When I was a litigation attorney and the mother of three young boys, I'd often go to sleep with a vague sense of anxiety and wake with a knot in my stomach. Like so many professional women, my days consisted of running around in uncomfortable clothes screaming at other drivers while making carpooling arrangements for a soccer game on my cell phone. Just so you get the full picture, I lived in New Jersey.
Alas, in my profession there was also a lot of yelling - I was routinely subjected to tirades from clients who wanted "justice," senior partners who wanted more money, and frustrated judges. Then I'd go home to an unhappy husband and three hungry kids.
By the age of 40, I couldn't believe how my life had turned out.
Something had gotten away from me. In high school and college I was a free-spirited athlete, strong and funny, a minimalist woman who could live out of a backpack. Ten years later I was mortgaged, obligated, and stuck. But don't cry for me, dear reader, because alleluia, I got unstuck. I did it. I chucked the law and became a cowgirl.
The journey from attorney and soccer mom to horse wrangler was a wild one but my story's ending at a ranch in Colorado had been written by forces much bigger than this little Italian girl from Philly. It was inevitable that I'd end up in blue jeans, knee-high in horse poop, going for days without a shower when I lived outdoors. I had never even been to the Rocky Mountains but they sure visited me on a regular basis. Due to marriage and other compromising life circumstances, I was about as far from the minimalist mountain life as I could imagine. Living in New Jersey, working as a lawyer, always a little lost, and unhappy.
After sixteen years of litigation I had nothing left. Suffering classic symptoms of burn out - insomnia, depression, distracted thinking - it became more difficult for me to plug on. I was a good lawyer; my clients loved me and that was mutual, but the system is a huge, bureaucratic, and hopeless morass mainly bent on enriching attorneys. I found myself feeding people into a machine over which I had no control, and one which would ultimately deplete them. So onerous was the litigation process and so unpredictable that I initiated each client meeting with a "Get Some Religion" lecture:
"Forget 'justice' or revenge," I'd say, "You're not going to feel better when this is over. You won't be vindicated, just exhausted. But there's a chance I can get you some money."
When I was defending someone who had been sued the lecture was even bleaker:
"You probably haven't done anything wrong. That doesn't really matter," my client's face would be grim. "We can try and settle quickly but you might want to take wads of cash and throw them out the window because it's the same result. This process is really costly."
That was it, that was all I had to give and it was a gruesomely realistic picture.
The last law firm I worked for started to go under financially and each day there was the sort of panic in the air you sense with any sinking ship. Employees spent most of their time looking for other jobs, and pilfering supplies while partners screamed at secretaries to recycle envelopes.
I did a little divorce work, which was excruciating but having been down that road myself I knew what to say when my clients asked “When is it time to get divorced?”
“If you’re asking the question,” I’d say, “It’s not time. Go get some counseling. You’ll know when it’s time. For me, the moment came when I finally realized that I’d rather live in the Honda than one more day in the marriage.”
And so it was with the practice of law. One day I was just d-o-n-e. Ready to live in my Honda. I quit and in August of 2004 I decided to take a horse pack trip into the Rocky Mountains. Finally, I was going to get close to the beauty that had been in my dreams for years. Jumping on the internet, I found a trip called The Ultimate - five days into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a couple of cowboys and a bunch of folks I didn't know.
The pack trip was indeed a dream come true. Leaving out of the beautiful Wet Mountain Valley in southern Colorado, we rode for hours each day, deeper into the Sangre de Christo mountains, setting camp at night and laughing around the fire. As far from "civilization" as I could imagine, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. Besides, I met a cowboy and after years of discouraging relationships I was back in the saddle so to speak.
On the last day of the trip, dirty and weary from five days in the mountains, the clients sat together waiting for a van ride back to the airport.
"Well," one of the guys said, "It's back to the real world."
"No," I replied without hesitation, "This is the real world."
And that, as they say, was that. I returned to New Jersey and put my house on the market. Although I had opened a solo law practice I put away any ideas of venturing back into that arena. I sold everything I owned, down-sized my life completely and started looking for jobs in the outdoor adventure industry in Colorado. My friends thought I was crazy.
"Where will you live? What will you do? What about money? What about the kids?" And on.
My two older sons had left the nest, off to college and work and life. My youngest was in his senior year of high school. He and I lived a peaceful existence but once he was gone, why would I be in New Jersey? Why would I not live the life I had seen in my head for 25 years? There was no reason to stay.
I had a "Pillage My House Party" where I invited my friends and neighbors to bring food and beer and take anything they wanted. They did an admirable job of emptying my house. Real estate at the Jersey shore had gone through the roof and in February I sold my house for multiples of what I'd paid. Stashed most of it away for retirement and bought a tiny condo in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, cash. The Cowgirl Gods were smiling on me.
On June 19, 2005 - four days after my Joey graduated high school - I packed up my little Honda CRV with my remaining stuff. My best girlfriend Carol had offered to accompany me cross country. We would be Thelma and Louise, it seems, without the sex and violence. Carol is the girl I never was: she can sew curtains and can stuff. She brought to this venture the steadfast loyalty of the Iowa farm girl she is: all heart, endless work, no complaining. Within three days we had landed in Steamboat Springs, furnished a tiny condo, and she headed home.
I wandered and ambled about Colorado all summer, loving the Rockies and sleeping outside under a blanket of stars. At 49, I had found my bliss. Between Outward Bound and Sierra Club trips I worked on a ranch, taking people horseback riding and rock climbing, cooking dinner on a campfire in the mountains. It was a dream come true. By late August, the cowboy found me irresistible and we decided to make a go of it. Divested of nearly all those unnecessary earthly possessions, I lived in a 300 square foot cabin "off the grid." No running water (unless we run and get it), solar electric, no bathroom. Very cool, very basic and a dream come true.
For me, the journey from soccer mom to cowgirl was truly the path of least resistance. People ask me how I could "give up everything" to live such a simple life and I tell them that this is the easy part. Living my "other life" was much more difficult, getting up each day to go to a job that made my heart clench, fighting adversaries and my own endless restlessness. Surely that life was much more difficult than waking up to the sound of 60 horses pounding through the meadow on round up while watching the Sangres turn pink in the morning sun. We didn't have a TV, running water, or indoor plumbing. It's amazing how little you really need to be totally content. The cabin was warm and full of love. People walked in and felt at home. We would ride horses, or go mountain biking, or hike into the Sangres to find hot springs or a lake.
My kids love to tell people that their mom became a cowgirl but she used to be a lawyer and my friends envied the simplicity and freedom I gained in "losing" everything. As a writer, I feel compelled to share my story and great fortune with others because I believe we all yearn for a deep dream inside us to come true. Who doesn't have the occasional thought of shrugging off the weight of all our "stuff" - things we buy, obligations we acquire - just to wander around like a dog? You know how dogs just sit in the car, staring out the window, breathing in the great smells? This became my life, the life of a happy pup, wandering around enjoying the beauty of this earth.
You might want to take a page from my book and start investing in your self, that Inner Cowgirl who's stuck in pantyhose or traffic. Dream big, friends, have faith and watch it unfold. Happy trails.