I had been joking all summer about getting a date with the rancher’s daughter. And then it happened.
It was my summer in Montana, the one where I was the assistant director of the youth camp in the middle of nowhere. The director had never had an assistant before, so there were no formal roles assigned. There were only a few principles that we went by:
- I do what the boss says, with a good attitude, and with all of my effort.
- I listen and learn.
They’re good principles and can apply universally.
Anyway, early in the summer, the director told me that we would be helping out a few area ranches with cattle branding (read about that experience here). Helping the local ranchers was a good way to gain influence in an area where outsiders are generally not accepted. I was told about the caste system that is still very much in play among ranch owners (lords) and ranch hands (serfs). I was told never to ask a ranch owner how many heads of cattle he had, as this amounted to asking anyone else how much they had in their bank account. And I was told that if you can make friends with the ranch owners, you will be well cared for.
The jokes about getting a date with the rancher’s daughter started when I helped brand cattle for the ranch. The few of us city-slickers who had been dropped off were introduced to the ranch owner and his wife before beginning to help. The rancher was stoic man of few words, a man who may well have had his sense of humor burned out of him by the hot Montana sun. But his wife was the epitome of kindness. She asked us about our lives, our studies, about what brought us to the camp in the middle of nowhere. And she told us about her children, saying offhandedly that she had a daughter who was a sophomore at Montana Tech and that she would love to introduce us when her daughter came home from her summer class.
After that day of branding, I continued to cross paths with the rancher’s family at church. I was invited out to dinner with their family on a few different occasions, all before the daughter got home from college. If I may be so proud, I believe I was doing a marvelous job of wooing her family, and I confidently believed that, though I had neither seen, nor spoken with the daughter, in time, I would woo her too. And remember, to be set up in a rancher’s family is to be set up for life.
The summer continued. I worked at the camp, doing what the director said. I worked two other side jobs as well, trying to put aside some gas money for when I returned to Michigan to complete my schooling. And all the while, I entertained the possibility that I wouldn’t come back to Michigan, that I would find a way to stay in the Montana and that my fortunes would be made.
It was the end of the summer when she came home from college. By then, the camp had hosted senior high groups (staffed by a college group from Michigan), kids camp (staffed by a high school group from Oregon), canoe camp (staffed by the director, his family, and myself), and a quilting group who had rented the camp for a week to quilt together and swap stories. At her mother’s encouragement, I called the ranch and talked to the daughter on the phone for a while. We talked about school, camp, and ranching. I mentioned that I would be going back to Michigan soon, and that I would forever regret if I had not officially asked for a date after all of the summer’s anticipation. Somehow, whether pity or kindness, she told me that a date sounded like fun.
I was in business.
The only day that would work, however, was to be the day before I left for home. In my head, I saw the day as a gleaming chance to prove that I was worthy of some kind of long-distance relationship, that I would return to Michigan long enough to get my affairs in order, then come back to Big Sky Country. I would continue at the camp, or possibly finish my education at Montana Tech. The daughter would see how funny and different I was from all of the strong, handsome ranch hands around and find my differences attractive. It was quite a vision.
The day did not match the vision, however. Having only one day to pitch woo, I planned a full day of activity. I picked her up that morning and we went to a fair in town. Now, when I heard about the fair, I was imagining games, death-trap rides, and delicious elephant ears. But what we attended was an animal auction, which is a different affair entirely. After walking among the stalls of smelly animals for a bit, I suggested that we head back to the camp and take a canoe out on the Clark Canyon reservoir, maybe even tour the underwater town and the island at the center of the lake.
The Clark Canyon reservoir was a relatively new lake, created by the flooding of a valley town. At the beginning of the summer, runoff from the mountains swelled the water levels of the lake, but by the end of the summer, the water’s edge retreats to the lake center, showing building foundations from the town that once stood in the valley. With each summer week that passed, more and more of the road that went into that town was visible. And at the center of the lake stood a small island, a hill that rose above the town and overlooked the surrounding area. I thought that island would make a nice place for a picnic, and a canoe ride would be a lovely way to spend some time together.
We drove to the camp, grabbed a canoe and loaded it into the bed of the camp’s old Jeep truck. Driving down to the beach where I had watched campers swim only weeks before, I saw a flaw in my plan. The edge of the water was now a half mile from where I had last seen it, and the ground that was now exposed consisted of stinky muck. I suggested that we drive around the lake and find a better place to put in the canoe. She seemed okay with that plan, since I was the canoe/camping expert, and so we ventured off-road to find a rockier place that would be less mucky.
After a few minutes off-road, I stopped the Jeep and we carried the canoe up over a ridge, only to find more muck. Having gotten this far, and with the prospect of having to carry the canoe back to the truck and try for a third location, I suggested that we simply brave the muck and get in. She acquiesced, and soon we were on the water. I washed the muck from my legs in the lake and we saw what there was to see of the underwater town in the shallow depths before heading over to the island.
Fortunately, the island was relatively muckless. Unfortunately, it made up for its mucklessness by being overrun with prickly weeds, fire ants, and swarms of mosquitoes. Not to be overcome by nature, we climbed to the top of island anyway. It wasn’t the tallest of hills, but I am not the most in shape of individuals, so I was embarrassingly winded at the summit.
Here was the only bright spot of the day. The breeze blew away the mosquitoes, the prickly weeds were sparser, and the fire ants had not chosen to follow us to the heights. Standing there and looking down, I saw two bald eagles fly below us. Time stopped then, and the moment was simply beautiful.
When time started back up, I realized that this was only place on the island were we might eat our picnic lunch in peace, but that I had left said lunch in the canoe. And as time was getting away from us, we decided not to fetch the picnic and bring it all the way back up. Rather, we would take the canoe back to the main shore and eat there.
As we paddled in the direction of the truck, I noticed a much nicer area to pull the canoe out of the water than the location where we put it in. And since we would be getting the canoe out without the chance to wash the muck off our legs like we had when we got into the canoe, I suggested that we make for this better pull-0ut point and I would simply drive the truck over so we wouldn’t have to carry the canoe very far. It was a great plan.
We made it to the edge of the lake, I climbed up over the ridge, saw the truck about 100 feet away and started walking. The next thing I know, one of my legs has disappeared into a soft spot in the ground and I am stuck. I thank the heavens that there is a ridge between me and my date as I start to wiggle free from my muddy bun-high prison. The muck tries to claim my shoe as I begin to extract myself, but I prove to be the more stubborn one and ten minutes later, I am back to walking toward the truck, now wary of the ground on which I tread.
I make it to the truck, hopping in carefully so as to avoid getting muck all over the seats. I start it up and attempt to get closer to where the canoe is. But I do not move. The truck is stuck in the muck.
Close to tears, I curse the Jeep heavens before walking back over the ridge to announce our predicament. The rancher’s daughter plays it cool. She is a pragmatist, only concerned with what to do now. We try rocking the Jeep, but it only gets more stuck. It appears that the four-wheel drive feature is on the fritz. We try inserting stones and such beneath the tires to improve our traction and so escape the muck, but to no avail. After at least a half hour of trying, we give up. We abandon the Jeep where it lies and start walking.
Mind you, this is before the age of ubiquitous cell phones.
The camp is only a few miles away, but there is a small campground on the way there, only one mile from where we left the Jeep. At the campground, I knock on a camper door. The inhabitant takes pity on us and offers us the use of his phone to call the camp. On the second try, I get hold of the director, explain the dilemma, and ask him to come pick us up.
He does. The three of us drive out near where the Jeep is, being careful not to park where the director’s truck might succumb to a similar fate. The director walked down to the Jeep, turned a small thing on each of the Jeeps wheels, hopped in, and drove it right out. I feel like an idiot. An idiot covered in drying muck. A smelly, sweaty idiot covered in drying muck.
We climb into the Jeep, leaving the canoe where it is on the lake shore (the director said that he would pick it up later). My date looks at the time and says that we are probably going to miss my surprise going away party.
“What?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “My folks planned a going away party for you in town at the bowling alley. Some people from church and the camp are waiting for us there.”
“Oh,” I said, now wondering if the rancher’s daughter agreed to spend the day with me so I would not be present for any party prep stuff. “Well, I can’t really go into town like this, all covered in muck. Why don’t I drop you off at your house and I’ll grab a shower. I’ll just meet you at the bowling alley in a bit.”
She said that sounded fine. After dropping her off, I drove back to the camp, showered, dressed, and headed out to the bowling alley. By the time I got there, most of the people who were there to see me off have left. The few who remain are justifiably perturbed at having waited so long. I do not bowl. There is no party, really. I am told goodbye by some of the people I know. I mention something about corresponding with the rancher’s daughter, knowing full well that our paths will not likely cross again. By the end of that day, I am fairly certain that Montana itself is bidding me go.
I left for Michigan. The gas money I earned at my side jobs got me as far as Iowa. My parent’s credit card gets me the rest of the way home. I abandon thoughts of returning to Montana, of wooing the rancher’s daughter. I find contentment in the idea of not dating anyone, of simply being single.
A couple of weeks later, I return to college, focused on the idea that I can be happy being single. I am soon contacted, not by the rancher’s daughter, but by someone from the college group from Michigan that staffed the week of senior camp. I am invited to attend some of their church’s activities. They were fun people, and so I go.
Finally happy with my dating life behind me, I am blind-sided at a winter retreat by the girl who would become my wife. All the while wondering if I am fit to date anyone, I nevertheless ask for a date, this time with better results (although, you can read about some of the problems with that first date here).