Adventure and Peace in the American West
The Last Best Place
My first morning in Montana, I awoke to guttural, almost prehistoric, squawks outside my window. I bolted upright and slid my sleeping mask to my forehead. Our yoga teacher had closed our Vinyasa practice the night before with a warning: over-zealous songbirds often begin their chorus around four in the morning.
But it wasn’t a songbird I’d heard. It was a dinosaur.
“Those are the Sandhill Cranes,” our instructor said, as we unrolled our mats in the barn loft after breakfast and settled into Sukhasana, or easy seated pose. Two women staying in the cabins by the Shields River had sighted the slender grey birds with bright red foreheads and six-foot wingspans. Part of the Whooping Crane family, they have exceptionally long windpipes that can carry their primitive calls more than a mile.
It turned out the Sandhill Cranes were just the first of many surprises that awaited me in The Last Best Place. We moved onto our hands and knees and began a series of Cat-Cows to get the blood flowing. That was about the time hail started pelting the barn windows. In June.
Going It Alone
For two years, I’d cyber-stalked Big Sky Yoga Retreats but never pulled the trigger. It was silly to spend all that money on just a few days. It probably wasn’t as fun as it looked. And the oldest excuse in the book: I didn’t want to go alone.
At 26, I’d suffered my first anxiety attack, and travel lost its appeal. I still traveled a lot over the next four years, but worry became the first thing I unpacked at my destination.
Travel was supposed to be fun. I still vaguely remembered the time when it was. There had to be someplace I could free myself from anxiety and reconnect with the childlike wonder of deliciously-selfish travel.
I mailed my deposit.
Not only didn’t I know anyone else going on the retreat, I didn’t know a soul in the entire state of Montana. And it’s a pretty big state.
I grew up liking horses. Well, technically, I grew up infatuated with horses. I was at the barn weekly—if not daily. The rich smell of freshly-oiled leather, the gentle nickering of horses eager for breakfast, the velveteen muzzles—it was heaven on earth. But after college, riding faded to make way for a career, grad school, and ‘more important things.’
Yet, the ‘me in my mind’ still wore dusty, butter-soft cowboy boots. The ‘me in my mind’ still wore jean skirts and straw hats. The ‘me in my mind’ answered to no one but herself. She was independent, adventurous, brave. I feared that easy-going, horse-crazy cowgirl was gone for good.
But I had a hunch she’d been waiting for me in Montana all along.
Every morning, we enjoyed breakfast together before climbing the steps to the loft for yoga. Breathing deeply, we asked much of our bodies and received even more in return. We’d arrived broken, some in body and some in spirit, but somehow we healed each other. We’d arrived alone, but together our hearts were full. More than once, I found myself standing in Tadasana, gazing at the Crazy Mountains, giving thanks for that place, that time, and those women.
To each woman, her horse was the most beautiful. It was easy to see from the way the women looked into their soulful eyes, the way they stood on their tippy-toes and whispered into their flickering ears. Moments like these were why we had all come.
Moments like these were why we never wanted to leave.
Free to Be Me (Boots and All)
Four days later, as we relished our final meal together, I listened as women spoke about leaving careers and relationships that no longer served them. I listened as powerful, funny, inspiring women shared their hopes, fears, and dreams. We laughed together. We cried together. We were simply ourselves together.
In She Flies Without Wings, Mary D. Midkiff says, “The horse…carries us through the doors that stand between the familiar and the unfamiliar; limitations and freedom; and introduces us to experiences we might otherwise miss.”
The snow-capped Crazy Mountains glinted to the East as I drove to the airport. A cool breeze drifted through the Subaru’s windows and tousled my hair. I had a smile on my face, peace in my heart, and vowed to return.
About the Author: Nicole K. Ross is an Indianapolis-based writer & perpetual explorer. Her insatiable curiosity has spurred travel to more than 15 countries and made her equally at home on the back of a horse, inside the boxing ring, pounding away at her keyboard, and perched in downward dog atop her yoga mat. Find her on Facebook.