'Meet me at the big corral at 9 am,' it read, 'Bill.'
There was no explanation as to why I felt compelled to go horseback riding that morning. I hadn't been on a horse in almost a decade, and I hadn't thought of it until that very moment when I booked the campsite—my eye catching a faint blurb that mentioned sunrise and sunset rides. The only reason for staying there was so that I could wake up early and get to the Zion gates at sunrise and snag one of the esteemed sites inside the park. The Watchman campsite could take the better part of a year to reserve if you are a planner (which I, notoriously am not) and had only a few first-come-first-serve campsites. As I would discover on this trip, as I have on countless others throughout my wanderlusty history, traveling on the wings of instinct rather than itinerary lifts you through doors that don't exist on mortal ground.
I wore fringed cowboy boots, capri jeans and a Santa Fe style cowgirl hat that said, "I'm trying but I'm obviously not the real McCoy." He greeted me with a slow, steady voice that only a cowboy could have—one that I would come to adore over the next three days.
I noticed his hands straight away—his light tan skin was only a hint under the layers of multiple browns and blacks made from true grit. Those sturdy hands gripped the reins of the horses as Bill gave me a rundown of how to steer the mare that rose majestically out of the dust before me.
"Her name is Jill," he told me as I threw my leg over her saddle and gazed out over the landscape from my new highrise perch. I patted her lovingly on the neck, not knowing if this is what horses liked. ”Hi, Jill…(pat, pat) Good girl (pat)…How you doin’?…(rub, rub, pat, pat.)” I had read that the bond between horse and human can be one of the strongest of any connection there is, so I tried to catch a glimpse into Jill's large eye to see if maybe she had that human-bondy glow. What I saw was a marbled-amber precious stone that had been dipped inside a clear, mountain stream staring past me into the wilderness where we were about to roam. She was captivating without giving herself away. Bill swiftly hopped on his horse, and we clip-clopped off together, side by side into the warm morning sun—my heart leaped excitedly ahead of us, looking back like a child who couldn't wait for her parents to catch up. Bill's emails had been short and to the point, so I was expecting a quiet ride with a few blurbs pointing out landmarks and such. Being the only rider, I was hoping he wasn't feeling awkward in feeling like he had to talk too much. Those feelings lasted about 12 whole seconds, dissipating like Jill’s breath into the hills as we started chatting away—it felt like we had already known each other deep down and were enchanted to get reacquainted.
When someone asks me what I like to do in my free time, the cat always gets my tongue and I stutter around searching for an answer. I don't know why "I love to take photographs, explore new cities, write stories, come up with fun business ideas, read travel magazines, and try to learn video editing!" doesn't flow right out of my mouth. Bill asked me this insanely simple question and again I stuttered a bit. When you are out in nature having your breath taken away and thoroughly enjoying yourself in a mystical second Universe land, it's hard to come up with other things you might like to be doing just as much. Eventually, I blurted out that I like to write and take photographs. Bill's interest peaked and shared that his wife is a writer as well, and then very humbly told me about a New York Times writer who had recently finished a book on him and his family. This is where I learned that Bill has seven sons, several of whom are World Champion Rodeo riders, six daughters, 37 grandchildren, and that reluctantly he is a great grandfather eight times over. He cringed because he said, "I still feel like a young guy! How can I have great-grandchildren!" When he asked if I had any kids, I gave him my usual, "No, but I have three awesome nephews..." line as my heart sank a little more than usual at the words. Lately, I've been contemplating the kid thing more, as I'm rounding out my 44th year and am coming to terms with the fact that I most likely won't even have one to his thirteen. I found myself going to my next go-to when the subject of kids comes up and said, "I just want a life where I can at least have a dog.." My mind always reverts back to Mona, and the dog and the life I left behind in Africa. I mention my marriage to Bill briefly and lightheartedly—I didn't want to get too personal or sappy, even though I felt like with this cowboy, we could probably talk about anything, and out there 'on the range' seemed to be a safe and open place that will nurture anything you have to offer. Even though Bill has a village as a family, I can see he is stoic and spends most of his time by himself or with his cattle. I felt a sense of solidarity with him. I too have a swarm of people who I love and love me, but I can spend days without talking to anyone, and I can get lost in the beauty of a place and just sit and stare for hours, finding meditation in the silence. Yet, beyond the ardent need to find solitude, the fire burns just as hot to grasp true connection when it crosses our paths. Bill and I are both very choosy about who can walk with us in our pretty little exiles, and on this day, I think we were both livened by the company we found.
When our ride was over, I wanted to go again. I wanted to follow him during his day and help with the cattle, the fences, the ranch. I wanted to hug him. I touched his arm and thanked him with gracious eyes. "I loved spending my morning with you," I said, and he concurred. "I just might be staying another night, this place is so beautiful," I continued. "If you stay, I'd love to have you over for some Cowboy Goulash," he replied. My heart skipped in circles and I thought, "100% yes!". I said, "How could I turn THAT down?!" Smiling for the rest of the day as I hiked down into a mountain pasture, gratitude dripped from me like the sweat on my neck. I didn't know what it was about Bill, but he felt like family, and I was grateful.
I didn't make it to the Cowboy Goulash that night, or the ones that followed. Bill came to find me the morning I left—we stood out in the open plain watching a coyote lurking and the cows clanging their bells. He asked me in that slow, low voice, “How long ar' ya gunna keep flyin'?” I saw in his question what I feel from many people about my life: ‘When will you settle down and find a good man to make a life with instead?’ I don’t blame him, or the others who insinuate that I might be happier with a husband and a family in a more traditional life. Sometimes I feel the same way, or rather, I wonder. I responded smiling wryly, “When a good cowboy comes to take me away from it all!” We both laughed, imagining one of his 7 sons riding up to swoop me away into Rodeo life. I looked around one last time at the stunning beauty of what Bill gets to live every day. Even though his hands tell a story of a tough life, each line and speck of dirt embraces the love for that world in a way no city girl could ever understand. But I liked the vision of it out there on the edge of "Straight up Land" as the Paiute Indians called his backyard, and I think Bill kinda liked the idea of a new cowgirl daughter in law too. Perhaps that's why we felt like family. Or, maybe it was just the goulash.