Operating a guest ranch is more than a full-time job in the summertime. It is a 24/7 job that engulfs our entire lives. It brings wonderful people to our doorstep, lots of different types of fun outdoor activities, and an endless amount of work that includes considerable stress in making sure that everyone, both two- and four-legged participants, are safe and happy. We do it more for the joy than for the money; but, in all honesty, we all need a little in-season R&R to help us run the race from Memorial Day to Labor Day and beyond.
Weddings offer us just such rest and relaxation opportunities. For the past seven years, my husband, Sterling, and I have used the Dunrovin wedding weekends to escape and recharge. We, of course, leave someone else in charge, someone with full knowledge of our property and the horses, while we pack the car and load up our dogs, to “get out of Dodge” and head for Montana’s mountains. Removing the dogs from the wedding festivities is a critical part and was, in fact, the reason that our tradition of heading for the hills got started. We wanted to rest in a location where we didn’t have to worry about the dogs and where we could get in some hiking, fishing, even some casual horseback riding.
The US Forest Service is our main enabler for these weekends. On their recreation.gov website, they list scores of old cabins and lookouts that people can rent for minimal charge. They are popular and the online reservations can be made up to six months in advance. So exactly six months before each summer wedding date, I jump online and get signed up!
These cabins are uniformly in stunningly beautiful locations. Most of them are rather primitive with outhouse restrooms, hand-pump spigots for water, outdoor firepits, no kitchen of any kind, and very basic sleeping arrangements with pads or mattresses on bunkbeds. Sterling and I feel right at home in such accommodations. We keep several boxes all packed with the right gear— sleeping bags, basic kitchen utensils for our coole- kept meals, lanterns, flashlight, mosquito repellant, shovels, and basic camping equipment—that we simply pop into the back of our car before heading out, stopping at Costco on the way to buy a roasted chicken that lasts us the weekend. ‘Easy’ is our motto.
We love the adventure of exploring new territory as we try to go to different cabins with each trip. It gives us an opportunity to scout for some unfamiliar horseback-riding opportunities and visit small towns that are tucked away in various corners of Montana. Sometimes we do nothing more that set up our folding chairs in a flower-filled meadow and read a good book, letting time tick away without notice.
Our first wedding of the 2017 season took us to a cabin that was a stone’s throw from the Idaho border to the south and in a part of Montana that we seldom see. Horse Prairie Station is located in high-and-dry country, with expansive views of a large valley ringed by the distant mountains. True to its name, a horse skull bleached white from the sun graced the front veranda of the cabin as we arrived. The wind tossed the prairie grass in waves reminiscent of the open ocean, and thankfully kept the bugs at bay.
Unscheduled, unstructured, and completely undemanding time is ours for two full days during these weekends. It is heaven. No cell phone can reach us. At the literal end of the road, no car traffic hurries by, no sirens sound the alarm. Only the sun crossing a blue sky during the day and the moon and Milky Way during the night mark time. Such was my mood when I awoke on the first morning at Horse Prairie to watch a flock of swallows play around the small, locked cabin about 100 yards uphill from our cabin. I watched them swoop and dive, and I decided that I would take my folding chair, wander up to the building, and sit for a while to see if I could get a few photos of the birds with my little point-and-shoot Panasonic Lumix. I knew that my presence would disturb them, but I wondered how long it would take for them to accept me and return confidently to the little mud nests they had constructed beneath the eaves of the roof. After all, I had the time to be patient—time I rarely have for such endeavors.
It did, indeed, take a while. A while in which my mind got to wonder over the concept of patience and of how dedicated our culture is to action and movement, which doesn’t leave room for patience and time and stillness of body or mind. How was it that I could find that here? What was it about these wedding weekends that was so freeing, so generous in the lack of demands? I let these thoughts float by without over-examining them, keeping an eye on the birds, rejoicing on their tentative approaches as they came closer and closer to me. Then, they would suddenly veer off and be away for several minutes. But I did not stir. I did not question that they would be back. I actually enjoyed the wait. With no sense of anxiety, no longing to move off to the next thing, no need to question. I was simply there, waiting.
And, indeed, they did return. Soon I was nothing to them. They surrounded me and flew back and forth to their mud homes, perching there for minutes at a time. All of them, each nest with a swallow’s head peering out. It was heavenly. My photos were not the point of my being there. My being there was the point of it all. My really being there in that moment, without a serious goal, with my eyes opened and my heart filled with the life around me.
The rest of the day unfolded as it began. Returning to the cabin, Sterling and I packed a small lunch and drove farther into the mountains where we encountered a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers sill in bloom and with a small stream running through it to cool us and give Jewel and Kola fresh water to drink. Opening our chairs and our books, we stayed for a long time, casually eating from our packed-lunch items and not looking at our watches even once. Time was not dictating our movements. Nature, the sun, the wind, and our own moods were in charge.
On the long drive home, I again asked myself what it is about these wedding weekends that makes them so wonderful, and I think I have it figured out. We are running away from something, not to something. We don’t control the dates; the bride and groom do. We don’t have a choice; I made that six months earlier when I reserved the cabin. We have absolutely no expectations. We have no goal, no list to accomplish. We don’t, in fact, even think about it until the very last minute as we pack the car. I often find myself grabbing the right Forest Service map as we are getting into the car.
Escaping the constant grip of demands, the gift of time, the sense of openness and freeness, comes from the lack of a goal, from having no expectations. If you have no objective, no specific desire to achieve, no itch to scratch, then time is yours. May we all have the occasional wedding weekend from which we can merrily escape by running away rather than to.