The Upper Ranch

By Amy Felix Stewart

“You’re so lucky you get to marry a Stewart boy!” my future sister-in-law Sheri exclaimed as she grabbed my hand to inspect the diamond that was still so new it felt foreign. She smiled over at her own Stewart boy, who stopped stoking the fire to nod at me under a white cowboy hat.

It was the first time I had ever set foot on the Stewart family campsite in Arbon Valley, Idaho. Gathered around a fire pit under the shimmering leaves of white speckled aspens sat siblings, spouses, parents, and children, chatting or laughing or happily dozing. Jeremy took my hand and led me to the circle, where the song of a nearby creek joined with the voices of my soon-to-be family. As I took in the acres of rippling wheat waving in all directions, I knew Sheri had spoken the truth. I was lucky. I already loved this man in the camp chair next to mine, but the feeling dug deeper and began to take root as I sat among these people who had made him, on the land that had made them all.

Jeremy’s father was born here—right here at this very campsite, in a tiny pine wood shack in the dead of winter, 1935. These slopes were where he learned to walk; this land was why he learned to work. His father had grown up here, too, leaving for a time to try his hand at city life, but returning—with a girl—to build a house and a family. For decades, they lived and they labored, sustained by a cool, natural spring that still flowed a few feet away, spilling into a rusted metal tub full of watermelons and six-packs of soda.

Before night claimed the sky, Jeremy took me on a four-wheeler ride, away from the talking and the trees and out into more wide open space than I had ever felt a part of. This was far from the parceled off lots and sidewalk blocks of my own suburban upbringing. I clung to his waist as the hawks soared above and the setting sun skimmed the endless fields.

That night by the fire, I watched Jeremy’s dad—all angles and edges in old plaid and denim—and wondered how it felt to sit surrounded by your own posterity, mere feet from the very spot where you had entered the world, under the same trees that had witnessed your childhood games of cowboys and Indians, on the very land into which you had poured a lifetime of sweat, worry, and effort.

And I marveled at how easy it was for a person—for me—to sign a paper, speak a word of consent in front of witnesses, and just like that, step into another family, putting on a legacy like a hand-me-down jacket. Would it come to feel like mine? Was there space in my own story—so far the only one I’d known—for this sudden merging with another?

As I watched the brilliant flames lick the darkness, I pictured the years to come, with our daughters and sons running by this hidden creek and drinking water from this ancient bubbling spring. All children have two stories to start out with, I supposed, and still there’s ample room to add their own.

*       *       *

“Mommy, can you take me to the potty?” asks my daughter the minute I return from my sweaty solo hike to the tiny outhouse on the hill. Her face is hard to find beneath the streaks of dirt and tears and last night’s marshmallow fest. My old vision of the future is now hopping from foot to foot in front of me, a little more frantic and a lot filthier than I had once imagined. We’ve returned time and again with our own budding posterity to this spot under the whispering aspens; Sheri still greets us with excitement when our over-burdened minivan bumps its way down the dusty path toward the tents. No longer the hesitant newcomer, I spend less time gazing dreamily into the fire and more time keeping children from falling into it.

Something about this place can make time stand still. The sun marches on and the creek keeps its current, but often the hours refuse to pass. The kids are low on sleep and goodwill, the flies are relentless in their assault, and I sometimes wonder if the work and the mess are worth it. But there always comes a moment, standing out in sharp relief against the backdrop of tedium: an instant that’s almost over before I can name it, before I can figure out how to wrap it up and store it away to sample later.

Like when I hear my cautious children shout their delight into the darkness as they romp through wheat fields with flashlights, testing the limits of their bravery, relishing a freedom they never feel at home.

Or when we’re bumping over dusty trails in the back of a pickup and I glance up at the night and gasp at the misty spray of stars spread out above us. I’ve seen it before, this sky so close and so clear, but it takes my breath away every time. My neck hurts from looking up.

And that moment walking alone down the hill toward the spring, when a subtle shift of the light and the tiniest hint of a breeze buoy me up and turn my thoughts, for the first time that day, to the sweatshirt I left in the tent. The sound of Jeremy laughing with his nephews and the scent of dutch-oven deliciousness rise up to greet me and I realize that I am purely happy to be here, on this small patch of earth, with all of these people.

I take in the hills, the sky, the bowing willows and shimmering aspens. I picture a rough but sturdy wooden house, built on that rise nearly a century ago, and a little barefoot boy. A young and unsuspecting girl from Chicago, come to be a farmer’s wife. They wrestled their living from this land year after year, dependent on its moods for their survival. Did her hours under this scorching sun ever seem endless? Did her minutes slog by while her days slipped through her fingers?

That little house is gone now. So is the boy who whooped and galloped across these hills.

*        *       *

The next morning I wake to slanting, newborn light, the chilly air twittering with birdsong. Rustling above are the steady trees that have stood witness while countless children sprouted and changed and grew older right beneath them. I know my little Stewarts will do the same. But for now our sleeping babies are still here, tucked in around us, zipped up safe in our two-toned blue cocoon. Next to me dreams the man who once asked to join my story and has now become it. I sink under blankets, listening to them breathe, and let the moment stretch on as long as it will, until the sun in its unbroken rhythm rises so high and hot that it forces me out and into the buzzing day.


About Amy Felix Stewart

Amy Felix Stewart grew up in a large family in Small Town, Utah. She earned her BA in English from BYU and is an intermittent editor, technical writer, and piano teacher, but she spends most of her time refereeing her three young children and sneaking off to binge-read beautiful prose

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