Wednesday 24 January 2024

Mustnag by Lorraine Parrish, Pain Killer (heavy on the pineapple and feel free to throw in some mango)


It’s easier to imagine an experience rather than fail at it, so like an enlarging pothole in the middle of the road, I sideswipe it, hoping to avoid it altogether. For thirty years, I’ve wanted to visit a cattle ranch and ride in the west. But I continue to equivocate, as one year slips into anothera pothole of excuses.

But it’s now or never. Horseback riding requires strength and agility and menopause has diminished both youthful assets.

Determined this will be the year, I pen the word “ranch” on my calendar. If I write it down, I’ll go. There is something about a written commitment that propels me to action, but I need a buddy. Someone to keep me honest.

“Beth,” I phone my friend. (Yes, I call her. Not text). “Wanna’ go to Wyoming with me?”

“I love Wyoming,” she says. “What are we gonna do there?”

“Ride horses. Drive cattle.”

“Count me in.” Beth is the perfect companion for this foolishness. She runs thirty miles in the mud and muck, for the fun of it, and her bright hair matches her spunky personality, waxing coppery in the sunshine.

My riding years are far behind me but I have faith in my youthful expertise. Someone probably should have taught me the basics, in a riding arena, but I jumped into the deep end of the pool.

Without floaties.

 I learned to ride on the back of a stubborn country mare, determined to be rid of its pesky teenager. There was something visceral about dodging low-hanging limbs while clinging to a tuft of a horse’s mane, thighs gripping for dear life. After years of acrobatic maneuvers on the back of a horse, I consider myself experienced.

Experienced or not, it’s too late to back out. We arrive in Wyoming, ready for our adventure. It’s a two-hour trip from the airport and we drive for miles on the open highway, gazing at endless fields of roaming cattle. The Dixie Chicks once sang “Wide Open Spaces” but no song, photo, or words can prepare me for the Wyoming landscape. Lacy white clouds scatter across vast blue skies, a panorama so boundless, that patches of farmland reach up and touch it for a moment before the infinite atmosphere soars into space.

At the end of the drive, we arrive in the middle of nowhere. And it’s perfect. The ranch is understated, nothing fancy. The layout consists of rows of cabins, the main house for meals, a plank wood barn, and a saloon with a sign that reads “Come as friends, leave as family.” But I’m the kind of family that would live on the other side of the country, so I leave it at that.

In the morning, I’m ready for business. Beth chit-chats with the other guests, but I focus on the first ride of this venture. No matter the challenge of the terrain or horse, I must get my rear end back in the saddle and stay on.

 Riders stroll past me, the swish-swish of their fringed chaps, a temporary distraction from the familiar surroundings. The odor, an earthy combination of cut hay, horse sweat, and leather connects me to the barn and something deeper. The significance of this journey.

Which is?

It’s got to be more than riding a horse because I can do that anywhere. No, I must confront my mortality and see if I have the capacity and ability to fulfill old dreams.

 Thirty years ago, I never imagined I’d be asking myself, “what am I waiting for?” That person assumed she had all the time in the world, but now I know. I don’t.

Beth understands my tendency to overthink, but loves me anyway. In grad school, we shoved mugs of coffee into each other’s hands while quizzing each other about endocrine systems. When my marriage crumbled, she listened, and let me ramble, an arm draped around my shoulder. In the darkest moment of her life, she buried her husband. Beth cried and squeezed my hand, broken-hearted that her young children would not remember their father.

We have always been there for each other, and Beth senses my hesitation, calling out across the way.

“Girl. You know I got you,” she says, her bright smile reassuring me as I step toward my horse.

I grin in return, yet I’m eager to bond with the chestnut mustang. I nuzzle his ears and nose, but he’s more interested in my pockets, sniffing out potential treats. If Mustang had to choose; he’d rather have food than rubs, but since I slip him a few grainy snacks, he’s grateful for both.

Already nervous, I’m self-conscious in my green riding leggings and Keen hiking shoes. Beth considers herself a novice rider, hoping for a simple ride without a challenging horse, yet outfitted in jeans and boots, she appears the experienced horsewoman.

“Everyone ready to go?” Arkansas asks, the senior cowboy on staff. Most guests are European, here to appreciate the American West. Some have even driven cattle before. Arkansas plans to teach us how to move livestock without injuring ourselves or the animals. An important task considering we are paying guests. But then again, everyone signs a waiver that basically states, in case of death or dismemberment, you’re on your own. Noted.

After an hour of riding, we get the go-ahead, and Mustang and I streak across the Wyoming plains, embracing the open fields without gates or fences. Whether it’s due to age, lack of practice, or Mustang’s gait, my rear repeatedly smacks the saddle. I know I’m rusty, but I’m counting on muscle memory to do its part.

It doesn’t. My ass hurts like hell, and the girl who used to love tearing across the countryside, slows the pace to ease the burn creeping up her sides and lower back.

“Drop your heels. More.” Arkansas advises. As a kid, I preferred bareback to the saddle, heels flopping about the belly of the horse, so I’m clumsy in the stirrups. But at this point, I’m game for anything that will stop the muscle spasms twisting my lower spine into knots.

Arkansas’s riding partner raises his hat and squints. “You’ve ridden before?” The Italian accent softening the blow.

The hiking boots don’t sell me out. My riding skills do.
            After the five-hour ride, I hobble to the main house, each cautious step a reminder I chose a no-frills ranch (think no hot tub). With my head bent low, I drag each foot across the gravel, careful to not trip due to the sloppy strides. It’s not a cowboy walk
— it’s a post-surgical shuffle. All I need now is a walker and a physical therapist to guide me along.

But despite my body’s revolt after a literal ass whooping, I’m thrilled. I kept up with the trail boss and remained seated upon my steed. Unlike my cantankerous mare from childhood, Mustang is a well-trained partner, sensitive to the reins and cooperative with my initial clumsiness in the saddle.

In the Olympics, gymnasts prop lithe bodies across the pummel horse, and scissor kick or twist in the air above its leather surface. When I first climbed in the saddle, Mustang twisted his head around, in utter disbelief. I had grasped the horn of his saddle, and hauled myself up like a waterlogged survivor climbing aboard an inflatable raft. It was not pretty.

I’ve got five more days to get it together.

The fresh air and Wyoming landscape puts us in perpetual good moods. Beth and I are dubbed the “Georgia Peaches”, since we burst into fits of laughter peppered with twangy accents and “y’alls”. I’m grateful folks notice my manner of speech and not my wonky get up and robotic movements. Like a ballplayer who remembers his glory days, I know I can do better.

The next day, I borrow a pair of western boots and jeans, setting aside the hiking shoes. Beth stretches my lower back by grabbing my hands and pulling forward, legs sprawled apart. The action prompts a slew of bad words, but my stride is smoother when I gather Mustang and ready him for the day.

No matter the trappings, it’s all about the relationship between rider and horse. I brush Mustang and he bobs his head up and down, acknowledging I scratched a spot just right. With a large doe-eyed look, the chestnut horse demonstrates affection, in a way only animals can. I slip an arm around his neck, breathing in his tangy sweat, and nuzzle the soft spot at the end of his nose.

“I’m not riding today. My two feet are staying on the ground,” Beth announces, intending to run instead of ride.

“You sure?”


Each day, the ranch sends a group via trailer to round up cattle from pastures farther away. Wyoming’s fence out laws compel landowners to protect their property from roaming livestock, not the other way around.

Arkansas describes these drives as challenging since the terrain is “difficult” and the days longer with little room for error.

“You gotta keep up,” he says, “or you’ll get left behind.”

I’m going with them. Beth has no qualms about missing this ride, but it’s something I must do. Call it ego or simply the need to prove that I can ride well. Either way — I’m going.

Mustang hops in the trailer, eager to head out with the group, and I scramble in the truck, praying the entire way I don’t flub it up. After an hour of highway and dirt roads, horses and riders pace back and forth in waist-high grass, waiting for further instructions. I’d never ridden with these cowboys, so I do not know what to expect. Arkansas is a calm and patient instructor who directs us to “stay here,” and “don’t chase the cows!”

At first, the fields are notably absent of cattle, and like Apollo 11 searching for the Sea of Tranquility, I hope we’re in the right place. I have yet to see a cow, but then I hear the sounds of incomprehensible yelling followed by indignant moos. Mustang perks his ears forward; he knows something I don’t.

Mustang’s head remains erect, and ears on high alert, yet I still see nothing. Then out of nowhere, swarms of black cattle, their coats fuzzy for impending winter, hightail up the trail. They scuttle about in a disorganized fashion, like a hurried crowd at a train station, rows of irritated mammals mashed together.

Bovines aren’t intelligent animals, but I’ve got to hand it to them. They are smart enough to elude us, slipping in and out of gullies, and slithering between dense brush. And since all our meals include beef, I’d do the same darn thing.

With my heels dropped low, Mustang navigates the choppy slopes and eroded trails behind a chorus of moos and a composite of wooly butts. It’s quite the site. Deep down, I think the cows know we’re trouble because they swish their tails at us and dump slushy poop bombs in our path.

Mustang is on a mission but inside, I give the cows a little cheer. Bravo. Sling that poop.

Beth had asked me, “Do you feel bad enough to not eat meat?”

“C’mon now. That’s crazy talk.”

Amidst the moos and poop, I’m proud of our progress until a red-faced cowboy zooms past me, thrusting his horse into a sudden drop off of briars and tangled undergrowth.

Moments later, he bellows out the first intelligible instruction of the day.

 “Move the fucking cows!”

I’m the only American on the trail, so I pause, glancing left and right, wondering how the Europeans will react. They don’t. Instead, I laugh because I doubt the f-bomb is a universal vernacular for cow commands.

And if that cowboy thinks yelling one-liners is going to help me drive cows, he doesn’t know his audience. It took days for me to get my outfit right.

“And make some fucking noise!” My laughing doesn’t probably count, but it is noise.

Mustang ignores my guffaw and the ruckus about him, focusing on the cows ahead. I pat his dusty neck, hoping he forgives my lack of experience, especially since I require a wee bit more guidance. It’s not his fault I don’t understand the finer points of driving cattle.

I grin stupidly as a young woman, her ponytail shoved through a baseball cap, trots up and asks, “You got a horse at home?”

“No, not for many years...” But the sides of my mouth curl up into a full-fledged smile. Perhaps this old gal still has it.


Back home, I check “cattle ranch” off my bucket list — it had languished there too long. I’m stiff and my husband chuckles I can only lie on my right side. It doesn’t matter. Moving slower than I did the week before, I research places for local horseback riding, intent on reclaiming time for simple pleasures.

Because I had waited too long, taking time for granted.

Aging is a countdown with constant reminders that life cares little about my perception of time. I still think I’m cool, rocking out to Stone Temple Pilots at the Starbucks until the barista, asks, “Who are they?”

Please stop.

I frame a photo of me and Mustang, my arm slung around his neck, my head touching his. A reminder of why I went—  don’t wait to transform an idea into reality, because I don’t want my ideas to outlive me.

Sew that eighteenth-century dress. Not because it’s practical, but because my boobies will look great in a ruched bustier. Write short stories for fun. Not because I’m imparting wisdom, but because it’s cheaper than therapy.

 And once again, embrace the joys of horseback riding. On the back of a horse, my stress dissipates. I’m soothed by the sound of leaves rustling along our path, the sway of the horse as I rock back and forth in the saddle, and the open skies, a constant breezy companion. 

I study the photo of Mustang, who stares back, round eyes that reaffirm while time waits for no one, there are times when no one should wait.

About the author

A former Army officer and nurse practitioner, Lorraine’s writing is inspired by the capriciousness of ER medicine and everyday life. Like any good nurse, she can eat anywhere, but is partial to a bowl of grits. She has previously published in Spillwords

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment