It’s the ’70s. Laura Bell graduates from college a pretty and promising young woman, but success nevertheless eludes her. While others eagerly and easily trade in their caps and gowns for careers and cars and families, she feels lost, unsure she knows how to make a grab for life’s proverbial brass ring. Comfortable around horses, drawn to a nomadic life and feeling “alone, unmoored and unworthy,” she believes she can hide her young, uncertain self in the wilderness of Wyoming, out among “the sage and rocks and transient lives of the herders.” She leaves the security of her parental home in Kentucky, takes up residence in a “sheep-wagon parked under the bare-branched cottonwoods of Whistle Creek Ranch,” and hopes for an inviolable escape. But the austere existence of a sheepherder holds surprises. “The isolation,” she writes candidly, “. . . tossed sharp splinters of life straight back up in my face, waking me to the crack of thunder, the smell of rain that hadn’t yet hit the ground.”
Part lyrical remembrance of a deeply intense relationship with nature in a sweepingly majestic landscape, part unswerving self-analysis, Claiming Ground delivers both beauty and unabashed reflection. It follows Bell’s journey down many trails: cattle hand, herder, forest ranger, masseuse. We see her as friend, lover, wife, mother, daughter. We witness her awkward progress in tendering tenderness; her anguish in divorce; her devastation in unspeakable loss; her brave willingness to put her battered heart back out there; her honesty. We admire her fortitude in rugged terrain and understand when she gives her all, “believing that a life can be built by hard work and a home created by sheer force.” We cry when she finds out it isn’t so, but take heart because she perseveres. “Time after time, things come together and they fall apart again,” she explains, “like breathing.”
You will find Claiming Ground in the memoir section, but it is not only a looking back; it is a guidepost to the possibilities ahead—the surprises that await us down our own trails.
Linda Stankard claims her ground in New York and Tennessee.