Fred Akers, coach of the Wyoming Cowboys in the 1970s, once told reporters he did his best thinking “on the back of a tractor.”
Helped him sort things out, he said. Must have worked, because he went on to a pretty successful career as football coach at Texas, then at Purdue. Couldn't win the big bowl games though, and that was a problem.
I don't have a big tractor. But an old bench out at the far end of our place east of Cheyenne serves the same therapeutic purpose. You can do some pretty good thinking out there.
We have slightly under five acres. That's big enough that you don't hear the neighbors when they argue, and about as much as a guy wants to mow. We keep the far end in prairie grass. Early on, on a whim, I cut a path around the perimeter, and it was one of the best wild-hair ideas I ever had. My dog Mitch loves scaring up rabbits in the long grass as we walk the property lines, twice a day.
Our neighbor to the south is the Union Pacific Railroad, where mile-long trains lug their way up Archer Hill. It's a tough pull from either direction, because the abandoned bridge at the edge of our place is at the top of the hill. Locomotives – 4,500 horsepower each – throb their way past our place, and I've seen as many as seven at the head end of a single train.
In bed at night, you can feel the vibration of those big traction motors hauling a nation's freight containers, coal, grain, fruit, new cars and thousands of other goods to market. A lady in North Platte was once asked if the whistles of the 1940s-era steam locomotives were distracting. No, she replied, that's the sound of a healthy nation's busy economy.
My old bench was built 30 years ago from scrap lumber, by a college friend who had given up drinking and needed something to do in the evening. That old bench has nails that need to be pounded down, and has been painted barn red more times than I can remember. Its aged appearance just makes it more precious. It has seen a lot of years, but then so have I. And I've got some nails that could be pounded back in as well.
We make it out there twice a day, Mitch and I. It's one of those retirement rituals that lend structure to my days. We go every morning and every afternoon. If I try to skip, Mitch is on me like a duck on a June bug. So we go.
Facing east on the old bench, you can watch the commerce of a massive nation going east and west on the railroad, and on Interstate 80, beyond the tracks. When the kids were little we drove I-80 west every August for our two precious weeks in Wyoming, then, sadly, back east to Illinois when our vacation was over. I look at that highway today, thankful that I don't ever have to head east again.
If I sit on the bench facing west, I survey the place a lifetime's worth of scrimping, saving, and fixing up old houses and selling them for a profit (sometimes), made possible.
An old boss who was moving from Idaho to suburban Chicago once asked me what he would miss, leaving the west. I told him that the trees back east were nice, but he'd miss the spectacular vistas of blue skies and dramatic clouds of the west. From my bench, I savor those skies, and the green grasses of summer, now turned buckskin tan, then pure golden in the late afternoon sun. Picture a joyous black Labrador, ears flapping, racing through the golden prairie in hopeless pursuit of a jackrabbit. For me, this is the good life, pure and simple.
In these difficult times – when there's enough bad news every day to make you shake your head in disbelief – our therapeutic interludes out in the wonders of everyday Wyoming are more important than ever, renewing my enthusiasm, my optimism, my peace of mind.
So much to be thankful for this week of Thanksgiving.
And every week.
Dave Simpson can be reached at: DaveSimpson145@Hotmail.com