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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Go West, Old Man


Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey 

I’ve always been cursed with the condition most people call “itchy feet.”  I can’t seem to want to settle in one place for very long.  “Putting down roots” is an idea foreign to my very nature; perhaps even repellent.   

In recent weeks circumstances in our nation’s capital have introduced a measure of uncertainty to my job.  The possibility exists that we may have to leave this place for another, as yet unknown. 

Somerset is where we’ve lived, but I’ve never been able to call it “home.”  This is not the fault of the town, or the wonderful people who live here.  In fact, when I search my heart, there really is no place that wears that sign. 

I spent most of my young life in Missouri; Independence to be exact.  We moved there from California when I was six, and it was there I lived until I joined the Navy 19 years later.  Sure, I had friends and that’s where I went to school.  But my parents have both passed, and I haven’t seen those friends for decades.  On those rare occasions when I visit my sister, I find the town to be full of memories, to be sure.  But now it is merely one stop I made along my journey. 

My father was an executive minister with our denomination.  His duties required him to travel far and often.  He was an enthusiastic photographer, and when he came home, we would gather in the living room with the lights off and he would show us the slides of the places he had been.  Japan, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Europe, Asia, Central and South America…it seemed that only China and Russia lay beyond his reach.  I remember those nights well.  As those pictures flashed upon the screen, I dreamed of also visiting distant lands.  Perhaps it was the example of his travels, and the knowledge he brought home of places wild and exotic that planted in me the seed of curiosity that has now bloomed into a full-grown tree of restlessness.   


Today is cold, gray, and gloomy.  The rain falls steadily on the roof and the sidewalk outside.  But even on such a morning, I am drawn to the window.  Looking outside, my gaze is focused not on the houses and the tree-lined streets, but on the horizon.  Out there is a world begging to be explored and from inside this house, I hear that call clearly. 

In my youth, I spent many summers working for a cattle producer.  He had ranches in West Texas and New Mexico, and being a friend of my Dad’s, he was willing to take on a greenhorn.  So every year, as soon as the school’s doors closed in May, I was on a plane headed west.   

The days started early and lasted long, sometimes till sunset.  The work was hard, but in a curious sense, fulfilling.  I’m fond of saying that I’ve never been paid less, but it remains the best job I ever had.  My memories of those days are a blur of herding, feeding, and doctoring cattle, driving tractors, tending sprinkler lines, fixing, repairing, building, all the myriad and unending tasks.  But there are moments that stand out clearly, distinctly; memories that have remained fresh and undimmed even today. 

I was tending the fence that ran the perimeter of the owner’s land.  I had been sent out after lunch with some posts, a few tools, and a horse. All afternoon and into the evening, I rode that fenceline, getting off now and then to repair and tighten the wire, replacing the occasional post.  The sun was hot, and the barbed wire occasionally poked through the heavy work gloves.  I was alone, having been given the job by the line boss who simply assumed I’d get it done.  I was still a kid, and used to having someone peering over my shoulder when given a task.  But in this job, I was discovering the novel ideas of trust and expectation.  I was considered a man, had been given a man’s job, and the responsibility to get it done.  

The sun was lowering in the sky; it was past afternoon and evening had arrived.  Yet, I continued to work.  I was young, strong, full of energy.  Out here, there wasn’t a shift; you simply worked until you couldn’t see anymore.  Eventually, the sun touched the horizon, and it was time to head back in.  I got back on the horse and we turned back to the west.  It was quiet; the only sounds the sighing of the wind and the steady sound of the horse’s hooves thumping the ground.  I was tired, but filled with that special satisfaction that comes from a day’s labors well spent.  The sky darkened and the dying sun gilded the few clouds hanging in that endless sky.  As the light faded, stars began to appear.  In the High Plains, there is no light pollution, and rarely do clouds obscure the sky.  So when night comes, the dome above is crowded with stars.  The land is dimly lit with their soft glow while the moon, big and silver, rises. 

Eventually, I got back to the barn.  I put the horse up, making sure he had grain and water, and a good brushing.  I checked in with the boss before heading back to town, telling him how far I’d gotten.  I was rewarded with a nod and a “That’s a good day’s work.”  In the cowboy world, that’s a glowing compliment. 

That day, and that ride will be with me until I leave this world.  I was at peace, in a special, private sort of way; a rare moment for a teenager in those turbulent times.   

The west will always be a place of my yearnings.  Out there, the musings of a man’s mind can range as far as the stars and nebulae that populate the night sky, with thoughts as intimate and personal as the inside of a sleeping bag.  You could lose yourself in the land and the sky, but at the same time, it was the place where I really found myself. 

I don’t know what the future will bring.  We were given a stay of execution until the end of the fiscal year.  After that… well, no one knows.  I am searching for another job, hopeful that I can land one before the doors of this opportunity slam shut forever. 

I’m tired of the east.  The crowds, the traffic, the heavy stink of politics that permeates everything I touch.  I long for the far horizons and distant mountains; a place where the world just seems bigger.  I have always thought I had no home.  But in my memory lies a land where my spirit has already laid claim.  Perhaps it is time to respond to that call.   

I will ride west.  It is time to go home.
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