Sunday, November 24, 2013

A New Home in The West

I'm steadily realizing my most difficult task is recreating my experiences in writing. How to describe the past few days? I should start by saying I lived on a ranch and there the passage of time flowed differently, the hours more seamlessly. Days were not clearly demarcated by the stop and go of walking and so I can't now bring myself to lineate what was such a complete experience with faceless terms like the 16th or November 18th. I can only say it was as though I'd stepped onto another track, one where I could be someone else, and was; call me Sam the ranch hand.

I came to the ranch by car. It's so far off the grid I had to be picked up from Frazier Park, which is how I first met Traci Rainbolt, her son Theo, and the first of three dogs, Takota. I immediately liked them. Traci's nickname is Blaze and her red hair matches the name. As I got to know her, above everything else about her that is good, what I recall most clearly about her is the way I felt she understands. I don't know how else to put it. She has an openness to connection that I responded to right away. As we wound our way through backroads and up and around mountains, the three of us launched into a freewheeling conversation about seemingly everything so I felt like we knew a lot about each other by the time we pulled into Rancho Grande.

The link to Bodee's Rancho Grande website is here.

This is a ranch with history. Five 40 acre parcels with apple trees as old as both my grandmothers combined and structures that still retain original timbers dating just as far back. You can still find a Chumash (CHOO-mosh) cooking site where grinding bowls were worn into the sides of boulders from the efforts of hundreds of hands. When we pulled up to the gate, a cloud blanketed the pastures and animal enclosures that occupy the front of the ranch. If you kept walking, the gravel paths would lead you past tack sheds, the chicken coop, the hay shed, two rickety old pickups, all the way back into a small canyon where you can find two small lakes. They were empty when I was there but water was already beginning to collect and ducks were flocking.

Inside Rancho Grande
What excited me about the place was the air of newness and experimentation. Traci and her boyfriend Jerry Watkins have only been managing the ranch for two months so the brunt of their energies has been spent familiarizing themselves with the land and its animals and preparing it for transformation. They envision a guest ranch that draws interesting people for numerous reasons, people seeking diversion, health, retreat, even a change in their life. I could see the possibilities were only just beginning to emerge; a healing center with programs for yoga and equine therapy; an obstacle course for training riders and their horses to handle rough terrain; trail riding, hiking and fishing for recreation. Who knows what else will arise over time? There is certainly freedom enough for their creativity to run unconstrained.

As I walked my gear into the main house I was rounded on by the other two members of the dog pack, Ryder and Luna. Ryder is a four month old pup with big feet, floppy ears and a soft face. Luna is 2 years old but almost as new as I am having only been on the ranch five days. She is black, white and grey and a bit skittish due to what Jerry suspects was abuse from a previous owner, but she already seemed to be improving under the care of Jerry and the Rainbolts (solid band name if anyone's looking for ideas). Takota, who was now bounding out of the minivan, was clearly the alpha lady of the pack.

I looked around the house that was to keep me for the next few days. I first thought it small with the kitchen squeezed together with the living room but it didn't take me long to find it inviting. The red wood of the furniture and cabinets made the room feel light, warm. The woodstove that hosted a fire in the early mornings and evenings easily heated the living space. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the main room's proximity invited closeness and interaction among everyone in the house. The first night we stayed up late (for me, anyways) grouped around the kitchen table drinking tea and sparring in a spritey game of Up-Words, a sort of 3-D scrabble. I crashed on the couch drifting off to sleep with their clock chiming the quarter-hour and reminding me of sleepovers at my grandparent's house.

Theo and Jerry mending fences.
The next morning Jerry stoked a fire in the stove and said "Sam, it's time to feed the animals." Already awake, I gave a small, glad laugh because I knew this meant I was being tacitly invited to participate in the day's work. Truly, it was the work that made my experience at Rancho Grande so fantastic because it made me part of the team instead of an accessory. This was the routine every morning: Jerry, Theo and I would step out into the brisk 7:00 a.m. air, tugging on our work gloves and coats, and head towards the hay barn. I'm not a particularly graceful wielder of the hay hooks but I had a good bit of fun tumbling bales from the top of the stack. Once we had two bales of hay loaded along with alfalfa and oats for the horses, Theo and I would hop in the back and sit on the bales while Jerry drove us around the ranch. The mini-horses got their food first. Then Jerry would drive alongside the pen keeping the five regular-sized horses and Theo would toss their food over the side of the moving truck straight into their bins. The 4 goats, named after Roman Emperors, would be next in line. We fed the cows last, driving around the pasture in a slow circle while Theo and I dumped booklets of hay called flakes out the back, a hungry train of 24 cows following behind us. Sometimes they would greedily snatch mouthfuls from the truck before we'd delivered our payloads. One cow, Reba, is the favorite and more sociable than the rest. I got to jump down and pet her. I stooped close as she twirled hay into her mouth like spaghetti and gazed into the big wet globes of her eyes, fascinated by the size of her head.

After feeding, Theo and I would take the Gator our for a spin to patrol the property. I loved this part, mainly because I like the idea of performing rounds and seeing what's going on on the ranch today. Theo would tell me details about the different parts of the ranch. Theo was a model for me, for the work we did but also as a person. He seems more comfortable in himself, more self-contained than I was at twenty. Takota would tear alongside us, a bolt of white fur. She takes her job as top dog very seriously, always patrolling the animal pens and enforcing the rules. Once the animals were seen to, then the humans could feed so we'd pile into the warm house for breakfast. Jerry is not a fussy man but he loves to make his highly specialized mocha in the morning, won't start the day without one. He'd make another for me and I have to admit they were damn good.

Super Fly Caballeros
The day could now commence. There was plenty to do and I was eager to work everything in. We cleaned up the Rock Room first, wiping down all its high windows and tidying up the interior. Traci and Theo think it could be great for yoga, dances, or banquets. Jerry and Theo taught me how to mend a fence and I used a pneumatic post-driver for the first time. I never had to know more than I did. I followed Theo and Jerry's lead most of the time and paid attention until I could anticipate some needs without overreaching. We broke stride for lunch. I knew what was coming next. When I had mentioned earlier to Traci and Jerry that I'd never ridden a horse before, a mischievous smile crept up on both their faces that told me that was going to change. While Theo and his mom gathered horses for us to ride, Jerry demonstrated natural horsemanship for me in the circle pen with his horse, Scotty. Jerry is a stately cowboy with long silver hair and a Native American spiritual aspect to him.
Watching him direct Scotty this way and that without hardly touching him was beautiful to witness. Jerry says Scotty works with Jerry freely because they are partners. They share a bond and love each other.

My horse and I had no such bond. Big Red is a 25 year old behemoth who tolerated the annoying human clinging to his back the entire ride. Horses are sensitive animals but I'm sure it didn't require great sensitivity to recognize my absolute inexperience. Traci and Jerry taught me how to brush him, how to lead him, and how get up in my saddle and direct him. Luckily Big Red is used to lugging new riders about so he didn't mind. Once I'd had a brief tutorial Theo, Jerry and I set off to test out an unexplored trail. It turned out to be a harrowing one-way trail with no room to turn the horses around but I was too inexperienced to know how much danger we might actually have been in. I was grinning happily the whole time as Big Red picked his way carefully along the trail inordinately pleased with my status as luggage with little to no control over my destination. 
Brushing down the horses.

By the time we returned it was getting on dark and we still had to feed the animals. I fed Big Red carrots as thanks then headed to the hay barn to start loading hay into the truck. I knew the routine by then so everything flowed a little smoother for me. A harvest moon hung low in the sky like a gold coin. For dinner we had leftovers from the glorious chicken tikka massala Theo had cooked up the previous night The evening's entertainment was an hysterical movie called Hot Rod, which I'd never seen before. I almost dozed off in the middle of it I was so tired from the full day. I remember feeling as if I had been living from the pages of My Antonia.

On my final morning I helped feed the animals as usual and had an awesome breakfast. I cradled one of Jerry's mocha's against my chest. But I couldn't sit still realizing I was leaving soon. I rose from my chair and took around the ranch to say goodbye.

The land was glowing with the coming of winter. Yellow leaves and pine cones were scattered on the ground, the animals were doing animal things in their pastures. The placed looked good, really good. I made my way towards the lakes and sat down on the ancient Chumash rocks. For a moment, I couldn't bear to leave. Perhaps for the first time in my life I felt strong, as if I actually possessed physical strength and could direct it outwardly. I felt answered to, happy.  I wanted to stay, to ask for a job and give up this whole gambit. I never expected saying goodbye to be one of the difficulties that might keep me from New York. Underneath the sadness though I found a core of resolve which I didn't expect; there is still more to see, more places to find and call home.


  1. Beautiful story. Sam. You will find more gifts in life and they will all lead you to home.

  2. New home in the west! Great entry on the blog! I want to go there for a retreat! Are they up and ready?
    I hope you can see that our comments are much later than your posts, making for somewhat of delayed reaction to what you've experienced. Just know that we are knowing where you are from gps coordinates, and LOVE your writings and videos. PEACOCK