I am a city girl. Well, kind of. I grew up in New York City, the daughter of diplomats to Norway, even though I spent much of my time in the Norwegian countryside. My mom served meat and potatoes daily, and I left for college vowing potatoes would never again touch my lips. I didn’t keep that promise – but culinary monotony led me to seek diversity in food for the rest of my life. Living in Manhattan, entertaining public relations, media, and advertising clients, I was given every opportunity to eat anything and everything, which I did with great enthusiasm. In 1989, a company in Sun Valley, Idaho recruited me to run their business. Sun Valley is a posh ski resort with arts and fine restaurants, surrounded by wilderness. Seemed like my kind of place – and a great place for a single mother to raise a child. I never imagined when I took this turn on life’s road I’d find myself living among people who live and die by a diet of meat and potatoes.
I hadn’t been in Idaho long before I bought the business and decided to call Idaho home. I wasn’t aware then that Sun Valley is not a true reflection of Idahoans. As a matter of fact, Sun Valley people are often perceived as foreigners to most Idaho locals. The good news was, as much as I enjoyed the finer things in life, one thing I loved more was different cultures. Spending a great deal of time growing up in Norway, I had a heart for humble and simple people. Perhaps we all do. The people on the land spoke to a place in me that had gone ignored. At the same time, living in Sun Valley, I saw my urban neighbors opposing many practices of people on the land. The environmental activist friends I associated with painted local ranchers and farmers as villains. This disturbed me, but I didn’t know enough to know why. It bugged me like a fly does buzzing around your head on a hot summer night and I could not swat it away. Funny thing was I didn’t know a single rancher or cowboy. But that was all about to change.
One day, a cowboy stopped by to look at a horse someone had dropped off. I was renting a small ranch, with no horse experience – just like a dude from the city (it’s no wonder they sometimes roll their eyes at us – we do act like we know it all if we’ve read the book about it). During his visit, he kindly helped me figure out how to saddle my horse, feed my horse, and yes – even ride it. I was clueless. He introduced me to more cowboys, cowgirls, and ranchers, and well…you get the picture. Over time, I learned as much as I could about horses, and the environmental challenges and conflicts that faced people making their living on the land. I became fascinated by the image urbanites had of people ranching on western lands. I was equally fascinated by how people on the land saw us city folk. The sad part was much of what they thought about city dwellers was true. Kids did think eggs and milk came from the grocery store. People in cities, concerned with the environment did give money to organizations trying to destroy their livelihoods, even if they didn’t know it. I was beginning a journey that would take me a thousand miles on a road I didn’t even know existed.
I soon befriended a ranching family grazing on more than 100,000 acres of public land for over a century. I wanted to learn the reality of ranching, and quite frankly, what everyone on every side of the environmental war was up in arms about. They challenged me to come and actually do the work — I took them up on it. Almost every week I packed my car with my saddle, a pair of Wranglers (which did nothing for my butt), a long-sleeved shirt to protect me from the sun, and my cowboy hat. Did I mention it was an Australian saddle and hat? It didn’t take the cowboys long to tell me, in the most polite way possible, the saddle and hat looked stupid. They helped me get properly outfitted, which varied depending on what part of the West one was in. In this part of the West, one wore a black felt cowboy hat shaped just right, and the saddle must have a horn. I didn’t dare admit I preferred an English saddle to the Western one – leaving me wide open to ridicule and they already had more material in me to last a lifetime. Over time, I collected the proper gear while these guys put up with me and taught me the cowboy code. In case you ever wonder if the cowboy code you saw in old Westerns is for real, take it from me – it is. At least with these guys.
I try not to think about how much money I might have saved in my young adulthood if I’d spent my time within this culture, instead of countless weekends at personal growth workshops and therapy sessions with the rest of my city friends. The older I get, the more I realize simple wisdom is the most profound. One of the biggest lessons I learned from these rough and tough cowboys is honor and integrity is stored in the traditions and hearts of people who live it. These guys lived it.
To be continued…
These are my first teachers, the Black’s – with their hired men and me. Joel is the guy on the far right.Left to right: Me (Linda Hesthag Ellwein), Chris Black, Doug Black, Chuck, Sean Carter and Joel Herrmann. Missing from this picture is Jay Black, and my original cowboy friend and teacher, Okie McDowell, who you’ll hear a lot more about elsewhere.