On a journey of life transformation, the search for belonging in a new land
1. A Pioneering Spirit
I recently bought a coat that’s expertly crafted from a 1920’s friendship quilt, by a woman in Salt Lake City who used to work in the fashion industry in New York. In the description on Etsy, the maker wrote that friendship quilts were “a way of connecting for women in the past.” Friends and family stitched their signatures onto the quilt, as symbols of remembrance and connection “not only for women who stayed in one place all their lives but also for those who moved on to hardships in westward lands.”
“These pioneer women would only have occasional letters to connect them with friends and relatives. Many a lonely woman living out on an isolated homestead cherished her friendship quilt. It reminded her of the time she lived among family and friends.”
Reading this, I felt a pang of recognition.
I’ve been reflecting on the pioneering spirit lately, following my own life transformation, which has involved a healing journey, divorce, changing career goals, a cross-country move, remarriage, and many spontaneous adventures.
I left behind everyone and everything I knew back east and moved to the Colorado mountains: unknown territory for me, as I’d never even been to a ski town before coming to live here in December of 2019. The town of Aspen is, of course, as gentrified as the mountains get, but still there are aspects of small-town, out-west remoteness here. For example, when we first moved in, there was no US Mail service to our condo in the heart of town, despite the complex having been built in the 1960’s. Certain goods and services are hard to come by or require an hours-long drive to find. There are only two roads out of town, and one of them is closed all winter due to treacherous conditions on the mountain pass. Avalanches, mudslides, and wildfires can close major roads in their various seasons, and when a detour is needed in the mountains, it can add several hours to a trip.
My husband, Brendan, grew up in Colorado. He is an athlete and, in fitting old-west fashion, also a cowboy and rancher. We eloped last September in a high-mountain valley, surrounded by golden aspens, a setting that still feels almost surreal. And, adding to the feeling of entering unknown territory, we’re building our life together during a pandemic. Not only is the place new to me, but the conditions in the world in general are new to us all.
I sold my farms back east—a Connecticut fixer-upper on a lovely fifty acres; and a six-acre, ultra-prime-real-estate farmette in Florida that my mother and I bought as raw land in the 90s, when there was hardly anything nearby except the horse-show grounds. We built the barn and riding facility, and for over twenty years I refined and improved the property, rented stalls to tenants, and trained my own horses there. The farm launched my high-level riding career and gave me all those years of memories and learning. And I loved it. That little farm was paradise: an open courtyard barn facing the lake; vivid pink bougainvillea climbing the walls; always a breeze off the water; a sense of deep peacefulness, despite being so near what’s now the biggest winter showjumping circuit in the world; the horses lazing with their heads out the large stall windows; tropical scent of the jasmine that grew on the fence. After twenty-four years, I let it go, because of the opportunity it created for us here.
We bought a 450-acre ranch. It’s the largest investment and, in a sense, the biggest risk of my life. Though what it mostly feels like is destiny. When Brendan and I found the property, we felt connected with it right away, despite the daunting amount of restoration that was—and still is—clearly needed. The pastures are overgrazed and gone to weeds. The buildings are dated and in need of significant renovation or complete reconstruction. All the fencing will eventually be replaced. But when you’re out on the land, a sweeping mesa with views of iconic double-peaked Mount Sopris, you feel the magical quality of the place. It is spiritual and powerful—the vastness and majesty of the mountains, the smooth expanse of open meadows.
One evening a few weeks ago, we needed to spend a night at the ranch. We had just moved some things into the house and begun to unpack and assess what essential repairs were needed. (Eg., the kitchen sink offers a trickle of lukewarm water at best.) I was cooking spaghetti Bolognese, whispering encouragement to the feeble flame as it ever-so-slowly brought a large pot of water to boil. In this rambling old house, the kitchen is as ranchy as could be: rickety dark wood cabinets with a few ornate panels of stained glass; a combination of butcher block and yellowish plasticky countertops; backsplash in red tile with painted bouquets of wildflowers; a porcelain pig’s head for a dishtowel holder by the sink.
Brendan and his hired man, as he often refers to him, walked into the kitchen. I looked at these two lanky, strong men in their jeans and dirt-caked cowboy boots, chambray pearl-snap shirts and grey wool vests, the silk scarves called “wild rags” tied at their necks, and I thought, Huh, look at this, I’m a ranch woman. To my east-coast sensibilities, and even notwithstanding all the time I’ve spent in Texas and the reining-horse world, this moment had the quality of a movie scene. This place, this kitchen, these men in their old-timey cowboy clothes which to them are just everyday workwear—I wasn’t in my old life anymore, that much was certain.
My mother commented recently that I’m like a pioneer in many ways. And it’s true, that’s how I sometimes feel. When I make this analogy, I am also keenly aware of the hardships the real pioneers faced and which I certainly do not. I have my basic needs met. I live in comfort, in town. I can always phone family and friends. And the list goes on. But emotionally, metaphorically, the pioneering spirit resonates. In my own way, I have left the known and am forging a new path in a western land. On the ranch, many aspects of what lies ahead feel old-fashioned and fundamental: growing crops at the mercy of weather and a limited water supply; caring for animals; establishing vegetable gardens; hunting and butchering wild game; fixing fence; repairing buildings; tending the land. And most poignantly, I feel that sense of distance from family and old friends. No amount of material comfort can substitute for the human warmth and connection of these close relationships.
2. The Search For Belonging
So how do we find a sense of belonging amidst dislocation and change? Belonging arises from deepening connection with self, others and the world around us. For me, this means connection in new relationships and with the new land I call home; connection across time and distance, a felt sense that arises through memories and loving relationships that endure, no matter the geographic separation; and connection with history, ancestors and those who stewarded this land before us.
When I put on my friendship-quilt coat, I feel accompanied by the woman whose quilt it was a century ago, wherever she might have lived, and by the people who stitched their names into the fabric. Vera, Betty, Nadine, Claude, and Gladys, Minnie and Shirley, Grandma and Wayne, and many others—each in their own font, as if handwritten. A friendship quilt is a type of transitional object, something symbolic we carry with us to represent an important connection. For example, a wedding ring, photograph, handwritten note, horsehair bracelet, or piece of sea glass—all these can be transitional objects, holding meaning and bringing comfort.
On my journey of life transformation, certain transitional objects have felt important to me: photos of horses; a favorite book of short stories; a broken-in leather bag I’ve had since college; the little castings of my grandfather’s college diving medals I wear as necklace charms; a few pieces of treasured handmade flamewear that remind me of my mother’s kitchen and cannot be replaced; and not least, my wedding ring, carved with aspen leaves.
Brendan and I met twenty years ago, when I was a showjumper and he was an Olympic ski jumper. Our lives took us in different directions—me to Stanford and Brendan to run his family ranch in Steamboat Springs. But our story of reconnection is full of those synchronicities and coincidences that make us feel we were powerfully guided back to each other. And so even in this new marriage, we feel a strong continuity with our past. We remember each other as young athletes; we still see those qualities in each other. Having lost my career to injuries and spent many years grieving that identity, I feel both empowered and touched to be sharing my life with someone who knew me at the height of what I could do in my sport.
Now as we build our life together, in partial pandemic-induced isolation, I am indeed finding a sense of belonging in this new place. I carry with me the love of family and longtime friends, all the while making plans for visits when the world allows. A handful of new, local friendships that began pre-pandemic are helping to carry me through. Our dachshund, George Doran, is a source of endless entertainment and love. And what we’re undertaking at the ranch now gives both Brendan and me a sense of deep purpose and vision. Connection with the land is primal and powerful.
“So many of us feel untethered from a sense of rootedness,” said the writer Becca Piastrelli in a recent interview. That’s partly because of human migration, she says, but also because we’ve lost our sense of connection with the land, our ancestry, our own bodies as part of nature, our intuition. My healing journey and meditation practice have brought me more in touch with these sources of connection. And at the ranch, we are seeking not just to cultivate these forms of connection for ourselves, but also to share these things with the community. As we bring healing to the land, we also want others to find healing in this beautiful natural setting.
Part of this vision is my work in Natural Lifemanship, a model of equine-assisted learning and therapy that helps people build connected relationships and overcome stress and trauma. When I found this work, I felt I’d been training for it my whole life. Horses, psychology, overcoming trauma—these are major elements of my life story. I lost my high-level career in the sport, but horses are in my blood. My connection with them is central to who I am. Natural Lifemanship has given me a new way to work with horses, helping me find meaning in the struggles I experienced. I can now use what I’ve learned to help others heal.
We’re planning a retreat center at the ranch, where I’ll teach meditation and work with clients in Natural Lifemanship, and we can offer farm-to-table cooking classes, arts retreats, and other programs. We also plan to host field trips for local schools, so children can come to the ranch and learn about agriculture, animals, and working on the land. Brendan and I both feel strongly about how important and healing these simple things can be: planting a garden, caring for an animal, being with nature.
A feeling of embodied connection with the land nourishes us, and the indigenous peoples well understood this, as Piastrelli points out. We don’t just go into nature; “we are of nature,” she says. The idea of separation from nature, as if it’s something outside of us, is a colonial concept that has not served our wellbeing or that of the planet. Piastrelli says that one part of our necessary healing is honoring the native people who originally inhabited the land we live on—by naming and acknowledging the people and learning what we can from their synergistic relationship with the land.
And so here we confront a deeply painful part of those early pioneer days, an aspect I don’t wish to feel kinship with at all: the devastating crimes committed by white settlers against the native people. Part of living in awake awareness is learning to open to the pain of colonization—the enormous suffering inflicted on native tribes, and the resulting legacy of intergenerational trauma. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around this, or to even understand what it means for our lives now. But awareness is the beginning, not just a moral obligation but actually part of our own healing as well, Piastrelli argues.
“I believe that many of us are living in this fog of colonization, whiteness, capitalism, where we can often just forget the history of these lands we live on, and how we got here, which is contributing to our sense of loneliness, … our sense of unbelonging. And so, [in naming and honoring] the people who are the original stewards, tenders to this land, it’s actually shifting you from a passive way of being into a more active, engaged way of being… Are you going to look at your garden differently? Are you going to look at your neighbors differently? I think it engages the nervous system in a deeper way.”
Importantly, indigenous peoples have always approached the land with a mindset not of extraction but of reciprocity. This idea is finally arising again in modern times, in the movements of permaculture and “wilding,” for example—approaches that nourish rather than deplete the land. We need to learn to create a relationship with the land that’s mutually beneficial. As Natural Lifemanship teaches, “If it’s not good for both, it’s eventually not good for either.” This principle applies to all relationships, including that between humans and earth. Exploiting the land for our own temporary advantage will not serve us in the end. Already, it has not served us.
The town of Aspen and our ranch are on lands formerly occupied by the Ute Indian Tribe, who lived in the mountains in what are now Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Ute people still reside in these regions, including on a reservation at the Four Corners area, held in trust by the US Government. Unlike many tribes, the Ute have managed to preserve their native language, Shoshonean, which is also spoken by the Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone, and some tribes in California. One detail I love: according to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe website, the Ute were “the first Native Americans to introduce the horse into their culture,” acquiring horses from the Spanish in 1637.
In one significant point of history, Yellow Nose, who was a Ute, is believed by many to have killed General George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, although the subject of who killed Custer is widely debated. The impetus of this infamous battle was that gold had been discovered on Native American lands, and the US government ignored its treaty agreements and invaded the area, demanding that the tribes move to reservations. They resisted, and by gathering forces in significant numbers managed to defeat Custer’s cavalry at Little Bighorn. Nevertheless, within only a few years, most of the tribes in this region would be forced onto reservations, away from their resource-rich homelands.
As I grapple with the question of what we can do now, in light of the atrocities of the past, one thing is clear: seen through Piastrelli’s lens, the project of bringing healing to the land and community carries even deeper significance. Helping people heal trauma and build more connected relationships with themselves, others, and the land is the best way I know to contribute to the greater good. It’s easy to become paralyzed in the face of enormous national and global problems, but ultimately the best we can do is take small but significant actions, in whatever ways we’re capable of and feel most meaningful.
The path of personal meaning arises through our life experiences and, often, our ancestry. We may be aware of our family history, but also we inherit family patterns through our DNA and our upbringing. My ancestors were midwestern farmers, French rabbis, doctors, scientists, teachers, businesspeople. Eight generations back on my father’s side there’s a shoemaker who was a working-class leader of the Boston Tea Party. Another ancestor survived Gettysburg as a fifteen-year-old Union solider. My maternal great-grandfather Eugene, among other prominent roles, ran the federal Farm Loan Board and War Finance Corporation, which by the mid-1920s had issued $300 Million in aid to American farmers. He was a second-generation immigrant and brilliant entrepreneur who overcame antisemitism to build an extraordinary career both in business and public service.
We have named our biggest tractor Eugene in his honor, and two other vintage but serviceable tractors after his wife, my great-grandmother Agnes, and my paternal grandfather, Marvin. Grandpa Marvin, who descended from a lineage of farmers, died when I was very young. My only real memory of him is from my grandparents’ home in Shenandoah, Iowa, where on one visit he was raking leaves into a pile for me to jump in. I always had a sense of his kindness. Agnes, on the other hand, was notorious for her fierceness. She was a visionary, strong woman in many ways, but certainly not a functional parent to my grandfather and his siblings. Appropriately, it seems to us, our Agnes tractor has weaponlike forks on the front for lifting bales of hay.
Piastrelli says connecting with our ancestors—those whose identities we know and the many we don’t, going very far back, the “mighty dead,” as she calls them—can be another source of rootedness and belonging. I’m finding this to be the case more and more as I grow older. I talk to them often, in what could best be described as prayerful meditation. They are part of me, in a primordial way. I’m aware of my lineage as both a source of strength and the origin of some unhealthy family patterns it’s my job in this lifetime to shift. We all inherit such things, to one degree or another, and we can all become more aware. Rather than accepting inherited patterns and worldviews as absolute truths, we can learn to examine what really serves us, opening to new and healthier ways of being. This path of awareness is a guiding force in the work I do now.
Merriam-Webster’s first definition of pioneer is “a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.” Another definition is “a plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare, barren, or open area and initiating an ecological cycle.” Both these definitions, it seems to me, describe a process of exploration, boldness, innovation, adaptation, and the creation of one’s own belonging. Many of my ancestors and others throughout history have done so. And this may be the most fitting description of what, at its best, a life transformation can be.
You can hear the interview with Becca Piastrelli here.
The following video is about the Ute Tribe:
WE ARE NUCHU- The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe from FilmWorks Pacific on Vimeo.
Learn more about Natural Lifemanship here.
Feature and family photos by Kelsey Brunner