My fiancée’s parents’ ranch is about 15 miles up a valley in the Rockies. The original ranch – the “hay ranch” – is several miles of flat ground on either side of the stream that drains the valley (and gives the valley its name).
The hay from the hay ranch feeds their cattle during the winter. The productivity of the hay ranch determines the number of animal units (cow-calf pairs) the ranch can carry.
In the spring, after the snow melts from the high pastures, they drive the cattle to upper range. In the fall, they round up the cattle and drive them back to the hay ranch. It’s a delicate calculation: They want to keep the cattle on the high pastures (and off hay) as long as possible, but they don’t want them trapped in an early (or late) blizzard.
Just to burst any romantic notions: They don’t use horses to drive the cattle. They use four-wheelers. They only use horses to roust cattle out of brushy side draws in the fall roundup.
My fiancée has a horse. When she goes home for August, she likes to ride into the back country and to ride fence. (Riding fence is riding along the fence line to look for holes or down fence. She does it on a horse, but that’s just for fun. She can fix small problems with a fencing tool, a fence stretcher and some barbed wire. If she sees anything more serious, she drops a pin on a GPS. A hand will come up with a Gator to fix it.)
The ranch house and yard sit at the mouth of a side valley that winds up to their upper range and their summer leases. The little creek that drains the side valley runs through the ranch yard.
My fiancée’s great-great grandfather built the ranch house in the late 19th century. He did it in the grand style – grand enough to house his family of nine children. The family was nearly wiped out in the post-WW1 drought and credit crunch. Just as they were recovering, the Great Depression nearly wiped them out again. But the ranch has survived in the family.
The kitchen is the heart of the ranch. Everyone in my fiancée’s family – men, women and children – loves to cook and is very good at it. The kitchen is enormous and equipped to the highest restaurant standards – a present from my fiancée.
If you’re looking for someone on the ranch, the place to start is in the kitchen. In any family gathering, there will be at least a half-dozen people in the kitchen – cooking, tasting, discussing the cattle markets, calf or hay yields, politics or theology – or just hanging out.
My fiancée’s mother is the happiest, most generous, most optimistic person I have ever met. The glass isn’t half empty or half full. It’s always full. She’s not stupidly happy. She’s intelligently, realistically happy. She’s an acute observer and an astute judge of people. She is endlessly tolerant and forgiving. She’ll never say a bad word about anyone, but there’s never any question about where one stands with her. She exudes goodness, grace and charity, none of it pious or false or hypocritical. She could not be self-righteous if she tried. She is my ideal representation of a Christian woman. She is what I aspire to be. She is delightful.
Her father is as comfortable as an old shoe. He’s warm and funny, with a store of sharply perceptive comments and funny metaphors (“slicker than a new-born baby’s bottom”; “tighter than a gnat’s hide stretched over a barrelhead”; “drier than a cow chip on the Chisholm Trail”). My fiancée says he has a ferocious temper if pushed too far, but I haven’t seen it. His pride in his kids and his love for his grandkids is touching.
My fiancée’s siblings regard her with bemused awe. They grouse good-naturedly that when she was growing up, she was able to get out of ranch work by burying her nose in a book; that she has their parents wrapped around her little finger; that she was a borderline felon as a teenager, but she got away with it because she got straight As. The most common remark in her household is, “For a girl who’s supposed to be so smart, you sure do a lot of stupid things!”
My fiancée warned me that her oldest sister is a “potty-mouthed smartass”. The first sentence I heard the sister utter was a description of my mussed hair and happy face. The description included a word that does not appear in family newspapers. The second sentence I heard her utter was a hope that I was good at oral sex (she used an earthier phrase), because somebody needed to thaw my fiancée out and turn her into a human being. On the other hand, she is fiercely protective of her siblings – especially my fiancée.
Her oldest brother manages the family ranch. He’s big and bluff and loudly hale-fellow-well-met. He hides his shrewd business and personal sense behind a seemingly irresponsible goofiness. Of all the people we have come out to, he is the most genuinely delighted by it.
Her youngest sibling is the sister who outed my fiancée to her minister, leading the minister to set us up on our first date. The sister is very much her mother’s daughter: quiet, generous, optimistic, happy and gracious, tolerant and forgiving, combined with a hard-headed realism even beyond her mother’s. She has been my best friend, my only real friend, for many years. Even though she heard all the awful rumors – mostly true – about my past, she still befriended me. As proud as she is of her sister, she is even more protective of me.
Her other siblings are intelligent and devoted, but (relatively) colorless. Her sisters- and brothers-in-law are delightful, if a little overshadowed by her siblings. All have happily accepted that my fiancée is gay. All treat me with love and respect (even when cloaked in potty-mouthed smartassery).