[Note: This is one of a series of pieces that I have written about my experience in Ohio. After I posted the first one, “Shooting Emma“, one of my old co-wranglers expressed curiosity about “how I ended up at the Ranch”. This is that part of the story. Although it was written earlier than most of the other Ohio pieces, I was unhappy with its “narrative arc”, so its publication has been several times delayed.]
One gray winter when I was still a young man, but not so young as to still be carefree, the Seattle rain dribbling down the windows of the apartment where I tried with only half my heart to be a freelance writer finally broke my native back, and I had to get away. I had been away — five weeks in the cold Aleutian Islands on a crab-packing barge and six months in Europe during college, and two-weeks on a hair-brained (and failed) attempt to stand in the Sahara Desert in my late twenties — but I had not lived away since my family had returned from a year in North Carolina when I was twelve. I felt if I didn’t break loose I would break apart.
A friend giving me a ride home during another pelting rainstorm heard me muttering that I wished I knew someone with a sailboat that needed crewmen or a horse ranch that needed wranglers. “Really?” said this person. “Are you serious? Because I know someone with a horse ranch.”
I was serious.
A phone number found its way to me. I called. The man who wanted me to call him “Uncle Bill” ran a Christian camp in the Appallachian Foothills called F– Ranch. Kids came down from Cleveland and other nearby cities for week-long or several-week-long summer camps, and for weekend camps throughout the winter, to learn how to care for and ride horses and to experience the open-sky’d life. It was also hoped that they might ingest Christian teaching and discipline, but that hardly needed to be said. I could tell by the way that Uncle Bill talked to me that a Christian worldview was generously — or naively — assumed. And as I was indeed to experience, Christian morals were upheld and Christian beliefs and attitudes transmitted, mainly implicitly but also through song-singing, Sunday sermons “on the mount” (Uncle Bill preaching from horseback, if you get the pun) and, at camp’s end, an “altar call” beside a campfire under the stars. Of my beliefs, Bill asked me a few simplistic questions that represented the kind of “statement of faith” requirements for Christian service I had heard and answered all my life, but this time I found answering them with clean yesses and nos difficult and vaguely disquieting.
By this time in my life, almost age 29, my fundamentalist evangelical upbringing was already beginning to wear uncomfortably on me, like a sport coat that no longer fit my frame. I still believed pretty much what I had always believed about Jesus, about God, and about the Hereafter. But two currents were running deep in my life at the time whose swiftness and strength I was unable to properly measure and wasn’t really even fully aware of. First, the notion of eternal damnation by God of people, real people — that person over there, for example — who for a host of reasons other than hatred of the Most High may not manage to arrive at a formulaic acceptance of Jesus as “personal lord and savior” during their lifetime, was no longer a doctrine I could get behind with all my weight.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, I had become contrary in general. An oppositional streak in me starting in my late teens and blossoming in my twenties increasingly caused me to go against the grain of any given culture — musical culture is an obvious example, as I sought out obscure Italian prog rock and then Celtic music while my contemporaries enjoyed first new wave and then Depeche Mode, Bryan Jones and the rest of the ’80s — and even moreso the closer my ties to the culture, such as my faith tradition. Not confrontationally, just quietly, intellectually even. I was becoming what, if I thought about it at all, I liked to think of as a rebel or nonconformist. This is perhaps the tragedy of my life if my life has any tragedy to it. I prided and deluded myself that I was free because I did not let anyone rule my mind or will, or so I thought. It is a wisdom I have received late in life that he who defines himself in opposition to something else, who merely does the opposite of what is expected of him by every group at every turn, is no more free than the drinker of the Kool-Aid. The nonconformist’s actions are still determined by someone else, in fact by everyone else.
Bill told me that he had been asking God just that morning to provide him with help for the coming year, and encouraged me to come as soon as I could get there. He did not care that the last time I had ridden a horse I had cried. Bill counted on volunteers to run the place, and was not strenuously screening applicants. And I very much wanted to go, wanted the change of scenery, so I did not care that when I asked him what kind of health insurance he provided for his staff, he dissembled, saying that they liked to exercise faith in God where health was concerned, and — when I pressed him about how hospital bills would be paid if someone got hurt, which could happen, right? — that the ranch owned several hundred of its 4200 acres “free and clear” that could be sold in the unlikely even that God did not provide for their needs in any other way. We each wanted to believe the other was the answer to our prayers and heard in each other’s speech what we wanted to hear.
I packed for a cold season serving God outdoors: a sleeping bag; all my sweaters; my old Dingo boots (the Dingo was not a cowboy boot per se but it had a heel and its squared toe was fairly narrow, essential for easy in and out of the stirrup); a canvas duster a brother-in-law loaned me; my bible, a New American Standard translation — state of the art at that time, though the New International Version (NIV) was giving the NASB a workout; a few Yes, Genesis, Renaissance and Jethro Tull cassette tapes; and my six-string accoustic guitar. I gave Little Nemo’s brakes some love and the two of us headed out on March 11, 1991, a few weeks shy of my 29th birthday.
We hurdled the familiar, jagged, cardboardy barrier of the Cascade Mountains as nimbly as would the Abominable Snowman and scooted across Columbia’s dolesome plains, but the way soon became strange, dark and snow-covered. The world beyond Washington’s borders was a tangle of muddled memories from several childhood trips I’d made across the Western states as the grumpiest passenger in the family car. Those times had always been in the bright and dusty heat of summer. I gripped Nemo’s padded black steering wheel over the wolvish Blue Mountains, which felt lonely and laden with menace. Nemo whistled bravely.
We made Boise the first night and stayed with my old school buddy Kip; more precisely I used his couch while he was doing a graveyard shift at work, and then continued south to pick up Highway 70 southeast of Salt Lake City. I wanted to stay as southerly as I could as we crossed the states because it was still very much winter. The second day, just after we climbed into Wyoming’s High Plains, an unbelievably loud and high-pitched screeching sound suddenly shot out of the dashboard, making my eyes roll up into my head like Captain Kirk’s when some dread ray was being leveled at the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. I was pulled over at a rest stop in bright sun and icy winds peering under the open bonnet, though I had no idea what was making the sound, when the only person in America who knew about this phenomenon, a guy named Duncan, happened to pull into the same rest stop in his VW bus. He told me it was the speedometer cable and helped me get a little dribble of oil down into it. I told him I was fixin’ to travel as far as Laramie that day and if he cared to meet me there supper would be on me, so grateful was I for his help.
We did sup together in Laramie that night, though I don’t recall our conversation. My nerves were fried after driving across dark plains all evening in a windstorm with dry snow blowing across the road even though the sky was clear and the stars were crisp and blue. We split a motel room. His journey the next day lay southward, while I passed through Cheyenne, out of that crystalline high country, and spent a day doing long division problems in my head to keep myself awake through Nebraska.
A few years before, while riding as a passenger in a tank truck — I was hitchhiking to California — I learned a bit of trucker tradition: when one truck would pull around another to pass it going uphill in the dark, the driver of the slower vehicle would momentarily turn his headlights off when the back end of the passing truck was clear of his snout, because it is difficult for the driver of the passing truck to gauge in the dark, being so far forward and sitting on the other side of the vehicle. A full second’s interruption of the lights in the right-side-view mirror tells him he’s clear to move right again in front of his compatriot of the road. After moving right again into the lead the forward driver would toggle his rear lights quickly two or three times as a thank you. On those dark afternoons on the way to Ohio, I lived for the moments when a truck would pass me going uphill; I’d flash the lights of my ridiculous little VW Bug while imagining the bemused surprise of the teamster that a civvy would know this protocol, then usually the taillights and all the little perimeter lights at the back of the rig would flash out that cheerful electric gratuity. (Civilians cannot perform this valuable service to OTR freight with today’s cars, since the lights on most vehicles stay on even if you turn the switch off, which fact also necessitates that cinematic action dependent on a character “cutting the lights” while motoring through a dark scene must also account for that character driving an older car.) (But I digress).
I slept in Omaha the third night, and if memory serves, I arrived at the ranch late the next day after sampling the potholes in Illinois (which really are as big as Volkswagens — you can imagine how bizarre this looked as we descended into them, disappeared completely from the view of other motorists, then emerged from them again, at 70 miles per hour).
When Nemo pulled off the rural highway and puttered up a long drive after four days on the road, I was dagged-out and wanted only to sleep, but there would be no early night for me. Campers were arriving in a few hours. Uncle Bill came up to the Ranch House to greet them and me. I remember him walking across the front lawn of the Ranch House in a blue shirt, brown leather vest, jeans and boots — real cowboy boots — and a tall, tan-colored cowboy hat, and greeting me with a huge hug — the only time that he and I ever embraced.
You’ve heard a lot already about life in that strange and beautiful acre in previous posts, and how that rebelliousness in me colored my time there. Writing about it has helped me process and lay by some hard feelings that I’d kept inside me for many years. And really, when I look back even on what I’ve written here, I am able to see Bill’s words and actions through a gentler lens. He wanted to live by faith, and I admire that even if I have reservations about his methods and even his mission. He wanted everyone else to see things and behave the same way he did, which is where the voodoo starts, but it’s easy to be snarky about people who express their faith with a bullhorn, because faith is a kind of madness, and people who give themselves over to it often make fools of themselves, sometimes in good ways but often otherwise. There hasn’t been much in my life I’ve been willing to make a fool out of myself for, and that’s a little bit sad.
I’ve managed to retain a very real kind of faith that I still call Christian faith. It’s a far cry from the faith Bill tried to legislate, but it feels true to me and that’s the best I can do for now. And it has less to do with winning arguments and ensuring post-life trajectories than with nurturing ways of being with people here on earth that feel…well…Christ-ly.
Pardners, that’s how I came to be there…and it’s partly how I came to be here, where I am. The Ranch is far behind me now and I have my own little tribe for whose edification — come to find — I frequently make a fool of myself.