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The jewels in this life are the events we do not plan; at least that is how it has always been for me. The plan was to move back to New York City -- my city of screeching subways and underground jazz clubs; city of grit and noise and flower vendors on every third corner, of low-lit restaurants and Brooklyn graffiti, dirty martinis and expensive jeans; where music exits every doorway and window and car. New York, where the city lights under cover of clouds give the night sky an orange glow; where eight million people swarm just inches from one another.
I had left New York, the city of my passions, for two years in San Francisco, a transition so stressful, it triggered severe abdominal pain and debilitating depression, which, after six excruciating months, I finally diagnosed as gluten intolerance. After healing physically and emotionally and learning how to cook, I decided to write a book about this common, misunderstood condition to fill the void of resources on the market at the time.
The week I got my book contract, the apartment building I was living in burned to the ground after someone poured gasoline through the mail slot in the front door of the building next to mine and lit it. The fire destroyed both buildings and killed two of my neighbors that night. I spent two weeks sleeping on the floor at a friend's house while looking for a place to live, then moved to an obscure hilltop neighborhood and, because my new home sat far from public transportation, bought a Vespa scooter with the money I was saving on rent. I wrote my book in a tiny garden apartment overlooking the city, taking daily trips to the grocery store and farmers' market on my Vespa, inventing the recipes that would fill my book. When Eating Gluten Free hit the shelves, I knew my time in San Francisco was nearing an end. The time had come to return East.
A wild hare grew into a wild adventure as I pondered how to get my Vespa to New York City. Acting on a daydream, I decided to ride my Vespa across the country and have my belongings shipped once I got settled in New York. Despite nearly everyone in my life urging me otherwise, I set out alone, on the first day of August 2005, to cross the United States on my 150cc Vespa ET4 -- a trip that lasted two months to the day and covered six thousand miles.
On my ride across America, I took a sweeping path through Wyoming and fell in love at first sight, love at the very border. I felt magnetized to the land, to the red dirt and the Bighorn Mountains and the wide-openness I had no idea still existed in this country. The landscape around the Bighorns is like an ocean on pause, rolling with the subtle colors of rust and sage and gold, stretching to every horizon. These mountains are unlike other mountain ranges. While the Tetons are fangs of stone and Rainier is an ice cream sundae, the Bighorns are sloped and subtle, built of some of the oldest exposed rock in the world; rock that has existed, in its current form, for over three billion years. There is exquisite power in their permanence.
I crossed the Bighorns in awe, in reverie, and camped at their base for a night. As I rode east the next day, toward South Dakota, a violent debate raged inside me. I longed to stay in Wyoming, and was tormented at the thought of leaving it behind. I considered ending the trip then and there, going so far as to stop at the Sheridan library to read the local classifieds. But I continued on. I assumed I would click back into New York City, my city, the moment I arrived.
I didn't, and I knew within days that I wouldn't. The country had put its spell on me. One lazy, late fall morning, a week into my confused and disillusioned reunion with New York, I took a friend's laptop to a nearby coffee shop, needing to dream. I searched the internet for Wyoming rentals. The Bighorns held my heart, and I typed in the names of the tiny towns that lay scattered around them. I found one house listed, a furnished four-bedroom on seventeen acres in Ten Sleep, a town that lay just south of my route across Wyoming. Though I'd not been through that particular town, I contacted the owner and met with her daughter, who happened to be living in New York, and a week later, I mailed a deposit for the rental, sight unseen. I bought a one-way ticket to California, bought a Ford with more primer than paint from two gangsters in San Jose, filled it with all of my belongings that fit and gave the rest away, and in the blustery, pale days of early November, started driving toward my new, unknown home.
If someone had told me, even three months prior, that I would move, willingly, to a town of three hundred people, I would have told them they needed some Windex for their crystal ball. It was a drastic move, one not based in logic, security, experience, or anything other than unignorable desire, dictated solely by my passion for Wyoming's land. I fall in love with places the way I fall in love with men. Actually, that's not the precise truth. I fall deeper, more ardently in love with places than I have with any man, and will give myself over to a place in a way I have never given myself to a person.
I've never felt roots, have never felt conventionally attached to family or religion or any societal group. In one of his novels, Salman Rushdie wrote a great passage about "those born not belonging," and I've had it framed on my desk for years -- not only is it exquisitely written, it is the only thing I've ever totally identified with. I've identified with a piece of paper more than any person or place? I raise an eyebrow just writing that, it's so stark and sad and a little romantic, but more than all that, it's true. I have spent my life running by myself, for myself, and this is the way I got myself to Wyoming.
My family and friends responded to my move in every way possible, from a shaking of the head and writing it off as frivolous irresponsibility to support and a keen jealousy. Yet most of the people who knew me well chalked it up to "what else would we expect from Shreve." In high school, I was voted Most Likely to Wake Up in a Strange Place, and not entirely because I was a straight-A delinquent often under some influence. I have always roamed; always seized every opportunity to take off and explore, whether it was wandering the woods in the dark as a child, traveling down the coast of California on the Green Tortoise bus when I was fifteen, or jumping in my car and driving, somewhere, anywhere, until I had to be back to school or work on Monday morning. My travels were never attempts to escape; the goal was to explore, to go, because I could. Great unknowns were out there to be seen, felt, experienced; this was what life meant to me, this was what life was for. And nothing meant more to me than my freedom.
I moved to a speck of a town in an area where I had only spent one day because I knew it was the only way I would be happy. Logistics did not enter into the equation -- I didn't know how I'd make a living, but I knew I would, somehow, because I had to. I arrived in Ten Sleep with a small amount of savings; royalty checks from the cookbook had a habit of showing up in the mail at the precise moments when I desperately needed them. Though my overhead was much lower than it had been in the city and though I had a few freelance graphic design clients I continued to work for from a distance, generating steady income was an issue I needed to address rather immediately.
To be honest, I was filled with trepidation when I got within fifty miles of Ten Sleep. I had no idea what I was driving into. I knew no one, knew nothing of the town or even the landscape of that particular area. I hoped to love it, hoped it would turn out to be as right as it felt, and it was. The house was much too big for me but the rent fit and the location was ideal, two miles out of town, in a rural wonderland where not even telephone poles were visible in two directions. The seventeen acres of pasture and red dirt draws bordered the BLM, untouched public land regulated by the Bureau of Land Management, accessible only on foot or by horseback. I had a handful of nearby neighbors, all of whom were shockingly kind and understandably curious. They wondered what I was doing here, and just how long I would last.
In moving to Ten Sleep, I felt like I had moved to another planet. It was more common to see cows on the road than vehicles; it was a sixty-mile drive just to buy a piece of fruit; the only radio station played Top 40 country; and most of the men wore cowboy hats and had more guns than a city girl has shoes. "Ten Sleep" is the English translation of the original Native American name; this spot had been halfway between two large Indian camps, and from here, it was a ten-day's journey to either of them -- each camp was "ten sleeps" away. The town was three blocks long, but Ten Sleep extended for many, many miles to the North and South. This was ranching country, sheep and cattle. Ranches dotted the county highways; the land between them wide, devoted to livestock.
It's hard to stay hidden in a town of three hundred people. Ten Sleep was filled with a little bit of everything as far as demographics go, and age did not seem important to anyone as far as defining friendships. There were retired couples, young families, middle-aged singles, and a smattering of people my age. I met people easily, at the library, the post office, the coffeeshop, the gas station, and the saloon. Which pretty much covered all the establishments in town, not counting the eight churches. The Methodist church, a burgundy steel building that sat at the edge of a sheep pasture, was on the route between my house and town and boasted a readerboard which inspired many of my daily meditations. "Soul Food...More Lasting Than Fast Food," it read when I first drove into Ten Sleep.
It was winter when I moved to Ten Sleep, and often it was so cold my truck wouldn't start so I'd walk the two miles to the library or the post office. I followed the tarred cracks up the center line; for the most part, the road was my own. I got to know several of my neighbors thanks to these walks to town, for when they passed me on the road they would stop, even though we had never met, and offer me a ride. I was grateful for the lifts, especially when carrying boxes home from the post office, and happy for the spontaneous introductions.
In the beginning I felt alone. Not lonely and not in a bad way, but alone because I was in awe of the differences, and no one I knew had any idea what the transition was like. My friends and family from the cities and suburbs couldn't begin to comprehend my new reality, and the locals couldn't fathom what it was like to move into this life from where I had come. Yet I was too stimulated to feel nervous about integrating, and I immersed myself in the place. Everything was new; everything was so different from anything I had known. At times, I'd step outside and lean back against the wall of the house, my lids curtaining my eyes. The majesty of the land that lay in front of me was often difficult for me to bear; it was too pure, too beautiful. It took effort, presence, simply to be in it, to be part of it, to gaze out upon the landscape or out into the stars, to breathe air this uncontaminated. My lungs and my blood didn't know what to do with all the oxygen. It took a period of adjustment to grow comfortable with this kind of good, this kind of real, this kind of beauty after a life surrounded with plastic and pollution, and it made me a little high.
In the city, space is shared with thousands upon thousands and the only thing that's truly yours is time; therefore time is precious, rationed. Conversations are direct and to the point; this isn't rudeness, it's conservation of time. And because a person's living space is their only personal space -- once it's left, space is shared, as the sidewalks, subways, offices, cafe;s, and bars are all crammed with others -- visits are preceded by a phone call or an invitation. Showing up is faux pas.
In the country, the inverse is true. Space is vast and very often empty -- one can drive a hundred miles and pass just six other trucks. Human contact is never a given, and so time is spent luxuriously with others. Running errands can take all day, as people stop to chat with those they meet along the way. I realized I ended phone conversations prematurely by signing off after conducting the actual business of the call without allowing for the leisurely banter that can go on for another twenty minutes. I had to quickly get used to people stopping by unannounced, had to quickly learn not to resent these unscheduled visits but learn that this was considered neighborly. And though I felt uncomfortable dropping by friends' and neighbors' houses without calling first, I made myself do it, because I knew it was welcomed.
Even on the road, the human connection is honored. Cars are not barriers or personal bubbles as they are in the city. Drivers make eye contact when they pass one another and nearly everyone waves, stranger or not. Even in separate vehicles, there is an intimacy; it is an acknowledgment of another human in this vast scape, and of treating them as a comrade.
The paradox is that while time with others was a thing to be savored and spent as slowly and sweetly as honey pouring, words themselves were not wasted, at least not by the men. Early on, when talking with a cowboy, I found myself trying to calculate the longest possible way to say whatever I had to say, because with my nature and his, the spoken words were rare. How can "yes" turn into a sentence of twelve syllables or more? Not only are words spare, phrasing is sparse like the landscape. "To be" does not exist in the spoken language. "The cows need fed," one would say, or "Which fence needs fixed?" In conversation, nothing said is a definite, even if it was definite. "He's prob'ly not comin' up this weekend" meant he's not coming up. "Maybe this afternoon" was an affirmative, as in, plan for this afternoon. Such were the subtle, interpersonal differences that took time just to recognize and name. I must have seemed brash and fast and strange, but slowly the rhythm of the way of things here naturally took its hold on my being.
There were other, more obvious differences between my new Wyoming reality and that which I had left behind. There was no curbside garbage pickup (nor were there curbs), and hauling my trash to the dump was a thrill, and the view from the dump was one of the most breathtaking I'd ever seen. Open land rolled out to the horizon, the Bighorns arching in deep blue curves to meet the skyline. Antelope roamed the outskirts of the trash piles while hawks scavenged. It was shocking to see a section labeled "Dead Animals," which I was compelled to investigate. Skinned carcasses of animals I couldn't determine lay in a deep dirt hole; a few dead sheep, larger than I would have expected, were crumpled near the edge. On one trip, I had my initiation to mud. The red dirt has a high clay content and the mud is slick and bottomless, more treacherous, in my opinion, than ice, and when trying to accelerate out of a slide, I got my truck stuck. I delicately jumped out, sinking to my ankles as I tried to tiptoe to each front tire to lock the hubs for four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive got me out of the mud, but from then on, I planned my dump trips when I knew the ground was frozen or when it had been hot and dry enough to harden.
Recycling was as novel in Ten Sleep as dump trips were to me. My friend Gloria had invited me for a holiday dinner with her family and her sister's family. I was helping in the kitchen, and after fixing the dessert I had been assigned, I started rinsing the tin cans in the sink. I slowly turned around, feeling the unnerving sensation of multiple eyes staring at me. Gloria's sister, the most outspoken of the bunch, said, "Um, Shreve? Why are you washing the garbage?"
Specific addresses were never used; instead, landmarks were given for directions. I have been told, "Take your first right after you cross the cattle guard," and, "Turn left at the haystack," and after two prayer-filled return trips, I realized how important it was, when setting out to visit a friend, to make sure I had more than an eighth of a tank of gas.
Every ten days or so, I drove across the stark badlands to the grocery store, and though I still took issue with having to make a two-hour commitment to get groceries, I devoured the desolate, intricate landscape with my eyes and pondered the lyrics of country-western songs on the radio. "If heaven were a pie, it would be cherry..." What does this mean?
I was invited to my first branding. A dozen people, two more on horseback, and fifty calves at a time filled a long, dusty pen. The men on horseback took turns roping calves by the neck or leg. Then someone on the ground rushed in to drop the calf on its side, holding it down by the head and undoing the rope while another person grabbed the calf's top hind leg and sat in the dirt with one foot pushed against the bottom hind leg under the tail. Once the calf was securely down, more people swooped in, moving quickly and efficiently without getting in each other's way. Some gave shots and others branded the calf with irons heated in a fire built in a 55-gallon drum. Smoke plumed from the burning hair; the calf screamed, its eyes bugging out and its pointy lavender tongue lolling in the dirt.
I was a wallflower, taking it all in. There was so much activity, so many noises and smells and people and calves. The horses were stoic workers, quick on their feet, responsive, essential members of the team. It was an exquisite choreography. I didn't want to interfere; I was completely ignorant as to what to do. About an hour into it, Carol, the rancher's wife and the one who had invited me, came over to talk and to lure me into the action. After chatting for a while, Carol said, "If you want a guy to wrestle with, he's the one," and she nodded toward a strong, blond cowboy my age. If I want someone to wrestle with? I repeated in my head. I couldn't help but give her a quizzical stare. In the next moment, we burst out laughing together, as I realized she meant "wrestle calves" and she realized I thought she meant it as a euphemism, as in "get it on."
I did end up wrestling a few calves with the cowboy. When small calves were roped, I was ushered in. He took the head and I took the hind end, though I think he probably could have held these small calves on his own. It took all my strength to keep hold of the calf's ankle as it squirmed wildly as it was branded. Sometimes the hair caught briefly on fire, and there was an immediate cloud of thick smoke and the smell of singed hair was all that existed for a moment. The odor subsided but hung in the air, refreshed as each calf was branded. The calves recovered remarkably quickly from their brief trauma, called out a moo to their mothers, and frolicked and played outside the fence once they were released. If only humans could get over their pain so immediately.
In early December, at the library holiday party and silent auction, Karen, the librarian, generously took it upon herself to introduce me to everyone that I had not already met. She introduced me to the principal of the town school, who, after hearing my background, offered me a job right then and there as a substitute teacher, for which they had a desperate need. I was terrified to accept. I'd never taught before, but I needed a job. And so I took the state exam for my substitute credential, got fingerprinted, and began working at the school in January. My first subbing assignment was for the fifth- and sixth-grade combined class, and I was so nervous I asked the teacher if I could come in the day before to observe. I had no idea what to expect, or what would be expected of me.
I was immediately subbing an average of three days a week, which gave me enough money to live on and enough time to work on my writing. Kindergarten through twelfth grade was all in one building; seventy-eight students total. Kids rode the bus as far as thirty-five miles each way to reach the school from their families' ranches, and there was a familial relationship between the children -- sweet, tolerant, helpful, and worshipful, depending on their age. Some classes had as many as twenty children, some as few as four. I subbed for everything -- from first grade to shop class, math, gym, and high school history, and most often for the fifth- and sixth-grade combined class. I formed tight relationships with the kids, relationships that were trusting, humorous, honest. I became incredibly invested in the students, and they knew it.
After a month of subbing, I sat in my pasture and actually gave thanks for being broke, knowing I'd never have started teaching if I had not been so desperate for money; and thus never would have discovered how much I adored it, how much I adored the kids.
As I earned respect from the kids in the school, I got street cred among the locals for lasting the winter without getting old, getting lonely, or going crazy. Apparently, most people who come in from elsewhere don't last. My days of sushi and fresh carrot juice were long gone; instead of sidewalks there was ice, snow, mud, or prickly weeds, depending on the season. I didn't care. This was Wyoming, this was where I got to live. Where I could stand in the wide open space with no one around, wear dirty jeans and only brush my hair if I felt like it, and fall a little bit in love with every man wearing a cowboy hat.
Thanks to my broken-down truck, I had come to enjoy my explorations afoot. The land was so quiet, especially in winter; snow shrouded the hills and coated the roads with a thick layer of white. Pavement disappeared; automobiles were a rare sight. My time outside became my time of peace and release, away from responsibility and away from my work, when I got out of my head and let myself free.
One evening after teaching, I went for a run to release the energy of the school day before a night of writing. I started north on the dirt road past my house, slowly letting go and letting the peace of the landscape enter. A red pickup cruised past, two cowboys grinning at me from behind the windshield. I gave them a low wave and trotted on through the dry weeds beside the road. I leapt over a culvert and caught a glimpse of a small, black mass up ahead; as I drew closer, I saw it was the small, shiny body of a newborn calf curled up next to the fence. A black mother cow, larger than her own shadow, stood guard nearby. The pair was slightly removed from the other cows dotting the pasture and I stopped and stood at the fence -- I had never seen a newborn calf before. It was curled up like a dog, its large eyes closed, peaceful in the late light of day.
A honk snapped me from my reverie. Cresting a hill in the pasture was the same red pickup I had passed on the road.
"I bet this is these cowboys' calf," I immediately thought to myself. "I hope they aren't angry that I'm looking at it." Two cowboys getting mad at me for looking at their calf? The city was ingrained into my psyche, where respect is shown by giving others a wide berth and keeping out of their business. I turned on my heel and started off down the road. A loud "Hey!" from one of the cowboys stopped me in my tracks.
The truck, piled high with hay, sat idling in the pasture with the cowboys standing beside it, just on the other side of the fence from where I stood on the road.
"You wanna feed with us?" one of the men asked with a smile.
He had dark hair and eyes, and wore a light gray cowboy hat and a thick moustache.
"Sure," I said, with a nonchalant shrug of my shoulders, but couldn't help smiling back.
Moustache helped me climb over the barbwire fence, pulled out a pocket knife, and flicked it open and handed it to me. I stared at the knife and held on to it, not knowing why I had it, hoping the reason would soon make itself evident. Meanwhile, the other cowboy, decked in worn jeans, a snap shirt, and a gray wool vest, climbed up to the top of the stack of hay bales that filled the back of the pickup. Once up there, he reached his arm down to me, a signal that I was to join him on top of the hay. We locked arms. I looked up and into the bluest eyes I'd ever seen in my life, eyes that were like rips through all matter to show the bluest, brightest sky of the beyond. The color seemed impossible.
Moustache got in the truck and drove us out into the pasture. Blue Eyes looked at me and said, "He didn't give you gloves?"
"No," I said, unsure of why I needed gloves to go with the knife I still clutched in my hand.
"Here," he said, "take one of mine."
And so I put his leather glove on my left hand, tried to keep my balance on the bumpy pile of hay, and watched him to see what I was supposed to be doing.
Blue Eyes opened his pocketknife, sliced through the two strands of yellow twine that held each bale together, and deftly flaked off chunks of hay to feed the stream of black cows that were now following the truck en masse. I scratched at the hay bales in front of me, trying to find the twine to cut, then heaved off clumps as well as I could manage. Wayward bits of hay stabbed through my lycra running tights and scratched my thighs and the dry alfalfa leaves stuck to the fibers of my fleece sweatshirt, but I had no time to notice that my attire was inappropriate. We worked silently and fast, moving bale by bale. The glove was too big for me, and I found it easier to cut the strings, then stab the open knife into another bale to hold it while I used both hands to push sections off the first. After working three successful bales, I lost the knife. I frantically scanned the bales around me, shamed and embarrassed, dreading having to say anything to Blue Eyes. But I couldn't find it. Sheepishly, I turned to him.
"I can't find the knife," I said. "That's bad, isn't it?"
I thought if it went off the truck it could stab a cow in the foot or the mouth; what I didn't yet know was that a man's knife is an extension of himself. Blue Eyes just said, "Hmmm," and started helping me look for it. We turned circles on our tiny island of hay and to my great relief, Blue Eyes spotted the knife, stabbed in one of the remaining bales, camouflaged against the spiky, icy-green hay.
When we finished, Moustache and Blue Eyes congratulated me on doing a great job, which I certainly hadn't, and invited me to dinner with them. I declined for I still had writing I hoped to get done that night. They insisted on driving me back to my house, and so I squeezed in the pickup between them and laughed the entire way home.
Three days later, I was driving back from the neighboring town of Hyattville, where I had ended up after following the gorgeous scenery and the snow-covered dirt roads beyond my house. As I neared home, I saw Blue Eyes in his pasture, throwing hay off the back of his hay-laden truck, the evening ritual. But I could see through his windshield that no one was in the driver's seat. As the truck approached the far fence, Blue Eyes jumped off the back, ran to the driver's door, and hopped in. The truck turned in a loose arc, headed back the way it had come. After a few moments, Blue Eyes hopped out of the moving truck and leapt back up on the back, where he continued to work through the bales. I sat in my truck on the side of the road, perplexed, curious. When he finished, Blue Eyes got in his truck, turned in another loose curve, and pulled out onto the road next to me and parked, window to window. "What was that ballet?" I asked. He told me Moustache had been visiting and helped him feed cows during his stay, but that he had returned home to another part of the state. He said when he didn't have anyone to drive for him, he tied the steering wheel and put the truck in low gear so that it drove itself across the long pasture while he fed from the back, and that he jumped between truck bed and cab when he needed to turn before hitting a fence.
"You feed every night?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"I'll drive for you," I said, an offer of assistance that came completely out of the blue, especially for someone who hated routine as much as I. Yet it came out so naturally. I was getting the hang of being neighborly.
"Seriously," I said. "Call me when you want to feed in the evenings and I'll be ready."
"But I don't have your phone number," he said.
I didn't know his name and I knew he didn't know mine.
"Well," I said, "I'll give it to you."
An accidental friendship bloomed between us. We spent only twenty minutes a day with each other, but spent them every day, and a certain intimacy grew on its own. I helped Mike feed cows almost every evening for the rest of the winter and through the spring, until he took the cows up the mountain where they grazed on summer pasture. And though I had an innate aversion to structure, that tiny bit of routine in my life was something I grew to enjoy, something I looked forward to. Mike loaded his truck with hay, swung by my house and picked me up, and we slowly drove to his corrals, picking up the conversation where we had been the day before, learning about each other as much by our manner as by our words, opening up to where we were that day in ourselves, in our world, or just in that particular moment.
I loved watching him throw hay. I'd take a tight grip on the steering wheel and trust I was driving a straight line, ignoring the windshield for the rearview mirror where I could watch him in the back of the truck, the movements of his thighs in his Wranglers, his shoulders, his tapered waist, his hands in work-worn leather gloves. He always wore a button-up shirt tucked in; a wool vest over it if it was cold, sleeves rolled up if it was warm. And the way his jeans fit was enough to kill me. The sun was always low but hung above the horizon; dust kicked up by the cows created a haze that made everything seem more surreal, more real.
Our time together lengthened gradually, consistently, with the help from a glowing sunset stretching across the evening sky, or an orphan calf to bottle feed, or a warm breeze to simply enjoy after winter's claw.
"Well, I guess it's that time," he'd say, after we had leaned against the rail fence for an extra twenty minutes.
"Yeah," I'd reply. "It's that time."
And then he'd say some cowboy thing like, "The worst part of my day is when I have to take you home," with the cows and the dust around him and the sun setting and the sky all milky blue, and I'd swoon inside and smile in spite of myself all night.
Eventually, though we each fought against it, we fell in love. He had told me early on that his older daughter, Tracy, died seven years earlier, when she was twelve, in a four-wheeler accident. He said he had vowed never to open his heart again so that he would never hurt like that again. I had my own version of that commitment. Love was not a goal of mine; it complicated my freedom. Yet as Spring bloomed in the land, the subtle effects of our unexpected connection took their hold, and soon, it overtook us.
Mike was not a rancher. He ran about fifty cows, which is a very small operation in comparison to the ranches in the area. Mike's career was with Wildlife Services. He was a government trapper, employed by the United States Department of Agriculture to protect livestock by killing coyotes.
Mike killed for a living, which he readily admitted with no remorse or apology. Though an agent of death, he did not kill with abandon; he took his role as a protector of livestock seriously, killing the coyotes that were an immediate threat. He firmly believed that if his job did not exist, ranchers and those working on sheep and cattle operations would take the matter into their own hands, setting out poison and trapping without expertise, killing every animal around.
People who hunt coyotes randomly for sport or with poor technique can actually exacerbate the predation problem, as a wounded coyote is more dangerous than a healthy one. Mike had seen everything from three-legged coyotes to coyotes that had had their lower jaw shot off. Unable to catch rabbits as they would in their prime, these coyotes search out easy prey, and the easiest prey are lambs and newborn calves. And if, in the spring and early summer, when coyote pairs are raising their pups together, the female is killed and her mate remains alive, the male will support the litter himself. Alone in the task, he turns to young stock as the most efficient prey to feed his young. Mike believed he actually saved coyotes along with livestock in the manner he did his job -- killing only in sensitive areas, being smart about how he did it, and doing it incredibly well.
We had many discussions about his work. Though hundreds of lambs and calves are killed and eaten by coyotes each year, I argued that predation should be looked at as the Nature Tax -- that ranchers give a certain percentage of their capital to the government in taxes, and they should expect to give up a certain percentage to Nature. But there is a war between humans and predators -- for land to call their territory and for the animals off which they live: cattle, sheep, deer, and elk. Most ranchers and hunters would prefer there be less or none of the wild predators, coyotes and mountain lions and wolves. People feel entitled to take the land, the resources, and the wilderness as their own without giving up anything to the land they are running on. Predators survive off what men want to keep as their own; man does not want to share. And so man becomes the ultimate predator with a singular goal, and the element of competition makes it easy to say, "So let's kill 'em," without any question or qualm.
Mike killed coyotes through a number of means -- snares; foothold traps; from the ground with a rifle; and with a shotgun out of a small, low-flying airplane. I asked him what it felt like to make eye contact with a coyote and then raise his gun and fire, watch it fall, see it die. He broke our eye contact to look out the window, said he didn't feel, didn't think about it; he blocked that part out, just did what he had to do, acted only, felt nothing.
My second week in Ten Sleep, I had been driving around exploring and passed a tiny, rustic log cabin with a blue tin roof and fell in love with it from the road. "One day," I thought, "I'll live in a cabin like that." I gazed at the little cabin every time I drove by it, filled with a delicious longing, full of dreams to live there. Once I started feeding cows with Mike, I learned that he had built that cabin. It sat at the base of his property, and he told me he built it as "a practice run" before building his log home, and he meant it to be a tack shed. When the lease was about to come up on the house I was renting, Mike asked me to move in with him. We were standing in my yard and I started laughing. "No way," I said, "but I'll move into the cabin!"
The cabin sat at the western edge of his forty-acre property, on a small hill just off the road. The driveway went past the cabin, up and around two large hills, hugging the contours of the land. Mike's house was at the top, and overlooked hundreds of gorgeous, unobstructed acres of BLM to the east, all the way to the mountains. It was less than a ten-minute walk between his house and the cabin, but they did not share a line of sight; the arrangement of the buildings and the landscape provided both proximity and privacy.
Mike spent a month trying to talk me out of my cabin fantasy -- he truly believed the cabin was unfit to live in and didn't see how I would possibly be happy there. I countered every argument, practically begging, reminding him that the cabin had been calling to my soul for a year. When he saw I was determined, he offered to show me the inside of the cabin as I had never been inside, convinced that seeing the space in all its lonely disrepair would change my delusional mind.
It was a 12 12-foot log cabin with a rough, open loft over half it and a hand-hewn wood ladder leading up to the loft. On the main floor, there were two small windows on the north and south walls, a rusty woodstove in one corner, and an L-shaped counter in the opposite corner. The walls were half chinked, as if someone had started the job and then forgot about it, never to return. Chinking, the strip of material between the logs, is applied to seal any air gaps. In modern log homes, it is a material similar to caulking; in this case, it was cement. The ceiling was the roof itself -- corrugated tin nailed straight to the support beams that angled down from the ridgepole. There were mouse droppings everywhere, and dusty red dirt coated every log and beam. Mike's plan failed; I saw the beauty through the desolate mess.
I learned how to mix concrete in a five-gallon bucket and, using two small trowels, finished chinking the inside of the cabin; a steep learning curve there, but rather simple once I got the hang of it. I had sheets of two-inch Styrofoam insulation delivered from the lumberyard and cut them into panels which I nailed to the batten beams to insulate the roof. I borrowed Mike's shop vac and sucked up all the dirt and mouse residue and then washed every log and beam by hand. I made curtains for the windows and made curtain rods by whittling the bark off long branches. I bought three thick, full-length wool coats at a secondhand store for six dollars each, then cut them up into rectangles of fabric which I sewed together to make a gorgeous wool rug for the floor. I set up my bed in the corner diagonal from the woodstove and my desk and computer opposite that, and had my kitchen area in the space defined by the built-in counter. I used the loft as a lounge area, full of pillows to lie against, and organized my paperwork, books, and clothes on long, low shelves that Mike made for me out of scrap lumber.
There was electricity and a phone line running to the cabin, and I had high-speed internet hooked up through the phone company. I had plumbing in a lean-to outside during the warm months, and the woodstove was my only form of heat during the cold ones. I moved into the cabin in October and dropped five pounds in two weeks, calories burned from shivering until I mastered the art of building and maintaining a fire; I had never built a fire before. I cooked on a hotplate in the summer and on the woodstove in the winter, and when my plumbing was turned off to prevent the pipes from freezing, I had a very rudimentary outhouse situation and got water from the hose that fed the horse trough. Pretty much everyone thought I was insane when I moved into the cabin, but I adored it.
Mike refused to take money for rent because, as he put it, he couldn't honestly take my money in exchange for what he considered an uninhabitable hovel. So I took it upon myself to work as his hired hand in lieu of rent, feeding cows in the winter and irrigating in the summer and doing whatever needed done in the meantime, and I snuck his truck away whenever I could and filled it with gas.
Mike and I spent another winter feeding cows together, but this year was different from the first. Early in the season, I asked Mike on a whim if he would drive so that I could throw the hay. I hadn't done it since our first meeting, but I had watched him for so long I knew the procedure. I tied my hair back with baling twine, tucked in my shirt and climbed up on the hay. I was hooked within minutes. I loved being on the back of the truck, in the air, steadily moving the bales to feed. Cutting the twine, rhythmically sheafing off hay a quarter-bale at a time, spacing it evenly across the pasture. It became my meditation; when I was feeding, I was focused, free. I asked Mike if he'd be interested in trading jobs, which he didn't argue, happy to relax in the driver's seat with the radio and the heater while I tossed hay. When the occasional blizzard hit, Mike forced me to drive and took my place in the wind and the snow, either out of chivalry or masculine bravado, I was never sure which; and on calm, balmy days, he rolled down the windows and cranked the radio so I had music to work by. After I had been feeding for about two straight weeks, he gave me a pocketknife of my own. Moving the seventy-pound bales in the back of the truck gave my scrawny arms the beginnings of muscle, and I started accompanying Mike to the haystack to help load the truck as well. At first I could only move the bales laterally, but my strength increased with the daily work and I got to where I could stack the bales three high, head level. When I crossed that muscle threshold, I did a little dance.
Spring arrived slowly and humbly; first the Spring winds, then Spring itself. The winds viciously tore across my cabin and through every unsealed crevice; the tin roof rattled and shook. The sound of the rattling tin was horrendous, like lying on the pavement and having an eighteen-wheeler speed by. During one morning of rain and sustained forty-mile-per-hour winds, a panel of tin blew off my roof. It remained attached only at the peak. I didn't want to call Mike, didn't want him to have to climb up on the roof in the wind and rain, so I did it myself. I used a log as a step stool and swung myself onto the roof of the lean-to next to the cabin, and from there, climbed up the cabin roof with a pocketful of nails and hammered the tin back down.
Easter came in early April, the one holiday I get excited about; it represents new life and new beginnings, rebirth, resurrection: what is always possible inside us. It is a reminder of the power we have to transform ourselves and our lives, the growth that is always possible, lying latent in each of us all the time. And then, of course, there are the baby animals. Late Easter afternoon, Mike and I drove down to the haystack to load hay as we did every afternoon. Mike picked up a bale off the ground and five tiny baby bunnies ran out from under it. I was overcome with excitement, and stood there pointing and gushing, "Look! Bunnies! Babies! Oh my God! Baby bunnies!"
Mike, being more even-keeled, scooped up one of the baby cottontails and handed it to me, and I stood there in the hay cradling the tiny baby bunny. Its little body fit in one hand with room to spare and its front feet and tiny fluff of tail were each the size of my pinky fingernail. It had long, thin ears folded back against its body, a snow white belly, grayish tan fur, and a perfect diamond-shaped patch of white on the crown of its head between its ears. It was a surprisingly mellow little bunny; it curled up in my hand and let me pet it and wiggled its nose. Mike put the hay bale back where it had been so the bunnies could keep their home, and though secretly I wanted to keep it, I let the bunny go and it hopped into a crevice of hay. We had moved over sixty tons of hay from this haystack, and Easter was the one day we saw bunnies.
Spring is a busy season for Mike. Calves and lambs are born and are most vulnerable to predators, and the coyotes have litters of their own young to feed. One mild afternoon near the end of April, Mike pulled up in front of my cabin. When I went outside to greet him, he slid open the dog box in the bed of his pickup, and on tiptoes, I peered over the edge of the truck to look. Crouched inside the box, clumsily swaddled in a denim shirt, was a baby coyote.
I said nothing but turned to Mike, staring a question into his eyes. He said he had shot a pair of coyotes that had been killing a rancher's sheep. He walked around looking for the den -- because this time of year, when the pups have been born and are dependent on their parents, he follows tracks in the dirt until he finds the den, then sticks a gas cartridge in the hole to kill the pups instantly so they do not die slowly of starvation. He said he found the den, and when he crouched down to smoke it, he saw this pup, its eyes barely opened, sitting at the edge of the hole. He said that something too strong to ignore compelled him to scoop up the tiny pup and put it in his pocket; then he went about his work gassing the rest of the pups in the den, and drove here to see me.
He said he didn't understand what came over him; that he hadn't done this in the eighteen years he'd had this job, but here, here was a coyote pup and it was for me. Before he drove up the hill to his house, he said, "If you don't want to take care of it, or it gets to be a problem, let me know and I'll drown it in the water tank."
Copyright © 2008 by Shreve Stockton