Old House

If I had grown up in this house, how would my life be different? I would be used to the smallness, used to having less. I would have laid on my bed, watching games on the baseball diamond across the street until I was old enough to join them. Instead, I filmed my recruit video there, executed my first successful dive there, struck out 23 batters in a freshman year game there. Took BP in the summers and played catch there as a child.

I would have walked to school through the park named after my great-grandfather, and I would have made childhood friends in those halls I’ve never set foot in. I reckon I would have walked to middle school and high school, too.

I would have grown up entirely differently – different friends, different schools, different memories. It’s hard to say where the similarities would start and end if I had grown up here.

Instead, I grew up across town. In a town this size, that means two miles away. Would it be cliché to say “a world apart”?

Because it kind of was. And at the same time, it wasn’t at all. Both houses are in the same high school district, although technically, they’re in different city limits.

I grew up on the corner of a busy street, but we had a big backyard. Occasionally I grew envious of my friends who lived on quieter streets, with shadier trees, even the ones farther down the block from me. But my house was fun, the one friends always wanted to visit. The swings, the side lot, the bonfires.

We had our own traditions, some that centered around this old, current house: watching the fireworks from the front porch. Pillow sliding down the stairs with my cousins. Getting socks with horses or baseballs on them, from Santa on Christmas morning. Halloween visits.

In this old house, we’ve made new traditions rooted generations deep. The Christmas rituals that I was originally reluctant to accept, the layout differences and stained glass windows nonexistent in the house two miles away.

I’ve done a lot of growing up here.

Sitting in the living room after my grandpa died, everyone in silence. Asking my grandma for one thing: a paperweight engraved with my grandpa’s name. I was six. Two years later, being given the gold-inlaid cross he chose for me in the desert. He wanted to give it to me for my First Communion, but he couldn’t be there. He wanted me to wear it. And even though he wasn’t there in that church that day, I know he saw it around my neck. It’s still one of my most-treasured possessions.

I’ve done a lot of growing up here.

When my grandma moved out of here and into our house, two miles away, and this old house was empty for the first time since it was built by her father.

When my parents moved in, keeping the house in the family, keeping the traditions alive and paving opportunities for new ones. I got to choose the paint color for my room. Mint green.

Fresh. New.

I’ve done a lot of growing up here. From when all I wanted was to leave, to when all I could think about was coming back. Through the heart-pounding phone calls and interviews for my future, to a sense of peace. A sense of knowing that you can make plans for the future, but you can’t plan on those plans. You can direct the path you’d like to take, but you can’t conduct every step. And life takes a lot of different paths.

There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing new under this roof. Through all the places I’ve gotten to live and all the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have, I never imagined that one of my paths in life would be two miles north on one of the busiest streets in town. After so much time gone, it’s good to be back.

 

Where I Grew Up – Kenny Chesney

Dark Denim

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.

Saddle: check.

Jeans: check.

Boots: check.

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.

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Dark denim (and turquoise by SweetSilver Jewelry!)

Best For The Best – Josh Ritter

“The golden time in the west was one dream.” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Feathers

For the past few years, I’ve found feathers in all the places I’ve called home. There have been a lot; meaning, of course, a lot of homes and a lot of feathers. Whether it was the magpies of the Laramie Valley, the geese and red tail hawks in the Badger Creek watershed, or the sandhill cranes and great horned owls of the SLV, I’ve ended up with a lot of feathers in my hat. Literally.

That strip of leather around my head has held its share of feathers, to the point where I’d only keep a feather if it was better than the one already in my hat band. I have found all kinds of feathers, from all kinds of birds: jays, wrens, owls, hawks, even a mountain bluebird wing. I have feathers tooled on my saddle, too. I figured that the place where I’ve spent the majority of the past 5 years was worthy of such an adornment.

I was like a feather finder. If there was a feather to be found, there was a good chance I’d be the one to find it on my ride out. And I really don’t know why that is. I never really look for them. I don’t even like birds that much. But their feathers are always there, covering my path.

I thought, maybe it’s just because I’m observant, or because I spend so much time outside. Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time looking down, at tracks or antlers or little desert plants, from a high vantage point. Maybe somehow it’s some tie to Forrest Gump, that iconic feather landing on Tom Hanks’ knee. Maybe we are “all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.”

Then it hit me, like Sunday afternoon sunshine through a west-facing window.

Psalm 91:4. “He will cover you with his feathers, under his wings you will find refuge.”

The first time I heard that verse, I was in Target and saw it on a mug, and I dismissed it. On the surface, it didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t recognize the symbolism. I didn’t recognize that it was exactly what I was looking for, in all those different places I lived for the last several years.

And in that moment of realization, I saw so clearly that no matter where I go, God’s got me. He’s covering me in His feathers and giving me refuge under His wings. He gives us all a nest, a place to feel secure, but He also gives us the strength we need to build our own wings and fly in faith under His care. We are never truly alone.

I’ve tried to keep outright religion off my blog for a variety of reasons, but I will never apologize for God’s presence in anything. I will never apologize for His hands at work. I’m not writing this to try and preach to you, or try to convert you to my beliefs. It’s just what I believe, and where I find meaning. And to me, this means a lot.

Last weekend, I was in northern Michigan with my family. We were all getting out of the truck to go in to church, when something caught my eye. Dozens of tiny grey feathers, tail feathers and wing feathers and downy body feathers, scattered all around under a tree. Honestly, something probably died there. But once again, I was finding feathers. Being covered in feathers. Something missing in my soul came alive again. I was home.

For years, I’ve felt torn between staying and leaving. Every cross-country move and every time I came back felt so achingly bittersweet. I couldn’t keep the strength to fly while I settled down in one place. I couldn’t create community when I kept packing up and leaving. They felt mutually exclusive. I was craving the chance to build my wings, while at the same searching for a place to build a nest.

Now, it seems I’m being given the chance to do both at the same time.

Time to fly.

 

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Close-up of my saddle tooling.

For the Birds – Miranda Lambert

Snow is Gone – Josh Ritter

(The photos in this post were taken by my friend Caroline in 2017.)

‘Til We Start to Feel the West

The grandfather clock struck one as I read the final word in East of Eden, the solitary gong hanging in the air just like that final whisper on the page. Timshel. Everything seemed to stop.

An hour before, the stroke of twelve reverberated in my head, echoing itself beyond numerical recognition. I didn’t keep track of the numbers at the beginning, so at the end, they seemed everlasting.

My coffee grew cold and I drank the last bitter dredges. I felt in my heart something I’ve known for a lifetime in my head: thou mayest. Timshel. The ability to choose between right and wrong, truth and lies, good and bad. Conscience versus concupiscence. What we should do, versus the choice that may be easy at the moment. What is easy now may lead to personal destruction later on, through idleness or dishonesty or selfishness.

Timshel. I felt that word in my heart. I felt myself become a part of the glory of the choice.

“Death is at your doorstep, and it will steal your innocence but it will not steal your substance.” I’m not sure if the Mumford song is about the Steinbeck novel, or if I just found similarities between the two because of their sequentiality. I did that with Macbeth and “Viva la Vida” my freshman year of high school. This one is a lot more similar than that, though. More than a chronological coincidence. “As brothers we will stand, and we’ll hold your hand.”

It’s hitting hard. The choices, the brotherhood, the greatness, the mountains, the cold. I felt it all this year. It’s like a 3-minute, 600-page tribute to 2017. The year in review.

The year was punctuated by loss. Sorrow, felt in isolation, from losing my dad’s oldest brother, and from losing my childhood dog, who was more of a brother than a pet. The doldrums of losing ideas and dreams as time changed and focus shifted. The year that used cold as its bookends, and mountains as obstacles to face.

I’ve heard several friends and several news outlets refer to the year as a “garbage fire”. But again, there is a choice. What did we gain? What are the golden, burning embers that will rise from the ashes?

Despite the losses of the year, I know those embers burned. They came in the form of climbing mountains, roping calves, discovering new country and embracing the old, seeing how my family banded together during loss. The friendships cultivated, the cattle moved, the bison worked, the laughs over coffee in ranch trucks. Bundling up on chilly mornings, and the feel of the sun breaking over the mountains to warm my back and shine gold on the dew in my horse’s mane.

All the good in the small, seemingly-meaningless everyday tasks. All the good in the year’s larger blessings.

The dreams that seemed lost were re-aligning, until a new, grander plan could begin to take place. Embers that seemed dim flickered, then crackled back to life, taking flight. They lifted into the darkness, like the lanterns we launched into the frigid New Year’s Eve night, higher and higher until they were mistaken for stars.

Weeks later, in the Hancock building, I was pushing past surface thoughts of the last year’s memories, staring out at the city a thousand feet below. Zac Brown nailed it when he sang, “The city lights look like a country sky, like staring at the stars turned upside down.”

Maybe I’ve become jaded, but realizing the size of the universe, that every star is another sun and that our sun is just another star, seems juvenile now. It still rings true and remains a cornerstone for me, but it’s also become something of a crutch. When I’m in these situations, reflecting in solitude upon something much larger than myself, it’s become a basic foundation to begin. Unfortunately, I don’t often get very far past it. The foundation remains just that – a foundation, never built up further.

But now, it’s a springboard. The choice between basic and foundation is just that – a choice. Thou mayest. The choice between positivity and negativity, slothful ease and fruitful challenge. Steinbeck called free choice “a ladder to the stars”. With each choice to fight, to dive deeper into our own humanity, we climb another rung on the ladder of may or may not. We become greater.

It’s always about the hard way. The things you lean into and learn and gain from the experience. Facing things that leave a mark: Scarred hands and crooked fingers, evidence of the last year’s work laced across my knuckles. Glaring pinks and purples against suntanned skin, faded by winter. Choosing not to hide them in gloves or fold them in my lap. The frost creeping its way up the windows of this old house, focusing my attention on its fractal beauty and appreciating my vantage point.

Puffs of breath release into the bitter, biting air. The cold hurts my lungs, but it’s my favorite time of year. It’s so cold that you can’t help but be reminded that you’re alive, invigorated with the air’s freshness. Restored. Focused on the choice between the cold on the outside, and the warmth within. Watching warm breath mix with the crystalline chill in the air, making the choice. Valuing the warmth, seeing the good in cold.

It’s all perspective. Choosing joy over sorrow, choosing to see the greatness among the grit. The glimmering embers refusing to be buried by the ashes. Rising, warming the cold, becoming great.

The glory of the choice, the staircase to the stars. Thou mayest.

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“Drive east of Eden ’til we start to feel the west…” – Josh Ritter, Homecoming

Timshel – Mumford & Sons

Young & Jaded – Corb Lund

“I bet my mother’s proud of me for each scar upon my knuckles and each graze upon my knees.” – Ed Sheeran, Bibia Be Ye Ye

Secrets of an Endless Road

When I left Colorado in the fall of 2016, it was with an underlying sense of disappointment regarding all the things I wanted to do, but never actually did. It wasn’t a long list: hike a 14er, visit Leadville, explore the Sangre de Cristos, stop by the Sand Dunes. I was disappointed that I’d lived so close to all these opportunities but never made the time to go see them. Driving from the San Luis Valley to Laramie almost hurt my heart, because I didn’t know when I’d be back. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do the things that I’d meant to do.

Life has a funny way of working things out for the better, though. I got to come back to the same area of Colorado less than 4 months later, and stay even longer that time. And in that time, I got to do all of the things I was kicking myself for not doing the year before. Most of them, more than once. So now, it’s rare that I feel guilty for not visiting the unplanned places along the way. Life is short, but it is also circular. I just add those impromptu places to the list, making sure to stop by again on my next trip through. All things work together for good.

With that in mind, I made an itinerary. Actually, I made three: different routes to some of the same places, with different things to see along the way. The three itineraries covered everything from the Canadian Rockies to Route 66, and all the classic western vistas in between. And then, the night before leaving, I crossed off two of those itineraries, loaded up my truck, and headed to Moab.

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The Utah desert.

I’d been there a few times in the past, for family vacations and weddings, and even considered moving there a time or two. But with any area so rich in geology and adventure and western history, Moab tends to get a little too touristy for my liking. This time around, though, I continued to learn the wonders of offseason travel. Once you get beyond the first-visit necessities, there is still a world of things to see and do there. I received recommendations from people who love me and Moab (and know how much I love Mexican food), I drove two hours one-way to day hike into the Needles backcountry of Canyonlands National Park, and I spent too much money in a local art store. I woke up one morning to the realization that my Airbnb cabin was next to a pasture full of horses, because I can’t go anywhere without befriending some equine buddies. I ate breakfast burritos from my tailgate on BLM land more than once. And I left, feeling like I knew a town based on snippets of time spent there throughout my life.

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The Needles backcountry.

From Moab, I headed to Zion – a place that used to be my favorite National Park. It’s now in my top 5 favorites, because I’ve gotten to explore so many parks, so in-depth, since I deemed it my favorite. But still, it holds up as one of the best. When I was in the park at age 18, I saw people hiking Angel’s Landing, and decided to hike it myself when I made it back there. The only obstacle between me and the top of that fin of rock was the slight fear of heights that I developed while climbing in Wyoming in 2015. Hiking Angel’s Landing in 2012, I wouldn’t have given fear a first thought. Here in 2017, I was a little apprehensive. But upon receiving impromptu conditions reports from hikers on their way down, and learning that there was no ice along the way, I went for it. I had Fleetwood Mac stuck in my head the whole way up, and at the top, I realized that any fear I’d previously felt was now gone. (Kind of an odd realization when you’re holding on to a chain with 1000-foot drop-offs on either side.) After taking a few pictures, I took a few minutes to simply enjoy and appreciate what seems like one of the most-Instagrammed hikes in the country.

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Angel’s Landing view.

The next day, I left Zion – one of the most-visited National Parks in the country – and set out on a highway known as the “Loneliest Road in America”. The drive to Great Basin National Park felt like the beginning of a Stephen King novel. That spooky feeling increased when I passed another truck, only to see that not only was it the same color as my truck, it was the same make and model, as well. I’m used to living in remote desert settings, but eastern Nevada felt like the Twilight Zone for a while. For almost a hundred miles, there was only the straight, two-lane road, bordered by barbed wire fences, broken by the occasional mountain pass. Every so often I’d pass some small clusters of cattle. And soon, I felt my internal uneasiness shift to focused freedom. I felt the same way the horses must feel when you pull your saddle and untie the rope halter, and watch them run and buck all the way out to their pasture. That mindset stayed with me the whole time I was there.

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Barbed wire fence and Great Basin sunset.

I went from feeling like I was in a Stephen King novel to feeling like I left a Great Basin-sized piece of my heart there, on the south side of the loneliest road in America. I was half-tempted to unload my truck and hire on with some buckaroo outfit. That sense of belonging was expounded by staying in an Airbnb owned by the friendliest border collie puppy, and discussing the merits of horses versus mules with my neighboring table at a state line truck stop diner. It’s outstanding country there, too. Within the National Park, there are countless diverse hiking options, from subterranean caves to historic irrigation ditches to alpine lakes. You can even summit one of the tallest peaks in the state, or embark on a multi-day backpacking journey – which I fully intend to do. And on my way out, I learned of archaeological digs and hot springs in the vicinity, too. So heads up, Great Basin, I’ll be back.

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Stella Lake, Great Basin National Park.

I drove away on that Twilight Zone road that I learned to love, and went to the fourth-most populated city in the Rockies: Salt Lake City. I stayed there for a night and left early to go to the first ranch I worked for, outside of Laramie. The theme of the SLC/Laramie leg of the trip was catching up with friends I’ve had for years. It feels so strange to say that I’ve known them for years, because the time has gone by so quickly. In Salt Lake, my friend and I picked a lunch place based solely on a somewhat-related inside joke. In the Laramie Valley, it was hiking through the snow, watching the stars through a veil of campfire smoke, exploring parts of the ranch I’d never seen, and drinking coffee in the morning golden hour light with my favorite horse. In Josh Ritter’s song Homecoming, he sings, “This town right here’s my everything, and though I’ve been so long away, it has my heart, be still my heart, my heart will stay in this town.” That’s how I always feel about Laramie and the valley.

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The Laramie Valley from the Rawah Wilderness.

A few days later, it was out of Laramie and east to Omaha, over a stretch of highway that I’ve driven so many times that it feels like the pavement should be worn out under my tires. I got pulled over in western Nebraska because a headlight was out, the first time I’d been pulled over since high school. I also helped my friend Megan judge her students’ Shakespeare monologues, we got coffee and dinner, and laughed over literature. Then we left to go back to our hometown for Thanksgiving.

Having a copilot in my truck made the final stretch go by so much more quickly, and we got to live the road trip we’d dreamed of in Ireland earlier in the year. All of the acoustic music and grey and green scenery and laughter continued as we flew through the states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan. We pulled back into Detroit, zipping under old train overpasses while listening to Mumford & Baaba Maal singing, “So open up my eyes to a new light, I wandered round your darkened land all night.” I dropped Megan off and promptly got pulled over in front of my hometown’s city hall, for the same burnt-out (now fixed) headlight. Everything comes full circle. And I pulled in my driveway at home.

For whatever reason, being on the road gets me writing. A month can go by wordlessly, and then all of a sudden, I’m on some open expanse of highway and there it is. Inspiration. Add in a disconnection from a normal routine, country that I’ve never seen before, places where I’m a stranger, a perfect soundtrack, and all of a sudden, I have a lot to say. Maybe because I’m going beyond my comfort zone, and learning from the newness. Between the succulent stuck on my dashboard and the wire horse and cross on the rearview, the words start flowing and I’ve even pulled over a time or two to get them all down before they’re gone.

As Ian Tyson sang, “You got to get it all down, because it’s bound to go.”

So now, I’ve been back in my hometown for a little over a month. Enough time to celebrate two holidays (and almost a third), to unpack, start my first-ever indoor job, and begin to reflect on the wild ride of ranching and road trips that the last few years have put in my path. Among all the realizations, with more certainly to come, is the sense that although this is my hometown, home is everywhere. My senior year of high school, I read a poem by Tennyson, and one line has stuck with me for the five years between graduation and reunion. “I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades forever and ever when I move.”

I’ve left pieces of my heart all along that long yellow line of life, and I carry those places with me: in my duffle bags, truck tires, memories and mind’s eye. I felt it in early spring, driving over the hill from a former home to a new one, and couldn’t quite put it into words. So I shelved it, knowing that everything is cyclical, and if I was meant to write it, it would come back. Here it is.

I felt it when I ran errands like a local in a town I haven’t lived in for years, and in another where I’ve only visited. I felt it in South Carolina at age 17, like I was coming home to a place I’d never been. (Thanks, John Denver.) I feel it in the woods of northern Michigan and the streets of Midtown Detroit, in Laramie, Salida, and the San Luis Valley. All the places where I’ve left a little bit of my heart, whether I notice it or not.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Those feelings are powerful enough to leave my heart in a wreck with the realization that since I’ve loved so many places I call homes, there may never again be one sole place to call MY home. It will always be the west in my soul. And Big Sur, Belfast, and everywhere that people I love now live. If I had a choice, if it was under my control, would I move everyone I love and every place I love to one location? Maybe. But probably not. Because such a large part of the joy in this restless heart of mine comes from seeing the places that draw those I love, learning why the trails and coffee shops and downtowns mean so much to them: all the reasons they chose to put down roots.

I’m certainly not writing this to humblebrag about places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. It’s simply to sort out some holdups about the concept of home. Sometimes it feels like a pretty distant ideal when the road seems endless. But what I’m trying to say is, home is wherever you make it. It’s the people you’re with, or the memories you share with the place. It’s where you open your heart enough to leave something behind. And it’s knowing that countless people were there before you and even more are certain to follow, but for one short, shining time, it was yours.

 

Sweet Disposition – The Temper Trap

“Jump up, find me a mountain, shake off the sheep I’ve been counting. Chase that sun till it runs out of sky.” – Longer Gone, Eric Church

“Have you smelled the whiskey and the smoke burning out underneath your tires?” – The Ghost of Traveling Jones, Ryan Bingham

Two for Joy

For my ninth birthday, I was given a book about a girl and her horse, living in Ireland, and the journeys they took throughout the country. It quickly became one of my favorite books of my childhood, because all of it resonated so deeply with me at that age: the horses, the adventures, the Irish side of me. One of the major themes within the book was an old Irish superstition. “If you see a magpie, look around for another, for one will bring you sorrow, but two will bring you joy.”

Magpies aren’t common where I grew up in Michigan, but fast-forward ten years to living in Colorado, and magpies are everywhere. And you have to keep in mind that throughout my life, I’ve had a tendency toward superstition. Not to any wild extent, but in addition to my Irish heritage, I pitched in highly competitive softball for fifteen years, where I was taught to do things the same way before every pitch, every at-bat, and every inning. I’m also a big-time, lifelong fan of Major League Baseball, where superstition reigns supreme throughout the league. (Whether it’s wearing a lucky number, not talking about a no-hitter in progress, or never stepping on the chalk, superstitious rituals are the norm in both baseball and softball. And those aren’t even some of the weirder ones.) Anyway…considering my predisposition, you can bet that whenever I saw a single magpie, I was looking around for a second one. Fortunately, the second magpie was never difficult to find.

The first few months that I was out riding, it was extremely rare to see a magpie that was truly alone. But one day, the inevitable happened. I spotted one magpie. When I looked around, there were no other magpies to be seen. Deep down, I knew that it was just a superstition, but I had ingrained it in my own head for so long that my first reaction was discomfort. Things were going pretty well, though, and continued to go well, even though I only saw the single magpie that day.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that joy does not come flying in on the wings of magpies. Nor does a solo magpie act as a harbinger of sorrow. Joy and sorrow are much longer-lived than the fleeting feelings of happiness and sadness. While I was working on my bachelor’s degree, I learned that moods are the overarching reason we wake up feeling good or bad, and they direct our emotions, which are much more fluid and subject to change. Those moods can be influenced by our life circumstances, but are influenced on a grander scale by the way we approach and handle those circumstances.

Someone once told me that joy, much like sorrow, is a mindset. And of course, while we pass through seasons of both sorrow and joy, the two combined encompass our lives. The predominant one lives in our hearts. It becomes the way we see the world and the things that happen to us. When I was hiking the Grand Canyon with one of my best friends, the conversation on the uphill trudge turned to, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” Neither of us could name a specific event. The conversation ended in laughter, at the things we had done and dealt with in hindsight, but also in a retrospective appreciation for the things we’d learned from what we’d done.

As dismal as things may seem at the moment, there are always lessons to be learned. It’s a little easier to learn those lessons if you maintain a joyful heart. It starts on the inside, and that joy will radiate outwards and bless others. And a joyful heart can always be had, whether you see one magpie or a whole flock.

More to See

Jagged mountains jut abruptly up from the sprawling desert floor, formed by rifts in the earth’s plates, the same way the more famous Grand Tetons seem to erupt out of the ground. The prairie stretches onward to the horizon, only broken by the darker green of timber forest at the mountains’ base. I have ridden across this entire meadow, but that concept seems unfathomable to me right now. Right now, this meadow is endless. It is everything I see, a vast flatness that I know to contain so much more.

This land is an expert in obscurity. It appears wide open, uninhabited, “the middle of nowhere”. From a distance, everything there is to see seems to be right in front of you. Yet, once you get into it, you realize just how far that is from the truth. There are lakes, ridges, animals, and tree-lined creeks masked by an illusion of nothingness, hiding in plain sight on the plains. Waiting to be discovered.

In my six months of riding this terrain, I’ve discovered something new every single day. Some days it’s a shed antler or a skull, or a new hatch of tadpoles stretching their new frog legs, or even a marsh where, before the last storm, there was only dryness. No two rides have been the same, even if I were to follow my own tracks. But tracking myself would be an improbability in this landscape. The winds are constantly shifting the sands, erasing yesterday’s elk and bison highways, which were already passed over by coyotes and jackrabbits.

Tracking hones the senses – where the shadows fall, how wet or dry the ground was when the animal went by, how long ago it passed, whether it was dragging its toe or limping or running. The light and darkness in just one imprint in the dirt can tell the story of an entire journey. It makes me wonder how much we could understand about each other, if we’d take the time to see the light and darkness in the people around us.

By learning from the land, you can learn about people. And in a valley the size of the state of Connecticut, the land will teach you a lot. It teaches you what truly matters, life lessons that can’t be replaced by any other teacher: respect, after a storm blows in and chills you to the bone; humility, when you’re reminded of your own smallness and how many things are bigger than you; and patience, waiting for the weather to warm up in the spring or cool down in the fall. All of these values are invaluable across the board when dealing with human beings, and being a human yourself.

Yet, each person is a small, vast landscape all their own. There is no one way to get to know someone, all the arable and arid places that make up their soul, all the tracks on their heart that they’ve gathered along the way. It takes time and miles and investment and understanding. Within each landscape, and within each person, there is always more to see, no matter how well you think you already know them. So look beyond the way things appear, and delve into the discoveries that each day can bring.

 

“Life is like a landscape. You live in the midst of it, but can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.” – Charles Lindbergh

“The nature of your beauty puts my mind at ease.” – Your Majesty, Zac Brown Band

“I will touch the strangest faces, till they’re not so strange to me.” – Strange Faces, Daniel Romano