a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
In the Laramie Valley in northern Colorado, each year is shaped by fire or by flood. The high desert’s reigning element is determined by many factors, mostly water-related in such an arid climate: the winter’s snowpack in the Rawah Mountains, the blue northers—almost daily in the summer—that drop hail on your hat for half an hour, and the snow’s return to the valley floor, late each fall.
I wrangled for Laramie River Ranch for two seasons in my early twenties. Each morning, I saddled my horse to bring in the herd. I moved cattle, checked fence, and, on horseback, guided the guests vacationing on the ranch. Our guests traveled across the States, and from Europe and South America, to experience a watered-down version of cowboy life. Some rode well, former Olympians and rodeo queens out for a change of scenery in the mountains. Others had never ridden before, and were timid around horses. They all ate gourmet three-course dinners in place of steak and beans around a fire. Instead of sleeping under the stars, they slept in single-family cabins or the historic lodge. Meanwhile, from May to September, I lived in one of five cabins with no running water, as did the rest of the twenty-person crew split between wranglers, kitchen staff, and guest services. After chores—everything from doctoring horses to shoveling their manure from the driveway—I sat down to dinner with the guests, covered in the grime, sweat, and dust of the day.
It was my job as a wrangler to give the guests the best vacation of their lives. They viewed me as a real cowgirl, someone raised in this lifestyle that I easily adopted and adapted to from years of riding lessons and horse shows. I looked the part, with my cowboy hat and boots, jeans and chaps, and my long red braid that children and adults alike often equated to Jessie from Toy Story. Little did they know that for the rest of the year, I was a college student in my hometown of Detroit: a city surrounded by water, its air so thick with humidity and industry that I sometimes felt like drowning.
The ranch was a fulfillment to me. When I quit my college softball team during my sophomore year, I fixed my sights on the one job I always wanted: to wrangle for a guest ranch. I knew how to ride, I loved being outdoors, and I liked meeting new people; guiding guests on horseback seemed like a perfect fit. I was strong and capable, and steeped from childhood in family guest ranch trips myself. But I was not prepared for the daily fight that is ranching, the anticipation and drive necessary to outwork the elements.
As a full-time resident of the valley, my friend Jay had seen the floods, but the dryness of the past winter created ideal conditions for summertime fires. He texted me his concerns.
“It’s 0% containment so far. 14,000 acres. I have all my important documents on my table ready to grab at my house.”
I pictured his circular breakfast table stacked with paperwork where, a few months before, we’d eaten pancakes and dropped our coats on the way in from the cold.
Earlier in the week, he told me he timed himself leaving work. He could get out in three minutes. The Badger Creek fire was growing.
During my time in the Laramie Valley, our crews were more concerned with flooding than fires. The rising runoff blocked our trails in early spring. Water endangered cabins and corrals. My coworkers and I spent days upon weeks filling fifty-pound sandbags from a roadside wash, six shovelfuls of sand per bag. We tied them with baling twine and threw them into the truck bed, twenty-five bags in a load. Anything more could break the axle on a truck already run ragged by years of seasonal wranglers. We would drive back to ranch headquarters, fidget into waders and bibs, and we’d build. We built dams and diversions. We reinforced the eroding creek banks, halting their swirl into the roiling waters. We redirected winter’s snow turned threatening by heat.
It was hard work, but it bonded us. Desert ranchers can never complain about moisture. Our sweat washed away in the icy waters melting from the jagged peaks above the valley. The creeks were swollen and so were our muscles; I delighted in feeling the strength seep into my freckled shoulders, the way any lingering softball bulkiness melted and toned my body into lean muscle. The work made me feel like a rancher. Stoic. Weathered. Legitimate. Inwardly, perhaps childishly, I leapt at any chance to be in the water—to feel the familiarity and belonging of home, where water was recreation: never scarce, often mere feet away.
And in time, the rivers receded. The dams saved the cabins before guests arrived in June. We wranglers were to remove the sandbags and store them in the barn for the following season, but when I slung the soaked bags, they split on contact with the truck bed. I sliced the bags with my pocket knife and dumped the sand along the riverbanks. Whether it was from less snow or my shirked chore, the next year the floods were tamer.
We wranglers started a herd of eighty horses that spring. We listened to Top 40 country on the crackly radio while we saddled in the crisp, dry morning air. We rode out, guided at first by crudely-drawn whiteboard maps until we could guide ourselves and our guests with our own memory of the land. I learned to be observant while riding big country. Turn left at the dead tree. Follow the first game trail going up the next ridgeline. The horses jump the creek where I found an elk shed last spring. There’s a slot in the rocks where I can’t see the trail but the horses know it’s there. Everywhere else is too steep. Don’t look down. Eyes up. Eyes open.
As the season passed, I grew into the stoicism I once projected. When hail pelted through my shirtsleeves, I clenched my chattering teeth and helped guests into their rain slickers first. When hypothermia set in, I unsaddled the horses and turned them out before wrapping myself in dry clothes and a blanket. When I got bucked off on a guest ride, I climbed back on with a smile, making a self-deprecating joke the next time my horse spooked at sage.
On days off, I drove into town, forty-five miles away and across the Wyoming state line. I spent too much money on lattes, my only summer expense, earning it back with overtime hours and saving when cowboys bought me Friday night drinks at the bar. We built bonfires on Bull Mountain, where whiskey burned boundaries of friendship into romance—with cowboys or fellow crewmembers for a blurry night or for the season, but with the valley for a lifetime.
While I spent my days on horseback, Jay joined the kitchen crew during my second season. Introduced by a fellow wrangler from the Midwest, Jay and I became friends on our cross-country drive to the ranch. A downpour in Iowa forced me to pull over on I-80 and the thunder woke Jay from his nap in my passenger seat. Windshield wipers on high, we shared stories about our college athletic experiences and where life had taken us since we quit. In the following months, we traded music and craft beer and photos of each day’s wildlife sightings.
I left Laramie River to wrangle for larger ranches; Jay moved into management. In the offseason, I housesat for him on my way through town. I sat on his couch and read Steinbeck as the sun rose pink over the snowcapped Rawah range, reflecting on my transient transcendence: how I moved from place to place, riding horses for a living while my former classmates took jobs that brought them money and unhappiness and never got to experience such solitude on the Colorado state line. Rawah—in the valley, the word is rumored to mean abundance, to mean wild. To me, the place is both.
When I moved back to Michigan to start my MFA, I kept Jay close so I could keep the ranch close. With Jay on the ranch, our friendship continued, and I knew I always had a couch to sleep on, a place to stay in the valley that I came to call home.
The Badger Creek fire began on June 10, 2018, about fifteen miles from Laramie River Ranch. It was hard for me to imagine all that sage going up in smoke like a mass blessing, trying to rid the valley of evil. Very little evil seemed to exist there, only golden memories of sunrise gallops, and nights spent throwing a rope at a steer head dummy, watching for shooting stars.
How could such a deluge turn so dry? How had a northern Colorado winter been so warm that the land seemed to self-incinerate in the summer?
The floods created friendship, and enough irrigation to grow more hay. The melted snow carried the bounty of the high country to the valley floor. They kept livestock fed and ranches running. Floods were an irritating commiseration that we looked back upon with laughter.
For me, fires only create fear.
Fire management depends on the level of government that controls the land. Federal land—National Park and Forest Service—is allowed to burn, fires fought only if they threaten a structure. Each state retains the rights to manage and regulate their own wildlands. Colorado fights fires and manages controlled burns, set to heal wounded land. Inmates from Colorado prisons work the fires’ front lines. Hauling hundreds of pounds of gear ranging from axes to chainsaws, they hike for hours on mountain trails to sites where they build firebreaks. The inmates volunteer for the highly-competitive State Wildland Inmate Fire Team, rewarding them with dignity and belonging. While the program saves the state’s taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, the men on SWIFT teams make only a few dollars a day.
They work alongside career professionals and seasonal fire crews, sent from hometown stations. They lay hoses and pumps to nearby water sources. They live and eat and work the line together.
When the fires grow too large too quickly, the ground crew calls in the aircraft. Helitack and smokejumpers parachute into the flames to fight fires from within. Pilots fly from local fire departments or military bases or Forest Service airstrips, in airtankers or helicopters, buzzing low over the blazes to dump water or flame retardant. To aim for containment.
It was all a far cry from the floods I worked on as a wrangler, having fun in the water, ignoring its greater dangers. Coming from the Great Lakes State, water was my element. I knew nothing of fire, nothing beyond bonfires, not real ones visible from the highway, glowing on the mountainsides like a patchwork of aspen leaves turning gold in the fall. An acre seemed big to me; the thousand-acre ranch seemed endless. These fires left hundreds of thousands of acres smoldering each summer. It was hard for me to imagine how different my training and purpose was from the firefighters’, despite the common seasonality of our jobs. How theirs was filled with such imminent threat. How they lived for it.
Jay sent me a photo. Familiar rock outcroppings and curves in the road were engulfed in a hellscape of fire and smoke. I could almost smell it through my screen and felt a choking in my throat akin to a bonfire in shifting winds. Smoke follows beauty, and this land was beautiful. It wasn’t only land to me. It was the animals and relationships and emotional connections it gave me. It was the sense of place that I had upon it.
I told Jay to stay safe. I didn’t know what else to say.
Yet over time, fire cleanses. The Badger Creek fire will do the valley good. Flames will consume the beetle-killed pines, their bark turned reddish, dead where they stand in rows like planted corpses. The lodgepole pinecones will open as they famously do under fire, scattering and rooting themselves in its ashy wake. There, they will lie buried. Snow will fall and insulate them through the winter. In the spring, floods will again burst forth from the mountains. Everything is cyclical, even if initially incendiary. New trees will sprout among the scars.
The Badger Creek fire consumed 21,130 acres of Wyoming and Colorado before complete containment on July 26, 2018, nearly two months after it began. The Laramie Valley suffered damages, but Laramie River Ranch was unscathed. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
Amy Zaranek is an award-winning writer and the managing editor of The Black Fork Review. Her writing has appeared in Yemassee Journal, matchbook, Stymie Magazine, and elsewhere, and her essays have been anthologized in collections such as OUR BEST WAR STORIES and TALES FROM SIX FEET APART. Amy holds an MFA from Ashland University and lives and writes in Metro Detroit.