“That’s the thing about this city,” Grandpa says, polishing off his third Pilsner since we sat down at the pub around the block from my tiny dormitory. “An’ every other city. Makes people soft.”
Part-time rigger and full-time rancher, Grandpa is the definition of a roughneck. His stocky frame is wrapped in solid cowboy muscle. His blue eyes are bright and sharp under the rim of his tattered ball cap. His face is like leather, weathered by too many winters atop oil rigs in the unforgiving cold and unrelenting wind in the country’s harshest, most remote tundra.
“Don’t worry Grandpa,” I respond. “What do they say? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl?”
“I jus’ don’t see why you had to come to the city to learn how to ranch,” he grumbles. “I been teachin’ you jus’ fine for eighteen years.”
Since I learned to walk, Grandpa has been my fiercest defender, most vocal critic, and greatest teacher.
On the family ranch in the rolling foothills under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, he taught me how to rope and ride, how to care for animals through the weather’s wild mood swings, and how to navigate the auction market as both a buyer and a seller. He showed me how to punch without breaking my hand and how to barbeque all manners of meat. He made sure I could compete in every school sport and change a flat tire without help.
He wanted me to be independent, but I don’t think he realized it meant that I might try to do things differently or that I might leave him even for just a little while.
It doesn’t matter that I came here to study agri-business, or that I plan to come home when I graduate. It hurts his feelings that I’ve decided there is more to learn than he alone can offer.
“I don't know how many times I have to tell you,” I scold him gently, “that if we don’t make some changes, we’re eventually going to lose the cattle, lose the land, and lose the house. We can do better.”
He pretends not to hear my little lecture.
“Lookit yeh. After jus’ one year. Wearin’ city clothes and city shoes, eatin’ fancy food and drinkin’ fancy beer.”
I hadn’t dared to laugh at the way his eyes had bugged out at the extensive craft beer list. It was a mistake to bring him here; I don’t know what I was thinking. We should have gone to the A&W at the other end of the block for mozza burgers and root beer floats, just like we do at home.
He raises his wild brows at the pear and gorgonzola salad the server places in front of me.
“You one of them vegans now too?” he asks through a mouthful of the ‘jus’ regular plain ol’ normal beef burger’ he had demanded after mocking the menu’s gourmet offerings.
“Of course not.”
“You about to tell me we gotta sell all our cattle cuz they fart too much?”
I just roll my eyes.
“Where’s the tough-as-nails cowgirl I raised right? I hope these city folk haven’ watered the courtesy an’ common sense right outta ya.”
I poke at my arugula and frown.
I think about all the times over the last year that I’ve threaded my keys between white knuckles while riding a crowded bus or walking through an echoing parking garage.
I think about how I learned which streets to avoid after dark, and which parks to never visit alone even in the daylight.
I think about the self-defense class I was encouraged to join in my first week of school, and the Safe Walk program offered between buildings.
There are times when I pound pavement, flying around the last block into the relative safety of the student residence. Then, more often than not, I’ll linger by the front desk and pretend to search through my bag while I wait for a gaggle of swaggering bros to disappear before I call an elevator and will it, with every beat of my wild heart, to travel at the speed of light.
I think about the physical strength often required to repel unwanted arms on a dance floor, even when surrounded by a group of friends, and the continuous need to buy new drinks after leaving cups unattended for a moment.
I think about walking twenty blocks to my minimum wage mall job in forty below and forty above, because cabs are too expensive and there’s nowhere to hide from wandering hands on a perpetually packed train.
I think about the vitriol spat at me from across the counter over out-of-stock ice cream flavors, and how many times during my lunch break I pretend to be saving the seat next to me for a friend.
I am confident.
I am capable.
But I’ve also been rattled this year by the lockdown drills we practice in the kiosk at work and in the lecture halls at school; by how many times I’ve had to level-up from assertive to aggressive to make my voice heard in male-dominated classes; and by the never-ending effort required to maintain a physical bubble against the onslaught of unsolicited advances while in a grocery store line-up or waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk.
None of these experiences are unique to the city, of course. The manifestation is simply a little more obvious and a lot more frequent in a big population filled with strangers than it is in little cow-poke towns where everybody has known everybody all their lives.
I can’t decide which is less sinister.
Regardless, I feel no-less tough-as-nails now than I did when I regularly broke yearling horses and claimed barrel racing buckles. Than when I hauled five-galleon pails of feed to the troughs across slick straw-strewn ice and muddy manure muck. Than when I wrestled calves in the dust at local brandings or out-shot my peers with both bow and rifle.
I think about trying to explain all of this to Grandpa.
About how I’ve come to learn that city girls are just as tough as cowgirls. How common sense is just as vital to survival among concrete and towers as it is among grass and mountains. How I’ll be coming home stronger, smarter, and more ready than ever to ensure that I, even as a woman, will protect and maintain his legacy in this less than ideal world.
I know most of my story will fall on deaf ears, though. The bits and pieces he chooses to hear will only add fuel to his stubborn campaign to lure me home from the city’s inferior clutches.
We eat the rest of our lunch in silence and small-talk.
He’ll return to the ranch believing that I’ve succumbed to urban charms.
I'll return to the ranch knowing that the city has not softened me.
It has fortified me.