Somewhere in Pennsylvania a girl is saying good-bye to a man who doesn’t want her to leave. But don’t feel bad for her; she wants to go. Even though her forehead presses against his solid chest for a moment, she wants to move across the country for six months, work on a ranch, live a different life. Even though his fingers curl through the ends of her hair, her mouth tries to form the words that will mean don’t worry, I am coming back.
She is trying to walk out the door, find a place where she will spend days and nights in the backcountry, wake up at 5:30 most mornings and spend thirty-five hours a week in the saddle, leading guests through the mountains; a place where she will work solely alongside cowboys. But she will just call them “the boys.” They will tease her like high schoolers, give her nicknames, and the girl will be tough with them, won’t take any crap, and the boys—her boys—will adore her for it.
Her body pulls away from his, away from the chest that feels too much like home, the fingers wrapped in her hair. And she still hasn’t said the words, and he is not asking her for them as he pulls her body closer again, pulls forehead to chest, wraps fingers deeper in her hair. The girl breathes in, waits for a moment, and lets everything she is aching to say about why he shouldn’t worry, why she needs to leave—to do this one thing—be still and settle there against him.
The wind bites hard at 5:15 in the morning, and the girl flips up her coat collar on the way to the corrals. She walks across the barns’ thick plank boardwalk. Thin, morning air whips at her cheeks, the end of her nose. Her eyes begin to water in the dark. She passes the door to the boys’ bunkhouse and pounds twice. She knows none of them are up yet.
The girl finds Cash—a stocky grulla gelding and her favorite wrangle horse—in the top corral lot, dozily pulling hay from a feeder. Light steam rises from his warm back, the backs of the four other wrangle horses standing huddled against the cold. She pulls the halter from her shoulder, drapes the lead over his neck as he turns his head to look at her—his dark eyes offer a good morning. The girl moves easily around him, so natural this daily routine, the beginning of their day together. She stands in the fold of his neck, his body a shelter as she holds the halter to his face and lets him dip his nose in before she pulls the end over his poll, ties a swift knot.
Cash follows her down to the saddling pen, the lead hung in the crook of her elbow. She wipes a layer of frost from a pipe rail and ties him fast then walks into the tack room for brushes, a pan of feed. She pounds on the bunkhouse door again as she passes. The boys come down one by one, their boots heavy on the steps as though they must let the whole ranch know the misery of waking before 5:30 am. They pull up their collars, pick up halters, and move by the girl without speaking as she carries her pads in one hand, saddle in the other.
She is fastening the breast collar, tightening her back cinch as the boys pass through the gate with their horses in a slow processional. By the time they have them tied, she is slipping a cold bit into Cash’s mouth. As they pour cracked corn into rubber feed pans, she checks her cinch, gathers her reins in one hand, steps a foot in the left stirrup, bounces once, and swings her leg over Cash’s back. He is content to stand, to let her rest her elbow on the horn, her chin on her hand, and watch the boys ready their horses without words in a morning ritual that moves silent as a prayer.
It is nearing sundown when the girl and Steve pull out of the ranch and roar up the Buffalo Valley Road toward Highway 26. The skyline fades into shades of red and purple, pulling a warm glow over the mountains behind them and the road ahead of them. She watches their pastures rolling away on either side of the road, long sections of buck-and-rail fence that all of them have spent long afternoons riding and fixing. She sees a section down, points it out to Steve, and tells him they better get to it first thing in the morning. He just nods, and she knows his mind only holds thoughts of beer and pool games.
Highway 26 follows a ridgeline that drops off into a deep valley harboring the winding Buffalo Fork River and stands upon stands of lodgepole pine. They pass the pastures of the Diamond Cross, their horses turned loose for the night.
Steve pulls a beer from the floorboards as he drives, cracks it open. She shoots him a glance from across the truck. He grins at her.
She picks another beer from the floor and pulls the tab. “So what do you think you’re going to do next summer?” she asks.
He watches the road and says he doesn’t know. Next summer is a long way away.
She takes a sip of beer, and then just as quickly spits it out. “God, Steve, these are warm.”
His laugh fills the cab that smells of old food wrappers and beer, and he takes a sip of his own. “Are you coming back next summer?”
“No, probably not,” she says.
“Oh that’s right, you’ll be married by then.”
She rolls her eyes. “I will not.”
She looks out the window at the river, almost black beneath them, weaving its way through the canyon. In a way she feels bad for Steve; he seems lost. He dropped out of college when his shoulder gave out and the football dream died. At twenty-eight he is broke and working a seasonal job for his room and board and a small paycheck. But he loves his life; if he worries, she never knows. Sitting there, watching him drink that warm beer and navigate the swift mountain curves of Togwotee Pass, she half wishes she could live like him.
On a Friday night, everyone drives to a bonfire spot near the river. The girl sits between Luke and Ethan on the tailgate of a ’68 Ford. The three of them touch shoulders and talk—she pretending to drink, the boys almost finishing Luke’s bottle of Crown as they watch a raucous game of beer pong taking place on a flatbed truck and a few guys trying to rope spare pieces of firewood. Luke came from a small town near New Orleans, where he gave up studying ecology and moved west to live, for a while, as a vagabond wrangler. She knows he will “probably stay forever; it is the ones like Luke who do. Ethan works as the ranch’s fly-fishing guide; of all the boys he is the most sure of himself—a former basketball star. His earthy features, blue eyes, and blond hair that hangs down his neck, set him apart from most of the other guys at the ranch; he looks more like a hippie than a cowboy. She finds it funny that the two get along so well.
A Tom Russell song comes blaring from the speakers of Luke’s truck—We climb so high in search of a kindred soul / ’Til we grab hold of a live wire up on a highline pole. Everyone around the fire starts to dance. Ethan leans close to her. The laws of nature say you get nothing for free. His arm presses against hers. “Come on dance with me.” And love is like stealing electricity. She says no, waving him off and leaning toward Luke.
He leans closer, whispers in her ear, “You know you want to.”
She laughs, looks at him sideways, and rolls her eyes. Luke laughs too, and Ethan reaches for her hand. The girl kicks her legs under the tailgate and looks at him, offers half a smile. His heart went d-da, d-da, d-da, d-da. He pulls her off the tailgate and grins at Luke who raises his bottle to them as they walk away. From the moment Ethan takes her hand and she feels the warmth of his palm, the firmness of his fingers wrapped around hers, leading her around the fire to an open place between the aspens, she feels wrong. He was trying to get something he could not afford for free.
She can hear the hard rush of the river behind them, the soft pops and crackles of the fire, the music. A poor man stealing electricity. Ethan takes her other hand, and she takes his; they both laugh at the awkwardness of it. Two hearts go d-da, d-da, d-da, d-da. The girl shows him how to pull her in close and then push her away, how to lift both of their arms overhead, behind their backs, around again until they tangle up and have to break free. He laughs, and she laughs, and he takes her hands again.
She feels guilty for forgetting to call her boyfriend, for coming to the bonfire, for dancing with another guy; she feels guilty for feeling guilty about trying to have fun. He said that was what he wanted for her, to have fun. He always tells her he trusts her, and she has never given him any reason not to. She even tells him about the boys. When she doesn’t have time to call, he never gets mad, never questions her, never shows a smidge of jealousy or asks about the boys. Sometimes she wishes he would.
It is midnight, and they are dancing under an aspen grove in the middle of Moran; the stars glow through the trees, and far in the distance, coyotes howl. She looks at Ethan, looks at everyone around them, lost in dancing. He spins her, and she whirls, the aspen leaves shushing around her, promising to keep her secret. The girl feels her hair spin out around her, feels nothing but the music, the darkness, the howl of coyotes, and the dense smell of evergreen. She feels the glow of stars over them, of youth all around them.
It is late, the moon is out, and the stars hum over the river, over the meadows and the ridges, and horses tucked into willows, and heady pockets of sage, and the girl who is sitting on the porch, wrapped in a blanket. Tom the cat sits on her lap, kneading and purring, lost in warm folds of crocheted wool. A phone sits tucked between her ear and her shoulder, a book open on her knee. The voice on the other line sounds hushed, quiet, says, “I miss you.” She smiles to herself and says it back. They both promised they wouldn’t say those words. Three words, so loaded, I miss you. It had been his idea, a way of living in the moment. She understands why he doesn’t want to say them, why he tries not to most of the time. He doesn’t want her to feel guilty for being gone, doesn’t want her to feel like she is doing the wrong thing by leaving him alone. She asks him what he is doing, changes the subject. He says he is up late, irrigating the fields. She runs her fingers over the cat’s back, feels her gaunt sides and matted coat. She can picture him out there, working by the Pennsylvania moonlight. Sweat probably ringing one of his cruddy hats, humid air clinging to his bare arms as he pulls irrigation lines between rows of hothouse tomatoes, his phone tucked between his ear and shoulder.
He doesn’t talk much, so neither does she. She strokes the cat and looks out at the moon, at the black river, listens to his breath on the other line, steady, heavy as he works. Tonight she doesn’t need him to talk; the steadiness of his breath feels like enough. She watches the way shadows form over the cat’s back as the moon shifts over them, thinks about months before this moment when she walked those fields with him, her small hand in his while they looked at the moon, the stars, and she told him about how much brighter those stars shone in the West, how much closer they felt.
She wonders now if that is really true and thinks back to a moment almost a year before. On a rainy afternoon in her hometown—on a day when she felt like her whole life seemed scattered across the world as she tried to make plans for where her life would go when graduate school ended—she ran into him on the street. He was about to climb into his truck as she stood there holding a cup of coffee, waiting to cross. She hadn’t seen him in a year, maybe two. Last she had heard he was about to be engaged; part of her hoped it wouldn’t work out, that she would get a second chance with the one man she always regretted letting go. They had tried things once, a long time ago, but it hadn’t worked—she the one who was always leaving in search of adventure, he the one who was grounded and settled.
They had exchanged the typical greetings, the awkward smiles and questions about life in the meantime. She remembered the small talk seemed to last forever until she asked about his relationship, and he told her that she had left, months ago. In that instant, everything changed for her. She didn’t know if he wanted a second chance, only that she did. It took that day standing on the street, holding a soggy cup of coffee as rain fell all around them, breaking against their bodies, the hard ground, to realize there was no question about where she wanted her life to go.
The cat stretches and yawns, and she realizes it has been minutes since either of them has spoken. Still his breath fills the line. She breaks the silence, asks him if the stars are out. His breath changes, and he says yes. She pictures him standing in the dark field, looking up at the same stars. She tells him she doesn’t mind when he says he misses her, that it doesn’t make her feel bad or guilty. He tells her he is glad because sometimes it is hard not to tell her he misses her every day.
Luke pulls his horse to a quick stop, adjusts his whip in his hand. “What section do y’all want?” The wranglers’ horses blow and move under them, their sides heaving as they suck for air after trotting nearly two miles to the top of the ranch’s big pasture. They have come to the pasture, as they do every morning while the sun rises behind them and the sky opens to light shades of pink and blue. They are here to find the ranch’s herd of over one hundred horses that were turned loose for the night in over one hundred acres and push them home so the day can begin.
Voices call out low: “I’ll take top”; “Middle”; “Bottom.” Their horses move, and the only sound is heavy breath, the wrangler’s hushed clucks. They split up, the girl taking the middle section, pointing Cash toward the skyline and letting him pick his way up the hill over deadfall and between wiry bushes of sage. She asks him to turn in to a small grove of white-and-black barked aspen that will lead them in to thick timber—the herd’s night hiding places. She watches Luke as he rides to the ridgeline above them, disappears. She is alone. She listens for bells, for the soft calls of horses speaking to one another, the gentle whoosh of great bodies moving through tall grass, between trees, the sounds of morning not meant for her.
They move in silence through the timber and the mist that hangs in the trees, over the grass, between the needles of pines that never change, and the fragile leaves of aspens that quiver as they pass. Cash’s ears prick; his body tenses. Horses are close. Her eyes fix on the trees ahead, on a shift between pines, a flash of white, then brown, a jingle of bells. She moves Cash up into a trot, lets her whip unwind beside her. The trail narrows, and horses rush to it from between trees, jumping over downed logs, ducking their heads under low branches. They know they have been found—the time for hiding has ended. She throws the tail of the whip ahead of her, cracks it once, and the herd moves into a lope. The girl sees nothing but the thickness of green timber flying past her, the bodies of horses that move ahead of her toward day in the shifting light of dust and dawn.
The boys wait for her; they are standing quiet, hats pulled low, collars pulled high, their horses positioned near the fence line, the tree line, and the gate to keep the herd in place. She is the last to arrive. Around the gate, horses toss their heads and rear. They squeal and buck and bite one another’s hips and necks as they wait with anxious energy for the gate to open, the push across the meadow and into the ranch to begin. Karl swings his whip over his head, lets it crack behind him. Every head in the herd raises; every ear pricks as the gate swings open. Luke leads with a call of “Let’s go boys,” spurs his horse, raises an arm, and races toward the waiting meadow, a herd one hundred strong pounding behind him.
The sun is rising fast now, and light fills the valley. The river shimmers, and the mist breaks away from its banks, rises toward the mountains. The herd is disappearing into the meadow, and the girl’s heart quickens, her hands tightening on the reins as Cash begins to shift and prance under her. She moves her hands forward a little on his neck, touches him with her heels, and asks him to take flight.
Together they fly in pursuit of the herd. It is almost impossible to see given the cloud of dust and the way the light moves through it, filling the horizon. She must trust Cash, trust he will feel the ground enough to carry them. The girl closes her eyes. She knows she shouldn’t do this, but for a moment she wants to feel nothing but Cash’s legs folding and unfolding beneath her as his neck flattens, his mane waves, and his nostrils pull for air. His legs gather again, and they are suspended. Everything stops. She hangs there, four feet above the world, above a lush meadow—where wind whips past red cheeks, long hair, eyelashes frozen in time—where the strength of a horse carries her.
The Red Fox Saloon sits inside Togwotee Mountain Lodge, on the crest of the Continental Divide. The divide runs north from Togwotee Pass to Yellowstone and then into Montana; it stands as a point so high that when water falls on this ground, it splits and breaks apart, half feeding the waters of the Atlantic and half feeding the Pacific. When they pull into the parking lot, the bar looks dead. The saloon is not a tourist bar, not a place outsiders know about or want to. It has nightly drunks and regulars burnt out on the monotony of their seasonal, temporary lives. It is a place with no frills, no pretensions, just somewhere to feel lost for a while and drink the day into night. Despite the crowd, everyone likes this place; it is close, quiet, and perfect for a game of pool, a few beers.
Outside, a few hours later, the stars stand bright and brilliant in the night sky. People mill around the porch and their cars, smoking, stu≈ng the butts into empty bottles. She crunches across the gravel, each step an effort as she curses the strength of the drinks. She focuses her eyes on the door handle and tries not to let Steve see how much trouble she is having opening the door and climbing into her side of the truck.
They drive in silence for a while. The girl pulls her legs up underneath her on the seat and watches the pines pass illuminated under an eerie mountain moon. Steve turns on the stereo. Tom Russell’s haunted voice comes on, singing, Sweet bird of youth, no easy keeper. She sinks back into the truck seat and closes her eyes. Flown with the seasons all too soon. She feels nothing but the truck winding down from the divide along the curves of the pass. Beneath Montana’s blue roan skies.
“You know somethin’?” Steve asks.
“Yeah, Steve?” she says, her eyes still closed, head pressed into the worn cloth. Nevada starlight and a bucking horse moon.
“I think you should cowgirl for a while if you want to. You’re real good at it.”
She opens her eyes, looks over at him, and smiles. “Steve.” She pauses.
He takes his eyes from the road and looks at her.
“Your truck is spinning.”
He laughs and reaches over to pat her knee.
They pull into the lot near the girls’ bunkhouse, the crunching gravel loud beneath the tires. Steve stops the truck, turns the key back, and the engine growls down to a halt, leaving them in the silence of a dark Wyoming night. Outside the truck they probably could have heard the bells of horses, maybe a mule braying, maybe even a wolf singing high in the distance. But inside the cab, there was no sound but Steve’s breath and hers and Tom Russell still singing low as below them the river crept away under the moon.
Dusk at the ranch and everyone gathers around the girls’ bunkhouse porch, throwing firewood in the beds of trucks, filling coolers with ice, and singing along to Tom Russell blaring from Steve’s truck speakers. Tonight we rock, tonight we roll. / We’ll rob the Juarez liquor store for the reposado gold. / And if we drink ourselves to death, ain’t that the cowboy way to go? The sky stands purple above them as clouds shift over the valley, covering and uncovering the mountains. They decide to go to the closest spot, the one only a mile from the ranch, right along the bank of the river. She is on the ranch, about to call him, but the boys tell her she has to come, she is always so boring. They get her laughing, and she says okay, reluctantly, and then throws on a hat, a sweatshirt, and clean jeans before climbing into the passenger side of Steve’s truck along with Jed and Ethan. They have to squeeze onto the single bench seat, and she practically sits on Ethan’s lap.
An hour later the sun has gone down. They all sit around the fire on logs and rocks and in the beds of trucks. Everyone showed; no one would miss the last night. They drink and talk and throw empty beer cans in the fire. The boys share a bottle of Pendleton, and Luke has his own bottle of Crown. Magpies call all around them, and in the distance the coyotes sing or cry, she is not sure which. She sips at a can of beer, thinks about her boyfriend and that it will only be two months until he will be here, at the ranch, to take her home. And she thinks about the ride over, about how Ethan had held on to her thigh while she sat on his lap, and how she’d wanted him to move his hand, but she hadn’t asked him to.
It gets late and cloudy. The stars aren’t out, not even the moon, and no one has left yet. Everyone just stands around the fire. Luke with his arms around Sarah and Jed holding Lauren; both girls are leaving in the morning. She stands alone at the farthest side of the fire, holding her third, practically empty, beer. Ethan walks over, slips his arm around her waist, puts his chin on her shoulder, and offers her another. She shakes her head no, tells him she doesn’t want any more. He leans in close, his face almost touching her neck, his nose almost brushing her ear, and says, “Sure you do.”
She knows she should step away from him, should push his arm from her waist, should tell him to leave. But she doesn’t. And she knows she should be thinking about a man in Pennsylvania who never really wanted her to leave, who agreed to wait for her. But all she can think about is the taste of beer, the warmth of campfire on her face, the soft smell of alcohol mixed with sage, and the salty lips of a boy as they nip at the lobe of her ear, the nape of her neck, asking her what she wants.
After work, she turns Cash down a small game trail that leads to the river. The sun has started to sink, and the sky fades into orange, colliding with the red dirt of the path, casting a tawny haze over the water. She watches the water as they move, thinking about the river that borders their place back home in Pennsylvania, surrounds it on three sides. She thinks about the fact that she has never once ridden her horse down to that water’s edge, asked her to step in.
She pulls Cash to a stop and looks into the river; it runs about thirty feet from shore to shore, not swift, but probably ten feet deep in the center. The girl gives Cash a nudge, sending him forward; Cash steps into the water and puts his head down, the water swirling about his legs and muzzle as he drinks. The horse pulls his head up, water dripping from his mouth, the reins, and the ends of his whiskers. She gives him another nudge, and he steps in deeper; it circles his ankles, forelegs, then his knees. He dips his head down to the surface and shakes his nose back and forth, splashing with his lips.
They walk a little farther; the water rises to Cash’s chest and belly. She feels his steps become lighter and lighter until the water lifts them, and they are swimming. She pulls her legs up so her boots won’t get too wet. She closes her eyes and listens to the sound rushing under and around them. She loves the feeling of being so weightless, of letting Cash carry her through the water, his great body lifted, suspended for seconds that feel like forever as they float through the current while he kicks and swims and carries them across the swift divide.
Everything slows down by the time the horses trot up the driveway, under the archway, and into the ranch. This is when they scatter, when they say, “Let’s not go straight into the corral,” and “Let’s see who can really wrangle.” Horses trot between cabins, into the center yard, over walkways, under porches. Wranglers scatter with them, popping their whips and calling, “Ay ay ay, hey boyyys.” Guests begin emerging from cabins, pulling robes closed around their waists, holding back children woken from sleep by the pounding of hooves and calls of wranglers.
The girl follows two horses that have trotted into a tight cluster of guest cabins and mill about the porches, pulling flowers from planters. She cracks her whip, calls to them, and they raise their heads, trot off toward the open gate. Around her the boys have managed to funnel most of the herd into the corral. She loosens her grip on the reins, lets Cash lower his head, pats his neck. He takes a step, and a small voice behind her stops her; she pulls him up. The girl turns in the saddle and looks back to the porch of the closest cabin, where she sees a little girl, probably near three, wearing a long pajama shirt, her blonde hair bouncing as she jumps and points. The little girl’s face beams as she wiggles and points, tugs at her mom’s sleeve, says, “Mom, Mom look. That cowboy is a girl!”
Normally the girl would have smiled to herself and kept walking, would have vowed to find the little girl later. This morning she doesn’t. She turns Cash in a smooth one-eighty, steps down, leads him back across the porch, his feet loud against the planks. She gets down and kneels in front of the little girl until they are eye level. Cash stands behind her, his nose resting on her shoulder. The little girl’s mom holds on to her as she reaches up and touches the end of the girl’s black hat as though she might not be real, might disappear with a touch. The girl doesn’t say anything, just lets her touch her hat, her scarf, her silver belt buckle.
She holds out her gloved hand, and the little girl places her tiny palm against the smooth leather. “Would you like to meet my friend Cash?”
The little girl beams and nods, her hand still inside the girl’s open palm. She pulls the rein and asks Cash to step closer. He put his nose down between them, and she takes the little girl’s hand, places it on his velvety muzzle. Cash blows softly, and the little girl giggles; he pushes against her hand, and she pushes back, grinning.
“He likes you,” the girl says. “He says you should be a cowgirl someday.”
The little girl pulls her hand away, looks at her, then up at her mom. “Let’s let the cowgirl go to work now,” the mom says. The little girl reaches out her tiny hand again, touches the end of her hat, and says, “Good-bye cowboy-girl.”
The girl spends the evening in town with the boys. For most of the night, she sits at the bar, more comfortable than most in the authentic barstool saddles, drinking Coronas. Every now and then she is convinced to play a game of pool with Jed or dance a two-step with Luke. She watches as they play their own pool games and eye up leggy blondes. They look good when they dress for town, all of them. She feels like a girl when she is with them; she lets her hair down, puts on makeup and a skirt, and even shaves her legs. She lets them buy her drinks and call her beautiful and wink at her from across the room. If her boyfriend were here, she knows he would do those things too.
As they drive home, the moon shines over the Tetons. Luke drives, and the boys sing in the backseat. She smiles to herself as their voices ring into the night. “Tonight we fly, we’re headin’ west. Toward the mountains and the ocean where the eagle makes his nest. If our bones bleach on the desert, we’ll consider we are blessed. Tonight we ride, tonight we ride.”
She watches the roadsides for signs of life, for elk or deer or pronghorn that might leap in front of them at any moment. She sees nothing, save shadows across the base of the mountains and the sea-green oceans of sage and the Snake River in a canyon far below them. The water glimmers green under the moonlight, its long body rolling, rising in iridescent crests quick as the bodies of cutthroat trout that slip silently beneath the surface. She watches as the truck speeds through the valley and the river sweeps toward or away from them, she is not sure which. She doesn’t know where the river is going—east or west—only that somewhere along the divide those waters have split.
The girl thinks about the man she hasn’t talked to in two days. She knows that he will understand, forgive her. He will probably say he knows she is busy and that he is too. He might say that he can’t wait to have her in his arms again. She tries to imagine being home again, pressing her forehead against his chest again, being just his, but she can’t. Tonight—riding in the passenger seat, her head against the window—it doesn’t matter. It is just her, and all she has to be is a girl riding in a truck full of boys, wheeling free under a bucking-horse moon, across a silvery Wyoming night.
“So what does this mean?” Seth asks while we are in Yellowstone parked along the side of the road where a sign marks the Continental Divide. It is his first time in Wyoming; he has come to help me drive home, and I told him the trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting the nation’s first national park. As we walk toward the sign, I tell him the divide lies as a kind of fault line, the West’s highest points of elevation, and that when water hits this dividing line, it splits, half going east, the rest heading west.
With his arm around my shoulders, he asks if I want my picture taken next to the sign. I tell him no, that after spending almost every Friday driving a van full of guests through the wonders of Yellowstone, these landmarks don’t feel so special to me anymore. “Come on,” he says, “you need something you’ll remember.” I tell him, “I’ve seen this sign a million times.” When he tells me I might never see it again, I realize for the first time that my life at the ranch is over. How had I not known what that means? Yellowstone won’t be a novelty anymore; it will be the stuff of late-night television specials. He points toward the sign with the camera in his hand. When he tells me to pose, I point at the elevation and grin like a happy tourist.
Outside the truck windows, Pennsylvania fog, mist, and mountains roll past. I press the window down a crack, and wild, cold air whips in, drowns the radio twang. The wipers work in a perfect furious rhythm, and I ask Seth to turn the heat down. He asks why. I tell him the heat feels thick and stale. We are headed north on a Sunday afternoon in November to look at a piece of equipment—a disc to work the ground this spring—that will turn over the hard, crusted dirt of winter, reveal the fresh and tender earth beneath.
Ours is the only vehicle on the road, and everything outside looks wet and swollen. Huge clouds hover over and between the tops of hardwood trees, spilling rain. The dark walls of the mountains rise up on either side of the road, the underbrush and timber so thick it is impossible to see between the trees, to know if the lithe bodies of deer shift and hide amidst the brush and mist. We pass a small clearing, a cabin with the roof caved in, brown shutters hanging and no doors; I wonder if it was once someone’s home, maybe an abandoned hunting camp. The higher the truck climbs, the more I feel like the air, the road, the mountains are closing in, like we might disappear into the fog, be swallowed over the next crest of a hill. I crack the window again. He reaches across the seat and covers my hand with his.
It is raining hard when we pull into the run-down farm with the disc for sale. Rain slides down the steaming truck windows. He pulls the hood of his jacket up, tells me I can wait in the truck if I want. A short, husky man in oily jeans and a tattered sweatshirt walks out from the cover of a three-sided equipment shed. An aging chocolate Lab with bad hips trails him in a loyal, jolted gait. I watch the men exchange handshakes, the Lab sitting beside them as rain beads on his coat, falls from the shed gutters, and I wonder what I am doing here. I have never been the kind of girl who tags along and stays in the truck.
I think about a day in early June on the ranch when we built fence all day in the rain. I remember the hammers slipping from all of our hands, the nails hard to grasp, and the fresh-cut poles that still smelled so strong of evergreen and dark woods. I remember being teeth-chattering cold as I propped poles on my shoulder, dragged them through the mud, and hoisted them between the bucks, feeling so strong, feeling like the day might never end.
Outside the truck the men walk around the disc, kneel down. Seth places his hand on the edge of one round blade, feels to be sure it hasn’t gone dull. I watch and trace slender veins of rain down the window.
We stop for lunch at Fry’s Turkey Ranch in a tiny mountaintop town called Trout Run. He says I will like it. The fog still hasn’t lifted, and the rain falls in a fervent downpour. We hold hands and run to the door. Sitting in our booth by the window, I order the turkey and biscuits; Seth decides on the turkey dinner. We wait and don’t talk much, which isn’t like us. After five months with nothing to hold us together but phone calls, we are both good at conversation. He tells me I am quiet; I blame it on the dreary day and take a sip of coffee. He taps his fingers on the table and reaches across to trace my thumb, laced through the mug. I ask him if he is going to buy the disc. He says he might, depends if the guy takes his offer.
When the food comes it is hard to recognize which plate belongs where given that the meals are hidden under a brown pond of gravy that sloshes in the plate even after it is set down. I ask the waitress if this is what I ordered, and she looks confused, surprised that I can’t recognize it as turkey and biscuits. Across from me Seth takes another bite, lifts his eyes, this is so good. I hope he doesn’t want me to cook like this. I take a bite, and it isn’t bad. He starts talking about Thanksgiving next week, about how we will spend the time between our families. I watch the plate and listen to him talk about our plans; I push the gravy into the biscuits, the potatoes, and a hunk of turkey and then put the fork down, look to the window, the rain still falling.
He asks me if I realize it has been a month since I have been home from the ranch. I look back to him and shake my head no. He takes another bite and points at my plate. “Don’t you like it?” I pick up my fork, tell him it is fine. I know he is worried about why I am not talking. I know he is probably thinking that I miss the ranch and that I would rather be back in Wyoming than here, at the Turkey Ranch, with him. But that is not it, not at all. The truth is I have no idea why I am not talking much today, or why the air in the cab felt fake and too close. I am not sure why it felt wrong to stay in the truck. All I know is that when I look outside and watch the rain hitting the hard, paved ground, I think about the divide and the way the water splits.
We are about to have a flood. For years most of my family has lived on an island, several hundred acres of rich farmland bordered on three sides by the Susquehanna River and on the fourth by an old logging canal. Seth lives here too, has for almost ten years. He farms the ground and works on remodeling his massive 1850 farmhouse. It is a good place to live, idyllic most of the time—surrounded as it is by water and mountains—and everyone who lives here makes a choice, a dangerous exchange with the land. And now, the water is reminding us, we are nothing compared to her; she is element, and we are just people. Today she is taking back her land. As I pull my coat on and switch off the television weatherman, I wonder why we chose to live with this risk.
We work for hours in the mixing rain and snow to find temporary shelter for our ten horses, to move out the cats and dogs, and then to move the equipment—tractors and trailers and wagons filled with feed, tack, and hay—anything worth saving, anything that might float away. We don’t notice the way the snow lands on the backs of our necks, the way our fingers go numb. If the river crests at twenty-six feet like they are saying, we will have five feet of water in the barns, probably two or more in the house. The family that usually laughs and jokes and takes their time is all business today as we fight to load unruly fillies, decide on the things that must go and the things we might stand to lose in a rush back and forth from higher ground.
By 9:00 pm we have done all we can. The animals are safe; the furniture in everyone’s houses has been moved upstairs. The water is over the roads now, and everyone still on the island is trapped. All we can do is wait. I am at Seth’s house now; it feels right to be with him. We are sitting upstairs, listening to the steadiness of rain on the roof, watching the news. The newscaster says the damage could be substantial in some areas, the first major flood in years. Beside me I feel him sigh, so I turn off the TV. This will be bad for him; he still has corn to harvest, beans too, and now it will be gone. Months of work will be washed away overnight. He gets up and says he wants to see how high the water is rising.
We walk outside in the dark; he holds my hand and shines a flashlight ahead of us. It has stopped raining, finally, but that does little good now—the water is on its way. The air feels heavy after so many days of moisture, and the rotted, muddy smell of floodwaters looms. The night is so black, it is hard to make out if the water has taken over the fields yet, until his light skitters across the horizon, and the land shimmers, bounces in waves, and I know. The light shines back across the ground in front of us until we see the water slowly filling the barn. We listen as it pours in through cracks in the centuries-old stone, slaps against weathered boards like an angry palm.
I let go of his hand, move to the edge of the river, which is brown, filled with debris, and slowly creeping into the fields, the barnyard. He moves closer and slides his arm around my waist. A light shines out across the water from the north, a neighbor trying to see how far the water has come; will it enter his house tonight? I am not afraid here beside him in the dark. I ask him if he is worried about what he might lose. “Even if I am, there’s nothing that will change the fact that the water’s coming.” The water taps at the end of his boot, then mine. We let the river rise to meet us.
A Tuesday night—outside his bedroom window snow shines crystalline on the barn’s tin rooftop, the barren ground, and the bald spot of boulders: a hole in the blue ridgeline. From the bed I see slender branches of trees resting heavy with the snow’s weight. I watch the moon, a tiny sliver of yellow in the distance. The television glows over us, artificial light. Seth lies next to me, his bare chest white, almost translucent in this light, and I hesitate to touch him. Instead I lay my fingers in the space of his open palm, let them trace the calluses there, the signs of life. I open my palm, find my own.
He turns off the television then moves to the window, spreads the blinds between thumb and finger. “It’s snowing again,” he says.
I prop body on elbow and nod. “Looks like a thumbnail moon tonight.” My mother used to say those moons were God’s thumbnail. She would tell us about the miracle of something so small with light enough to fill the world. I imagine the branches outside, bent and almost breaking with the weight of so many small flakes that shimmer and reflect against the almost dark.
Hours later the warmth of his room—flannel sheets and down and him beside me—makes me feel like I am suffocating again. I slip from my side of the bed, careful not to let him feel me leave. Standing by the window with the blinds shifted just enough to see outside makes me consider walking out into that clean night sea. How would it feel against naked legs, ankles, calves, between toes, against the warmth of thighs? I let the blinds close again, then I lean down and open the window in the hopes that his rough fingertips might touch; a whisper of snow, might land cold against bare skin, disappear.
I get a call from my old boss at the ranch as I am in the middle of making dinner. I am cutting up peppers and tomatoes, boiling pasta for a stir-fry. It seems like small talk, just catching up as she asks about life back home, my boyfriend, my job search, my family. I pour the pasta into the water; it pops and bubbles. On the other line her voice starts quickening as she tells me about a job offer at a ranch in Cody. The owner just built a new, multi-million dollar arena; he wants to start a horse program to cater to VIPs. He needs someone to head it up, to move there and run it, someone who will be committed. It would be permanent, not seasonal. Jobs like that don’t come around much in Wyoming. As she is talking I am slicing peppers, and I am thinking only about those words: committed, permanent. I am thinking that a year ago, I would have been talking to her and pulling my suitcase from under the bed.
She says the owner is a very generous man, mentions something about billionaire. She says she gave him my name; I was the first person, no, the only person, that came to mind. I was made for this job. I put down the knife, my breath catches, and I say I don’t think I can take it. I should say no, just flat out no, no question, not possible. She pauses; I hear her breath shift on the other line before she tells me just to wait a few days and think it over.
Later, when I tell Seth about the phone call, the offer, he doesn’t say much. He is sitting on the other side of the room, and I am standing in front of the fire. I can tell he is thinking, trying to decide the right thing to say. Instead he doesn’t say anything; he motions me over to him. When I sit down beside him, he puts his arm around me and kisses the top of my head. “Sometimes you don’t seem happy here.”
I sigh and shake my head. “I know. It’s just the transition.” It is what I always say.
“I want you to be happy—whether it’s with me or not.” He stands up and moves to the fire to warm his hands; he rubs them together, and it is the only sound in the room.
I am feeding the horses in the morning, pouring feed into empty buckets and listening to grateful whinnies and nickers when I realize the truth of what Seth said. He wasn’t turning me over to Wyoming, or giving me permission to leave. He was saying I love you, unconditionally, just as he has so many times before.
I reach for a few flakes of hay and think about the prospect of packing up my truck, of dusting off boots and belt buckles, and of saying good-bye. When I push open the stall door, my mare buries her muzzle in an armful of sweet hay. I push her back into the stall and think about last month when Seth took an afternoon from working to help me load, haul, and unload almost two hundred bales of hay. I didn’t ask him to, and he knew I would have done it alone, even if it took me all day. He just showed up, said he was coming along. I close the door and think about the nights he has been content to sit beside me on the couch and watch the snow fall, saying nothing and everything in the way he covers my small hand with his.
He calls at six in the evening and asks if I would like to ride along for a while. He is shelling corn in a field not far from his house. The corn is no good; it went through the flood back in December, but it has to come off to make room for spring planting. I have been reading here all day, at his house, tucked into a blanket and a corner of the couch. I am glad for the distraction, and there is something I need to tell him, so I put the book down, grab my keys.
Outside, the sky crests pink and glows over the ridgelines of barn roofs, then falls into a steady gray, then a rich black that fills the fields, and I decide to walk. The field is not far; as I tuck my hands into my sweatshirt pockets, I think about the gloaming, the time of fading light after the sunset and before the dark. I remember mornings in Wyoming, walking to the corrals and feeling the light rising, being able to see only the shadow of myself against hillsides as we rode toward morning and the rising light. I remember thinking that it felt like the gloaming, those precious moments between darkness and light when everything exists only in shadows and silhouettes.
By the time I meet Seth at the edge of the field, it is pitch dark. I can barely see him. The light moves a little, and I can just make out his tall figure where he has knelt down with a flashlight. I hear him say something about a part being jammed or stuck. The ground sinks under my feet, still so saturated from floodwaters and rain. I kneel down beside him as he works a wrench against a rusted bolt. He is watching the bolt, not me, when I tell him my boss called this afternoon to tell me about the job; they are giving it to someone else.
The bolt breaks free, and Seth drops the wrench, looks at me. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I just nod yes.
He picks up the wrench, stands up, and in that strong voice, always so sure, asks if I still want to ride along.
“Yes, very much.”
He walks halfway up the steep steps to the cab and then turns. In the absence of light, it is hard to see his face, his figure, his hand outstretched. Still there is light enough to make out the shape of what is there, to reach for it.
Elizabeth Arnold is a graduate student in the MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She lives on a farm in central Pennsylvania, where she is currently at work on a collection of essays about her time working on a Wyoming ranch. In addition to writing, she spends her time teaching community writing classes, training her horses, and planning a fall wedding. Her work has also appeared in the anthology Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks.
“Crossing the Divide” appears in our Autumn 2012 issue.