The Oklahoma wind was whipping our long hair into birds’ nests when my mother and I drove down the highway looking for an old family bison ranch. I held a box film camera and some hope to catch the usual herd by the fence, but my prospects dimmed when they peppered a faraway field. I was leaving for a new life in California with my son and pup the next day, and I had come through some shaggy, ugly, beautiful life up till now: I’d lost my marriage, endured a dark night of the soul, and faced unknowns I’d never prepared for. I packed up my little boy and pup to finish my degree in Virginia. We lived and worked on a horse ranch. I started my writing and editorial studio in the attic of a barn. Survived a barn fire, a cow kick to the hip, and a steep learning curve. I rode horses till I found my spirit again, and I came back home determined to follow a braver vision for my life.
I dug into the stories of my mothers and grandmothers to learn their lessons in courage, like the Ghigau women, whose serpent-tattooed lips and swan-wing capes were symbolic of their courage and compassion. I adopted a life-and-work philosophy of Buffalo Culture: to watch my horizons, travel light, follow a vision that nourished me and others, and waste nothing, down to the bladder and bone. This gave me a new definition of abundance. As a writer, I knew how to recognize motifs emerging in a narrative. As a traveler, too, I saw symbols plotting themselves in my life like those on a map, the way I’ve showed my son how symbols in our atlas help unlock meaning for where we’ve been and where we’re going. In this way, the bison emerged out of my past and became a symbol for my own journey.
When I didn’t find them readily available along the fences, I nearly gave up on getting my buffalo photo because my car was already packed for California and I was thinking about the long drive ahead the next day — but my mother encouraged me to keep going. We found the long dirt road leading to the ranch, and serendipity met us in the form of a woman with an owl-gray braid down her back, her kitchen screen door wafting out something smelling like the French word for beef, bouef. She invited me to hop in the farm truck and took me from one sprawling field to another, full of bison, more than I could count. I was intoxicated by scenes that could have been plucked out of Dances with Wolves. We opened and closed gates, taking unmarked roads through sweet prairie grass till we reached the very last and highest field. My truck driver nodded to the behemoth standing in front of me, “He can see everything from here.” Two thousand pounds of bouef. Horns like cracked marble. Eyes looking out over the herd. Ugly. Beautiful.
Click. Wind. At the tiny, metallic sound of my camera, he looked me straight in the soul windows. Those tiny, black, fearless eyes fingerpicked some genetic memory in me — the Cherokee, perhaps even further, the Basque hunter-gatherers — and I felt a lump in my throat. The moment resonated of serendipity, too. I would have missed this if things had gone according to my original plan. This is the soft underbelly of all our plan-making: The unexpected often leads to abundance we couldn’t have possibly planned for.
If I was going to follow my buffalo, I had to embrace the unexpected, letting neither beauty nor ugliness go to waste. Beauty feeds us, but ugly wakes us up.
The day that bull stared at me, I felt my heart pounding in my throat. I was paying attention. Years later, on another ranch, my son and I would face a near-five-foot rattler on our porch and I would feel the same startling awareness. We were standing on that porch in the middle of rattlesnake country because the fire had come for us again, making itself a recurring motif in my story, making apparent another significant theme. This time it wasn’t a barn full of hay and my attic apartment catching flames, but a neighboring house fire that nearly claimed the vintage Airstream my son and I were living in. While the Airstream was being repaired, friends had offered us a vacant farmhouse alongside the Rio de los Brazos de Dios, literally the River of the Arms of God. I said yes. I was leaning into another kind of abundance. Peace like a river, peace like blue. Blue like the blue flower moment Mark Matousek talks about, “when you snap awake, my eyes are open and I’m seeing. These sacred moments are happening all of the time. But we’re in a kind of trance. We’re in a workaday, mundane hallucination of ordinariness... Nothing is ordinary. What could be less ordinary than being alive? On this mysterious planet? It’s extraordinary.”
And it is extraordinary, isn’t it? I’ve come to believe life isn’t meant to be ideal; it’s meant to be miraculous. Had the fires not come, my son and I wouldn’t have experienced the outpouring of beauty that came from our community. Had the fires not come, we wouldn’t have gained the kind of compassion I wanted to teach my son or gain for myself. Had the fires not come, I wouldn’t have resonated so deeply with the courage of women and their stories, which defines so much of my life and work today. The courage of women is nothing new, but it is historically overshadowed by The Hero’s Journey favoring male archetypes. Had the fires not come, that would not be changing today. Had the fires not come, I wouldn’t have stayed on the farm where peace and courage marked themselves like monuments on our map. After I killed the rattlesnake on our porch, I found a broken bit of blue glass in its mouth, an astonishing symbol as clear to me as the Day-Glo double rainbow that stretched over our house three days later, standing there looking at it with my son, a blue flower moment blooming in my throat.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing something wrong with your life if you are in the pursuit of beauty and encountering ugly. Chances are, you are doing something very right. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés says, “Remember, anywhere there is beauty, the predator comes.” Sometimes you can’t save your marriage. Sometimes the barn catches fire. Sometimes the rattlesnake is just going to slither on your porch and hiss at you. But sometimes the double rainbow comes after. Chances are, every one of them will lead you to unexpected blue, bright as Day-Glo.
We traveled over a thousand miles with our reborn Airstream. I towed it past the bison ranches of Oklahoma, migrated through the Ancient Way and camped beside the Grand Canyon and under a full moon in Joshua Tree, till we finally landed on a chicken ranch next to the Pacific Crest Trail. We slept through Santa Ana winds, built our own fires, lost our heat in the middle of storms, dealt with coyotes and mice, and a whole lot of ugly beautiful that marked up our maps and took us to new limits of our courage. And every morning we woke to a view of the faraway Baja mountains, like the backs of whales swimming on the horizon. I didn’t know it then, but they were becoming new symbols for our journey, beckoning me to a deeper kind of blue.
Our visions can be shapeshifters, not because they are fickle but because they give us exactly what we are ready for at the time, drawing us towards new abundance, unfolding something significant, like a motif in a novel. There’s an art to navigating that unfolding, a courage to it, and it’s not an easy one to stay with in our culture and noise — but it is one I’ve found my soul readily responds to, when I’m following my buffalo. “My looking ripens things and they come towards me, to meet and be met.” – Rilke
Sun is a writer, editor, and sojourner. With a B.A. in English, Harvard studies in World Literature, and 18-years in the publishing world, she founded her literary studio to specialize in publishing projects with vision. She is a Blackbird Fellow and executive editor with A Room of Her Own Foundation and her work has been featured in National Geographic, Southern Writers, and American Cowboy. Currently, she’s completing a Baja writer's residency, following the whale migration and collaborating on a women’s international poetry and music project. She travels the West with her beloved son and pup.
Words: Sun Cooper