When the sun sets over the mountains the sky becomes a royal shade of purple. Then it all turns a kind of bubble gum pink. And then orange. And then the light that covers the peaks starts to fade and it’s like hearing last call when you haven’t had time to finish your first. And finally, as disappointment dies away, you find yourself inside a darkness that could frighten the spawn of Poe and King. In every direction the horizon is nothing but a rumor, dark land meeting dark sky.
You start to realize how threatening the country night is, especially if you’ve come from the city.
You notice the stars. The frustrating amount of them. As if people didn’t feel small enough. The horizon’s transformed once again and becomes a line between the star filled sky and the blacked-out land - and it’s the sky that looks full of life, full of stuff. In a way it’s beautiful how it hides its true nature from us – pretending that it won’t, one day, explode and swallow the earth.
This setting, this Montana sky, is enough to leave me hurting to breathe. It is not an urban setting and so for me it’s not just different but foreign.
When I was a 7 years old I thought stars were the creation of television and movie people. In my suburban New Jersey backyard, I was close enough to Manhattan’s powerful glow that the sky never really turned black. It was the color of electricity, of a far off bubbling light. The stars didn’t stand a chance and seemed pointless in comparison. Distant in a not so profound way. On the clearest night I could see a handful, and I never thought of the power in the stars that could fight its way through our civilized muck.
That I escaped those lights, that I even felt the need to escape and start anew, somewhere, and that I ended up here of all places, is a kind of mockery, like a carrot at the end of a rope that always gets pulled away from you. But I did. I did need to leave that zone, that comfort, everything I knew, if I was going to become the person I wanted to be. I just never thought I’d end up here.
This “dude” ranch, this hotel branded as a dude ranch, the obvious conclusion to so many different threads in country hospitality, a ranch in the middle of nowhere that affects simplicity the way a teenager says “whatever”, this ranch sits on 150-acres surrounded by nothing but grasslands that take you right to the Rockies. I suppose it’s beautiful here, whatever that means. It’s one of those spots that makes you feel special and lucky and small all at once. You get country music looking at this land. I can’t say I noticed at first. And now that I’ve been here for a while, I don’t notice it again. Except when I get reflective or drunk enough to lose whatever it is that makes the drunk so sentimental and nostalgic.
Thirty-four guesthouses surround a central lodge done up in timber and whitewash. Inside the lodge: another six suites, two dining rooms, a bar, the administrative offices, a small staff lounge, etc. A library with fireplace. Off the north end of the lodge, a large barn houses the ranch’s horses and behind them, the worker quarters. I’ve been working here since Easter.
South of the lodge, between the main gate and the first of the guesthouses, the spa, a large two story adobe structure with lap pools on the roof. Behind the spa, a 100-meter outdoor pool. There’s another one inside the spa. And off in all directions, but mostly heading toward the mountains in the west, trails leave the ranch like the arms of an octopus. Jogging trails, horse trails, hiking trails. One for ATVs. The horses hate the sound of those and a debate has raged about eliminating them. The ATVs, not the horses. But the Japanese love off-roading. They can’t get enough of the ATVs. To me, the ATVs seem off message. They don’t correspond to the brand of the place. The Japanese need to ride off into the sunset on horseback. The ATV clashes with the message but there’s a lot of that here. It’s not a ranch anymore than the lot they shot Bonanza at was a ranch. The place is an oasis of luxury. The nightly rates can top $1,000 during the summer. This isn’t Motel 6. But now that I’ve been here a while, and even I can see it could be more.
Sitting by a campfire near the trailers, you can hear the horses if the wind is blowing right. The breeze is a constant.
How much further does a wind travel before it lies down in some grassy field to die? What is the life cycle of a breeze? Of a gust? And thinking of the wind, I ask myself if I’m any wiser, now with all that has happened. Have I changed? I feel like a different person. I just don’t know if I am one.
Here’s what I think has happened. In no particular order:
- My level of perception has changed. I understand myself better now and the fact that I didn’t have to sit on a stranger’s couch to get to this point is odd and something that would impress my father. Having had to travel 3,000 miles to get to this state, not so much.
- I have attained about as much inner peace as is coming to me. Not as much as I had hoped, but still some.
- I don’t harbor any resentments. Except when it comes to the desert menu in the main dining room. A dude ranch should not have clafouti on the menu. Every night.
- I don’t talk as much. This may not be true.
- I’m a smoker again and while I regret this I can live with it. Until it kills me.
- I don’t regret the things I did back in the city, the things that made me think this would be a good idea, as much as I thought I would.
- I have taken to whistling. Especially in the darkness of this place. If only to confirm my existence in this place. And that I am not alone. My favorite tune to whistle is “Sweet Caroline.” Bugs the hell out of everyone. And that’s a kind of validation, too.
I came here to start over. I came here to run away even though I didn’t expect to end up at a place like this. I pictured oceans and something dramatic. I didn’t picture walking the same halls every day, looking at the same stars every night, wondering if the drama I crave could be found by finally taking off my smock, braving the night and walking into the mountains. I pictured drama. Television drama. Not this.