Two Minute Memoir: Dude Ranch

They were the most modern of couples. Then they moved to the country.

By Steven Kotler, published on January 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It was a cold Los Angeles afternoon when I came back from running errands to find my girlfriend, Joy, crying on the couch. "We're being thrown out," she said.

I was flabbergasted, but there was nothing we could do. Joy ran an animal rescue and had 10 dogs—seven more than California's legal pet limit. If we fought back, our landlord could turn our lives upside-down with a single phone call to animal control. It had taken over a year to find a place with enough space for the dogs and no nearby neighbors to complain about their barking. Now we had less than a month to get out and almost no money.

We got lucky. I discovered a tiny farm north of Santa Fe that had everything we wanted in a place to live—300 days of sunshine, long wraparound porch, no limits on the number of animals you could own. Because of the time crunch, I spent less than two hours walking around our new home—and almost none examining the surrounding area—before signing.

We caravanned. Driving halfway across the country with all those dogs was tough, but that was nothing compared to the sinking feeling I got when we arrived and surveyed our land. "It looks pretty wild," said Joy.

"It looks worse than that," I said.

The treeline was packed with elms, the pastureland overrun by foxtail weeds. The old orchard I'd hoped would augment our meager income was barren. The house was not exactly plug-and-play. "We're screwed," I said, taking it in.

"It'll be fine," my girlfriend assured me. "I like to cook and garden, and you'll just have to get out the chainsaw."

Hearing her say this gave me an uneasy knot in my stomach. As a teenager, I'd been such a committed feminist I wouldn't even let my mother make my meals or do my laundry. On my own, I'd learned to cook and clean and quote Gloria Steinem. Women, I decided, should earn the same as men and certainly should pay half the bills. The entire notion of traditional gender roles, I'd realized, was bunk. Women didn't like to cook and garden. And anyway, why the hell couldn't she get out the chainsaw—never mind that she weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet? "No," I said, "we'll split the work equally. I'll cook and you'll saw, and then we'll switch."

I left Joy on the porch and walked down to check on the donkey that had come bundled with our farm package. When I reached the pen, I realized this was yet another thing I'd not thought through. Our new donkey was close to 400 pounds, her neck a long braid of muscle.

I was in the pen less than 30 seconds when the donkey rammed the small of my back, lifting me clear off the ground and impaling me on the edge of a fence post. I hung there, screaming in pain, the post shoved a half-inch into my chest, as the donkey proceeded to bash open the gate and charge directly at my Joy. She dove into rose bushes to escape. When the thorns proved impassable, our donkey tried to stomp our dogs. They managed to run away, and I tore free from the post. Joy rushed me to the house to dress the hole in my chest, which turned out to be just a flesh wound, but the stress sent us into a tailspin. We broke up.

I slept outside that night, alone on a rug on the porch. I awoke to two sounds. One was my girlfriend packing; the other was our donkey braying a forlorn wail, punctuated by an occasional furious stomp. I couldn't handle farm life alone and wanted desperately to convince Joy to stay, but securing the beast—before she escaped from her flimsy front pen and trampled us all—was more critical.

With a bucket of oats as a lure, I coaxed her across our fields, dodging hooves and teeth. Joy glanced out the window as we worked our way across the field. A few seconds later, she was running across the pasture. She wrapped her arms around me. "Don't ask me why," she said, "but I've never loved you more than just now."

"So you're staying?"

"I'm staying!" she said, kissing me for the first time since our arrival.
In the following weeks, we rallied. Since I was stronger, I learned to do the heavy lifting. She planted flowers in our gardens and vegetables in our greenhouse. I built a storage shed for our tools and mended fences to try to keep the dogs safe.

It wasn't just that my days were spent chopping and mending; it was that my girlfriend found her love for me deepening along the way. I'd trudge back into the house, mud-splattered and exhausted from planting fruit trees, and she'd greet me like a soldier returning from fighting long foreign wars. This wasn't her normal way; this was something new.

I had new feelings, too. I'd made my own meals nearly every day for twenty-some years, but I discovered that Joy actually enjoyed cooking for me—which not only amazed me but left me feeling strangely proud in my choice of a mate.

One night one of our dogs showed up bleeding badly, deep gashes across much of his body. Another dog was missing. It was cold and pouring rain and I was barefoot, but I took off running, looking for the dog. Back in the city, a problem usually meant a friend had done too many drugs or was going through a breakup—but out here, this problem sent me sprinting aimlessly in pitch-black night. My shoeless feet got torn to shreds, but that didn't stop me. I went straight through brambles, ignoring the thunderstorm, the deep muck between my toes, and the blood running down my legs, conscious only of the ever-sinking feeling that I'd failed.

An hour later, I collapsed. As I lay by the side of the road, exhausted, dejected, having utterly failed in my search, I heard Joy calling for me. Our lost dog had turned up gravely injured by the back door, and from his wounds we knew the dogs had met a bobcat. We had no cash to pay for veterinary care. I couldn't protect and I couldn't provide, and as I stood helpless in our kitchen, bloody dogs near my feet, my feeling of failure was close to complete.

Then Joy walked over, kissed me, and said, "Don't worry about it—I got this one." She walked out in our garden, ignoring the driving rain, and started cutting leaves. It was a nice gesture, but I couldn't help shaking my head. Leaves, I thought. Like leaves are really going to help. But those leaves got turned into poultices and the poultices got packed into wounds. She kept it up for days, rotating bandages, applying different herbs. By the fifth day, the cuts were closed, the risk of infection gone. I might have failed as protector, but she picked up the slack as healer. It wasn't just shock that I felt—it was something far more primal. "Don't ask me why," I said, "but I've never loved you more than just now."