An author’s new book takes us along on adventures of enlightenment throughout the West.
The West contains innumerable adventures, insightful horsemen and grand moments of enlightenment. It has also graced us with many incredible writers who have celebrated, criticized or simply wondered about this unique region and its equally unique inhabitants. Many are gone from us; some recently like J.P.S. Brown and William Kittredge.
One that is still with us and continues to push the understanding of the West’s sense of place is Gretel Ehrlich. She is a writer with a deep love of the wilderness West and is considered amongst the region’s most important voices. She has written 13 books, among them her 1995 memoir A Match to the Heart that describes her experience and recovery of being struck by lightning.
In 1975 she released her first major work of non-fiction with The Solace of Open Spaces. The book started out as a series of personal journal entries that, over a period of many years, she crafted into 12 chapters about her life on a Wyoming sheep ranch after her creative partner and boyfriend died of cancer. She had come to the region after his death, alone, to film a piece for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on sheep ranching. The project ultimately led to an important life decision, with Ehrlich staying on a small ranch and learning to rope and ride and establish herself as a working stock person, all the while continuing her writing career.
“Solace,” as she is prone to call it, reflected her new life in the “back of beyond” of Wyoming and her growing love for the region, the people and the animals that make it through 30-below-zero winters. And of that life, she tells us with honest intimacy, “It’s not about toughness, but toughing it out.” She was 29 at the time.
Now, 36 years after the publishing of The Solace of Open Spaces, she has released Unsolaced, Along the Way to All That Is (published by Pantheon Books), the bookend, if you will, to The Solace of Open Spaces. In her new book she takes us deeper into that first experience in the West and later, on to other roaming life adventures, causing her to admit, “I’ve moved too much—something like twenty-eight times. ” In those travels she has called many places home, from the central coast of California to a small cabin in Montana and a tent in Greenland. While all these short stays are part of her day job as a writer; it is clear that her interest in seeing the world for what it is today shapes her, with the hopes of moving toward a healthier future.
Insight from Ray Hunt
Her early cowboy life in Wyoming centered her, and she discusses an assignment she had from Time magazine to write about “living visionary westerners.” Among them she chose Ray Hunt. She rode in one of Hunt’s many clinics he held before he died in 2009.
Her observations of the experience are succinct and enlightening. When she asked Hunt how he learned what he does with horses, he explained, “I didn’t just scrape off the top, and there it was. I dug and dug and tore my hair out. But I owe it to the horse to work this hard because I used to do things the true-grit way, not out of meanness, just out of ignorance. Guess I saw too many Charlie Russell paintings! I didn’t know there was another way.”
Hunt goes on to tell her how he first met Tom Dorrance and how a horse named Hondo started him on his path.
“Everything I know started with that horse,” Hunt said. “Hondo was a striking, biting, kicking, bucking, tough colt who might have killed me. Day after day Hondo would say, ‘Come on, try to break me and I’ll break YOU instead.’ ”
Hunt showed the horse to Dorrance in California.
“As soon as Tom came around me, Hondo acted like a lamb, and as soon as he left, I’d be riding a tiger again. I couldn’t understand. Something was going on, but I couldn’t find it.”
Throughout her visit and in her subsequent story, Ehrlich explains with visual observation just how Ray Hunt works young horses and in doing so seeing just how he worked with the wisdom of Tom Dorrance to uncover what he couldn’t see during that first meeting with his soon-to-be mentor. Ehrlich goes on to describe Hunt’s universe—the inside of a round pen, “ … it is a place of giving, discipline, awareness, compassion, and still-ness.”
The experience was all about seeing, not just watching. That principle describes Ehrlich’s searching life of the last 40-plus years, taking her from one place to another, keenly aware of the changes in the world around her.
In 1991, she was struck by lightning on her ranch in Wyoming that she describes in the inspirational best seller, A Match to the Heart. In Unsolaced, she describes her recovery at her parent’s home in Santa Barbara and her long road to recovery. She found a house that became a safe haven for her as she considered her newfound limits.
“The solace I’d found in Wyoming was no longer available to me,” she wrote. “But I’d found a place near what the Chumash Indians call the Western Gate—the place where the dead go—with its wild nocturnal winds and miles of beach backed by chaparral-covered mountains and enough space to walk and ride where no one would bother me.”
After her recovery, she embarked on a series of travels that became subjects for future writings, including trips to Arctic fiords, looking into regenerative agriculture in Zimbabwe, as well as a chance meeting in an airport that led her to report the effects of genocidal war in Kosovar. Each chapter is another adventure and part of her search for answers about the world she lives in.
In that search she ultimately returns to Montana and Wyoming to find that solace once again amongst the animals and mountains—and a new love. “Finally, the sharp lessons of impermanence I learned while writing ‘Solace’ still hold true: that loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness, and despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.”
In Unsolaced, Gretel Ehrlich presents us with an open, thoughtful look at one Western woman’s life and what she continues to make of it—her experiences, the rootstock of her writing. The result is a fine read.