Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to ZA’s, Part I

Driving on Interstate 25 somewhere near Cheyenne, Wyoming, I realized I had forgotten my lace-up riding boots. Nevermind the torrential storm, zero visibility, and my car threatening to hydroplane every quarter mile or so; I was stricken with panic that I left those boots in my closet. I had looked at them at least twice while packing. Now what, if I had to get on a horse?

It might‘ve been true in that moment that the rational, fear-driven, risk-calculating portion of my brain was somehow deactivated. Without so much as an idea of what it would accomplish, I had thrown some clothes together and jumped in my car to drive 7 hours and 45 minutes to South Dakota. On a Friday night. During a tornado warning. Two days before I started training for my new job. I had never been to South Dakota.

None of these facts seemed to pose a challenge, however, and I — at 12am — was shouting pop country music and pounding gas station coffee whilst speeding down pitch-black Nebraska state roads.

To be fair, before landing in Colorado Springs and becoming an executive assistant (and a year later joining Zirtual), my life was very much about turning off the risk calculation. While I never thought of myself as actively having “wanderlust,” I can understand the accusation. After breaking out from my hometown/college town for the first time, I worked for peanuts on farms and ranches for three years. I had rejected city life, completely determined to learn how to make a career growing my own food, pushing gender roles, and being, you know, Ford Tough. Fueled by idealistic determination and a strange joy in being dirty, in three short years I churned across the country milking cows, driving trucks, slopping pigs, and butchering chickens.

At last, I spent a very challenging year of isolation on a Colorado cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere, and shortly after moved to the Springs, finally admitting defeat. It had been a long stretch of hard, lonely work, and I just couldn’t find a future in it. Settling back into city life, a part of me still ached for the long days of hard work, vast expanses of prairie, and nightly sunsets you couldn’t tear your eyes from. Eventually, I sold myself a parental narrative: I’d had my fun, and now it was time to “grow up” and stick with a “real job.” Right?

Fate and the Internet, it seems, had more to say on the issue.

Nick and I found each other on a forum for people interested in farming, ranching, and living rurally (yes, these exist.) I sent him an email, intrigued somewhat by his operation and slightly more by his prose. He replied.

The emails were, for the most part, strictly business. After learning about my experiences, we exchanged stories, ideas, opinions, and advice. Being my age, and his father’s oldest son, he was intending to take over management of the family ranch in the relatively near future. This made it extremely tempting to live vicariously through him, which he accommodated, somewhat amused.

This internet stranger and I finally met face-to-face in Colorado, a few months later. Suffice it to say we hit it off like a barn on fire.

Yadda yadda yadda, he spent the weekend. Three weeks later I was packing my car and forgetting my boots.

A pre-blizzard landscape on the ranch

The ranch in South Dakota blew my mind right out the gate, quite literally. Infinitely greener and more lush than my experiences in Colorado, full of rolling hills and deep, daunting canyons, I struggled to believe what I was seeing. This was South Dakota?

My intention to drive home in a similarly irrational manner on that following Sunday night, be safe and sound for my Zirtual training on Monday, and call it a heck of a power weekend, were utterly, painfully foiled. The sky, apparently on its own manic kick, dumped two, or maybe ten, feet of snow over the course of the day I was set to leave.

I tried to quell my buzzing anxiety that kept shrieking WORK. YOU HAVE WORK TOMORROW. THIS IS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION. YOU’RE ON A RANCH.


Deep breaths were helpful, as was reminding myself of the facts: I had WiFi at the ranch house. I had my Chromebook. I had an iPhone. I had electricity. I had Nick’s office space. Theoretically, there was no difference from doing my training there versus the comfort of my own home.

Sure enough, the first week of training went off without a hitch. The late starting time gave me a huge morning window to participate in ranch activities. On one particularly adventurous day, I joined a three-hour cattle drive and pushed my timing far beyond comfortable. With my clock-in time rapidly approaching, Nick and I split off the herd to gallop our horses aggressively through creeks, jumping the occasional fallen log.

My adrenaline was topping out as I urged the beautiful beast up impossibly steep hills, until we broke into a sprint across the final stretch. Back at the house, I practically jumped out of the saddle, tied him up, and ran inside. Covered in mud and frantically fixing my hair, I made it to my daily video conference at exactly the time it started. I felt pretty smooth. My budding Zirtual Assistant confidence was growing.

The following Sunday, I packed my bags to head back to Colorado. Nick and I had acknowledged a growing affection for each other, and my impending departure gave a bittersweet tone to the day. It may not surprise you when I say I pushed that departure about as far as I could. I didn’t leave until late evening, knowing full well I was looking at a drive that would take until dawn.

After a short debate about possibly leaving the next morning, Nick and I said our truncated, restrained goodbyes, and I watched the ranch house disappear in my rearview, just like the country songs.

I idled down the very long driveway, until I came upon a cow, standing square in the middle. I pulled right up to her, the grill of my small SUV only inches from her belly, when she kicked up her hind legs and sprinted to the shoulder. I laughed a little. Strange as it might be, this was really the kind of life I wanted.

The sun had just left its last golden trace as I plowed down a two-lane road in Nebraska: corn to my left, corn to my right. Jittery from a horse-dose of gas station caffeine drink, I tried to expel the excess energy with a lead foot and an unusual level of gusto whilst singing along with the radio.

TSwift and I belted in unison:

I paused, as it began to register that there were two statuesque figures in front of me, one on either side of the road, facing each other.

I eased up on the gas a little, and tried to keep my eyes on both of them at the same time, but was otherwise not very concerned. They must have seen me, of course, it wasn’t even dark yet. Right?


As my vehicle approached this strange mammalian gateway they were forming, I set my sights on the one closest to my lane. It was un-phased, distracted. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I sang-to-scream in a moment of blind panic and utter helplessness. In what appeared to be slow-motion, I watched a very large, corn-fat doe as she launched herself from the opposite lane, broadside, into the center of my hood.

Should’ve given that other one a last glance, I guess.

Heart in my throat and fur in my grill, smoke was pouring out from under my hood, fluids were leaking all over the road. I shakily ran in front of the car to assess the damage: my front-end was completely crushed.

After a few good (but useless) samaritans and two hours on my rapidly dying phone, trying to communicate to the dispatcher WHERE I was, she finally found the one tow-truck driver in a 200 mile radius.

But where did I want to be towed? After a storm of text messages with Nick, I gave her the address of the ranch. It was just shy of 100 miles away.

I arrived via tow truck, sometime close to midnight. Nick helped me load my steaming mess of a vehicle onto a car carrier hitched to the biggest truck on the ranch. The closest place that could do body work on a 2012 Toyota is, naturally, 2 hours away, in Rapid City. It would have to be hauled and dropped off the next day. His eyes were smiling suspiciously as we hugged. He asked me if I had planned this.

To be continued in Part II, because this is long.

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