When I was in my 40s and a single mom raising three rambunctious teenage boys at the Jersey Shore, there were days I thought I’d climb right out of my skin. Sometimes a successful day of parenting is seeing your kids go to bed alive, and between their now-hilarious but then-terrifying shenanigans, my constant worry, and the stress of being a litigation attorney, there came a point where it was either booze or Buddhism for me. Inebriate or meditate? Middle age is a crossroads, folks.
The practice of law isn’t sexy. It’s painfully boring most days, and the only good-looking attorneys are on TV. From the time I was a scrawny, tree-climbing 6-year-old, all I ever wanted to do was play outside ― and yet there I was, sweating in my pantyhose, skirt pinching at my belly, and arguing with a bunch of guys in suits every day. How I became a litigation attorney is not such an interesting tale, but the “unbecoming” is a whopper.
I’d been a good, law-abiding citizen and parent, making carpooling arrangements for soccer tournaments as I hustled to court, buying cupcakes for my kids’ endless stupid homeroom parties, and running from field to field with the occasional trip to the police station for venial sins involving pot and parties. I was stressed and suffocated by all the conventions I’d accepted ― mortgages, marriages, meetings ― after vowing (as only a college kid can) that I would be a rebel ― the non-conformist who took the road less traveled. Restless and unsettled, I barreled into middle age feeling the heat at my back. If I didn’t change my life soon, I’d be some weary old lady with a bucketful of regrets.
The wallpaper on my computer at work was a panoramic photo of a woman hiking in the Rockies. I wanted to be her, wild and free as the kid I’d been, hallooing down the street on my bike and following my three brothers straight into trouble. Instead, I was listening to some boring adversary drone on during a summary judgment motion while I fantasized about riding horses through the mountains.
I was stressed and suffocated by all the conventions I’d accepted ― mortgages, marriages, meetings… If I didn’t change my life soon, I’d be some weary old lady with a bucketful of regrets.
I hated the aggressive ugliness of litigation; my colleagues couldn’t even eat lunch without trying to one-up each other about whose sandwich was better. So, after 15 years of arguing, I left my law firm and took a job teaching high school English. A roomful of teenagers was a breath of fresh air compared to my compadres in the law. Yet, I was still exhausted and couldn’t escape feeling like a magnet was pulling me to the mountains. Born and raised in Philly, with all the sassy loud-mouthed grit that city gives you, what in the name of all that is cheesesteak and “yo” was I doing dreaming about riding the Rockies?
I can’t tell you the exact moment I thought “no more,” but I woke up after the last day of school in my second year of teaching, called the principal, and quit. My youngest son was going into his senior year of high school and the mortgage was my only debt. It was time. Jump and the net will appear, they say, and I was ready to jump.
That same day, I booked a horse pack trip in the Rockies. Now I’d done some riding in a tiny round pen on a Jersey farm, but this was cowboy stuff for sure ― six days and five nights in southern Colorado, taking horses up 13,000 feet, and camping under the stars. My plan was to work that summer in a restaurant, go to the mountains, and then open a collaborative law practice when I got back. Money wasn’t a driver for me, because even as an attorney, I never made that much. I hate to shop, I buy used cars and drive them for years, and I’ve never accrued much debt or lived above my means. I spent money on experiences, not stuff, so I wasn’t trapped by debt. But little did I know when I boarded the plane in Philly that August, my life would never be the same.
I was 48 years old when I packed into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with cowboys Jake,* Rusty, and Johnny Ray. Hoo-doggie, cowboys are fun. We rode and sang and laughed over the campfire every night, drinking cowboy coffee (“That’ll put hair on yer chest there, Philly girl”) and stretching out in mountain meadows at night, blanketed by billions of stars. My sturdy horse held me steady in the scariest, hairiest environment I’d ever seen, his beautiful head poking out over 12,000 feet on switchback turns as I clutched his mane and repeated a mantra that would itself hold me for a long time afterwards: Trust the horse. And I did ― as well as the Force and the call in my soul that said I had to be a cowgirl ― pretty much right away.
When I returned to Philly, I announced to my big fat Italian family that I was quitting everything and moving to Colorado to be a cowgirl. My boys, bless them, thought it was cool, even badass. Five days after Joey graduated high school, I loaded up my remaining belongings in a Honda CRV and pointed that sucker west. I’d sold my house for a crazy profit and given away most of my stuff. But driving over the Walt Whitman Bridge, to tell you the truth, I was scared as a baby calf.
Out in the wilderness or pushing cattle for miles I was often afraid, and challenged: Do I ask for help? Do I run away? Colorado changed me from the inside out, like a deep cleanse ― a spiritual colonoscopy.
Yes, I’d met a cowboy on that fateful trip, and let me tell you ladies, everything you’ve heard about them is true. My life with Jake is a whole other story, equal parts exhilaration and heartache, but when I headed to his 300-square-foot cabin in southern Colorado, all I knew was that I’d traded my pantyhose for jeans and those wretched high heels for boots and spurs. We lived “off the grid” ― only solar electric and no running water (unless we ran to get it) ― on a 3,000-acre ranch with a herd of 50 horses. Every morning I woke to the actual purple mountains majesty, the Sangres turning soft in the dawn. I worked outside, taking “dudes” (like me) out on pack trips or teaching them how to rock climb, hike and mountain bike. I toiled on ranches doing stuff I had no business doing with horses and trucks, and I’m now in a pretty small club of women who have argued before appellate courts and branded cattle. “Life is an adventure or nothing at all,” Hellen Keller said, and I had finally found more than my share of adventure.
This was all more than a decade ago, and my life has taken many stunning turns since then. Jake and I married, but five years ago he filed for divorce. Then a month after that, I got breast cancer. Here’s what I learned on the ranch, and what kept me steady as I lost my marriage, home, job, sense of self, and some body parts: From epic mountain hailstorms to black bears and bulls, nature is strong and beautiful and can carry us through anything. We are ― all of us ― tougher than we think. I went to Colorado to test my mettle, to get to know my own power ― which had nothing to do with my lawyer smarts or Jersey tough girl persona. I’m grateful that marriage and the mountains kicked my ass because I needed to wake up. Every day on that ranch I learned that it’s all either fear or love, and I had to lean into both. I guess I wanted to feel brave.
Out in the wilderness or pushing cattle for miles I was often afraid, and challenged: Do I ask for help? Do I run away? Can I ride that mare across the pasture, or that mountain bike up an impossible single-track? Colorado changed me from the inside out, like a deep cleanse ― a spiritual colonoscopy. I don’t know exactly what’s in store for me now, but I’m finally standing on my own two feet. It only took five decades, but it’s totally worth the wait.
When I’d be out all day pushing cattle, the cowboys would give me a hard time when I had to pee. “Come on Philly girl,” they’d say, “we’re burning daylight!” And ain’t that the truth? Life is short, and so sweet, and every moment you’re not living your authentic life, you’re burning daylight. If you’ve got a calling in your soul ― no matter what it looks like ― maybe it’s time to live that one real life that’s been following you like a shadow. Here’s the most important thing I learned when I felt alone and exposed in the wilderness or even in my marriage: An aspen grove looks like a multitude of individual trees, but it’s really one big organism, all connected to one root, just like us. We’re not free-standing loners in solitude. We help each other grow, and like an aspen grove, we’re all connected at the root.
*Not his real name
Phyllis Coletta is a recovering lawyer now living in Seattle. She can be reached via her website, www.barefootbroads.blogspot.