Luck and life in pronghorn country

‘Since I was a little girl, on the first day of every month, the first words out of my mouth are rabbit rabbit.’


My daughter points across the prairie at the buff-colored animals in the sagebrush and sedges.

“Antelope,” I correct her.

“Cantaloupe,” she says solemnly.


Technically, we’re both wrong: They are pronghorns — “speedgoats,” as my husband calls them. It’s late summer, and spindly-legged baby pronghorns graze next to their mothers. They are learning the land, and I imagine they, too, are being corrected. Our dog, a spaniel mix, every so often peels forward at top speed, chasing after a jackrabbit that is almost as big as he is. The flash of the rabbit’s white rump and the futile chase make my daughter shout with glee. I call him back, leashing him and telling him to stop harassing the wildlife. Both rabbits and antelope cross the prairie with ease, their movements meteoric across the land.

Since I was a little girl, on the first day of every month, the first words out of my mouth have been “rabbit rabbit.” It’s a bit of folk wisdom my uncle taught me for luck. There are variations of it; some people say white rabbits. Others believe that “hare hare” are the last words you should say before you sleep.

Since I was a little girl, on the first day of every month, the first words out of my mouth have been “rabbit rabbit.”

As a teenager, I taped a piece of paper by my waterbed that reminded me to “SAY RABBIT.” Now, on the last day of the month, I make my Facebook status “Rabbit, Rabbit” before I go to bed, since my phone is usually the first thing I look at in the morning.

But the first words out of my mouth changed once I had children. “Go back to sleep.” “Mama’s here.” “You’re safe.” “There are no monsters.” All soothing words, imploring sleep. I look out the window at the moon and the constellations glowing in the sky, and I hold my children, rocking them. Sometimes I tell them stories — Peter Rabbit, the three little pigs, Goldilocks and the bears. Stories about trickster animals maneuvering through the world, relying on their wits and a little grace.

I tell my children that animals are lucky, that some people carry a rabbit’s foot to keep them safe.

Tara Anand/High Country News

A few years ago, I drew an antelope tag. Some people say that hunting in Wyoming is about luck — that it depends on the tag you draw, the terrain, the weather on opening day.

When I was a teenager growing up in Casper, Wyoming, archery replaced girls’ PE for a quarter in middle school; in ninth grade, hunter safety was taught. I was not an athlete. Skinny and uncoordinated, I was relieved to get out of scooter soccer and dodgeball. I’d never before held a weapon, and for weeks, in a dank underground gym, I nocked arrows and learned what was my dominant eye. Later, we shot pellet guns, then cleared the range, picking up discarded pellets. I turned my targets in for grades, and I learned about conservation, wildlife identification and outdoor safety. I told my Indian mother about hypothermia; she already hated the cold and kept our house at a tropical temperature to counter the wind of the High Plains.

When it came time to learn how to field-dress an animal, we studied charts, since it wasn’t hunting season. But then a ranch girl brought in a stillborn lamb. Years later I can still see us, a group of teenage girls, around that lamb, looking at its insides, cutting its skin with a knife, inspecting connective tissue and removing organs.

I had not held a hunting knife or gun since school. But a few years ago, I decided to try to grow or hunt as much of my own food as possible. I have always had a small garden. But at 7,200 feet, the growing season is short, and I could not live off my kale and scraggly tomatoes. So I went for an antelope tag, which was easier to draw then an elk or deer.

I didn’t own a gun, so a family friend, an experienced hunter, lent me one and helped me get ready for my first hunt. For several weekends, we went to a rifle range so I could practice. The sound of the gun startled me, and I worked to steady my aim. It was August, just before the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and a few weeks before opening day. Next to me a group of men were shooting at a paper target — the silhouette of a man, clearly foreign. The target looked like the uncle who taught me to say rabbit rabbit. I felt my skin.  

A few days after opening day, dressed in orange, we headed across the Shirley Basin near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. It was a long day — we started in the dark — and late in the morning, I caught my first clear glimpse of an antelope. I don’t mind the sagey taste of their meat, and I love a good backstrap. I sighted a small buck and prepared to pull the trigger. But just as I did so, the two of us made eye contact. I could not kill him.

I USED TO TELL people I felt like my family were pioneers, a new kind. We traveled to Wyoming with suitcases, like trunks in a wagon, unsure of a new land. But over time, I’ve come to see the word “pioneer” differently. It feels heavier. It reminds me of those paper targets of silhouettes: It’s not the full picture, and it’s problematic. Pioneers were not the first to settle the West. There were plenty of Indigenous communities already thriving.

Now it’s the journeys of animals I am drawn to — to pronghorn antelope and rabbits. Antelope habitat is slowly being cut up. When a fence crosses a migration route, the animals are effectively stopped. Their movements are impeded all the time by roads, by developments, by us. Antelope have delicate leg bones, and it’s not in their nature to jump. It’s in their nature to run.

Rabbits, however, do not migrate; they use the same land year-round – making one place work in all kinds of conditions.

I’ve come to see the word “pioneer” differently. It feels heavier.

The Lunar New Year began in January: 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. My zodiac sign is the rabbit. When I was 16, my first job was at a Chinese restaurant. I spent a year setting freshly wiped tables with paper placemats that explained the Chinese zodiac. People born during the Year of the Rabbit are said to be articulate and affectionate but shy — peace-seeking throughout our lives. At 16, I did not want a peaceful life. I wanted passion and noise. I wanted out of Wyoming.

“There are no monsters,” I tell my daughters. Even though there are fences. Even though there are men shooting at shadows.

In the silence of the dark, still living here in the West, I hold my daughters close, stroke their little legs, and whisper to them that they are safe. The dog twitches his foot in dreams at the end of the bed.

Long after they are asleep, I repeat again and again, “Rabbit rabbit.” It’s not the first day of the month. But I say it anyway. I will do anything to better their chances in life. I will do anything to help them run, and if need be, jump.

Nina McConigley is a writer and professor at Colorado State University. She is the author of Cowboys and East Indians. In her “Township and Range” column, she writes about the intersection of race and family in the interior rural West. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.