Here’s an old-fashioned love story that will make you fan yourself, swoon and maybe even break into a light sweat: how a city girl fell in love with a country boy and changed the course of her life, all because of passion and her weak-kneed reaction to an unexpected relationship.
In the mid-’90s, Ree Drummond was in the process of breaking up with a guy in California when she came home to Oklahoma to regroup. She would apply to law schools in Chicago, find an apartment and take it easy under her parents’ roof before starting the rest of her life. It was a “self-imposed pit stop.”
“I think everyone has a story—I've just found a fun way to tell my story and convey my day-to-day life.”
That was until she saw a Marlboro Man-type character from across the room at a smoky bar, a moment deliciously depicted in her romantic new memoir, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels—A Love Story.
“He was tall, strong and mysterious, sipping bottled beer and wearing jeans and, I noticed, cowboy boots. And his hair. The stallion’s hair was very short and silvery gray—much too gray for how young his face said he was, but just gray enough to send me through the roof with all sorts of fantasies of Cary Grant in North by Northwest.”
Fast forward 14 years. Drummond married Marlboro Man, became a full-fledged ranch wife in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and had four children. She launched ThePioneerWoman.com in 2006 to share stories with out-of-town friends and family, and nearly five years later the website has inspired a #1 New York Times best-selling cookbook, earned a Bloggie Award for Best Weblog of the Year—twice—and drawn countless fans who look to Drummond for easy-to-follow, cowboy-approved recipes, insights on life in the country and humor. (Ever suffered from armpit stains in the most inconvenient of times? You’ve got a sympathetic sister in PW, as she’s affectionately known on her site.)
During a period of writer’s block in 2007, Drummond decided to entertain her website readers with the story of her courtship with Marlboro Man. That story blossomed into 40-plus online chapters and finally became The Pioneer Woman. The book includes the chapters available on ThePioneerWoman.com, along with an all-new section about the couple’s first year of marriage—what Drummond calls “a dose of reality” that chronicles the period when she was dealing with the divorce of her parents, a rough pregnancy and business troubles on the ranch.
I recently visited Drummond at her family’s ranch in Pawhuska and got a firsthand look at the landscape so present in the book. The feeling of driving down the long, dusty gravel road to Drummond’s property was a bit surreal, since the night before I’d read a scene in which the Pioneer Woman runs her car into a ditch on an early date with Marlboro Man. Luckily, I made it to the ranch in one piece.
Drummond and I got right down to business talking about her “fizzy love story,” as she describes it. It’s officially categorized as a memoir, although PW thinks “memoir has a little bit more of a cerebral, serious meaning—presidents write memoirs.”
Whatever you call it, The Pioneer Woman is perfect reading for Valentine’s Day, whether you’re celebrating a lasting love or still looking for The One. Yes, it is mushy and occasionally sentimental, but I’d venture to say even the most cynical of readers will be charmed by Drummond’s hilarious story of being won over by a cowboy. In just a matter of weeks, she went from having a career and going out on the town in Los Angeles to working cattle and smooching under the stars in rural Oklahoma; from vegetarian to steak lover; from a woman unsatisfied with her romantic relationships to a woman hopelessly in love. It’s a dizzying transition and an adventure, and as PW writes in the introduction, “I hope it reminds you of the reasons you fell in love in the first place. And if you haven’t yet found love, I hope it shows you that love often can come to find you instead . . . probably when you least expect it.”
When I met with Drummond at the ranch’s beautifully restored lodge, it was easy to see how an urbanite could become captivated by such a remote locale. From the sweeping property below the house, to the beauty of the horses in the surrounding pastures and the calm of a still landscape, Drummond’s view made me feel a greater sense of peace and freedom than I’d felt in months of city living.
When I asked if she ever thinks about what life would have been like if she hadn’t moved to the country, Drummond answers without pause: “Yeah, I shudder. I am thoroughly convinced that I am where I was meant to wind up. In the country we really lead an isolated life . . . we’re just together, we’re out here, we’re on the land and in the quiet. It’s not that everyone needs that to maintain some level of peace and contentment, but I needed it. It centered me.” During our conversation, Drummond often comes back to the idea that her choice is not the choice for everybody, but sitting on the couch in the cozy lodge and surrounded by wide-open windows that overlook the ranch, her choice seems to make a lot of sense. That much nature is good for the soul.
In my time on the ranch, PW comes across pretty much exactly as she presents herself on her website—warm and funny with a hint of self-deprecation. She gives me cinnamon rolls for the road (I sampled them before I left Osage County) and frets about the puffiness of her face when she sits for a quick video interview.
After talking with Drummond for an hour, what stands out the most is her insistence that her tale is perfectly normal. “I know this sounds a little funny,” she says, “but I contend that I am not an extraordinary person; there’s nothing extraordinary about me or my story. I think everyone has a story—I’ve just found a fun way to tell my story and convey my day-to-day life.”
In spite of all the heart pounding described in her book, Drummond maintains that she does not live in a romance novel. “I don’t believe that romance conquers all and love conquers all. But the passion—I don’t know—it propels you forward through the tough times.”
There is a tall order of passion in The Pioneer Woman—although as my grandmother would say, the specific bedroom details are “left to the imagination.” (The story is billed as a bodice-ripper, but Drummond quipped to me that “it’s like the first little seam is ripped—that’s about it.”)
“That’s not to say that a 20-year-old marriage or a 40-year-old marriage has to have daily bursts of roses and chocolates and diamonds,” she says, “but I remember through the rough times when we were first married—my parents split, all of the bumps in the road—I really was sustained by this guy. My heart would race when I was around him.” (Surprisingly, Marlboro Man has not read the complete saga of which he is the hero. He read a few installments online, only commenting if his wife got an agricultural fact wrong. “He was like my fact-checker when it came to cattle and horses and that sort of thing,” Drummond says.)
From wardrobe malfunction to prairie fire, from fireworks-worthy kisses to a disaster of a honeymoon, The Pioneer Woman is a fun and sexy romp with a most unexpected setting: a working cattle ranch. This romantic journey is a delight, even though we know from the beginning what the ending will bring (reader, she married him). As you experience the woozy sensation of early love through Drummond’s writing, you’ll wonder why she even thought about packing those bags and heading to Chicago. These days, so does she.
“I was completely in love with him,” the Pioneer Woman recalls. “In retrospect, there was no way that I was going to leave in the throes of what I was feeling.”