Concomitant to my frolic, I began to plan for my sabbatical which I intended to do on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Colorado on a dude ranch where I worked as youth. Through my mother’s church connections, she met a family who knew the owner of a guest ranch that hired young people each season. The church couple was a successful insurance executive and his wife made their affluent home lovely in an upscale area of Las Vegas. My mother drove the entire plan. She learned of the ranch from the nice couple, arranged for me to interview with the executive at his New York Life offices, and made sure I presented well enough when the couple invited us to dinner at their home.
I had no idea what a dude ranch was or how it operated. She anticipated that I would work bussing tables and doing guest services. When it came time for my father and I to make the long drive-in our small Datsun mini-pickup -at 3am-from Las Vegas to Slater, Colorado, I entered my mother’s bedroom, hugged my mother goodbye, and heard her admonish me as I left the room, “Take the Lord with you.”
“I will,” I said and off we went.
I had every intention of doing just that given my growing faith in Christ I expressed as growing Christian fundamentalist. What I really took with me on the drive, however, and into my first summer at the ranch, was the embedded memory of some fruitless petting with Emily O’Rourke in the back of the same Datsun while we watched nothing of the drive-in movie in front of us. Our particular tribe of fundys looked askance on any sort of pre-marital physical contact. Consequently, my initiative with Emily, as innocent as it was, was thwarted by the prohibition we had internalized. Emily was also part of the community and she too lived with a sense that even hand-holding that night could lead to perdition.
Small of stature at sixteen, my father and I arrived at the ranch. We met Clyde Terrence, the ranch owner, and my boss man for that and the next summer. Noting my size, Clyde made a quick assessment of my capabilities and made the determination to do what he could to get my father to take me back the way we came the next morning. While we sat in the ranch house living room, with dozens of the area’s brand’s burned into the paneled pine siding, Clay told of another ranch hand down river a few spreads and how the youth had managed to flip a tractor on top of himself and died of internal injuries. The information didn’t dissuade my father and he left me there the next morning, shaking my hand good-bye.
“This will be a good experience for you, Son.”
I swelled up inside but pushed back any tears that might indicate my weakness. That summer and the next I worked as a ranch hand, doing chores and maintenance, but primarily working as an irrigator in the first part of the summer and a hay bale hauler and stacker. My first summer, I was the least proficient of the other boys and didn’t really understand how canvas dams and irrigation worked. Coming of age in Las Vegas, my experience of moving water came from the garden hose and sidewalk gutters in front of our house that channeled the run-off from the poorly aimed sprinklers and rare rainfall. Nobody had every taught me that water flows downhill. Without that prior knowledge, when I went to work as an irrigator, I rarely got the water to the grass that needed it most.
When three female teenagers (‘cabin girls’) revolted on Clay and quit the ranch all in one day, abandoning their kitchen duties and cabin cleaning service, Clay made me a cabin girl. Instead of throwing canvas dams around the mesa, I had to fit sheets to guest beds with impossible hospital corners. My male comrades teased me relentlessly and asked when I could get their laundry done and darn their socks.
Desolate, I wanted to quit the ranch myself and head back to Vegas. An opportunity to leave presented itself and I phoned my father to let him know I was ready to quit.
“I’m thinking of quitting, Dad. Clay made me a cabin girl. I hate it.”
“Well Son, it takes more of a man to stick a hard think out.”
As soon as he said those words, I knew I’d stay at the ranch until the end of the summer. I ended the call. The tears welled up that I couldn’t hold back. After the cry, I collected myself and resolved to fulfill my contract which included my $150 bonus for doing so. While the other ranch hands irrigated the mesa and played baseball with their shovels and unlucky mice, I worked the cabins swatting flies and tucking in beds. When two of the ranch hands quit Clay just before hay season, I moved back onto the mesa and walked alongside a flatbed trailer hooking two-wire hay bales with hay hooks and thrusting them on board the trailer for transport and stacking. Despite several collapses, my haystack construction skills grew and gave me a self-confidence I desperately needed. When we settled up at the end of the summer, Clay, a son-of-a-bitch to work for, told me I’d cost him money that summer, then handed me my bonus check. However true, his assessment of my performance didn’t dissuade him from calling me to return to the ranch the next summer. I did so following my graduation from high school and stayed through the end of hunting season, helping to outfit high dollar clients who’d travel to his place to shoot an elk.
Those two adolescent summers had a lasting influence pact on me. During college and seminary studies I visited Clay for short visits. My decision to enter the ministry impressed him as he elevated my calling above that of doctors and lawyers who helped people but for great financial reward. In his mind, helping others, without that consideration made a nobler vocational choice. Every few years I’d call Clay to see how he and the ranch were doing. In the twenty years I was away from the place he had married (late in life) and his spouse, Margaret, brought a strong business acumen to the ranch. It became a very successful and very expensive working cattle ranch for guests. People from all over paid handsomely to move cattle from one section of national forest to another.
Clay and the ranch regularly appeared in my dream life. Often strange, the only consistent theme or pattern they shared was Clay. During difficult times in my life I sometimes thought the best thing to do would be to abandon whatever responsibilities and stress I had and head for the Western Slope. When I had earned my sabbatical with the diocese, the idea of staying at the ranch and writing about my experience there surfaced and I began to make inquiries with Clay and Margaret about that possibility.
I called Clay and presented him with the plan, offering my labor in exchange for room and board. I told him I’d become a capable handyman, was pretty good with tools, and knew I could be of service in that regard. This must have surprised him pretty good because when he knew me as a late teenager, tool skill was not something I possessed. He said he could find something for me to do, asking if I had any experience with repairing quads, the four wheel vehicles that are a necessity in ranch work. I told him I could learn and went as far as asking a local recreational vehicle dealership if I could shadow one of its mechanics. As my sabbatical plans solidified, I enjoyed telling my Bisbee cohorts that I intended to work at the ranch of my youth, fix 4x4s, and write. My men friends seemed especially envious but were glad that I could get a break. I was pleased with myself that I had designed such a sabbatical. As the new year passed and the summer came into view, my anticipation about the experience grew.
So did my marijuana use.