Finding the quiet West inside

A writer remembers a week spent on a cattle ranch, and an unexpected discovery.

  • The sun sets on the Montana prairie.

    Tony Bynum

My first job in Montana was dehorning cattle. I can barely call it a job, since my task was just to stand between calves being dehorned and their foamy-mouthed mothers — to stand all day in a barn doorway, distracting cows. I was a vegetarian during the summer of 1995, and there I was in Havre, Montana, working on a cattle ranch for a week. It doesn’t sound like much of a job, but I was pretty much useless, anyway.

I ate toast and drank murky Earl Grey tea all week. Every morning, I buttered bread while the others sliced beef on the wobbly tree-stump table in the kitchen. The house blurs in my memory: bare light bulbs, yellowed flypaper, stacks of National Geographics from the late ’70s, the faint scent of winter in every room. It was a house of men; by my third day, I learned I was the first female to visit the ranch in 14 years. After that, I stopped asking questions. 

If that sounds romantic, reminiscent of a Jim Harrison screenplay, it wasn’t. And yet that week spent west of the Bear Paws inspired a lasting love affair. It didn’t begin on the ranch, but on a day trip to Great Falls with a friend.

He dropped me off downtown while he went to fix a saddle. I did my best to get lost, exploring used bookstores and searching for shade. In a small gallery, I saw an exhibit of sepia-toned photographs paired with sturdy poems. There were no people in the images, just silos, meadows, wind- and work-worn fields. I don’t remember the poems or the name of the person who wrote them, but I remember following the words of sky, meadow, dust and distance as if I understood what they meant for the very first time. Suddenly, even the word prairie opened up inside of me — expansive, unbounded, filled with the watery sound of a lone meadowlark.

Until then, my words for great expanses had been Great Lake or dune or peninsula. The colors of my longing were shades of the inland sea and its ice. But in that gallery, away from pickup trucks and cattle dogs, I felt comfortable with being alone — with being so far out West. 

For many Americans, the West is synonymous with wildness, boundlessness, lawlessness, hope and dust — in varying amounts, depending on how much Steinbeck or Kerouac you have read. “My witness is the empty sky,” Kerouac said, which sums up how I felt about living under so much blue. All that sky brings light and a welcome solitude. Not loneliness, but longing. Not the ride on the train, but the sound of it passing, leaving you there, alone on the platform.

This is my internal West. When I find it, I simply wait and let the intensity of the present pass. This is what I sensed in those photos of bleak Western landscapes. They captured a place of wind and silence that had always existed inside me: My body a silo in the wind, and the silence inside my heartbeat, echoing. And I am comfortable with being so small, so beautifully insignificant in this vast place.

When we returned to the ranch, we went back to work. One morning towards the end of my stay, I asked Gerald, the owner, if he had any loose-leaf tea; I was out of Earl Grey.

“Third drawer down, under the coffee tin,” he said looking up from his morning paper.  

I fumbled with tins and dried-out bags of faded greens into gray. Finally, in the back of the drawer, I found a small red rusted tin. I opened it and paused. Turning to Gerald, I said slowly, “Is this tea?”

Gerald, who wore his cowboy hat all day long, inside and out of the house, peered over the top of the newspaper. Paused. Looked straight at me. “Nope,” he said. “That’s the ash to my son.” And went back to reading.

Carefully, I put the lid back on the tin. Quietly, I pushed the drawer back in, waited for my toast and went outside to eat breakfast. The screen door slapped shut behind me.  I looked out over the cows, the morning rising, the hot cup of water in my shaky hand, and I tried to hold the weight of all that silence. The silence of what we cannot talk about, the silence between people when words seem useless.  And sitting there on the stoop, looking to the prairie horizon, I could feel the vastness of the internal West inside everyone. How far our feelings travel but cannot be mapped. And how much we need that space. This West is the freedom to feel what cannot be framed into words. To allow ourselves to echo in wind, silos and what remains.

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