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They say you can never go back to the way things were. I say, Thank God for that! Despite the warning, despite my philosophy, I went back. A few years ago, a trusted friend shared how a visit to my mom’s old ranch property—where I’d spent five crucial teenage years—had brought her to tears. Not given to sentimentality, I assumed I would forego a trip to said property. But a bit of spare time between activities during my recent high school reunion left me vulnerable. As if my car had appointed itself therapist-in-charge, I found myself skimming the washboard road to the place where this child became a young woman.
KOWB Radio Station 1972 (photo courtesy of John in Montana)

Much was changed, thanks to a crop of new “gentleman ranches” that have sprouted from subdivided original properties. The county road was paved all the way to the Pope Springs Road. Sailing smoothly along two extra miles of pavement, I almost missed the turn off. The familiar thatch of cottonwoods leaning toward Colorado alerted me just in time to careen left over the cattle guard. There was even a civilized street sign to remind me that this road did, in fact, have a name all along, we just never used it. Honestly, aside from the three-tower radio station and the grove of trees, there were no familiar landmarks. I bumped my way down the dusty road toward the trees.

The old place circa 1976

Instead of turning into the familiar driveway, which was locked and gated, I continued past the house and barns on a dirt road that had at one time been gated and used only by the neighbor who owned property on three sides of us. Now that gate was open and the road was well-traveled. I crept along and verified that, just as my friend had reported, the house we’d lived in had fled its foundation. Behind the nude foundation, peeked the old homestead house that my mother had always rented out. The seven-foot tall wooden snow fence that marks the northern property line was leaning dangerously with strands of stale hay escaping through gaps like spaghetti slipping through a mouthful of missing teeth. The huge old barn, sided in rusting metal sheets, sagged at the knees.

The Barn, in better days

Just past the snow fence, a barbed wire fence continued to mark the linear boundary. The wires had prostrated to the prevailing winds. I stopped, barely off the gravel road. Faded signs indignantly glared up from the downed wires, warning me not to trespass. BUT…the sky was so beautiful. My trigger finger was itching to press the shutter on my Nikon. The place looked nearly abandoned. I got out of the car, stepped across the wires and walked a few feet onto the forbidden pasture. Snap, Snap. Oh, but the barn would look better from over here…a few more feet, snap snap.

The worst of the barn’s ills are hidden in this view.  7/9/2011

I was meandering back toward my car when a figure came bolting across the corral toward me. Great, I thought, envisioning the headline: “Woman Shot Dead While Trespassing on Her Childhood Barrel Racing Turf.” I could make a run for it and be in the car and down the road… but, no. This trip was about reconciliation not about running away or about confrontation. I approached the corral and the hurtling figure, holding my camera in one hand and extending my other hand in friendship.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude on your property, but I used to live here. This was, just…you know, a bit of nostalgia? A trip down memory lane….?”

The figure, now plainly a woman, halted abruptly and swung her head like an eagle eyeing it’s prey. She glanced up and down the road, stared hard at my car, with NPR blaring from its radio.

“Hugh…I ‘bin up all night with my sick horse. I thought you were one of my damn neighbors. They poisoned my horse! I’ve been nursing the thing all night long. No, you don’t want to touch my hands, I got medicine an’ stuff on ‘em.”

A sturdy woman in her 30’s or 40’s, with a thick mane of dull straw color, and penetrating blue eyes, Remy began downloading all the travails of her life out there on the Wyoming plains. The neighbors—these new upstart city slickers on subdivided plots—she complained, race up and down that dirt road beside her property, kicking up billows of dust that disturb the Swainson’s Hawks nesting in her trees. The dust goes everywhere. She’s asked them to slow down, she’s yelled at them to slow down, she’s had words with them and now they’ve retaliated by poisoning her horses. The words tumbled from her lips in a stream that missed prepositions and linking verbs in their hurry to articulate her frustration. While mosquitoes drained blood from my bare legs and arms, I could barely get a word in edgewise as she downloaded everything she’d done to the place since she bought it nearly 20 years ago.

In order to afford the property, she’d moved the main house to the far south end of the property and sold it along with 35 adjacent acres. She lives in the homestead house. She invited me to drive around to the front where she unlocked the gate and ushered me into her home. Her animosity was absorbed by her need to vent and by a desire to display her accomplishments, and perhaps by the sheer joy of having a friendly audience.

Although the inside of the house was so transformed that I barely recognized it, a feeling of déjà vu grew. This fast talking woman, hailing from someplace “overseas,” is uncannily like the woman whose property she has acquired. She’s independent, determined, and has an indefatigable vision for what she wants. And what she wants is not quite what anyone else might want. With pride, she showed me how she’d stripped the building inside and out, taking it down to its original round logs. Then, she’d finished the inside walls with rough wood siding, re-carpeted, and decorated the place in unabashedly western decor. Her simple but neatly made bed sits in a corner of the living room. A back bedroom houses her photography and art work, all western themed. Outside, she walked me around the grounds, lovingly stroking the trunks of the aspens and cottonwoods that she has fought to revive from the ravages of neglect in the dry, windy climate. She raved about her hawk family and asked if we’d had Swainson’s Hawks when I lived there; hell, I didn’t know what lived in those trees, all I knew is that they provided blessed shade in that pancake of high plateau. The more she jabbered, the more I felt my mother’s presence. At times, she spoke so fast that her words tumbled out incomprehensibly. I could detect some sort of accent, but could not place it. My mother, too, had an unmistakable but indefinable accent. Remy wrung her hands and lamented that if she should ever be forced to leave this place, she worried that some idiot would chainsaw all her beloved trees—an exact echo of my mother.

Before I managed to gracefully extricate myself, she told me that she thought she’d waited on my mother a few times in her store. “What store is that”, I asked?

“I owned The Darkroom in town,” she replied. “Your mom sometimes came in with a camera problem. Yry reminded me of my own mother: that dark hair, those dark eyebrows, and bright red lipstick. She just looked…foreign, like my mom was foreign.”

My Mom in 1983

Chills ran up and down my spine. I smiled all the way back to town and all the way back to Idaho, knowing that somehow my mother’s wild and oddball spirit has managed to hang onto that property she loved so much. She’s still making things happen her way. What a woman.

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Note: I never could determine the new owner’s name. Remy is the closest I can come to what I thought she was saying.