The prairie in the spring, the way the grass moves in the wind is beautiful, and pictures alone don't capture it:
In the spring of 2003, just after I finished the Spiritual Exercises, I was missioned to work on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in south central South Dakota. From February until May, I lived at the St. Francis Mission, taught Catechism, helped prepare families and children for baptism, and did what I could to help out at the mission’s museum. The truth of the museum work was really just that Ray, a Jesuit anthropologist, and Mike, the curator of the museum, were gracious enough to give me something to do when I wasn’t teaching the kids.
|Spring on the Prairie.|
When spring hits the reservation the undulating sea of white made by the snow capped hills of the prairie turns into a heaving ocean of green and grass. The Prairie comes back to life for a few months, and all around from the high points all that you can see is a vivid green filling the horizon if you look close enough, though, you can see small spots of white, brown, and black filling the horizon alongside slightly larger spots of the same colors. When the green returns to the grass, life returns to the prairie, new calves are born, and it is time for branding season.
One day, while eating lunch with Buzz, a fellow novice, we were asked by one of the mission’s employees if we would help at the branding on her father’s ranch. We asked what it would entail, and when we were told that we would get to ride horses we were in. We were also told, though, that we would be helping to round up and brand the new cattle. Now before any assumptions are made about the cruelty of the process of branding, in South Dakota, west of the Missouri River, it is the law that every newborn calf has to be branded. This is actually to protect the Ranchers, many of whom have very little to begin with, from those who would steal those cattle that they rely upon for survival. It is also the moment in which these new calves are immunized and, for those male calves that aren’t going to be used for breeding, neutered. It’s a full service veterinary operation, and in fact when people can afford it there is often a vet present.
Like most boys growing up in America, the cowboy is an archetypal dream. When you are young you might play cowboys and bank robbers. I know that I had a small cowboy hat, a plastic holster with a plastic gun and a sheriff’s badge that my dad had brought back from a trip to Arizona for me. I also had a pair of spurs that I never figured out how to attach to my shoes, and rope that I wanted to be lasso. All of this, and my mother’s old 1970’s (ironically suede) hippie flower child vest to boot, which somehow made the whole thing feel authentic. We had a small stream that was ran by my house and the area around it was often enough perfect to pretend to be a cowboy along with my next door neighbor, who was only about a year older. The truth is that I had had the dream of being a cowboy from a young age, from the day that my Dad took me to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans make an appearance at a local Roy Rogers fried chicken restaurant. I was about to find out, however, just how different my childhood dream was from reality.
|Me on "Buck" a trusty steed.|
We arrived at the ranch early in the morning ready for work, wearing older clothes that we weren’t afraid to see get beaten up a bit. Almost immediately, Buzz and I were shown the horse we’d be using during the day, its name was Buck. Now here is the question, why on God’s green earth would someone give a horse named “Buck,” which is the last thing that you’d want to see a horse do when you were just learning to ride, to someone new to riding? Anyhow, as we headed out to the corral to get a couple of minutes of practice in before riding out to the pasture to drive the cattle in I realized that the ground wasn’t so much ground as it was deep mud mixed with animal excrement, my first unpleasant surprise of the day. I mounted the horse, though, and rode out for the roundup.
|Riding out to round them up.|
|The calves await their branding.|
Still want to be a cowboy?
|Buzz, with the bandana on, helping to take a calf down.|
By the end of the day I was bruised from the kick of cattle hooves, and even though I had learned how to sneak up behind the calves and flip them over easily, it was still a risky business. I also realized that riding a horse is no joke, saddle sores are real, and your back can kill you by the end of a day of jostling up and down. All of this is not to mention that, unlike a car or a motorcycle, the horse has a mind of its own and sometimes goes in directions and does things that I, particularly as a novice rider, didn’t want it to do.
Did I still want to be a cowboy? Heck. No.
The truth is that very few of us who want to be cowboys, or astronauts, or ballerinas (to be gender inclusive) hold onto those dreams after a young age. There are obviously many admirable qualities among those occupations, or the million and one other things that we dream of being as kids, but as we grow into who we are we most of us come to realize that we were made for something different. It was years before that I had given up the dream of being a cowboy, as is obvious since I was there as a Jesuit. The interesting thing was to see just how much the dream didn’t match the reality, being a cowboy isn’t about independence, it is about needing people around you to do the things that need to get done, like branding. Being a cowboy isn’t glamorous, it’s hard, dirty, work.
The truth about my short-lived life as a cowboy is that looking back on it, it helps me to remember something. Even as kids, our deepest desire isn’t really to be a cowboy, astronaut, or ballerina (to be gender inclusive) it is ultimately about dreaming about something that will make us happy. That is, of course, what God wants for each of us, happiness. The truth is that we are often surprised by the things that bring us real joy in our lives when we finally do grow up, and I think that this is precisely the kind of thing that should continue to feed our hope, particularly in times of disappointment. It may be that I don’t get the job I want, or end up doing the same sorts of things that I always dreamed that I would, but heck I didn’t end up being a cowboy either, and that’s worked out just fine. What we really want, deep down, is not any given job, but what that job will ultimately bring, which is hopefully fulfillment and happiness. I know that now, sitting at my desk over looking the Capitoline Hill here in Rome, just weeks from the beginning of branding season in South Dakota I am pretty happy not to be a Cowboy. That gives me some small measure of hope that even if the other dreams that I have for myself in life, even now staring down 30, don’t end up happening then everything will still be ok. So put my spurs away, I think I will stay right here.
|Sunset on the Prairie. (also one of my better pictures ever.)|