I know. I know. That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.
Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze. March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth. But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next. March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.
But April? In April, things come alive again. For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass. Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees. I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.
Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.
My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now. I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it. That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.
It doesn’t hurt that it all started one beautiful Spring day…
At fourteen, already a sophomore in high school thanks to a skipped grade in junior high, my life revolved around horses. I was in lessons, had been on and off since I was eight, and I felt proud that I had beaten the “teenage” prediction. Most adults assumed that I would abandon my equine friends for my male peers—who, being pre-adolescent boys, were mostly idiots—when I became a teenager. It happens. Most horse crazy girls suddenly find themselves boy crazy when they hit thirteen. I remember, at eight, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve years old, fearing thirteen for that very reason. The prediction came across like curses do in faerie tales. Like Sleeping Beauty, cursed to prick her finger on the spinning wheel, I feared that I might be destined to lose interest in riding. I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, boys became far more interesting, but horses didn’t lose their appeal. At fourteen, I would have still rather cleaned out a stall than my room.
I’m not sure what I was doing in the shopping center that first time I saw EDR’s flyer. Regardless, it caught my eye. A picture of a baby llama and the words “Help Wanted” took up most of top half. The pay was six dollars an hour to do the sort of work that I had done for free at certain horse barns. Grooming, cleaning pastures (mostly cleaning pastures), and generally working with animals sounded like a slice of heaven. I think I looked at that flyer twenty times before I took the number. I’m surprised, shy as I was at that age, that I ever got up the guts to call.
My first conversation with Lisa was as businesslike as I could muster; I tried to sound very grownup. I imagine I failed. I told her about my experience with large animals and that my parents were willing to drive me to the ranch should I get the job; she told me about the ranch and what I would be doing. I don’t think she intended to hire a teenager. However, in the spring of 2001, with the threat of hoof and mouth disease looming in the minds of ranchers, I was the safer option of the two reasonably well-qualified applicants. A woman who worked with cattle also applied, but cattle can catch hoof and mouth; horses can’t.
She invited me to the farm later that week. My mother drove me out there that Tuesday to meet with her.
Set on a wooded hill overlooking the Illinois River, EDR Lamas is hard to find. It falls just on the outskirts of a Central Illinois town too small to warrant a post office. The private drive that it shares with upscale homes is not quite wide enough for two vehicles, and the trees, largely oak and maple, keep the drive well shaded. Turning to the right at a fork in the road, EDR’s driveway runs parallel to its front pasture. As we pulled up that first time, the curious faces of Lady Rebecca Haritha (Lady B) and Mia Moto Mu Sashi (Sash) were the first I saw. They ran the fence line as the car pulled up. Both were young; both were friendly; both were beautiful and seemingly delicate. I continued to watched them in the front pasture as I opened the passenger-side door and stepped out.
Lisa met us in the driveway. Physically, she is thin and significantly shorter than me. The limited amount of jewelry that she wears is silver, and usually llama themed. Her short hair, which has since been allowed to fade to a very pretty salt and pepper sort of silver color, was then kept brown. Still, it isn’t her physical features that you notice. Rather, you quickly realize that she is the sort of individual who no one will ever think to describe as “old,” no matter how many years she lives. Her life, growing up in France, raising her teenage sons in Indonesia, starting llama farm in Illinois, and earning her doctorate, was remarkable. Women like Lisa are the force behind Grrl power movements and “Red Hat” societies (same idea, different stage of life). Though older than my parents, she has always felt very young to me. I imagine that she always will.
She introduced herself, shook our hands, and took us on a tour around the farm. I was introduced to Lady B and Sash. Frankly, if she was looking to make me want to work there, she would not have had to take me any further than that first pasture. (There should be a picture of a five month old llama next to encyclopedia entries on the word cute. I can think of nothing more fitting.) Sash was all white, excepting the orange on his nose and cheeks, with impish eyes. Lady B’s coloring was more flashy, perhaps. The bulk of her wool was a grey-brown color, but the white ruff around her neck and the white and brown pantaloons that ran down the length of her legs made her remind me a five year old girl with a costume box; all dressed up and no where to go. Both young animals were very interested in me—llamas are usually interested in new people—and I was captivated, not only by them but by their species, within the first ten minutes of my first visit. I met most of the rest of the herd that day as well.
It would take me months to learn all their names. (EDR was home to almost 60 animals at that point in its history.) Still, a few stuck out immediately. Both my mother and I were taken by Black Jack, the primary herdsire. He was solid black, with a wide-set nose and gentle eyes. His legs, strong like tree trunks, were covered in curly, ebony-colored wool. His tail was long enough to belong to a horse. He lived in his own small pasture, complete with an apple tree, and he looked as though he should be wearing a hat and tie and carrying a briefcase. He basked in our new-won admiration, soaking in the loving like a bone-dry sponge. I heard his story for the first time that day.
Like so many of EDR’s animals, Black Jack was an import. EDR had owned him for several years, the latest in a short line of US farms. He claimed favorite status on all of them. He was old. They couldn’t be sure how old; his importation papers didn’t say, but he wasn’t a young animal when brought into this country. Lisa loved him more than all of her other animals combined, and, over the next few years, Black Jack became one of my favorites as well. Later, when I was in charge of the farm for a night or a weekend, Lisa would write me one note outlining everything I had to do in general, and a second note reminding me to be sure and give Black Jack extra attention, that he would miss it. I was only too happy to oblige. The note reminded me to give him grain—even when all of the other animals only got hay—and an apple (a store bought treat if his tree didn’t have a fresh supply). At EDR, Black Jack was King, and we were his adoring servants.
I was given a trial run the weekend after our first meeting. Lisa was holding a show training seminar at the farm, and I attended, both as a learner and a helper. I came early that morning, helped with haltering and set-up (nothing too different from horses), and used one of Lisa’s animals to go through the training exercises. The first animal I partnered up with was affectionately referred to as Mooser: he looked more like a giant red and white calf than a llama most days. Though as sweet as pie, he knew me for the novice that I was almost immediately. Instead of walking alongside me, he planted his feet and refused to move. Rather than become frustrated, I began to laugh and privately wondered whether Mooser was a test: How will she respond to a difficult animal? He wasn’t. Lisa, forgetting that underneath his adorable exterior was an animal who mostly did what he wanted, figured that he would be among the easiest animals to work with. Mooser reminded her otherwise, and I traded with animals with a far more experienced llama person. She got Mooser, who behaved fairly well for her, and I got his half-brother, Nightlife. He was a far more agreeable guinea pig.
The end of the day brought plans for another trip to EDR, this time as an employee. And guys? I never left. Not really.
Today, intoxicated by the green and the blue of Spring, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic, remembering the first Spring day that brought me here. The day that, at the time, I would never have imagined would prove to be one of the most significant days of my life.
I’m curious, readers, what day stands out to you as one of the most significant insignificant days of your life? Where were your unexpected turning points?