Lord willing and the creek don’t rise: How we show up for each other in community on the range

Seldom is heard

In the fall of 2011 I graduated from Purdue University having accepted a job offer as a correctional officer in the Badlands country of Eastern Montana. I worked my way into counseling young men with chemical dependency diagnoses at the Pine Hills correctional facility until I had our first child, RD. Shortly thereafter my husband Drew and I took a ranch foreman position outside of Miles City where our daughter, Reagan, was born. 

One of the very first lessons our rural ranching community taught me was that relationships are essential. The people I was surrounded by at that time in my life cared deeply for each other. They did business together, drank coffee together, borrowed and returned things from each other; all without compromising their ability to co-exist. There were differences, of course, but more importantly there was community; the way they could serve one another despite those differences. The invisible connection that I couldn’t quite put my finger on was a kind of love. (Though I don’t think any rancher would call it “love” but that’s what it is. Sorry, not sorry, y’all). 

Cattle grazing on the Cinch Buckle. Photo by the author.

Discouraging Words

Have there been times when I have experienced the opposite in my ranching community; where people were not forgiving, accepting or welcoming? Absolutely. One particularly painful experience stands out: the matriarch at our first ranch told me in no uncertain terms, “You can’t work on the ranch and be a Mom.” 

…the matriarch at our first ranch told me in no uncertain terms, “You can’t work on the ranch and be a Mom.” 

I felt confused and angry, with no real sense of how to change. I knew plenty of other women who were raising their kids on the ranch, who participated in the daily activities and who supported their operation as cowgirls, cooks, bookkeepers, truck drivers…so why was my experience so different? I ended up filling my time with an outside job and community projects that didn’t fill my soul. I felt “no work responsibility on the ranch equals no place on the ranch.”  The cost: I compromised my values, goals and beliefs. I lost myself along the way.

I am eternally grateful to have had these difficult moments. They presented an opportunity to learn a life changing lesson. I was forced to pause and recognize what was authentic and true for me. I needed to live my life in alignment with my values because that is where I find true happiness, growth and fulfillment. And out of that place, I can reciprocate love to my family, friends and even send loving- kindness to those relationships which are more difficult. 

Drew and Liz Barbour manage the Cinch Buckle Ranch near Broadus, Montana. Photo courtesy of the author.

The skies are not cloudy

On a dreary, negative-degree Sunday in late February a phone call came in from one of my dearest friends. She said, “It seems like you and your family need a change. We’ve thrown your hat in the ring to manage the Cinch Buckle Ranch near Broadus, Montana.” My response was “What?!” My soul was screaming “YES… YES… YES!” but my mind was saying “We can’t do this. We have a responsibility here. We’ve planned to stay, no matter what, until the kids graduate” and on and on; building my own walls, putting limits on my dreams. Limits which were meant to create stability for our family, but which were really stopping us from making the choice that was best for us.

This magical moment came into existence because of a relationship. A friendship. A support system. People who believed in my family. Because of love. We took the job.

RD and Reagan Barbour, in their element out on the ranch. Photo by the author.

Home on the range

Entering into this new opportunity at the Cinch Buckle I was very hesitant, as my self-confidence as a woman in ranching had dropped significantly. What was my role? I had been a foreman’s wife who was empowered to contribute and behave with ownership in the business. But I had also been a hired man’s wife whose efforts were smothered by a constant critical gaze, and now what? I had no idea what to expect. I anticipated being a role filler; having a script to follow and a line up of expectations to fill. But that isn’t what met me. 

I shared my nervousness with our new general manager and he replied, “You know, we have to allow each other the space to make mistakes.” Right then I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

As a part of the J Bar L team I feel nothing but encouragement, empowerment, love, passion, authenticity, freedom, connection and inspiration to be myself. As part of this team, I have been able to remember what has always been true, that I bring something valuable to our team. I may not be experienced at accounting or bull genetics, nor do I know all of the rangeland grasses (yet). By remaining authentic to my values and connected to the landscape I have the freedom to explore and grow.

Each day I am filled with gratitude for the complexity of relationships that filter through my days. Through it all, my capacity for forgiveness, kindness, love and authenticity have grown. I have gained knowledge and wisdom through each experience. By developing an authentic commitment to myself and remaining firm in my truth, I am learning to not let exterior chaos shift my inner stability. 

Liz Barbour manages the Cinch Buckle Ranch in Southeastern MT with her husband Drew. Her family’s unlikely journey from Indiana, began in 2012, when she accepted a position as a Licensed Addictions Counselor,working with chemically dependent youth at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility. After having her first child in 2014, she and Drew moved to a remote ranch in Eastern Montana where she fell in love with the relationship between animals, people and wide open landscapes. She carries a passion and empathy for all living things; her varied experiences have allowed her to view life through the lenses of many different people.