I bumped into you by happenstance,
you probably wouldn’t even know who I am.
– “Springsteen” Eric Church
“Have you thought any more about Colorado?” Taylor asked.
A collection of our friends gathered in the common space of her home adorned in their most festive USA attire for our celebration of the Fourth. With guests scattered about, Taylor paused from her hosting duties for a moment to catch up from the chaos of our busy schedules. Around us friends munched on spiked watermelon wedges and turned up beer cans in cut-off muscle tees.
“Actually, yea,” I replied. “I used to know a kid who lives out there now. I was looking through pictures, and the idea is really growing on me.”
“Oh?” she raised an eyebrow in question. I didn’t elaborate, and hosting duties called Taylor back to the party before she could pry.
The party continued in a show of incessant chit-chatter and joyful laughter that seemed to boost in volume with every empty beer can that clanked into the trash. Slowly the night faded to morning, and party guests filtered out the door until only Taylor and I remained with our two closest guy friends. Time had seeped into the cracks of our friendship, and we relished the moments of this more intimate setting to catch up on life’s happenings.
Taylor took the opportunity to revisit our earlier conversation.
“So you think Colorado may be a possibility?” she asked.
I agreed, and rehashed to our friends the photos that had captivated my attention. I reminisced on my favorite summer spent interning at a National Park in Oklahoma, and told them how I felt the West calling me back, tugging on my heartstrings.
“Well, let’s see these photos,” one of our friends stated.
And in the early hours of that quiet house, we placed a laptop in the center of the floor and the four of us gathered around, researching and admiring pictures of Colorado’s terrain. The Google searches turned into a request to see the Facebook photos that initially captured my attention. I didn’t hesitate. We silently filtered through the pictures one by one.
“Do cowboys really exist?” our friend asked in a sarcastic tone of disbelief.
“I mean, I guess. It looks like this kid has a lot of pictures of him on horses,” I replied.
“You know, you really are such a creep,” he told me. I shot him a look of haughty annoyance.
Two weeks later, Taylor and I booked two round trip tickets to Denver.
Unbeknownst to my friends, in those weeks The Cowboy and I had begun a continuous conversation that dragged slowly from one day to the next. We informally caught up on each other’s lives since middle school, often times wondering how Nashville had kept our paths from crossing with so many mutual friends.
“You probably wouldn’t have recognized me even if they did,” he told me. He was probably right.
Early on, he politely extended an invitation to visit the ranch where he worked as a manager. He recounted his days to me in such ways that I imagined them fables, Little House on the Prairie type stories that couldn’t possibly be true. However, he assured me that life out West was just as he described, the days rolling from one to the next like a continuous dream. Slow paced, never hurried. Busy and fulfilling, nestled in a valley of the Rocky Mountains. I told him he shouldn’t half-heartedly throw out invitations to strangers, and he pledged to honor it at any given time. He freely admitted that, albeit dream-like, the ranch could get a bit lonely.
“Are you going to tell him we’re going to Colorado?” Taylor asked when we booked our tickets. I admitted to her that I’d been in contact with The Cowboy, but with the trip a month and a half away, I declined.
“Maybe if we’re still talking by then,” I decided.
But every day I heard from him, text messages turning into late night phone calls. I found myself looking forward to evenings when I normally retired to bed, knowing that at that time, states away, he was wrapping up his long work day. Knowing that on the drive home he would call to talk about everything, to talk about nothing, until sleep finally forced its way in.
And then one day my boss returned to the office from vacationing at his Colorado ski home.
“Nikki, look what I got,” he pulled a rusty wrought iron sign from behind his back. It read: This ain’t my first rodeo, a phrase he often told many clients who questioned his judgment.
“Why did you get that?” my co-workers laughed.
“Because it ain’t,” he enunciated in his thick, Northern accent as he pulled out a step ladder. I watched him hammer in the nails, hanging the sign in the entranceway above my desk.
July came to an end, and I continued to hear daily from the Colorado Cowboy, thinking of him every morning when that rodeo sign greeted me above my desk. Our trip was still a month away, but the news threatened to spill out of me with every phone date. Despite my intentions to wait, my quickly developing feelings urged me to throw those precautions to the wind. I had to tell him.
“My friend’s birthday is coming up and she wants to take a trip,” I told him one evening. I toyed with the idea of confessing the already purchased plane tickets, but I needed assurance to the sincerity of his invitation. “We’ve narrowed it down to Colorado or Charleston.”
“Well darlin’, I’ve never been to Charleston but it certainly looks beautiful. The beach sounds nice… but you know that my vote is for Colorado. You and your friend can come stay on the ranch. If you make it out this way, you can stay as long as you’d like. I’ll set you up,” he said.
It was everything I wanted to hear.
“And if you don’t want to come to the ranch then I’ll meet you anywhere in Colorado. I’ve just gotta see you.”
I relayed the news to Taylor, assuring her that The Cowboy’s hospitable invitation wouldn’t cloud the purpose of our trip. I encouraged her to take the reigns, acknowledging that this was our celebration of her twenty-ninth year, the exit from her twenties. She shrugged it off easily, pleased that any factor could so easily sway me to abandon all prior hesitations.
“We can spend a couple days at the ranch,” she agreed with a sly smile. The nature of our friendship was that she inherently knew my motives without lead. “But really my plan is to have no plans. I say we show up in Denver, rent a car and just go.”
So every day forward, I sat at my desk and received a picture message from Taylor who, from her desk on the other side of Nashville, obsessively erased tallies off her dry erase countdown. Every day the cowboy and I excitedly reminded one another of the dwindling days until the trip.
“Check your e-mail, pretty woman,” read a message on my phone one day. Our countdown had diminished to less than two weeks.
Seated at my desk, I anxiously opened my e-mail to find a message from iTunes. The Cowboy had purchased a new album for me, new music to hold me over and carry me out West: John Mayer’s Wildfire.
I was overjoyed at the gesture. I played it incessantly, letting the twangy guitar chords and folk-like tunes carry me through my dragging work days. In the evenings, it played in the background of my candlelit room as I devoted every non-working moment to constructing Taylor’s birthday gift.
I had a feeling about our trip that captivated me in such a way that I undoubtedly knew we were leaving for something grand. An adventure that would stump the rest. I dutifully worked on a to-do list of 29 activities for her 29th birthday, and before our departure, I gifted Taylor a flip book with pages soaked in wanderlust and Elmer’s glue, a guide for our Colorado adventure.
And then the day finally arrived.
One moment, I seemed to be sitting at my desk, thinking September would never come, and the next I was seated on a plane. The seat belt sign turned off with a click, and the cabin crew announced it was safe for us to turn on all electronic and cell phones devices. I held the button to revive my phone, and a message from The Cowboy greeted me:
Welcome to Colorado!