When I was a litigation attorney and the mother of three young boys, I’d often go to sleep with a vague sense of anxiety and wake with a knot in my stomach. Like so many professional women, my days consisted of running around in uncomfortable clothes screaming at other drivers while making carpooling arrangements for a soccer game on my cell phone. Just so you get the full picture, I lived in New Jersey.
Alas, in my profession there was also a lot of yelling – I was routinely subjected to tirades from clients who wanted “justice, " senior partners who wanted more money, and frustrated judges. Then I’d go home to an unhappy husband and three hungry kids.
By the age of 40, I couldn’t believe how my life had turned out.
Something had gotten away from me. In high school and college I was a free-spirited athlete, strong and funny, a minimalist woman who could live out of a backpack. Ten years later I was mortgaged, obligated, and stuck. But don’t cry for me, dear reader, because alleluia, I am stuck no more. Now, I’m a cowgirl.
The journey from attorney and soccer mom to horse wrangler was a wild one but my story’s ending here at a ranch in Colorado had been written by forces much bigger than this little Italian girl from Philly. It was inevitable that I’d end up in blue jeans, knee-high in horse poop, going for days without a shower when I live outdoors. I had never even been to the Rocky Mountains but they sure visited me on a regular basis. Due to marriage and other compromising life circumstances, though, I was about as far from the minimalist mountain life as I could imagine. Living in New Jersey, working as a lawyer, always a little lost, and unhappy.
After sixteen years of litigation I had nothing left. Suffering classic symptoms of burn out – insomnia, depression, distracted thinking – it became more difficult for me to plug on. I was a good lawyer; my clients loved me and that was mutual, but the system is a rather huge, bureaucratic, and hopeless morass mainly bent on enriching attorneys. I found myself feeding people into a machine over which I had no control, and one which would ultimately deplete them. So onerous was the litigation process and so unpredictable that I initiated each client meeting with a “Get Some Religion" lecture:
“Forget ‘justice’ or revenge, " I’d say, “You’re not going to feel better when this is over. You won’t be vindicated, just exhausted. But there’s a chance I can get you some money. "
When I was defending someone who had been sued the lecture was even bleaker:
“You probably haven’t done anything wrong. That doesn’t really matter, " my client’s face would be grim. “We can try and settle quickly but you might want to take wads of cash and throw them out the window because it’s the same result. This process is really costly. "
That was it, that was all I had to give and it was a gruesomely realistic picture.
The last law firm I worked for started to go under financially and each day there was the sort of panic in the air you sense with any sinking ship. Employees spent most of their time looking for other jobs, and pilfering supplies while partners screamed at secretaries to recycle envelopes. The handwriting, you might say, was on the wall writ pretty large. Twenty years earlier, on graduating from college I taught seventh grade and after listening to my adversaries throw temper tantrums for two decades, I knew I was ready to take on high school kids. As it happened there was a mid-year job opening for an English teacher at a local school. I took a 50% salary cut, and jumped at the opportunity to ditch lawyering. When interviewed by the school board, I was asked why I would leave law to teach high school:
“Take your worst teenagers, " I replied without hesitation, “Dress then in suits and give them power. Put them in a room and tell them whoever yells longest and loudest wins. That’s what it’s like to practice law. "
I loved teaching high school, and the income loss was seamless. I had practiced law on “The Mommy Track" for many years, working part-time or 80% time, declining assignments that involved travel and long hours. Using a strategy that confounded my peers, I insisted on keeping my lawyer salary on par with a teacher’s, so that I could always make a lateral move. By the time I left law I was being paid more than I wanted or needed. I was in the process of getting divorced for the second time, my personal life being as chaotic as my inner energy, and I had learned to live frugally if nothing else.
Boy, did I love teaching high school. The kids were funny, willing, frightened and my English class was often a love-fest. Though I taught literature, there was music in my classroom, and food was always available for the ravenous teenager. Opening up to me, their writing was often stunning and rich. It was difficult to engage the modern teenager in most required works, however, like Beowulf or The Scarlet Letter. My lesson planning took hours and I always had stacks of essays to read each night. I was up at 5:00 a. m. and coached sports so I was rarely home before six o’clock. I never worked so hard in my life.
Aside from the grueling workload, I found the system so restrictive I could hardly fathom how kids and teachers survived it. I taught 110 teenagers a day, and they were in and out every forty-three minutes. There was barely a breather to go to the bathroom and class time was either too long or too short, depending on the character or mood of each day. A standard public school curriculum does not allow for a lot of creativity and the kids were bored and restless with the antiquated works they often had to read (but rarely did). After a year and a half of teaching, I woke up one June morning and said,
“I just can’t do this for another year. "
I quit that job on July 1, 2004. At the time, I had a publishing contract to write a non-fiction book about exercise for middle age people. There was no way I could be a writer and a teacher at the same time so I thought I’d devote myself to writing. Though I lived near a beautiful beach, the mountains still called me endlessly. I love to ski and ride horses, and there’s not much room for either in New Jersey. I made another life-changing decision on the same day I quit teaching: to take a horse pack trip into the Rocky Mountains. Finally, I was going to get close to the beauty that had been in my dreams for years. Jumping on the internet, I found a trip called The Ultimate – five days into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a couple of cowboys and a bunch of folks I didn’t know. The pack trip was indeed a dream come true. Leaving out of beautiful Bear Basin Ranch in Westcliffe, we rode for hours each day, deeper into the Sangres, setting camp at night and laughing around the fire. As far from “civilization" as I could imagine, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. Besides, I met an extraordinary cowboy named Bob and after years of discouraging relationships I was back in the saddle so to speak.
On the last day of the trip, dirty and weary from five days in the mountains, the clients sat together waiting for a van ride back to the airport.
“Well, " one of the guys said, “It’s back to the real world. "
“No, " I replied without hesitation, “This is the real world. "
And that, as they say, was that. I returned to New Jersey and put my house on the market. Although I had opened a solo law practice I put away any ideas of venturing back into that arena. I sold everything I owned, down-sized my life completely and started looking for jobs in the outdoor adventure industry in Colorado. My friends thought I was crazy.
“Where will you live? What will you do? What about money? What about the kids?" And on.
My two older sons had left the nest, off to college and work and life. My youngest was in his senior year of high school. He and I lived a peaceful existence but once he was gone, why would I be in New Jersey? Why would I not live the life I had seen in my head for 25 years? There was no reason to stay.
I had a “Pillage My House Party" where I invited my friends and neighbors to bring food and beer and take anything they wanted. They did an admirable job of emptying my house. Real estate at the Jersey shore had gone through the roof and in February I sold my house for multiples of what I’d paid. The Universe was on my side I could tell. I lived with fear, and eager anticipation of what my new life would be like. And then, there was Cowboy Bob.
Bob was the solitary desperado kind of guy, living in a one-room cabin on a 5000 acre horse ranch near Westcliffe. Amazingly, he was also a “recovering lawyer" with three sons and two divorces under his belt, an aspiring writing and lover of the outdoors who could live out of a backpack. That we stumbled upon each other was more than an odd coincidence. Once again, that Big Force at work was bringing me better than expected. But Bob was two thousand miles away, and we settled for an occasional weekly visit, and plenty of phone calls. I still had a son in high school and was not about to abandon my responsibility. Eventually after interacting with my cowboy via long-distance, I realized that I couldn’t depend on building a life with Bob, and I bought a tiny condo in Steamboat and accepted a job offer in Estes Park.
Men are funny sometimes. Although I wanted to live in that cabin and work on that ranch Bob was into “rubber band" mode – going back and forth between desire to be with me and the abject fear of getting hurt again. As soon as I started making my plan, though, he suddenly saw the possibilities of a life together. Determined not to make this move for a man, I charted my own course for the summer: To fulfill a lifelong dream, I’d take a three week Outward Bound course, then go backpacking with the Sierra Club in the Snowmass wilderness. I wasn’t sure what would happen in the intervening weeks but I knew I’d go to the ranch and see Cowboy Bob. He was pretty irresistible.
On June 19, 2005 – four days after my Joey graduated high school – I packed up my little Honda CRV with my remaining stuff. My best girlfriend Carol had offered to accompany me cross country. We would be Thelma and Louise, it seems, without the sex and violence. Carol is the girl I never was: she can sew curtains and shop. She brought to this venture the steadfast loyalty of the Iowa farm girl she is: all heart, endless work, no complaining. Within three days we had landed in Steamboat, furnished the little condo, and she headed home.
I wandered and ambled about Colorado all summer, loving the Rockies and sleeping outside under a blanket of stars. At 49, I had found my bliss. Between Outward Bound and Sierra Club trips I worked with Bob on the ranch, taking people horseback riding and rock climbing, cooking dinner on a campfire in the mountains. It was a dream come true. By late August, I guess Bob found me irresistible too and we decided to make a go of it. Divested of nearly all those unnecessary earthly possessions, I now live in that 300 square foot cabin with Cowboy Bob. How we manage that is the subject of another article, but we laugh a lot, that’s for sure. We own and operate KB Mountain Adventures, where we take people onto the ranch and into the mountains to have fun. My “work" now involves horseback riding, rock climbing, rafting, and hiking. Can you imagine? It’s surely a long way from pantyhose, court-imposed deadlines, and stifling traffic.
For me, the journey from soccer mom to cowgirl was truly the path of least resistance. People ask me how I could “give up everything" to live such a simple life and I tell them that this is the easy part. Living my “other life" was much more difficult, getting up each day to go to a job that made my heart clench, fighting adversaries and my own endless restlessness. Surely that life was much more difficult than waking up to the sound of 60 horses pounding through the meadow on round up while watching the Sangres turn pink in the morning sun. We don’t have a TV, running water, or indoor plumbing. It’s amazing how little you really need to be totally content. The cabin is warm and full of love. People walk in and feel at home. Bob and I ride horses, or go mountain biking, or hike into the Sangres to find hot springs or a lake. I’m an EMT now, and I volunteer on the local rescue squad. We are expanding our business so that all kinds of folks – from teenage kids to women to old folks – can come out and enjoy life with us.
My kids love to tell people that their mom is a cowgirl but she used to be a lawyer and a teacher and my friends envy the simplicity and freedom I’ve gained in “losing" everything. As a writer, I feel compelled to share my story and great fortune with others because I believe we all yearn for a deep dream inside us to come true. Who doesn’t have the occasional thought of shrugging off the weight of all our “stuff" – things we buy, obligations we acquire – just to wander around like a dog? You know how dogs just sit in the car, staring out the window, breathing in the great smells? This is my life now, the life of a happy pup, wandering around enjoying the beauty of this earth.
You might want to take a page from my book and start investing in your self, that Inner Cowgirl who’s stuck in pantyhose or traffic. Dream big, friends, have faith and watch it unfold. And anytime you need to feel inspired, come see me at the ranch.
You can visit Phyllis and Cowboy Bob at http://www.kbmountainadventures.com