“Any day now, calves should be hitting the ground, but until then, it’s the two of us, working toward our vision of productive, healthy rangelands, good cattle and good horses, trying to make a go of it.” This sentence started a 20-month chronicle of the inception and progress of a New Mexico cattle company in the High Country News web series, “Ranch Diaries.” I was contracted to write the essays, but I can no longer stand behind those words.
That ranch life that I depicted, always with a positive outlook, was a complex situation even at the time, melding a lease on the Mescalero Apache Reservation with multiple business partners and a significant financial risk. But things weren’t always peachy. Creatures died; fencing was endless; the work itself was endless. And the quarreling with my then-husband felt endless, too. The pressure of this lifestyle eventually proved too much. A few months after the last installment was published in fall 2016, I left the ranch.
Now I regard myself as a recovering rancher. By sharing the personal story of how I came to this decision, I’m publicly shedding an identity. When I wrote “Ranch Diaries,” I wanted to believe that I was living my best possible life, empowering other female producers, encouraging youth in animal-based agriculture, and patiently explaining the benefits of humanely handled grassfed beef. After several years of distance from ranching and a transformative trip on foot back to the landscape I’d fled, I’ve gained a new perspective on raising and eating animals. And it is very different one: I no longer eat meat.
I left the ranch without knowing I would, going to Montana in the fall of 2016 to make a presentation at a writer’s conference. When it was time to go back to the ranch, the thought of returning was agonizing. The most compelling reasons for going home — our newly restored house that I rebuilt with my own hands, my horses, my partner — could not soothe the deep unrest churning within me. But it wasn’t about them, I realize now. I wasn’t happy.
So I didn’t catch my return flight.
I had no idea how staggering my decision would be — and still is. Every day, I miss that corral full of horses, Pajarita Mountain in the evening light, the chickens scratching around my steps. Feeling lost, I found shelter in Port Townsend, the northernmost point of the Olympic Peninsula. Drunk with tall pines and saltwater, I felt as ungrounded as a plant plucked from the earth. I drank too much: beer, grappa, whiskey, tequila, bourbon. I painted. I cried. I couldn’t bear to scrape the horseshit from my boots, so I eventually gave them away. The closet in my apartment became a mausoleum housing my saddle, my printing press and other vestiges of a past life.
For a year and a half, I bobbed, anchorless, feeling guilty for feeling displaced because I had done this by my own choice. I worked retail, managing a home décor store. As I swapped out the seasonal window displays, fluffing pillows and talking textiles to customers, I recalled calving season, branding, weaning and shipping. Even the light on certain afternoons ripped my heart open. The smell of early spring and late summer overwhelmed me with longing for the routines each month brought on the ranch.
I looked everywhere for a new identity. I was no longer a rancher, a horse-trainer, an agrarian, or a wife.
But no matter what old-growth forest or pebbled beach I found, I couldn’t silence the desert’s persistent call — Come Home, Come Home. After two years on the Olympic Peninsula, I had gone through treatment for substance abuse and was no longer drinking. And then I turned 35. Both seemed events worth commemorating. I sat at my laptop and looked up camping options in Arizona, toying with the idea of taking my Jeep on a road trip. I couldn’t exactly afford it, and it was the worst time to take off from my fledgling gardening business. But when I stumbled across the Arizona Trail’s homepage, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Take a solo journey on foot in the Southwest.
I craved the solace of being outside in an environment that felt like my soul’s home. I needed time to think, undistracted by the demands of work, sheltered in the red dirt where I could bare myself and face this new me. With a month to plan the trip, I started a successful fundraiser, gathered backpacking gear, and tried not to scare myself out of going.
I started the trail April 4, and ended 40 days later. For the first time, I walked through federally owned rangeland with the eyes of a recreationist. Part of me felt unbelievably comfortable: I was in my element in cattle country again, sidestepping cow pies, rattlesnakes and a newborn calf on the trail. But I also allowed myself to accept how I actually felt, not how I thought I should feel. I critiqued the grazing of brittle environments and was annoyed at having to filter water filled with cowshit. I saw each wild creature as an individual, and I saw myself and the cattle as visitors in an entire ecosystem’s home.
I grew up steeped in meat culture and as a kid mocked PETA as “People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.” I’d raised — and argued for raising — meat animals for slaughter my entire life. But now I tried to imagine how these cows would feel if they knew their calves would be eaten by the same people tramping through their pastures. If they could anticipate being viewed strictly in terms of brisket and ribeye. Each soft brown eye, each distinct voice, each mother’s call: I stepped back — way back — from the stance I had taken as a woman rancher. Squirming inside with discomfort, I reflected.
On the Arizona Trail I found the tenacity and patience to sit with what I like to think of as The Discomfort. The Discomfort took multiple forms: The desert’s extremes came out to play, and I found out where I wasn’t prepared. I experienced hunger, thirst, cold and debilitating heat. My feet blossomed blisters that I continually lanced and taped, lanced and taped. As soon as they seemed to have calloused over, there was weather to contend with. Wet, cold and miserable, one day I huddled in a pit toilet with my two hiking pals. I wanted to stop, set up camp, crawl into my sleeping bag and be done. I was freezing, soaked, the ground was saturated, there were miles to go. And, with the encouragement of my friends, I walked those miles. The sun came out, I found my rhythm. I let myself cry. Catharsis complete.
For much of the trail, I carried not only my pack, but a lot of guilt. I had to forgive the Laura Jean who not only made the decision to leave the ranch, but who became a rancher in the first place. How does it affect us on a cultural level, I wonder, to be regenerating our bodies with the cells of creatures who died violent deaths? Stun gun, bullet, electric shock, pipe, knife: There is no nonviolent way to kill. I don’t believe anymore that there is an unspoken agreement between creature and owner in which good care is offered in exchange for life. If they could speak a human language, I think creatures would choose life over such an intimate sort of betrayal. I’ve been that Judas person; this knowledge wrecks me. Above all, one truth is undeniable: If I close my eyes and allow anything to be possible for me — the best self-care, the more fulfilling way of life, the most harmonious way of being in the world — it can no longer include eating animal corpses.
These are difficult realizations, but without learning to wear The Discomfort like an itchy sweater — impossible to shrug off, too distracting to ignore — I wouldn’t have been able to gain a new perspective about my life as a livestock producer and meat-eater. The path to my truth feels isolating, scary as hell and endless, but I’m committed to seeing where it leads.
Laura Jean Schneider lives in and writes from Port Townsend, Washington. A 2019 grantee of Culture and Animals Foundation, she is currently working on a collection of essays about her transition from rancher to vegan. More at laurajeanschneider.com. This essay originally appeared at High Country News.