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the time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things

Cal rushes in, barely pausing to knock before he’s pushing the front door open. He’s excited, stuttering, and wearing his red flannel bathrobe over his typical jeans and button-down, with a jean jacket on top of that, and his crumpled western hat over all of it. “Susan? Susan, can I – you’ve – come, come and see – you’ve got to – now – can you? Come and see what’s happened to the mountains! I’ve got – come on – you’ll come in the – uh – the, the jeep there, and we’ll go ‘round to the other place – don’t look! Come on, you’ll see it from the porch, at the house.” He’s grinning like a kid who’s just seen Santa Claus in the flesh, and I hurry to stuff my pajama pants into my boots. Cal’s already outside, turning the key to his John Deere Gator.  I jump in, and we’re off with a roar and a jolt. “I don’t mean to interrupt your evening – I’ll bring you back and we’ll have a glass, to celebrate. You’ve just got to see this!”

It’s been a cold, gloomy Sunday. 45F, rainy, gray. Bob’s away, picking up a friend at the Jackson airport, so I’ve spent the day nestled into the leather arm chair in front of the fire, reading, writing, and luxuriating in the cozy alone time. I’m leaving the ranch in less than a week, heading up to the Tetons and to Yellowstone before flying back home. This weekend has found me wistful and sentimental, both for the time I’ve spent on the ranch this summer, and for past harvest seasons at home in New England. I’m looking forward to being home again, but am content to have these last few days of in-between time in which I have little to do but sit and relax and enjoy my surroundings. I was watching a movie when Cal burst in, and was contemplating making hot chocolate, but whatever he’s got up those red flannel sleeves is bound to be worth it.

We speed along the rough drive between my house and the main one, swerving around puddles and rocks, Cal cautioning me all the while, not to look, not to look! As we pull up outside of the main ranch house, he skids to a stop, shoves the gear stick into park, and leaps out of the Gator. I can’t keep from laughing as I hurry to follow him up the stairs to the porch. “Come, come, don’t look yet, wait til you get to the porch, you’ll get the full effect!” He’s running, actually skipping up the stairs, as if the phenomenon we’re about to observe is on the verge of slipping away. Coming to a halt in the center of the porch, Cal turns east, toward the canyon, and flings his arms wide. “Isn’t it amazing?” he whispers, awed. The first snow has fallen on the Absaroka Range. The clouds, which have hung heavy and thick all day, have lifted momentarily, and the last light of the day illuminates the mountains’ rocky summits, now laden with a thick coat of white. The ranch, the pastures, the houses, and the canyon maintain their standard reds, greens, browns, and yellows, but above them, this tall rampart of white stretches bright. It is stunning.

After driving me back to my own house (slower, now that the initial rush and excitement have passed), Cal sits with me at the window (it’s too cold and wet to take up our usual spots on the front porch) and shares with me the wine he’s brought. He’s still wearing his battered hat. This has become a tradition. One or two nights a week, Cal (the man who owns the ranch where I live) will pull up in front of the house in the Gator, pull a bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz or Grenache from under his coat, and smile mischievously as he suggests we share a glass or two and discuss the woes of the world. Tonight, we’re talking about literature, the way that styles change through the years and yet build upon each other in an endless sharing of references, imagery and ideas. “There’s not a word you say that I don’t have a reference to. You say a word, and it’s like – ” Cal mimes a stone skimming across water. His mind is crammed with references and experiences, which hum just beneath the surface, waiting for a word or idea to brush against them and bring them springing to life. The stories he tells, like the books he loves, have a way of blending together with their similar references or overlapping characters. It is hard, therefore, to follow the details of his life. He speaks intelligently, but broadly, and has a habit of jumping between stories without warning. Many a night, Bob and I have sat on the porch in the glow of the red tractor lights, and listened, rapt, to Cal’s tales: of being a Presbyterian missionary, and later a minister; of his frustration with the corrupt nature of politics when he was a state Representative for Minnesota and Ohio; of getting lost on a hike in New Mexico and being helped by a woman whom he later discovered was the painter Georgia O’Keefe; of living in Jamaica and the school there that is named after him; or of entertaining the president of Pakistan as a guest in his home in St. Paul. The timeline is vague, but the episodes are rich.

Cal is eighty-two years old, capable of quoting Keats and Wordsworth at length, and more in tune to the current political state of the world than either Bob or I. He has a great passion for the world and its peoples. With all his education and experience, he’s learned to pay close attention to current affairs, and also, to be willing to adjust his views as society changes. I love to sit with my arms wrapped around my knees, quietly absorbing the sound of his voice as he spins his yarns, or to try to see his eyes through his orange-tinted glasses as he bewails the miserable state of modern politics and religion. The three of us, he, Bob, and me, will sit and talk ourselves in circles, about the upcoming election and foreign policy, nodding our heads and wondering why the people in charge don’t think like we do. One night, he quipped, “Now that we’ve solved the world’s problems, I think I’ll be heading off. I’m glad we’ve sorted everything out. Now if only they’d listen to us!”

Thin but healthy, he has thick, messy white hair, and wears hats, gloves, long sleeves, and long pants to protect his skin against the sun while he works outside on the ranch. He lives for this place. His days are spent digging irrigation ditches, stringing barbed wire fences, driving spikes into rail fences, cutting down trees, spraying weeds, and driving off the stray cows that wander across the river and into his pastures. Back and forth across the property, he zips around in his little John Deere like a white-haired Energizer bunny. Bob and I can hear the sound of the Gator as he drives it through the fields and between our two houses, and whenever we hear it coming, we look at each other and grin – “Here comes Cal!” – and walk out to meet him on the porch. If he’s just passing through, we’ll chat, and then Cal will smile up at us, “Well, I can’t think of anything else to do, so I’ll just drive around like I own the place.” He is a master of the parting shot.

It’s become dark as we’ve been sitting here next to the window, philosophizing. The wine is gone, and with a satisfied sigh, Cal stands up from the table to leave, wobbling a bit as he rises. Touching me briefly on the shoulder, he adjusts the cinch on his robe, straightens his hat, and moves toward the door, declaring, “Susan, you are a lovely person, and I enjoy talking to you ever so much. Good night, my dear.” Pausing on the threshold, he peers into the cold, damp night, then sighs and smiles tipsily. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” he quotes, then turns, and with a wink and a salute, steps out onto the porch and on his way home.

*moving on…*
The job is done,
my time has come.
I’m heading for the hills of stone and the plains of steam
after which I shall return to my home, sweet home,
to family and friends who are my very own.

(see you in NE – Oct 5)

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