My grandfather was a cowboy–one of those deeply weathered cowboys who doesn’t lose the tan on the back of his neck no matter what the season. He has brilliant blue eyes and legs bowed out to there. He has his Sunday boots, and his town boots and his barn boots; he has his Sunday hat and his work hat and his barn hat. I have never seen the man in running shoes. Or a t-shirt, for that matter… it’s a cowboy shirt with snaps. (Pearlized, on Sunday.)
He has worked as sheep shearer, cattleman, carpenter. He was always up with the sun, and busy with something. His greatest job was teacher, though. We loved it when he’d let us tag along–out to the barn at milking time, or off to a job site to pick up nails or stack wood.
One year he asked my brother and I if we’d like to deliver salt to the community pasture with him. He’d been hired by the town of Cardston to care for the cattle out there and since it involved horses and Grandpa, of course we said yes. We started out in the wee small hours in his beat up Chevy truck and drove out to the pasture where we hitched up an old wagon, piled it high with salt blocks, and headed out. Grandpa held the reins as the sun came out and we could see wildflowers blooming and boy, we were on top of the world.
The licks came in blocks roughly the size of a gallon of milk and were colored a brilliant blue. We’d drive some mysterious distance that seemed to agree with Grandpa and then he’d hand the reins over to one of us, jump down off the wagon seat, and unload a lick or two onto the prairie sod. That’s it.
This went on for an hour or two and at one point my brother got into the back of the wagon to hand a block down to Grandpa. The horses chose that moment to be startled by something and off they took, just running. Grandpa was hollering and I was hauling back on those reins with all my fifty pounds of might, but those horses weren’t listening to a thing he or I said. I never prayed so hard in my young life as I did that day. I don’t remember what all happened, but somehow Grandpa caught up with those horses and got them under control. I’m sure it was far less terrifying than my child’s mind remembers it, but the only clear image I have of those few moments is the sight of my grandfather’s hands, torn and bloody, finally holding those reins again and his eyes looking into mine as he climbed up onto the seat beside me.
He assured me that I was never truly in danger but I was done playing cowboy; I wanted to go home. I also knew, however, that the bed of that wagon was just full of blocks still. I asked Grandpa if we had to deliver all the blocks. He agreed that this was true. I asked him how much longer. He said, “Well, I reckon until the job’s done.” He clicked his tongue to the horses and shook the reins and off we went. I asked him if I could get down and walk back to the truck. He said, “Well, yeah, I suppose you could do that, but it’ll be a long wait. Day’s just started.”
And that was that. He didn’t stop the wagon; we continued on at a steady pace and nothing else was said. He knew that no matter how frightened I’d become, that I was safer with him than without him. He also knew that I could outlast my terror, even if I didn’t know it. And I did endure. We had lunch out there somewhere where the horizon curves and when there were no blocks left and the sun was getting low, there was that blessed, predictable, smelly old truck again. We unhitched the horses and locked up the gate and it felt good to be done.
I’ve thought of that morning every time I get on the treadmill and want to quit when the odometer rolls over to 2 or 3 instead of enduring to 4. I thought of it when I groaned in a particularly difficult childbirth–or some days or nights of childcare, for that matter. I’ve thought of it every time I see a wagon or a team of horses or a salt lick. I think of it every time I read the story of Lot and his family fleeing their comfortable home. His wife is always tinged brilliant blue in my imagination–a salt lick in the shape of a woman, forever paralyzed on the plains. A woman who couldn’t help but look back with longing instead of forward with faith.
And whenever I have found myself gripping the creaking seat of whatever challenge is paralyzing me and have wanted again to plead, “Can’t I get off? Must I really continue this journey, today?” I have thought of the way Grandpa shook those reins and smiled out at the horizon and I have looked out at my own and tried to see it through his brilliant, ageless eyes. And I have endured.
Because he is always with me. Because I am safer with him than without him. Because he has always known I have it in me, whether I do, or not. And when I have ridden for so long that my bones feel like they will rattle right through my skin and my wagon is bouncing high in the ruts because it is bare and empty, there is always safety and comfort at the end of the journey and I am surprised to discover all I was capable of, in the end.
You are stronger than you think you are. You can endure more than you believe is possible for any human soul to endure. But you have to stay on the wagon. Sitting it out on solid ground is not an option. Sometimes all you can do is endure, but even that will get you somewhere.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never.”