There was once a life for two. Then there wasn’t.
The first photo shows Genie walking the sky of Yosemite. The next shows her among the colorful mesas of Ghost Ranch.
In both there’s space that can’t be defined or restrained; it runs, it pours. It serves to remind that life is big but humans are small.
In both there’s a blue sky that leads to the horizon, and over that horizon . . . what? We don’t know . . . but we wonder and dream about what waits.
It was those dreams, and that wonder, that drove our ancestors west.
This country was once nothing but immigrants. They came looking for something new, but as soon as they landed on the Eastern seaboard, they cast their view westward. First, they built forts, then homes and churches. Small villages turned into towns that became cities. They planted crops, and raised livestock. They raised families, and offered thanks for the bounties they received.
But always, they looked westward.
In the west, there was an even greater unknown than the one they’d just tamed. Stories filtered back. Some were tall tales; others spoke unbelievable truth. There was land full of waist-high grass that ran for miles. There were roaring rivers and deep lakes rich with fish. There were limitless otter, beaver and bison. If you were of a mind, from the point when the pale-yellow sun first crept over the horizon to when it fell deep-orange into the midnight-blue of twilight, you could ride on the back of your horse and not encounter another soul.
As the years wore on, the western boundary kept moving farther west. The Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the war with Mexico all brought new territory into our landscape. Then Manifest Destiny burst forth and with that, people flocked west.
Then John Marshall, who really wasn’t looking for it, stumbled across gold. Asians, Australians, South Americans, and others, many of whom only carried a pick-ax, flooded California.
But there was little law and almost no order. Native Americans were rightly perturbed that we’d taken their land. And something as simple as mailing a letter became an adventure. From the east coast to the west coast, mail was transported by ship from New York to San Francisco, with a land crossing in Panama. A letter could easily take a month or more to be delivered.
With that, the Pony Express was formed. Even then, it was easier said than done as witnessed by a Want Ad for riders: “Young skinny wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” But riders applied. They rode day and night. Each route covered 75 to 100 miles, but many found, when reaching the next station, there was no relief rider on hand. So they rode the next route too. They rode through desert, and high alpine meadows full of snow. They outran common thieves, and hostile natives. These young skinny wiry fellows rode hard. Many died.
There was a pull the west had over many, but it wasn’t necessarily what was there that created the pull . . . it was the promise.
In late 2006 when cancer spread, I started writing, and one thing I wrote was a piece of fiction, but it was fiction in name only, because in that fiction was Genie and me. Also part of it, because it was always the case, was a tall red dog. But it was fiction because it was my dream of how we dealt with cancer, and the sweet life that came afterwards.
Below is a part of that story.
It’s early morning and the mist hasn’t burned off yet. The campfire’s gone cold. What’s ahead no one knows. There’s wilderness and mountain lions and Indians and countless other things that can cripple or kill. And maybe the rivers have gone dry, and maybe the land is nothing but sand. It’s already been three weeks since you saw the last person. There are many reasons not to press forward. Yet . . . ahead . . . there’s promise.
There’s limitless land, and somewhere there has to be a good place, a flat place among tall cottonwoods, a place with water on two sides, a place with sheltering red buttes all round, a good place for cattle and horses. A good place for a family.
But behind you are cities, with plenty of people, and newspapers, and milk in bottles. There’s coffee in china cups, men and women in fine clothes. There are jobs and houses and things to do on Saturday nights. On Sundays there’s a church that offers prayer and hymns that would sound nice right about now. And, there, waiting, a woman of beauty and grace, a woman you’ve fought for, the woman you love.
But first you have to find a home, and build a house, and make it safe, and make sure there’s enough wood chopped for fifty winters.
You saddle up. Your horse whinnies in anticipation. You lean forward in the saddle and barely whisper, “Let ‘er buck.”
And with that your horse finds his feet in the rich soil and next thing he’s at full gallop. By your side runs a red dog, a good scout, a good friend.
You ride west. It’s not for riches or fame; it’s what your heart tells you to do. Your heart tells you there’s promise there. And you’re determined to turn it into reality.
And you’re determined to turn it into a home.
Genie called it my cowboy story, but she also called it our story, having traveled out west so much. In the story, she saw our dreams and hopes.
It’s just that she wouldn’t be in the end of the story. She knew. Cancer had other plans.
A dream for two. Gone.
Now, here I am, in a life of one.
For three years, I’ve been stuck.
And Genie knew it would happen. She was afraid it’d happen. She knew me; she saw me refusing to move.
So, she did something.
In the months before her death, she’d find ways to make sure I’d remember the important things.
This is one.
On her computer, I loaded some photos. Most were of people and our dogs. Surprisingly, she wasn’t a bit interested in those. She wanted other photos. As the months collapsed in on themselves, with time racing, she’d ask more and more for photos of specific trips out west, and she’d isolate certain ones, the photos of space and distance, of blue-sky, of land that ran and poured.
She assembled a large group and asked that I put them on her computer so they’d rotate, for hours at a time. That way she could watch them throughout the day. And, during the day, that’s what she did.
They were photos full of space and blue-sky . . . and full of dreams. Our dreams. My dream. My dream for her.
In those photos, she saw a home, situated among the mesas, under the cottonwoods, with rivers on two sides. And she smiled because there was wood chopped for fifty winters.
And she smiled at me.
A dream for one is still a dream. And is still a possibility.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Genie, like me, wasn’t much of a tech person. We were probably the last two people in our part of the galaxy to purchase computers. We used them at work, and though they were helpful, we certainly weren’t intrigued by them. (And at work, I largely used mine as a paperweight. So . . .)
If it weren’t for this website and needing a place to store my photos, I still might not have a computer at home.
Well, one day, my office upgraded computers. I bought my old Mac. Genie, who used a PC at work, liked the ease of the Mac. So, she wanted one. So, I got her one.
For some reason, I didn’t think much about Genie’s computer when she died. I left it turned off for the first few years. I had journals and other things, written things, things that she’d touched, and felt, and inscribed. I had birthday and other cards that her fingers touched and that she wrote colorful messages on that were at times part joke but always-and-beyond love.
I’ve been thinking of the west lately. Suddenly I remembered the photos she’d asked me to put on her computer.
So, I cranked up the old antique (after blowing off the dust). And I found the photos.
About three months before she died, she put together this group of photos. They were the last photos she saw. To her they had significance. And she knew they had significance for me. She knew the dreams and hopes and wishes that we’d put into them.
She wanted to see them before she died. So, every day, for three months, she’d watch them flicker past on her computer screen, even though I don’t think she was actually watching them as much as simply remembering and, maybe, reliving.
And she wanted me to see them after she died. She wanted me to remember that dream. More important, she wanted me to remember that new dreams can be made. It just takes getting back on the horse. And riding.
I think of an old Bob Dylan song. “I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east.”
Here are the photos in a slideshow format.
I’ve put a song to it, a classic, a personal favorite of Genie’s. Though it has some age on it, and considerable history, Jack Johnson, someone Genie liked, does it justice.
Admittedly, the lyrics may not be exactly on point, but the feeling of the song certainly is. Even though you’ve been to hell and back, you can still see dreams ahead. You can still dream . . . no matter what.
And, to me, that’s what life is really all about it – going to hell and back, and still dreaming.
Click the link below to watch and listen: