There is a famous saying that I am sure we have all heard. It goes something like, “You can’t choose your family. But you can choose your friends.”   Hearing this as a child typically solicited a wide eyed nod, as if to say, “Yes, sir! And I did not choose mine”   Not to throw mom and dad under the bus or anything. But I can remember the why, how, what, and most importantly the WHO of the majority of my childhood tribulations. (By the way, there are three brother-type culprits I am thinking of specifically. Not to name names, or anything)

But through the years my perspective has changed. The adult version of the once whiny little sister now thinks of family relations like this, “The family that works together, sticks together.”  I am sure that there are plenty of exceptions to that adage. Not every family has persisted with love, compassion, patience, hard work and terribly stubborn parents the way that mine did. (and still does!)

The truth is that I consider myself very lucky to have been born into the family that I did, and to have grown up in the place that we still call home. Some of my earliest memories are of muggy summer evenings when my mother would gather empty plastic ice cream cartons and lead me by the hand up the dusty gravel road that ran behind our home. There she and I would pick berries for hours, shrouded by the enormous blackberry bushes the proliferated there. My eager fingers seldom could withstand the temptation of the impressive stockpile mom typically contained in her own picking bucket. Most nights my small fingers usually contained more evidence of berries than my picking bucket ever did.

I will never forget working beside my father, who remains one of my biggest supporters. He taught me how to drive a truck and a tractor. He also taught me how to fly fish, which was really more about having fun than work. At the age of twelve I began tying flies for him, and he enthusiastically sported them on his commercial fishing trips. I still remember the joy I felt when I learned that a fly I had made, named “Drama Queen”, was responsible for the biggest catch of the day. But more importantly, I learned from him a kind of quiet respect that I still try to embody today. I learned the most from him by watching him work with love and dedication to bless others.

While growing up in the remote ranch location that I did ultimately forced the bonds in my family to evolve, I cannot in good conscience say that it is the only reason that my family is so unique. Nor is it responsible for the quiet strength that my father possesses, or the work ethic that he and my mother perpetuate. In hindsight, it seems that the demands that my family has met while living in their remote corridor of the world have really been a catalyst for changing our ways. I am sure that my parent’s dominant virtues would have ultimately prevailed had we lived in some smoggy, noisy suburb in urban America. But it wouldn’t have happened the same way. What makes it all so unique is the combination of strong people committed to making things work, a landscape that requires tremendous work and maintenance, and the reality that your family is your work force (and visa versa). One specific experience comes to mind. Let me explain:

When I was about three years old my family had only lived on the ranch for a short period of time, and it was nothing like the well-oiled machine that it has become. On a cold winter morning my mother stood with me on her hip and my youngest brother at her side, and watched two of my older brothers depart on the school bus. A freak snowstorm was rolling in and had already begun churning the air and sputtering out crusty little flakes of ice. As she turned to walk back up the yard to our house, she froze in terror. During the time she had stood at the bus stop, a mature mountain lion had waltzed onto our front yard, sliced open one of our dogs, and was now dragging the other one off into the woods. As quickly and safely as she could manage, my mom rushed my brother and I into the house and retrieved our injured dog. Luckily, my grandfather is a seasoned veterinarian. She reached for the phone to call him, but was thwarted by the power in our house suddenly going out. Outside the storm is worsening and there is no electricity now in any part of the ranch. You should also know that at this particular moment in time, my father was out of town. So dear old mom had to fly solo. Over the next hour as she scrambled to stitch up her dog, the weather worsened and both my brother and I came down with high fevers. Mom left my brother in bed, strapped me to her back, grabbed the pistol, and proceeded to march her frazzled self up the mountain to investigate the source of the electricity problems. The ranch is run by a hydroelectric generator, whose only water source is a small creek that runs from the mountains down onto the ranch. Over the next few hours she did her best to repair the damage that our creek had sustained from a small mudslide, while watching over her ailing child. Once she had done all within her capacity, she took me back down to the house and braced for a cold night with sick children and no power. That night our friend the mountain lion decided to come back and sniff around for other potential snacks from the ranch mini bar. It shrieked all night and stalked our house, leaving deep trails in the snow where it trod. Oh, I forgot to mention, on top of all of this havoc, two other landslides occurred a few miles north and south of our property. So once the electricity final came back on and mom called neighbors and forest service to ask for help, there wasn’t a soul who could reach her. She was completely alone. About two days after this incident(s), the roads were cleared and my two eldest brothers were able to return home. Dad was also able to come home soon thereafter and let’s just say that mom was given a well-earned break.

I have heard this story told to friends and guests over a thousand times and I have to acknowledge that the real grit that makes this story came from my mother. But I share this story because this kind of insanity is really not an exception. Things on the mountain have a way of spiraling out of control faster than you can imagine. When things go south on the ranch, the police are two hours away, your neighbors are probably dealing with similar issues, and the only force that you have to change any of that is yourself and hopefully (unlike my poor mother in the story), you have able bodied family members and or workers beside you to help pull the load.

The lesson that I have taken away from all of this is that every person makes a difference. Not just in the sense of a team and it’s team members, or employees who are all working anonymously under the same mega-boss, or in some nebulous way to talk about our individual places in the universe. My family sticks together because we have learned first hand that the contribution of each one of our team members affects the entire system of life and success that we enjoy on the ranch. Just think, what if mom had given up that night when the power went out? How many sane people (not to say that mom is insane) would have thrown up their hands and tried to abandon the nightmare that was unfolding before them? I am sure plenty of people would have. The ranch has demanded us to work harder than we have ever worked before, and by default, it has also blessed our lives immeasurably. I don’t think you can ever know what you are capable of until you have been pushed to the limit. And that is what the ranch does; it pushes you to your limit. And then some, and then possibly off the cliff, and down the hill, and into the ravine, and into the frigid water, and then over the waterfall, and then out to sea… you get the picture. My family has evolved and sticks together because we have been pushed again and again, and it has forced us to learn how to work harder, think smarter, and depend on each other, because we are literally the ONLY ones around to get the job done and each contribution helps to sustain our family, and the ranch.   We have bonded and survived as a family, because we have both played together, and worked together for our larger family survival.

dude ranch family

The Cole family – working, playing and bonding together on the ranch

By Cierra Cole, the youngest child and only daughter of the Marble Mountain Ranch Family