"Go Back" Nancy Harris McLelland
If I don’t know where I was,
How can I get back there?
There’s a place I remember as if I was holding a photo.
I see the rise of sage-covered hills, a willow bank,
and wild rose blowing sweetness in the morning breeze.
I know what you’ll say. We don’t learn who we are in a day.
Yet after all these years, it is a day and place that stays,
when I knew I could hold the herd in an easy way.
When I consider the places I’ve been and how far I’ve strayed,
I’d give anything to go back and see if I know that young me
riding tall and free beneath a blue Nevada sky.
Nancy Harris McLelland
Published work within the current millennium:
Three poems in the 2012 edition of Argentum,
the arts digest of Great Basin College in Elko, Nevada.
Two poems to be published in 2012 Edge,
the literary magazine produced by TahoeWritersWorks
An article, "Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" in the anthology, Cowboy Poetry Matters, edited by Dana Gioia.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a cowboy in Elko during a Cowboy Poetry Gathering who described a particular place he remembered. “I was a young buckaroo for the Marble Ranches,” he said. “There was a special place…sure wish I could remember where it was. “ I was struck by the intensity of his yearning. “Go Back” is the poem I made from that encounter.
Last summer, I had my own “go back” experience, revisiting the ranch in northeastern Nevada where I lived from ages two to five. I went on this one hundred and fifty-mile round trip from my summer home in Tuscarora to an abandoned ranch site a few miles from Lee, Nevada with my childhood friend, Linda.
My friend was born and raised on a family ranch near Lee, went to one-room schools in the area, knows and loves this ranching community scattered along the western flank of the Ruby Mountains. Our parents were friends during the early days. Linda and I ran with the same group of girls in high school and pledged the same sorority in college. After college, we went our separate ways until we were both retirement age. I was free to spend summers in Tuscarora, a silver-mining metropolis in the 1850’s, now a collection of fewer than two dozen retirees and artists, and the only service a post office. Linda and her husband were raising quarter horses and bucking bull stock on their spread in the valley below.
After our fiftieth high school reunion, Linda said, “When you come next summer we’ll go back to the Pitchforth Ranch above the Kane’s place. That was your dad’s first ranching job, wasn’t it? You remember Bill and Josephine Kane?”
“ I have lots of memories of that time,” I said, which turned out to be a lie. I remembered my mother’s stories. She loved telling anecdotes about the bad winter of ’48 , the hay lift and pogonip frost; the evenings when Dad roped fence posts until he was good enough to throw a loop with the Kane men; Mom’s first time fixing lunch for a branding crew; Dad taking me winter mornings on the hay wagon to feed cattle. That time was important in their young married lives because it was Dad’s first ranching job and their first child, a healthy little girl.
During the fifty-two mile drive from Tuscarora to Elko on the day of our road trip, Linda and I talked about our class reunion, deaths, divorces and laughed about who we made out with in high school . We talked about the town girls who married ranchers and the ranch girls who moved away and never came back. I also told her a little bit about how I “came by” the place in Tuscarora. She understood the appeal of the remote ranching community, below and beyond Tuscarora, which had stayed relatively unchanged, the way much more of Elko County used to be.
It was harder to explain Tuscarora as my source of creative inspiration. In Tuscarora, I found time, space, and a place that inspired me to take my writing seriously, especially my poetry.
We were still chatting as we turned onto Highway 228 to Lee. About five miles off the pavement and onto gravel, Linda slammed on the brakes. “Look at that derrick! It still has the cables and everything.” We had stopped in the middle of the road, and I thought maybe only a Nevadan could appreciate the scene: a sage-covered hillside, true blue sky, the profile of an old-style derrick, the kind used to build haystacks fifty years ago—when we were young. I also thought how good it was to reconnect with someone who knew me when I was a kid, who knows where I come from.
Our next stop was what used to be the busy hamlet of Lee. The defunct grocery store had been converted into a residence, the Lee schoolhouse remodeled into a charming country home. I got out of the car to look around.
Linda pointed to the field across the road. “That’s where they used to have the turkey shoots,” she said. I stared hard at the barren field, wishing it into familiarity. I could imagine a target on a bale of hay, remembering another of my mother’s stories. Mother was a good shot; and one November she won a turkey. However, it was years before I realized that it was a contest of marksmanship.
“I thought they shot the turkeys at a turkey shoot,” I said to Linda.
“In the early days they probably did shoot the turkeys,” she said.
“Bullshit. You’re just trying to make me feel more like a ranch girl and less like a town girl.”
“You never were much of a ranch girl, “ she said, slamming the door.
“I beg your pardon.” I was defensive about how little I remembered about this particular place, in spite of my ranching history. I reminded her that my dad managed one of the largest outfits in Elko County, sixty-five thousand deeded acres, sixty-five hundred mother cows, seven ranches in all. “Do you remember that I had to move to the ranch headquarters in Deeth and go to school in Wells? We lived in that hellhole for a year and I had to take the school bus from the ranch into Wells and there were only eighty-four kids in the damn school. I might add, that was the year I was second runner-up to the Wells Rodeo queen.”
She smirked into the rearview mirror, “You never were much of a ranch girl.”
“You already said that. Besides, you were always an ornery little shit.” We laughed.
We took a dirt road up the hill, stopping at what used to be the Kane ranch, now called the U-2, owned by a mink farmer from northern Utah and run by Jess Peters, son of one of our high school friends. To get to the old Pitchforth place, we had to drive through the U-2 ranch.
We stopped the car in front of the fenced yard. Jess’s wife came out to greet us. Linda explained our excursion and then turned to me and asked if I recognized anything, pointing to the original ranch house, set back in the trees, and to the barn. Nothing seemed familiar.
We agreed to go inside just to say hello. I could see Jess’s wife was trying to fix lunch for her family hay crew. Linda likes to visit, and, while I edged toward the door, she talked with the men about haying, the old days, and her old family ranch. As they reminisced, I felt a rush of memories about haying time—not at this place—but on other ranches where we lived, other seasons of my youth. Good memories.
We said goodbye, drove across a cattle guard and up the road two rutted miles. “This is the old Pitchforth place,” she said as she turned off the key. I was quiet. Nothing registered. I had no memory of what the ranch looked like sixty years ago.
What I saw was a small, wood-framed house, vacant so long there were no signs of human detritus—no broken windowpanes, no doors, no rusted tin cans, or the weathered torso of an abandoned doll. Our house was now a cowshed with two feet of dry manure covering every inch of the interior. Close by was a small building made of railroad ties, probably the milk house; beyond, a primitive brush corral. That was it.
“I think that tree looks familiar,” I said to Linda, remembering a black and white snapshot in a family album, me and a cow dog sitting in the shade of a cottonwood tree. I studied the dead branches of the stunted tree.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” Linda asked.
I headed to her car, signaling that the nostalgia trip was over. As she started the engine, I said, “Well, Linda, if I ever get famous and then die and they ask you about me, you sure as hell can say, ‘She came from humble origins.’” I smiled, so she wouldn’t think I was pissed-off about our trip down memory lane.
At the end of that day, back in my place in Tuscarora watching the evening light move across the valley floor, I felt tired and disappointed. The purpose of the trip was to reconnect with my childhood friend and to revisit a significant place in my life. The friendship had been renewed, but the truth is that it was a long ride for nothing other than my friend’s stories and my mother’s memories.
In an unexpected way, the experience reinforced my love for Tuscarora, where I feel most at home. The dry air, the sound of the wind, and the scent of sage after rain take me back to my youth and restore me to my authentic self.
This is my “go back” place, and, at seventy, I am surprised by the strength of my need to be here: the solitude; the time to write, the way memories are triggered by wind and sky; the need to be from somewhere; the need to go back.