What I Learned at the White Horse Ranch

by Dan Weeks

  • Memoir
decorative header image from Volume II Issue 2 · Spring 2016

“Oh, kid! I’m a’gonna do something I’ve never done before in my life!”

We were sitting at the only stop sign for dozens of miles. It was at the south edge of Naper, Nebraska, population 166, where the only paved street in town met Highway 12, a lonely, weathered two-lane that wound through the Sandhills just below the South Dakota border. It was May 24th, 1980, the day after I graduated from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

Beneath the stop sign was a tiny, raised asphalt “traffic island”—just a bump, really—in the middle of the street. Per state highway regulations, a Nebraska DOT placard under the stop sign read “Keep Right.”

Ruth pulled down the brim of her battered Golden Sun Feeds cap and glanced furtively around as though she was about to attempt a bank heist. She gripped the wheel. There wasn’t a moving vehicle in sight all the way to the horizon in four directions.

“What are you going to do, Ruth?” I asked.

“I’m going to pull around to the left here!” she said, shifting into low. “And if the law catches me, it’ll be just too damn bad!” Ruth gunned her little inverted-bathtub-shape 1959 Rambler station wagon. She swerved to the left of the stop sign and rocketed across highway 12 and off down the county road.

“Ha!” she said, triumphant, upshifting to second and goosing the gas. “I’ve always wanted to do that. Whhyy, they don’t need that sign there! For that little bump in the road! And why can’t you go to the left if you want to, when no one is coming!? I guess we didn’t do anybody any harm, did we?” She punched me playfully on the shoulder with a gnarled, arthritic hand. Then she slapped the Rambler into high and we careened down the gravel, trailing dust.

“Oh, kid,” she said, laughing conspiratorially at our stunt. “I tell you what!”

Ruth was old enough to be my grandmother. She had walked from Burr Oak, Kansas to Kadoka, South Dakota, behind an ox-drawn covered wagon when she was six years old, helping to herd her family’s three cattle and to pick up cow chips for the evening fire. Later, with her husband, Cal, she settled on 2,365 acres of short-grass prairie in the Sandhills overlooking the Niobrara River on what they called The White Horse Ranch.

The place had been built in 1902 as a trading post, and its cluster of buildings—lumber barn, dairy barn, general store, cream station, machine shed and ranch house—still straddled a broad path that had once been the Oregon Trail. There was also an abandoned café where Ruth lived in the summer, and a few battered cabins the Thompsons had built in the 1940s. She and I were headed back there after getting groceries.

It astounded me that I could leave a college campus where I’d majored in American Studies and the very next day find myself face-to-face with a genuine pioneer — one who had westered in a covered wagon and personally owned a chunk of the Oregon Trail and a trading post besides.

Everything you saw at the White Horse Ranch back then was something new, something fantastic.

But I’d not come to the ranch to study pioneer settlement. I’d been introduced to Ruth and her ranch a few years earlier by my college roommate, Kevin Zoernig, who’d stumbled on the place while camping and had spent the past few summers there. I’d become fascinated by the ranch’s more recent history: How Ruth and Cal had created here an internationally famous touring circus act called Thompson’s White Horse Troupe that toured all over the country and into Canada during the 1940s and ‘50s, performing spectacular tricks of horsemanship.

The ranch and troupe had been famous: written up by every major publication from My Weekly Reader to LIFE. They were the subject of two Warner Brother’s movies, Ride a White Horse and Ranch in White. For a time, mail addressed simply to White Horse Ranch, USA was reliably delivered from as far away as Europe. The ranch—seven miles down gravel from the one-street town of Naper—was marked prominently on Nebraska state highway maps. In 1948, 10,000 people witnessed the annual June show there—more souls than lived in several of the surrounding counties at the time. The young women of the troupe were hailed as equestrian goddesses. They were all trained by Cal and Ruth. The motto of their riding school was “Learn to do by doing.” And the results were amazing.

“You have to understand,” said one Sandhills rancher, “Everything you saw at the White Horse Ranch back then was something new, something fantastic. What those girls and horses could do—it was unbelievable!”

By 1980, of course, all that was long past. You can still find a few folks at state fairs throughout the country that remember Thompson’s White Horse Troupe, but it will soon vanish from living memory. The troupe stopped touring in the late fifties, a casualty of radio, television, urbanization, and the end of the golden era of the great American road shows. For a few more years, the ranch hosted annual shows on Father’s Day when some of the former troupers came back to perform.

That ended when Cal died of an epileptic seizure the night before the 1963 show. Then Ruth had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. The troupe permanently disbanded, the horses were auctioned, the land rented to a cattleman. Ruth eventually went to live with relatives in Oregon. Several years before my arrival, she started coming back summers to clean up the place, which had become badly overgrown and run down. This year, she was to hold a roundup of the troupe once more—the first since the ill-fated 1963 show.

I was a pale, skinny college kid with barely acknowledged thoughts of becoming a writer. I had no portfolio and no prospects. But that spring, I’d read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book charged me with the persistent fantasy that the route to becoming a writer involved acquiring a motorcycle and heading west. I’d found a battered Honda 350 lying on its side in a slowly thawing mud puddle. I pressed $250 — the remains of what I’d earned as a housepainter the summer before — into the hands of the delighted bike’s owner, got it running, oiled the rusty drive chain, and the day after graduation rode it nearly 400 miles west-northwest to the ranch.

I’d strapped a pack containing a few clothes and a tiny war correspondent’s typewriter on the back. Armed with the typewriter and my pens and notebooks and my liberal arts education, I imagined I was equipped to make sense of the rise and fall of a place that was steeped in history, legend, glory, tragedy, and decay — and was now bound, if Ruth had her way, for resurrection.

In fact, I would make sense of none of these things that summer. I had expected life at the ranch to be concrete and straightforward — a tonic, rural Midwestern chaser to four years of intoxicating-but-abstract ivory tower study. Instead, my three months there were so mystical, baffling, and rife with metaphor I felt like I’d wandered onto the set of a slightly surreal play. I did eventually learn something, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The day I arrived, I was both earnest and clueless.

I explained my plan, such as it was, to Ruth. I’d met her when visiting the ranch with Kevin but didn’t know her well. I half expected her to tell me to get lost. I suspect I would have been relieved if she had. Instead, she said, “Great! You can sleep in the loft of the long barn and do ranch work in the mornings, and write in the afternoon. Now, let’s go get some groceries.”

She introduced me in Naper as “Dan. He’s my writer. He’s a’gonna write a book about the White Horse Ranch.”

Photo of White Horse Ranch, courtesy of Dan Weeks

Photo of White Horse Ranch, courtesy of Dan Weeks

I was alarmed that Ruth said this out loud, to others. I dared make no such claim and wouldn’t have believed myself if I had.

But Ruth said it, again and again. First to Loren Siegh, the proprietor of Naper Super Service, where we filled the Rambler with gas. Loren was a giant of a man. He looked seven feet tall and was built like a linebacker. Ruth called him Super Man.

Then to Harley Nicholas, who chain smoked cigars and delivered the mail. Then to the couple who ran the grocery store. Then to Ben and Pete at Pete’s Cafe. Ben cooked, served, and washed dishes; his wife, Pete, sat at the back table nearest the kitchen and gossiped with customers and ate. Pete was so big she straddled two chairs and still spilled off both sides. Ben was tall and spare.

“Is that so?” said Pete when Ruth introduced me.

“Oh, yes!” said Ruth.

“He’s a writer, is he?” said Pete, cocking a dubious eye at me.

“Yep!” said Ruth. “He’s my writer, he’s my helper, he’s my boyfriend, he’s my everything.”

Conversation in the cafe stopped. Ruth tossed down the rest of her coffee, nodded to Ben to put it on her tab, and we left.

“Oh, that’ll get ‘em going!” Ruth said with delight as soon as we were back in the car. “Ha!”

“Ruth—” I began, hoping to make the point that perhaps it would be just fine if nobody knew who I was or why I was there. I wasn’t sure I knew these things myself. Just calling her Ruth was difficult enough. But she’d corrected me with impatience when I’d first called her ‘Mrs. Thompson.’

“Whhyyy!” said Ruth. “You’re a boy and you’re my friend. Isn’t that right?”

Moments later, we broke the laws of the state of Nebraska by failing to Keep Right.

I had barely arrived and already, from my perspective, things were spiraling out of control.

I’d also caught whispers and glances from some in Naper which implied that whatever had landed Ruth in a mental institution in 1963 had not completely left her. Others greeted her warmly and seemed to genuinely like and respect her.

I looked over at Ruth from where I’d braced myself in the passenger’s seat of her Rambler. I tried to decide if I was looking at a madwoman or a mentor. She was casually but expertly steering the speeding station wagon over the loose gravel with one hand. She streamed the other in the wind out the window. She chuckled about her illegal detour—or perhaps about the scene at Pete’s, it was hard to tell.

I considered what I’d sensed from the whispers and glances in town. But all I saw across the seat from me was a slight, lively woman in her seventies with flyaway white hair, a quick wit, and an even quicker smile. Already I liked her immensely.

I decided she looked sane enough to me.

“Ruth?” I said, over the rattle of gravel.

“What?” said Ruth.

“I’m ready to work,” I said. “Whatever you need done.”

“Well, great!” said Ruth.

I looked over at Ruth from where I’d braced myself…I tried to decide if I was looking at a madwoman or a mentor.

Helping Ruth prepare the ranch for the impending reunion (Ruth called it “The Roundup) involved a number of jobs: hastily tacking roll asphalt on worst of the ranch buildings’ many leaking roofs. Filling a small ravine with sticks to make “a house for rabbits.” Cleaning the stalls and feeding the ranch’s two remaining horses, Abe and Mary. Making what Ruth called a “DIS-play” of ranch and show road memorabilia that filled the otherwise empty dairy barn. Building little tableaux of pioneer life here and there. (Under Ruth’s direction, we pulled the bleached skeleton of a covered wagon to a spot in front of the café, with a mock-up of a campfire complete with rusty enameled cookware to “represent the pioneers—for atmosphere!”) I was ready to do almost anything, and especially wanted to make Ruth happy. I could see that the White Horse Ranch had been home to a family of sorts, and that I had been invited in.

And, I took notes when Ruth told her stories. Those notes were a bit of a jumble, not like the outline-like transcripts of lectures I’d taken of college lectures. Ruth wasn’t a terrific interviewee—she didn’t sit still long enough, for one thing. And she wasn’t steerable—you couldn’t keep her on topic. She was always jumping fences and free-associating. One thing would remind her of something else and off she’d go and the only thing to do was hang on for the ride.

But she was a great storyteller with a fabulous memory for detail. I learned to always have a notebook within reach, especially during mealtimes and on trips to town. A single question was usually enough to prompt a series of stories. Living in a side-hill soddie as a kid and going to school in a sod schoolhouse where the chairs and desks were just rough-sawn planks. Teaching in a one-room school at age 17; starting the school day building a fire in the stove from cow chips the children would gather on their way.

Then there was life on the show road: sewing the trouper’s show costumes out of WW II surplus silk parachutes. The whole troupe performing bareback after all 30 saddles were stolen one night. Performing with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the flying Wallendas and other internationally touring circus acts in huge arenas in Kansas City, Chicago, Montreal.

Ruth was a colorful narrator. She was also humble and, I found out later, rigorously truthful.

“You know, I’m such a dummy. I’ve always said that. When I taught school, whhyy, every one of those kids was smarter than I was. Little kids! If I hadn’t had the teacher’s book, I couldn’t have told you the right answer to save my life.”

“When we went on the show road, we didn’t know anything about it. Any money we got went through five hands before we saw any of it, and what was left was just a little bit o’ nothin’. They had to butcher a cow at the ranch and send it to us by train on the road just so we could eat! And our manager rode in a big fancy car and took half the money and all he did was announce.”

“Cal said he wanted thirty horses and thirty virgins to perform. But you know, a couple of the girls got P-R-E-G—you know what I mean! I knew there was a lot of this love stuff going on, but heck, I couldn’t be everywhere at once!”

Each of her stories was a little piece of 20th-century Americana, with all the wide-eyed innocence of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical where a couple of country kids say “Let’s put on a show!” and succeed beyond their wildest expectations.

I quickly came to love life at the White Horse Ranch. To a bookish kid fresh out of college, it was pure oxygen. For sixteen years I’d been taught that there was a right way to do everything and that no matter what, it involved a great deal of schooling and the counsel of experts to succeed.

I’d grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb where everyone seemed to be a credentialed professional specialist in something or other. My next-door neighbor, Stanley Zisk, was a radio astronomer at MIT; Anthony Sperduto, who ran a particle accelerator there, lived across the street. My high school girlfriend’s father, Frank Moore Cross, was an internationally renowned Harvard biblical scholar. For a time, my sister’s best friend was the daughter of Harvard biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner E. O. Wilson.

With such role models, I foresaw years of study in front of me before making anything of myself. The problem was, I could find no clear path to becoming a writer. At least not until Robert Persig’s example suggested to me that a motorcycle was probably essential.

Yet here Ruth and Cal had cheerfully dived in to the risky and creative world of show business, making it up as they went along. They arguably achieved world fame, even if they never made any money in the process.

Even more inspiring, I learned, was that nearly all of the girls who performed with them were just high school kids or recent graduates, most of them fresh off the farm. Some of the troupe had even been picked up hitchhiking on the road while driving between shows. Some of these were runaways from abuse, or orphans. They’d beg to stay with the show, and Ruth would make up a job for them, train them (remember: the ranch’s motto was “We learn to do by doing”), and come up with a little money to pay them. In the winter, she let those without another home stay at the ranch. Boyd County, where the ranch was located, wouldn’t accept these homeless kids in the local one-room schoolhouse, so Ruth taught them herself on the ranch. She and Cal even adopted at least one.

I found it incredibly liberating to journey to a world—neither that long ago nor that far away—where wits and talent and guts and lots of hard work and pure desire was enough to create something unique and wonderful. Listening to Ruth’s tales of these times was a reward in its own right, and it soon overcame my anxiety about what I was going to do with them. Perhaps Persig was right about writers needing to light out for parts unknown. In any case, I had no thoughts of going any further: I parked my Honda in the machine shed the day I arrived, and it gathered a thick coating of dust there all summer.

Ruth and I met across three generations and two very different worlds. She had given me a role I wanted but hadn’t had the courage to claim until then; I gave her the validation anyone gets from being listened to carefully—from being translated, however imperfectly and subjectively, from life and breath into something perhaps more permanent. It was while listening to Ruth tell her stories that I first learned that, when attended with sufficient intensity and sincerity, people are inspired to tell more than they know that they know. In the process, they often realize that their story is both particular and universal, and that their life has a value that transcends their own experience.

I found it incredibly liberating to journey to a world… where wits and talent and guts and lots of hard work and pure desire was enough to create something unique and wonderful.

I would soon have that experience in spades. The Roundup was about to start, and Ruth had named me its official scribe.

I sat in the back corner of the former dining room of the ranch’s White Kitchen Cafe, now Ruth’s living room, pen and notebook in hand. The walls were hung with 8x10 glossy publicity photographs of the White Horse Troupe’s performances, with troupers Roman jumping, doing trick rides—the tail drag, the death drag: Horse galloping, rider trailing behind, head almost touching the ground, hoofs flying past, inches from their ears. Scrapbooks were piled on chairs. Ruth, deeply tanned, in a white shirt, billowing white hair tied back in a ponytail sat in a chair against the back wall, facing the door.

On this day, the troupers were to arrive. They’d driven and flown in from both coasts. Breeders of American White Horses—the ranch’s breed—had been invited as well. One breeder was to arrive from France. For weeks, we’ve been preparing—clearing campsites for those with motorhomes and horse trailers. Propping up 50-year-old outhouses. Building makeshift corrals with gate panels borrowed from neighboring ranchers.

The door opened. A woman walked in. She was in her late fifties—tall, striking. She had last been at the ranch in 1952. She squinted in the dim café dining room, then caught sight of Ruth. In an instant—as though she were one of those optical illusions that can either be seen as an old woman or a young girl—she looked sixteen. Smooth skinned, fresh, radiant.

“Ruth!” she cried.

“Brownie!” said Ruth, and they fell into one another, sobbing. I was supposed to be taking notes (an assignment I’d given myself—“get their names when they arrive so you know who they are”) but for reasons I didn’t understand, I started crying uncontrollably too.

More followed Brownie in through the door, and it was a non-stop cryathon. Ruth wiped her eyes and introduced each of them to me. Each of the women gave me a huge hug, as though I was a long-lost little brother whom they’d known here decades before and who for some reason had never grown up. I sniffled and bawled along with them.

I thought: This makes no sense: I am no one to these women and they are no one to me. But due to some sort of primal emotional short-circuit, that fact either didn’t seem true, or didn’t matter. My notebook pages grew tear-stained and I gave up trying to take their names.

In the days following, I learned them. Here are a few: Crackers, a compact but terrifyingly strong wrangler whose hug left me gasping for air. (Her nickname is short for firecracker, “because she’s as big a bang as when they lit the first one off,” someone explains.) Drey, a statuesque woman with long, wavy auburn hair, a big, warm smile and a languid voice that sounded like melting chocolate. Mousie, a tiny, bright-eyed woman. Windy, unbelievably tall and slender, like a poplar tree, with eyes that looked reflective and sincere. Dawn, a striking Nordic gal who somehow looked elegant in a simple straw hat, with a bandanna around her throat, a white shirt and jeans. She was kind-eyed and observant and generous-spirited. There were many more—doctor’s wives, hotel maids, ranchers, factory workers, homemakers, waitresses, teachers, speech therapists. They all still rode.

Ruth introduced me to these gals with her usual hyperbole and asked me to give them tours of the ranch. I could see, as they looked silently around the barnyard and witnessed what decades of neglect and decay had wrought, that they, too, had double vision.

I walked them toward the pasture by the lake to show them Abe and Mary, who were grazing there. The horses were, as Ruth said, “retired,” and typically paid little attention to visitors. But as we entered the pasture, they both trotted up to our group. Neither horse had been born when the troupe disbanded, although they were descendants of troupe horses and had toured for a time with an offshoot of the troupe based in Texas.

When Abe reached us, he knelt, then lay down on his side, something I’d never seen him do. The troupers were mesmerized. As though in a trance, Drey put one foot gently on his rib cage, raised her right arm with a flourish and swept her left arm wide, as though gathering in applause, and beamed at an imaginary audience. The troupers instinctively started clapping. Many wiped away tears. After a moment in-pose, Drey staggered backward, as though awakening from a dream, and Abe stood up again. “My God,” she said. “The finale.”

“That’s how we ended the show,” explained Bette, an ex-trouper who’d driven up from Florida. “Ruth used to tell us ‘Smile and Style! Sell the act!’”

No one could explain why Abe had done what he’d done. And he never did it again.

Then, of course, the troupers wanted to ride the ranch as they once had. Those who’d brought horses generously offered mounts to those without them. Ruth had a stiff hip that day and couldn’t come. I knew where the gates were in the barbed wire fences between pastures—their locations had changed since the 1950s—so I was nominated guide.

I’d never ridden a horse—I considered them big, dumb, and dangerous—but a trouper from Oregon proffered a mare named Flossie. With a bit of instruction from arguably some of most skilled horsewomen in the history of American Show Business, we were off. I was astonished to learn that the faster the horse went, the smoother its gait. And for some reason I rode with such ease that several troupers nearly refused to believe I wasn’t experienced.

“It’s the ranch,” mused Windy, almost to herself. “It’s a magical place.”

It certainly felt so that evening. The former troupers were suspended between past and present—reliving their youth, reflecting on life since. Enveloped in their swirling stories, even I felt a sense of deja vu. Before they’d arrived, I’d expected the women to mostly ignore or dismiss me as a latecomer—an intruder, even—but the opposite was true. I was approximately the age at which they’d first experienced the place, and they were intensely interested in my perceptions of it and of Ruth. They said she hadn’t changed a bit, and were entertained and reassured by the stories I told of the weeks I’d just spent with her.

It was nearly the summer solstice. Sunset and dusk lasted hours under the prairie’s big sky and broad horizon. We rode across the bluff overlooking the river, down to the intervale, along the riverbank, and up a spine of ridge that snaked between two draws back to the bluff. I felt an incredibly strong connection to these people, to the horse I was riding, to this place.

I didn’t get it. I shared nothing with these late-middle-aged women. Did I? Was I overlooking something? Or were these experiences of unity—and in the case of the ride, an inexplicable ease in doing something not only foreign, but feared—was this the result of connecting with something universal? These thoughts came later, when my analytical right brain took over, as it always did. Meanwhile, the trance continued.

That night, in the barnyard, several of the gals who had toured with the troupe in 1952 spontaneously began singing, as they had in the school bus that had carried them in the troupe’s convoy of trucks from fairground to fairground on the show road. They were really good, with resonant, harmonic voices. They sang in four parts. “Detour,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and many more. And of course, “Happy Trails/To you/Until we meet again” by which time everyone was bawling again.

I knew snatches of a few of the tunes and joined in. Bette must have seen me mouthing the words, because she dragged me out of the audience into the circle of singers. There was something intensely intimate about us, facing one another in a tight ring, singing our hearts out. I found that if I looked intently into Bette’s eyes, the lyrics of the songs—even those I didn’t know—would come to me just in time to be sung.

Later that night, I grabbed my flashlight and escorted Igor, one of the breeders, to his cabin. Igor was a picture of a Colorado cowboy: immensely tall, full beard, longish hair, ten-gallon hat, red bandanna, boots, spurs, chaps. He was also a University of Colorado microbiology professor and the son of the renowned theoretical physicist and author George Gamow, an early contributor to the Big Bang theory of cosmology.

“The ranch—It’s Brigadoon!” he said to me in amazement. “It comes to life once every hundred years. Nobody ages.” He stopped, looked around the moonlit barnyard. He shook his head. “Brigadoon,” he said again.

All too soon, the troupers and the breeders loaded up their horses and left. The ranch went back to looking like the bleached shell of the abandoned Oregon Trail trading post it was—windows gaping, doors missing, shingles flapping in the prairie wind. Ruth and I picked up the trash and closed up the cabins.

“Everybody has someplace to go,” she said to me late one afternoon, looking a bit forlornly at the tire tracks in the sandy barnyard that all led out the gate.

Except me, apparently. I’d spent the last few nights after everyone had left working on my notes. I had three wire-bound, college-ruled composition books full of them, and a sheaf of typed pages beside. I wasn’t sure they added up to anything and had no idea what to do with them.

Much had happened to me at the White Horse Ranch that I couldn’t quite explain. I’d written it all down—the emotional arrivals, Abe’s performance, my inexplicable horsemanship, the singing, feeling of being sucked into a universe where the usual rules didn’t quite apply. None of it made sense.

I felt, in ways I never had at college, that I’d failed the course, and that the class had moved on without me. That I hadn’t graduated after all, and — most terrifying — had no place else to go. Ruth had to leave for her winter quarters in Oregon soon. But I had no next destination.

Suddenly Ruth brightened. “Hey! We need milk. Let’s go to Reimans’,” she said. Jack and Jean Reiman were the nearest neighbors. They had a modest ranch about three miles over the Sandhills and across the Kya Paha River. Ruth bought our milk from them—unpasteurized, still warm from the cow—and she was the unofficial eccentric grandmother to the Reimans’ children. Jack and his kids watched over the ranch when Ruth was gone and took care of Abe and Mary. They were good people, and perhaps Ruth’s closest friends.

“Let’s take your motorcycle,” Ruth said. “You know I rode horses all my life but I never did ride a motorcycle.”

Suddenly I was anxious. I remembered the first time I took someone for a ride. I’d hit some gravel and we’d almost gone down. And at that moment I’d become acutely aware that a motorcycle as metaphor for freedom, travel, escape from convention, and means of self-discovery was also a machine that could easily get you killed. Shortly thereafter I purchased a new ASME-certified helmet that cost nearly as much as the bike. And I drove it like an old lady.

I didn’t like to overload the machine, especially on the deep sand, ruts, and loose gravel of the treacherous Sandhill roads. They made the bike skitter and writhe unpredictably, even at low speeds. It looked like it might rain, which would turn the roads to slick gumbo. And we weren’t dressed for riding: I was in a t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers; Ruth was wearing light cotton pants and her usual white blouse. If we took a tumble, we’d be picking gravel out of our skin for months, if we survived at all.

I was about to suggest we take Ruth’s Rambler, but Ruth was already headed purposefully toward the machine shed. She could move surprisingly quickly, even with her stiff hip.

I guess I learned something that summer, because I didn’t suggest we take Ruth’s Rambler. I tossed my helmet off the motorcycle’s seat into a corner of the shed—Ruth wouldn’t wear it, so I wouldn’t either — kicked the dusty bike to life, snapped down the rear foot pegs, and showed Ruth how to mount. We writhed and wobbled our way through the barnyard sand, up to the ridge, across the upper pasture, and out to the road.

“Hey!” Yelled Ruth, one arm tightly around my waist, one clutching the sack of milk bottles. “This thing’s got speed!”

Thunderheads towered on the distant horizon, filtering the afternoon sun into rays that flickered off the fluttering cottonwood leaves. At twenty-five miles an hour — as fast as I dared go — the air seemed perfectly still as a tailwind pushed us along. While I struggled to keep the bike upright, Ruth, oblivious, hollered commentary into my ear. “Now there’s where the old township school used to be. They wouldn’t teach my kids! Said they were indigents! Well, so what!”

At Reimans’, Jean poured us coffee. One of her kids fetched the milk from the tank in thick glass bottles with metal lids. Ruth pulled three dollar bills out of her pocket. Jack asked about the condition of Ruth’s grazing land after the roundup.

“Oh, they drove all over,” said Ruth, now cheerful— invigorated, apparently, by the ride or the company or both. “They made a terrible mess. But what the heck! It’ll come back.”

Suddenly it grew dark, and Jack looked out the kitchen window. “You’d better be getting home, Ruth,” he said. “Storm’s coming.” Jeanne put the milk jars into a paper sack.

Jack and Jean and I shepherded Ruth out the door. She wasn’t done visiting, but the thunderheads were now nearly overhead, and you could see lightning in the clouds. I started the bike, but Ruth wanted to say one more thing.

“Go! Go! GO!” Said Jack, pointing at the cloud and waving us on.

“Oh, Kid!” said Ruth, as though just noticing the line squall bearing down. “We’d better!”

I shimmied down the Reimans’ lane. The wind had built to a howl, and was heading right at us. I’d white-knuckled it all the way to Reimans’. The trip back was going to be much worse. I cautiously pulled out onto the road.

“GO!” Ruth hollered. I could almost feel her try to dig her heels into the motorcycle’s flanks.

Ruth’s command inspired a sudden, half-terrified, half delighted recklessness. I cracked the carburetors wide open and gunned the motorcycle through the gears.

“Hey!” Yelled Ruth appreciatively, one arm tightly around my waist, one clutching the sack of milk bottles. “This thing’s got speed!”

Funny thing—after we hit sixty or so, the bike stopped writhing and shaking. Everything seemed to smooth out, as though we were galloping, or riding on a cloud of dust a few inches above the ruts and gravel. Seventy was even smoother.

The cottonwoods were bent over, streaming windblown leaves and an occasional branch. Tumbleweeds bounded down the road. Above us, thunder crashed. Ruth whooped.

We headed down Windmeyer Hill toward the plank bridge over the Kya Paha. The hill was so steep and the bridge so narrow it looked like we were dive-bombing the deck of an aircraft carrier, albeit a rickety wooden one. Yee-ha!

“Jesus wept!” bellowed Ruth almost involuntarily as we hit the bridge with a bang, rattling the boards.

“I’m not swearing!” she quickly explained as we roared out of the valley toward the ridgeline that led to the ranch. “That’s the shortest verse in the Bible!”

As we crested the ridge, the biked soared like a horse clearing a jump. The world rolled out beneath us: the ridge, the oak savannas that fringed the draws, the braided channels of the shimmering Niobrara. The view seemed infinite in every direction.

With one more exuberant leap we flew across the pasture, landed in the barnyard, and rolled into the machine shed. Rain pelted the siding like it had been fired from a water cannon.

As we dismounted, the rain turned to hail. Whipped by near-tornadic winds, it stripped the foliage from the cottonwoods and coated the ground in iridescent white marbles. Had we still been on the bike, it would have been like riding into a volley of lead shot.

Ruth and I stared out at the hail ricocheting off the dairy barn, mesmerized by the storm. My hands and feet were buzzing, still vibrating to the 6,000 rpm beat of the motorcycle engine. The air smelled like ice and shredded leaves.

Suddenly, it was over. A brief burst of sunlight shone through the slit of sky between the thunderheads and the horizon. It turned the landscape prismatic, then disappeared behind the ridge, leaving the air a dusky amber.

“You made it!” said Ruth.

For a moment, I felt the way each of her troupers must have felt after their first successful performance on the show road. “I didn’t think I could,” I said, almost unconsciously.

“Why, of course you can!” said Ruth, looking right at me. You’re a good rider.” At least I think she said “rider.” Maybe she said “writer.” I couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter.

She paused. “You know, you’re a smart boy, but sometimes you think too much.”

And that’s what I learned at the White Horse Ranch. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

“Winter Iowa XVII,” photograph by Steven Herrnstadt

“Winter Iowa XVII,” photograph by Steven Herrnstadt

About Author Dan Weeks
Portrait image of author Dan Weeks.
Photo courtesy of Dan Weeks
Dan Weeks ([email protected]) earned an MA/W in creative nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa’s graduate writing program in 1984. He’s spent the past 32 years as a profile, feature, and essay writer and photographer and as a magazine and book editor, mostly for the Better Homes and Gardens family of publications. He edited The Grinnell Magazine (www.grinnell.edu/sites/default/files/documents/GrinMagSum15.webFINAL.pdf) from 2010-2013; currently he edits The Iowan magazine. When he retires, he’s a’gonna write a book about the White Horse Ranch.