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Know the West

Ranch Diaries: An East Coast visitor adds some perspective

Sometimes hosting an outsider is the perfect reboot.


Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Hail bounced from our canvas awning and covered the ground. Between the lightning flashes, I tried not to imagine what could happen to someone caught outside. When the storm passed 15 minutes later, there was more than a half-inch of water in the rain gauge. Just as I was about to pull on my rubber boots and go searching, I saw Sophie approach the camper in the semi-darkness. Her backpack and hat were waterlogged but there was a huge smile on her face. “The sky out here!” she said, ignoring the fact that she was soaked to the skin, “You can see the weather!”


It’s not everyone who’d be willing to rough it out here and live in a tent for three weeks, but my friend Sophie Geller agreed to just that. We met as undergraduates five years ago, and when she called me up this spring to ask about a visit, I was thrilled: It’s not the first place I’d expect a current Harvard Graduate School of Design student to be gung-ho to visit. For the first time, I realized the same remoteness I sometimes resent can be something someone else wants to experience.

With a love of landscapes and a need to reconnect with her newly healed body (she had dealt with a persistent back injury for several years), Sophie wanted to experience firsthand what Sam and I do daily. Once on the ground, she marveled at the relationships Sam and I have with our animals and the intense level of reciprocal trust –between Sam and I, and the animals and us – required for this way of life. “You’re living in it 24 hours a day,” she told me a week in, as we sipped whiskey on the porch after tearing down part of the old corral.

Sophie reminded me that rising with the sun, going to bed when the stars come out, and living every day on a different rhythm is really a luxury – “You don’t need a clock,” she observed. She slept in the cowboy tipi in the same yard that included our orphan calf May Day, two curious cats, and four energetic dogs.

From exploring a nearby lava flow to examining the tiny shell fossils in many of the stones up the arroyo, Sophie helped me look at my surroundings with renewed enthusiasm. “Big and small are equally impressive,” she said, noticing the details in scale, from tiny ecosystems to storms that overtook the entire sky. She felt privileged to access such an incredible space, and I realized that lately I’d been taking this incredible environment for granted.

Frustrations with the Triangle P life were harder to draw from Sophie, but she had a few grievances. The slow Internet, she remarked, the lack of phone service, the arduous drive into town. Rain leaked into her tipi during one storm, then the clothesline collapsed into the mud after she’d hung out her damp bedding. Planning around the weather surprised her, as did the feeling that people weren’t watching her every move.

After nearly three weeks of doing ranch chores, laundry at the Laundromat in town, and getting groceries at Wal-Mart, Sophie remains undeterred. When it’s hot and dusty and the work is hard, it’s difficult to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.

As the last few days of her visit come to a close, I’m going to maximize the experience by absorbing her wonder and enthusiasm for this place. Sometimes a little outside perspective is a perfect reboot. “I’m taking what I learned back with me,” Sophie said. It was hard to imagine her implementing newfound skills like making jelly from foraged berries, using fencing pliers, and milking a cow, at Harvard, but I think I understand what she meant. Maybe reconnecting with exterior landscapes catalyzes growth in our interior landscapes, whether in the design studio or the pasture.