“Full of soul and love”
—Nani Power

“…a breath of fresh air”
—Readers’ Favorite

Ten minutes outside of Great Falls, wide-open grasslands billow in the wind, unfolding effortlessly across rolling Montana plains. An empty two-lane highway stretches out in front of me. Somewhere in the distance is my destination—an isolated mountain range called the Highwoods. This is why I moved here. This is what I want for myself, this feeling of unfurling into beauty.

Huge round bales of hay speckle fields with autumn patterns of golden light and shadow. Painted clouds of pink, blue, orange, and purple drift in a never-ending sky. I crack the window for Willow, my one-year-old yellow lab and heeler mix riding in the back. We are on this adventure together. She raises her muzzle to fresh air, nostrils twitching to discern a thousand new secrets I will never know. Ten months ago, I lifted her small yellow body and placed her in my lap, trying to choose from a litter of eleven puppies. Only six weeks old, she picked up my keys in her mouth and stumbled away.

Sitting heavy in my saddle this late summer afternoon, I try not to worry that I am also coming to care for Harrison, a dispirited man who does not feel whole without a woman’s love. I’ve always considered dependency a tragic flaw, a dangerous weakness to be avoided at all costs. Yet striding out beside Harrison today, my heart swings open. Perhaps his ingrained ruggedness is as natural as the rugged wilderness of this valley I love. Perhaps the two of us are like our dogs and these horses carrying us, creatures who simply take comfort in each other’s company, differences and all.

As we approach foothills on the valley’s western side, I’m reminded of that day the monk said a blessing. Perhaps this place, Harrison and I, our horses and dogs are somehow all enriched by the grace of these collective experiences. Whenever we spend time in nature like this, I no longer feel adrift. Harrison’s spirit lightens. I watch T’s long brown tail blow with the breeze, moving like a pendulum with the rhythm of his stride, with the beating of my heart. The dogs travel far ahead as we climb the next hill.

On weekdays, I dress in a skirt and blouse and drive four minutes or walk to the museum. I spend long days sitting inside, researching and organizing Native American works of art for my bison exhibit. On weekends, I check road conditions and don long underwear, jeans, muck boots, and a Carhartt jacket before setting off with Willow to experience the rawness of winter night calving.

The intellectual part of me is living as a scholar/curator/educator. The heart part now lives as a help-partner and rancher-in-training, a city woman unable to have children of her own helping to deliver two hundred baby calves. This second part is both intimate and less familiar. Standing knee deep in the flow of life, everything feels so inherently authentic, so bracing and pure. Everything has a life of its own.

Higher still, the air is brisk and clear. The dogs and I rise to the altitude where budding cottonwoods along creeks and groves of aspen give way to forests of pines and firs. I spy a group of forty-some elk. More will follow. They have shifted back into this high valley where they likely were born, grazing intermingled with Harrison’s horses and cattle. One crow calls to another. Willow and Tula listen. A pair of golden eagles soar overhead. Migrating raptors like Cooper’s hawks will soon return. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels are odd; some migrate, some stay. Bald eagles, prairie falcons, sharp-shinned hawks, and these golden eagles are all permanent residents. Coming to know this valley firsthand keeps showing me how all these things—habitat, grazing, wildlife—are so intimately connected.