It was the summer after my freshman year of college when my best friend and I packed up the truck and drove the 18 hours to northern Colorado to find the only ranch that had agreed to take us both. Though we'd been to the mountains a few times before, we still yelled in excitement when the Rockies first came into view around a corner outside of Raton, and could hardly keep our eyes on the road as we wound deep into mountain valleys that were just emerging from mud season. We were on our way to The Home Ranch to wrangle for the summer, even though our previous horseback riding experience had mostly been limited to small arenas, wooden jumps, and English saddles. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, but when I woke up in a hotel in Littleton the day we were supposed to arrive, I felt like I was on the brink of everything.
Looking back on pictures from those first days is hilarious to me now - everything crisp and clean, the chinks unblemished, the pants way too high, the cowboy hat stiff and unused. I knew nothing about Western riding or lifestyle and had much to learn, but now, over four years later, I can't stop going back. Despite finishing college and entering medical school, I still managed to put in a fifth summer this season and have already flown back to Colorado twice since the semester began. I thought I would get a lecture from my parents about my less-than-discriminatory use of loan money, but my mom just shook her head in resignation and said that it's still probably cheaper for me to fly out for visits than paying the tuition if I had entered medical school out-of-state.
While the guests have been, for the most part, incredibly interesting and entertaining, it's the people I've lived and worked with that keep me coming back. The intensity and intimacy of working at a guest ranch makes for relationships that are quickly formed and quickly tested. You work hard, you play hard; you eat, drink, sweat, laugh, and cry together. And that's just in the first week. I had always looked forward to medical school for the legendary camaraderie supposedly found with your peers, but outside of my small group of roommates and study buddies, I'm still better friends with the people I worked with for six weeks this past summer than many of the classmates I've known for over a year now. It's neither their fault, though, nor mine. It's simply the difference between sitting in a classroom and galloping side by side through open country; between a quiet library in Galveston and hanging off of a cliff face on Seedhouse Rd; between a PBL session and swing dancing under a mountain sunset at the hot springs. I also constantly miss the small community where I now know enough permanent residents to feel the beginnings of a sense of belonging...I've helped neighbors move their cows, interned for a month with a family doctor in town, played summer league soccer, learned to rope from the ranch's horse trainer, danced around like crazy with the locals at jam band concerts on the river. It's enough to where I sometimes feel like I've left my real life behind for this one of days spent locked in a library, staring at a computer screen.
In the end, being a doctor is what I'm meant to be, and it's probably about time to wean myself from seasonal work. Still, I can't keep my mind from wandering away from the lecture on pulmonary function testing to the vivid colors and emotions of Colorado - the raw energy of a young colt beneath me on a brisk morning as a hundred horses charge across the meadow below us, riding in a western saddle of my own, hat now dirty and broken in, my chinks criss-crossed with scars from branches and barbed wire, the sun just rising over the Continental Divide. I wasn't born into this life and hell, maybe I'm just as bad as the dudes, playing cowgirl for a few months before running back to the city. But I like to think it's something special that I can work a 14 hour day up there and enjoy it so much that I still do a double take whenever I get a check for it. The mountains, ranching...they're now in my heart and soul, if not in my blood. And I will be forever changed by that.