Social distancing comes easy at the Pathfinder Ranches in Wyoming. Before COVID-19, we used to call it riding fence, getting snowed in, or simply having a rural route address off Highway 220. A quarantine was known as seclusion, we referred to isolation as remoteness, and stay-at-home orders happened when you got in trouble with mom and dad. Solitude seemed so simple to enjoy before the world health crisis made it scary. Nature immediately became a resource of wellbeing; a deep connection yearned for by more and more people, instead of simply a weekend destination or somewhere to gaze into from one’s back patio. I did not need government regulations preventing social situations to push me into nature …I already knew the way.
When I was a kid, if I was not climbing a tree or biking through a field, I was knee-deep in the mud of a stream or building another fort in the cedar patch on our farm. I had a buck knife in my pocket and not an iPhone. My jeans had shredded tears from a farm-kid free lifestyle and not because it was the current fashion. Clinging to my clothes was the evidence of a life spent outdoors …. cockleburs, manure, and Irish Setter dog hair. I had slivers in my fingers, and you could re-pot a houseplant by the soil in my boots. Looking back, life as a farm kid gave me more connection to the outside world than I could have realized at the time. Access to the primitive planet filled with adventure was three steps out of my backdoor.
Now, as a father of two teenage girls, the balance between time spent deep in the Wyoming landscape versus the multitude of today’s youth activities is daunting. Piano lessons, soccer practice, ROTC events; the list is quite long and all-important activities to growth and development. But where does time with mother nature fit in knowing my time with my daughters is slipping away and that the hourglass of life is nailed to the table?
Combing the Two Iron
My Ford truck slid sideways out of the muddy two-tracks and glided into the snowy ditch. I put the throttle to the diesel engine and flung a thick rooster tail up the side of the pickup. I saw my eldest daughter Jenna flinch at the uneasiness of my winter driving as I tried to keep the truck pointed in the direction of the Pathfinder Two Iron Ranch at Leo, Wyoming. “They should pave this road,” said Jenna. I asked her why. She said something about how it would be easier to get to. I replied with a cliché of answers that “the world needs wild things and wild places” and that “the best places are usually hard to get to.” Only time will tell if she bought into my philosophical reasoning.
COVID-19 had closed our schools for three weeks. No instruction, no video lessons, no homework. The wild country of Wyoming was no longer wilder than our normal life. Uncertainty consumed us in every manner. Yet I knew certainty existed at the Two Iron Ranch. Sage Creek still gently flows through the sand and sage on its way to the North Platte River, just as it has for millennia. Bighorn sheep still perch on the rocks overlooking the valley, and the crisp morning air still makes my nose tickle with the aroma of sage and soil. A deep breath on that spring morning meant more than ever.
My youngest daughter Shelby scampered down to the banks of Sage Creek and quickly discovered the first antler of the trip. As our semi-feral tomboy child, she is no rookie to exploring the outdoors. She has been in my hip pocket on dozens of my hunting and fishing excursions over the years and has matured into an admirable young sportswoman. It was her antler-finding competition today with Jenna that held her focus.
Together we weaved our way through the big sagebrush and occasional snowbanks hoping for our eyes to catch sight of something wild. Deer and rabbits scattered all around us. We found a dead antelope winter kill and examined his corpse as if we were Criminal Minds actors. We discovered tracks in the sand and mud: tiny paw prints with a tail stripe, trails of hooves of all different proportions, and various kernel sizes of poop. On the banks of Sage Creek, they searched for jade, gold nuggets, and arrowheads. Jenna is our rock collector and usually has a collection of assorted aggregate material at the end of each trip. When she borrows my jacket on our excursions, I usually find a handful of rocks when I wear it next.
We headed up the Iron Creek drainage and paused at an old blown-out earthen dam so I could assess its future storage potential. My daughters found a seat next to me and huddled close. We silently sat there together in the middle of Wyoming. No one near us for miles and miles; a level of remoteness that many in this world may never know. I pondered what their fears and understanding of COVID-19 must be and what this pandemic means to them. Having just buried two of their grandparents the year before, I knew their world had been rocked by change and loss, which ushered in new life emotions. And now they had COVID-19 to comprehend. I wondered if they find solace and relief from life’s fears and defeats in nature the way I do. I questioned whether I am providing that opportunity enough for them. Nature heals me; restores my directions in life; recharges my batteries to run full speed again. Can I teach this sensation, or do my girls have to find it on their own?
COVID-19 hit the pause button on our lives. Amongst all the fear, loss, and anxiety of the pandemic, I continue to find a thread of gratefulness, a silver lining, in the time it has afforded my family and me to leave the paved road and look for that antler and field mouse track. I fear that trips into nature with my girls do not happen enough and that the day will come when their own lives command their own time. The day will come when I no longer find rocks in my pockets.