a halter on his Mustang, Cimarron. He looked at me quizzically, as if wondering what I was so afraid of, then clipped a lead rope on the halter and lead his gelding out of the paddock.
I, however, was having a hard time at getting my unskilled hands to situate the halter correctly on Mesa's head. He stood patiently; his nostrils still slightly flared form the recent exertion, as I finally figured it out and snapped the lead on. How had this ever been so simple, so easy?
I followed my father out of the paddock gate, never letting my eyes leave the once familiar body of my horse. He was clearly in his prime, his muscles well defined and his coat shiny.
"Dad, how old is Mesa now?" I asked, trying to remember his age from so long ago.
"12, almost 13." He responded, and I nodded my head. That made sense. He was probably only 5 or 6 in that picture back in my bedroom.
We tied our horses to a post outside the small shed used to house our tack, and quickly ran a brush over them. My hands were slightly numb with the chilly air, but I tried to ignore it.
I followed my dad into the shed, and selected a saddle nearest to the door. I swung it over his back, placing it on top of the blue Navajo pad, and began to situate it. It was covered in dust, as it had clearly not been used in many years. I picked up the brush I had been using on Mesa earlier, and this time used it to brush the thick coat of dirt off of it.
Near the back of the leather skirt, as a big piece of hay fell off, I stopped, staring at what I had found. The saddle had thick, stitched lettering on the back, reading only a few words: 1997 WALLAWALLACOUNTY, Barrel Racing Champion.
"Well, you gonna cinch up, or you just going to stare at the saddle all day?" Asked my dad, as he led his horse away from the post, already wearing a bridle.
"OH! Sorry." I snapped out of my silent reverie and hurried around my horse, pulling the girth tight. After a brief struggle with the bridle, I figured it out, and Mesa accepted the bit willingly.
"Good boy." I said, patting him on the neck. His winter coat was thick, but still glossy. I quickly led him over to the fence, where I climbed up it and then did an awkward jump onto his back. My dad stared at me for a minute, as if he wanted to ask me what the hell I was doing, then shook his head and began to ride up the trail. I quickly put my feet into the stirrups and followed.
As mesa broke into a trot, and I began to bounce everywhere in my dusty saddle, I started to wonder what, exactly, I had gotten myself into. At one time I had been a highly skilled rider, but in the 6 years since I had been gone, I had forgotten any skills or talents I had.
Just as I was beginning to consider turning around and going, else risk a horrible stomach ache from the jarring of the trot, Mesa broke into a canter, hoping to catch up with my father.
There's nothing in the world like loping along on the back of a horse. Each stride feels like the sway of a gentle rocking horse, as smooth and comfortable as riding in a car. The wind whips through your hair, and you feel like your racing along in an old western film, far from the realities of civilization.
All too soon we reached the pinnacle of the small hill, and I pulled my horse to a stop beside my father. My horse hit the breaks so far I had to grab the saddle horn to keep from flying over his head. I grinned sheepishly at my father, who had rolled his eyes slightly when he thought I wasn't looking. I knew I looked like a complete greenhorn in front of him, and it was slightly embarrassing. This was the girl who had won a county Barrel Racing championship!
I looked down over the valley, in awe of what I saw before me. Hundreds of white-faced beef cows milled about on the sprawling acreage, each in their own little world, oblivious to the onlookers just above them.
"If you take the west side, and I take the east, this will go much faster. I've just got to make sure all of the fences are in tact, and the herd is all ok." He said, and I nodded. "I'll meet you in the middle at the back, and then we can ride back home together and get dinner."
He quickly turned his horse to the right, and began to descend the hill. I cut to the left, and after allowing Mesa to pick a good trail, headed towards the western fence line. I jogged along quietly, save the sounds of my own arms and legs flopping around, and kept one eye trained on the barbwire, looking for any gaps. The fences were old, but well maintained, and appeared to be holding. I knew an unwatched hole could end up in the loss of several cows, especially if it went unnoticed for too long. The rolling terrain of Eastern Washington was vast and desert like, a sharp contrast to the rainy days of Seattle.
Mesa dodged any uneven spots, careful not to step in any holes, and trotted along obediently, enjoying the little outing. His ears were pricked forwards, his eyes trained on the cattle, as if hoping I would send him on a mission to cut one of the "lucky" ones from the herd. It was a game I used to play with friends. We'd each take our horses out to the herd, unbeknownst to my father, and play a little game of "cutting." It involved each of us picking a lucky cow for the other, usually a younger steer, as they were the fastest, and we were given the task of separating it from the herd for at least 30 seconds. Who ever could accomplish this the quickest was the winner.
I smiled, thinking about how often Mesa and I had won that little game. We were nearly an unbeatable team. Sometimes my friends and I would switch horses, putting the odds more in their favor, so that it was more challenging, but always I would return to Mesa, my loyal little horse.
I patted his neck absent mindedly, trying to revert my attention back to the fence. I looked over in the opposite direction, shielding my eyes from the setting sun, looking for my father. The back field was nearly four-hundred acres, and he was on the opposite end. I couldn't see him from my vantage point.
I once again turned back towards my task, and for the rest of the evening, trotted along quietly, undisturbed by thoughts of the past.