Before leaving for my first ranch job, I had to pack a lot of things. Some of them I already had, some were new to me, and some were just new. All of them were vital for ranch work.
Work shirts: no check.
Before ranching, I’d always ridden in a t-shirt or hoodie, unless I was decked out in breeches and a blazer in the hunter-jumper showring. Not quite the attire required for day-in, day-out horse work. I had a few cozy flannel shirts that I knew wouldn’t suit me in the summer heat. I had maybe two thin button downs that wouldn’t hold up to barbed wire. Time to hit the stores.
I got a few nice western shirts, from places like Ariat and Wrangler, but the cost was too high to justify buying everything I’d need from those western outfitters. I found some secondhand shirts, but most of my work shirts that first summer came from Target. The men’s department had a good selection of button downs, better constructed and more functional than the women’s plaids interwoven with scratchy, glittery thread.
I loaded my cart with work shirts. I got enough to wear all week and still have one left over for wash day, like the general store settlers of days gone by. All sorts of patterns and colors, too. Turquoise and navy stripes, solid deep grey, light grey and white checks, and one that made a new coworker-turned-best friend tell me I looked like a McDonald’s employee. But my favorite shirt that I bought was a deep blue, dark denim with white buttons.
The first summer came and went, I bought better work shirts at the great thrift stores in town, and retired some of the Target ones I didn’t love. The deep grey one got badly stained with DEET and oil. The McDonald’s one was donated, for obvious reasons. Others were torn on barbed wire or became too dust-ingrained to look presentable.
That dark denim shirt stayed with me, though. It went back with me for my second summer, and third, and fourth.
I wore it the first time I put a training ride on what turned out to be my favorite horse. I wore it while fixing fence, walking irrigation ditches, and trotting endless circles on project horses. It’s been at brandings on hot days, and bundled up under layers of wool and canvas on cold mornings.
It’s moved into my everyday closet, too. I wear it with leggings, or dark jeans and flats. I wear it for most of my Etsy shop photos. Just yesterday, I wore it to the Verizon store, where I realized I’m also wearing it in my Apple ID photo. I promised the saleswoman that I own more than one shirt.
But that dark denim one has become pretty special to me.
I guess the moral of the story here is one of attachment. Whether you subscribe to a particular religion, spirituality, or mindfulness practice, a common theme seems to be eliminating attachments. Moving beyond the things of this world, and focusing on the next, focusing on being, focusing on breathing.
Yet, we are only human. Try as we might, those attachments still exist, and for me, a lot of attachments stem from sentimentality. For example, my attachment to my dark denim shirt.
When I wear that shirt now, it reminds me of the first time I gazed at the red rock cliffs on the Laramie plains. I think of picking up my cap and gown during my last weeks of undergrad. And of the time my youngest cousin visited me at school. We got ice cream, and she decided she would attend my university herself. I’m reminded of bison burgers and pool tables and new calves and Canada. That’s a lot of reflection packed into something now becoming threadbare. I traded material for memories. The sun bleached its shoulders and burnt my hands beneath its cuffs. But that shirt has done its job, and then some.
I’ve forgone ranching for the time being, but I know I’ll always have that attachment, too. I’ve always had that attachment. It’s in my blood: between my dad’s love of old westerns and my mom’s appreciation of Southwestern art, it’s something that’s always been a part of me. Just like memories woven into dark denim.
This is the first year in many that I won’t be packing up and heading for the hills at the first signs of spring. We’re now a month into the season and it’s just beginning to show signs of its presence. And signs of my presence in a new, familiar place are blooming with the springtime: personalization and involvement and lights across the ice at night.
I left years ago because of attachments, experiences to be had with the West in my mind. I chose to come back because of attachments to people and place. And I chose to stay, because of attachments to belonging.
I know I’ve written about it before, and you may have read it before, but home and place seem to come at an exchange rate. For everywhere you go, you exchange a piece of yourself for a piece of that place. Everywhere you’ve been and everything you’ve done become part of who you are. So we never stop changing. We never stagnate. We keep growing and experiencing, living the days that will someday become nostalgic, like an old friend. Or an old denim work shirt.
Best For The Best – Josh Ritter
“The golden time in the west was one dream.” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath