Riding the White Horse Home

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Excerpts from Riding the White Horse Home, by Teresa Jordan, 1993
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p.12:  “If I had only been to the Point one time, I would never forget it. Such expansiveness shapes the synapses in irreversible ways.”

p. 14:  Baker Brownell, The Human Community:  “Our little century of escape is about over.”

p. 16:  Lewis Hyde, The Gift:  “The spirit of a community or collective can be wiped out, tradition can be destroyed. We tend to think of genocide as the physical destruction of a race or group, but the term may be aptly expanded to include the obliteration of the genius of a group, the killing of its creative spirit.”

p. 21:  “My grandfather disliked children and cats. He was a grand old ranchman who pulled his boots on first and his britches after, who never went outside without a hat. He chain-smoked Camels, pinched between thumb and middle finger or dangling from the corner of his mouth. Sunny – even my brother and I called him by his nickname – would never have held a smoke ‘like a goddamned dilettante,’ between two outstretched fingers, and he flicked the butts a good ten yards after stubbing them out.”

p. 26:  “As one historian has suggested, history is what we remember; personal history, I suspect, is what we want to believe.”

p. 31:  “Owen Wister described his character Lin McLean as ‘not only a good man, but a man …’ … A miner in Butte, Montana, once described another worker similarly:  ‘He was a big man, more powerful than he himself really knew. He could do things.’

Not only a good man, but a man. He could do things. These simple words capture much of what I respect most about my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and the other men who surrounded my upbringing. They could do things. Any one of them could feed four hundred cattle, day after day, alone in a Wyoming winter, build a house from stone they had quarried themselves, or line out a dozen miles of irrigation ditch at a 1 percent grade with only a thirty-six-inch measure and a hundred-yard length of chain.”

p. 32:  “The history of the West is the story of cooperation, not isolation. As the Western historian Bernard De Voto has quipped, the only true rugged individualists were usually found dangling from a rope held by a group of cooperating citizens.

“As important to my grandfather as his reputation as a good cattleman was his name as a good neighbor. Still, he was shaped by a primitivist urge, by a belief that his father had done it all alone and so should he. He was quick to offer help, uneasy when he needed it in return. By some twist of logic, community was commendable, but should flow only one way.”

“There are a few rules to ranching that mustn’t be broken. One is that you rise at five-thirty each morning… A second rule is that ranchers don’t take vacations.”

p. 34:  “I have a rancher friend, a man, who suggests that the West can be understood as the history of fathers fighting sons.”

p. 35:  Along with these physical skills, I learned early what most women raised on ranches know:  that it’s easier to be a rancher’s daughter than a rancher’s son. Pushed off into the eddies of family history, we don’t have to strong-arm the rapids.”

p. 37:  Alexis de Tocqueville:  “[Americans] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

p. 37:  “When we see ourselves or our kin measuring up short of the legends that shape us, disappointments turn into blame – of a government that interferes, of a wife who would make us move, of a son who isn’t ‘rugged’ enough, of a father who chooses not to ranch forever. Unable to accept our own shortcomings or forgive those of our kin, we orphan ourselves within the solitude of our own hearts.”

p. 44:  “There are memories in kneading – and in smoking and drinking – as there are in anything repetitive.”

p. 65:  “… a ranch is closer to the preindustrial model in which home, family, and work are inseparable.”

p. 71:  “Don’t we all believe, at some level, that our elders know something they will someday reveal? And how many of us go to our graves without ever knowing what it was, without ever passing it on to our own children?”

p. 78:  “I’d like to think that my shame was a product purely of adolescence and my own insecurity, but there was something deep and cultural to it, a subtle but pervasive contempt not only for the rural but for anything small or local. … Our success seemed tied to how completely we severed the ties with home. … With maturity, most of us have come to profess a certain fondness for Cheyenne, but the shame – or, more accurately, the assumption of our carefully educated superiority – is still there in subtle ways.”

p. 80:  “That child in me that yearned to venture forth into the brilliant and mysterious world has always been rewarded. But the child that wanted to come home makes me feel ashamed.”

“Thomas Jefferson thought of education as a gift. A person would leave home to become educated and then return with the gift of that learning. The new knowledge would benefit the community and the student would continue to receive from that community the deeper, older education of place. It was an exchange that went both ways. A classically educated person would learn from the great literature of the world and also from the land.

“But we tend to think of education more as a commodity, as something that we buy and pay for and consequently own, something that does not carry obligation but rather releases us from it. We tend, too, to value a person not for what she knows through experience in the world or through self-directed study, but for what she has learned in the sanctified halls of learning, her professional credentials.”

p. 81:  David Lebedoff, 1978 Esquire article, “The Dangerous Arrogance of the New Elite”

p. 82:  “Coyote, that old trickster, is the master of disguises, the emperor of irony, ‘the great culture bringer who can also make mischief beyond belief.’”

p. 84:  “Does it always make sense to kill snakes? No. Will I kill another snake? Not thoughtlessly. But can I go home again with a different attitude about killing snakes? Ahh, that’s the problem.”

p. 92:  “[My neighbors] are like family to me, a connection not by progeny but by proximity, as close a tie out here in this vast arid land as genetics.”

p. 93:  “At eighty-six, Merrill is thin and wiry and leather-skinned … He also says he’d like to jack up his head and run a new body under it.”

p. 108:  “We mid-wife these calves into existence, we care for them, sometimes we even risk our lives for them, and they are ultimately slated for slaughter. In this fact lies the essential irony of our work.”

p. 112:  “In my life in the city, I work long days. I break up the hours at my desk or in the classroom with long hikes in the woods near my home, with bicycling, with gardening. Physical activity keeps me grounded in my body; time outdoors keeps me aware of the seasons. And yet here, in the country, is the real work, the interweave of man and animal, weather and land, that is as old as appetite. Here, physical exertion matters. It keeps me aware of what it means to be alive, and what it costs.”

p. 117:  “And like other occupations that depend on the body yet place it constantly in peril, cattle ranching breeds an attitude toward danger of both reverence and disdain.”

p. 120:  “You did what you had to and went on. Accommodation, not much talked about, was key. … A cowhand’s walk, shaped by years of damage and recovery, is a study in accommodation. The body cants forward from the waist, the lower back fuses, the hips stiffen, the walk becomes awkward, the head seems to settle into the shoulders. ‘It’s a kink in the neck,’ one old-timer told me, trying to describe his own gait, ‘and a limp in every limb.’”

p. 121:  “The psychology of accommodation is letting things go. … The ability to mine calamity for punch lines may be the most important accommodation of all.”

p. 124:  “Ranchers walk up to most bones. They look physical danger right in the eye and don’t blink. But there are other bones that scare them. For my family, the pile we shied away from was grief. Everything in my background prepared me to deal with physical pain. Nothing prepared me for emotional loss.”

p. 166:  “Every ranch wears a patina of stories about the men and women who once worked there.”

p. 168:  “[The cook] was still pretty tight when my father drove her to town and she cussed him the whole way. ‘You’re so dumb,’ she yelled at one point, ‘you couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were writ on the heel.’”

p. 171:  J. Dobie’s measure of a man:  “The best you can say is he’s good to his horse and the worst you can say is he ain’t.”

p. 174:  “‘A baler’s like a woman,’ he once told me, ‘awful touchy. Treat her gentle, though, and everything is sweet.’”

p. 176:  Men on skid row, filled with men like Kelley:  “He was flawed, but he had dignity, he had skills and artistry, he paid his own way. There was a place for him in the country; there is no place for him now.”

p. 187:  Carolyn Heilbrun: “And courtship itself is, as often as not, an illusion:  that is, the woman must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret.”

“My grandmother did not put her husband at the center of her life; she never put anyone at the center of her life except herself. She was criticized for this; she was also dreadfully unhappy and she made everyone around her unhappy as well.”

p. 190:  “I always had the feeling that Effie was angry at the world for not making her happy; I was angry at Effie for not making herself happy. I realize now that she didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted. Nothing she had seen or heard told her that her happiness was her own responsibility or that, if the conventional life did not satisfy her, she should search for one that did. No wonder she was crotchety.”

p. 191:  John Briggs, Fire in the Crucible:  “Most often, however, the prodigy’s special spark is ‘lost’ because it finds no tinder …”

“My grandmother was not a prodigy, but coincidence is necessary for more modest talents as well. Whatever embers she possessed fell in a desert where they did not extinguish so much as smolder until they marked her and everything she touched.”

p. 195:  “Lives don’t serve as models, Heilbrun reminded us, only stories do.”

p. 203:  “It was too much to offer, too much to ask for, too much to accept – in short, the custom of the country.”

p. 204:  “Perhaps the greatest gift of ceremony is its potential to gather together all the parts of a life.”


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