23 August 2016 “I need to get you to sign some paperwork before I leave” he says. He is sitting on the counter in the cookhouse shooting the bull. People mill around the kitchen: the cook, Anna, washes dishes; my co-instructor, Liz, makes popcorn; others sit at the picnic tables. It is still early but I am on my way to meet students and already late to our showing of the movie Buck.
“Great, I’ll see you before I go” I reply. I didn’t realize what that would actually mean.
Earlier, hanging out in the “alley”, the small drive between the tack shed and corrals, Liz had told Patrick that my last course as a full time field instructor would be this horse course we were working together. “What?! Really?!” was his somewhat shocked, if not exaggerated response. “What are you doing?”
Liz’s small statement of fact had not escaped my mind. In fact it was something I had been thinking about quite a bit. I was glad for it. “Well, I’m taking an in-town job at the NOLS Rocky Mountain…” I replied somewhat embarrassed and somewhat sheepishly.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I got hired as a program supervisor.”
“Wow, really? That is awesome.” His response is typical of how the few I have told have responded.
“Yeah, I am pretty glad that this horse course is my last one as a full time field instructor. I feel so present… so engaged.” I paused. “I’ve rarely been thinking about much beyond the scope of this course” I continued. “If this had been another rock course, I’d be all like, you know, not present. In some ways it is the perfect course before this transition…or maybe not…” I trailed off.
The several of us leaned against the corral fence and enjoyed a little downtime. Students were off doing the same elsewhere around the ranch before gathering up at the campground for supper. Leaning against the fence that afternoon, I had no idea I would feel how I do now. The enjoyment of the perfect late summer day was no harbinger of things or feelings to come.
Buck ends and I walk back to the kitchen. Gary and Kelsey are talking and I stand silently to the side before quietly trying to interject. “Yeah, lets do that now” he says to my query. He leaves and comes back momentarily with a piece of paper. We talk and I make light hearted jokes. Nothing feels strange or out of the ordinary. We discuss salary divisions, dash cameras and his future. I ask questions before I sign. I didn’t however, ask what would be normal for me to feel. How would he know anyway? As always, I fidget. This time it is with a Pilot G2 07. I draw diagrams and scribble stars. He leans on the counter. I lean in too. The paper is covered in names, numbers, addresses, checks and the requisite small print. It just needed my “John Hancock”. I read the small print and joke about not knowing what it means. “Maybe I should get Robertson to read this over with me…or well, he probably wrote it” I quip, referencing a mutual friend with a law background. I look at the “Special Provisions” line and think about what those would be. I can’t come up with any, least-ways any that fit my sense of humor. Anna already told me that I would have increased access to the Nomad Bin. I mention this to Gary just to keep the small talk going. Something in my sub-conscious is making me procrastinate.
“I only want you to be at work if you are happily at work” Gary says. Maybe he could sense my hesitation.
“Nobody is twisting my arm to be here, to do this. I have a good idea of what I am getting into” I add, understanding how my hesitancy and questions may be misconstrued. “I’ve had this discussion with Anna too” I continue, gesturing to the pie charts, percentages and numbers that are scribbled on the back of a briefing sheet.
“If you work three weeks and want out, nobody is going to think less of you. You can go back on AFP. You have good standing with us” he says, his eyes darting here and there between frequent contact with mine. We turn back to small talk. I take the agreement, orient it towards me and scribble my name and a date onto it. I push it over to him. He takes it, walks over to his satchel and slides it among other paperwork.
“Time for bed” I think. My mind is awash in a pannier packing class, check-ins and coaching students. I need sleep. “Good night y’all” I say to the cluster of friends around the room. A chorus of “good night Jared” is echoed back to me as I turn and walk through the screen door and into the darkness.
The last few days have been filled with unprecedented growth and learning. I can’t remember the last time I have learned so much in so little time. I have felt engaged and feel like I am on the brink of something. Something new and exciting. I’ve fucked up a bit, but I’ve done OK too. I can’t help but feel that all I want to do is be around these horses, these people and this place. “Did I find this too late?” I have wondered more than once. The truth in Toto’s words “love isn’t always on time” make sense. It seems to be words of comfort I need. It has floated in my head for several days now. Previous hours and days have found me silently wondering if, with my summers now accounted for, will I be able to work a horse course again soon, or even just be around the ranch and horses. How, now, with a nearly full time job beginning soon, can I stay engaged with the horse program. These creatures are amazing and I just want to learn. I can’t help but feel that I am shutting the door just as I have opened it.
I feel the cold, crisp, late August air as I step through the cookhouse door and into the silence and darkness. I am alone. It is real. I look up into the darkness of the late evening sky and from nowhere, unannounced tears start running down my cheeks, dripping to the ground in silence. Into the darkness. I walk. I gasp. I can hardly breathe and I am glad I am alone. I walk slower, but they still come, they fall faster, streaking my dust stained face. I feel no shame, no confusion, just a complete and udder sadness. I feel my heart ache. It tears. I want to scream. I know that I grieve not just for, what was for me, the best job in the world, but also for the loss of a lifestyle and the loss of an identity. Who am I now? A name, so painstakingly earned is being changed.
Logic tells me that it is only a change of direction or maybe just a new challenge. None of this matters though as I slowly navigate to the campground, head back, staring at the sky, choking on tears, wondering what, who is to come.