“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – 1 John 1: 1-5 (English Standard Version)
This story is my go-to when I need a clear image of God’s light in the darkness. Such stories are close to non-existent in my dude ranch memory book – love was present through them all, but the Light was oftentimes shadowed, shaded, or hidden under a bush, oh my! Though it was probably present more than I knew, my perspective became more and more foggy with time. But this memory, this memory, is one I’ll always remember, because it is one of the few moments when I felt like God’s presence despite the darkness.
It happened one day in northern California, on a small ranch spread out along the hillsides, with a creek separating the staff quarters from the guest cabins. Staff members enjoyed a brisk 10 minute walk from their cabins, down the hill, around the pond, down the three wooden steps, over the creek, and (look left, right, left) across the road, up the bank, alongside the pool to the lodge for breakfast and morning announcements. The drive however, from the main lodge to the stables or staff cabins was a little more strenuous, or so it seemed.
Spread out along two sides of Cappuccino Creek, a picturesque, old bridge connected the two sides. The main side of the ranch was where the majority of the ranch buildings were housed along with all of the guest cabins. The buildings were rustic and worn-out, displaying the experiences that they had been through: busy summers and long, hard winters. The main ranch building housed the kitchen, dining room, and bar. It was western-themed with deep red carpets, dark wooden tables, and interesting animal heads/antlers on the walls. In the back left corner there was a big stone fireplace with a couple of worn-out couches around it, and to the right, a dance floor and stage.
Behind this building, along a dirt path in the woods, were the guest cabins. They were two to three room cottages, each themed to their letter of the alphabet (e.g. Cabin A has apple-themed comforters and decorations, B- bears, C- cowboys, etc…). Each cabin had their own bathroom and bedroom; some even included a deck or porch. There was a total of 15 cabins available for guests to rent out for a week at a time, which offered a ranch-wide capacity of approximately 50 people.
On the other side of the ranch, across the bridge and a couple minute walk along a dirt path (through the woods, around the pond, and up a dirt hill) is where the staff quarters were. We were told that they were our “cabins” but they were more like shacks. Painted red with white trim they looked lovely from afar, but up close, their paint was chipping and tattered. On the inside, each shack had a main room with a few mattresses on the ground, some blankets with holes, a dresser or two, and pine-needle covered, carpeted floors. There was also a bathroom that was almost too small to fit it with a shower that rarely spout out warm water. The best part of the staff quarters was the fire pit, which was a place where all of us could vent and relax after a long day’s work. Beyond the staff shacks were the pastures where the horses resided. There were approximately three pastures that held about sixty horses. In between the three pastures, there was a small wooden building that kept all the horses’ tack safe and dry.
Cappuccino Creek Ranch was run by the Hellion couple. Jabez and Portia were their names. Jabez was an older man in his mid-60s. He had a thick European accent of some sort, making it nearly impossible to understand a conversation with him over the phone, or really, in person. That summer he didn’t do much for the ranch, but make up stories about his life that he started to believe after years of sharing them. He enjoyed making his staff feel incompetent as well. Portia was also quite the character. She was in her mid-50s, but looked much older. She was chubby and wrinkles were starting to take over her face. Her voice was hoarse and winey. That summer she surely knew how to point out every single mistake that staff, and guests alike, made. She was very self-righteous. Quite like her husband, she also enjoyed story-telling.
Even though Jabez and Portia were crazy, they weren’t stupid. They worked with a program called CCUSA (Camp Counselors USA). This company sent over the majority of that summer’s staff from Europe. They were on contract to stay the whole summer, or they wouldn’t get paid.
The staff was basically a group of misfits. I was the Christian girl from Minne-soh-tah. Mr. Charming, somehow related to Portia and Jabez, traveled all the way from a faraway land to help manage the ranch. He was in his early 50s, a big rugby player, with shaggy blonde hair and such a thick accent that some guests had trouble understanding (Mr. Charming stars in the story i wish was not my own). Justin was a wrangler, perfectly fitting the role of the troubled-cowboy. He was a handsome and kind guy with horse-sense by day and a troubled soul by night. Asher, also a wrangler, was a typical fun-loving, down-to-earth guy. He always was up for a good party at night. Jack, a middle-aged maintenance man, true to his name loved him some Jack Daniels alongside his Jesus. (Mentioned as the other Christian on the ranch in: The Dude Ranch [Email] Diaries: First Night.) Brennan was another maintenance man. He was a larger-built man in his mid-20s; a father of one daughter of whom he had restricted visits to see. Calla was practically perfect in every way – a tall, beautiful blonde from Russia, who brought positive energy to whatever she was doing. She also captured the hearts of many staffers and guests alike. And then there was Nora.
Nora, short for Eleanora, is a Greek name meaning, “Light”.
Nora was from Holland, but wouldn’t fit the looks of a stereotypical Dutch girl. Her mother was from Indonesia and therefore she had tanned skin with long, silky black hair. Her eyes were a dark shade of brown. We ended up being roommates and always enjoyed our conversations together, whether they were deep or just making fun of our awful bosses.
Nora was my best friend on the ranch. It didn’t seem this way at the beginning, as I woke her up much too early during her first morning of jet lag. She had arrived at the ranch probably a few hours before this rude awakening. In my defense, I wasn’t warned about her, that she’d be sleeping in one of the guest cabins that I needed to clean. I quickly apologized and exited as swiftly as possible, thinking that my new co-worker might now hate me.
However, the complete opposite happened. We shared our commonalities and were interested in each other’s differences. Nora lost her father when she was 14 and I lost my father when I was 3. Because of her loss, Nora lost her faith in any sort of “all-loving God,” whereas my faith only grew strong for my Heavenly Father. Nora had gone through a few intimate relationships and I had yet to date. We both loved to sing. She was a phenomenal soloist, and I was more of a chorus-line singer, but we both thoroughly enjoyed belting out Disney songs, as well as the music stylings of Whitney Houston and some random country singers. She even got me to sing karaoke with her at one of the ranch’s weekly activities which was way out of my comfort zone, but completely worth it!
On the ranch, we had separate roles, though we thoroughly enjoyed helping each other out when we had the chance. Nora was a children’s counselor. On Wednesday nights when I didn’t have to serve at the “adult” dinner, I would help out with the kid’s pizza party and watch The Chipmunks with her and the children. I, on the other hand, was named Head Housekeeper. So, on the mornings when Nora wasn’t busy, she’d come around door to door with me and we’d housekeep. She’d always mimic my “Housekeeping!” with “We’re going to keep your house!”
She had a sense of humor that could break through whatever terrible thing our bosses had said or done that day, and she wasn’t afraid of them. Whereas, I think I was at first. She was my strength, my light. We shared common experiences, and knew the depth of love that is acquired through loss. I trusted her with the quirks of my character, and could be fully “me” in her presence.
Together we ventured through the crazy provided by our ranch managers. Though we connected well with the rest of the staff, we created an inner circle creating a comical clique with Mr. Charming and Jack.
With the help of each other, we comic-relieved our way through the never-ending shit-show of crazy.
One day, two weeks into our friendship, Nora confided in Mr. Charming and me that she wasn’t feeling so well. We were worried, but she insisted on trying to make it through the day, so we decided that if, in a few hours, she was still feeling rotten then we’d get her some help. It turned out that she still wasn’t feeling well after a few hours, but she continued to insist on toughing it out. And in all reality, she seemed to be fine.
That evening, us staffers were enjoying a night of pool with some of the guests. Absorbing the atmosphere of joy and rambunctious pool-sharking, I almost didn’t notice as Nora left the commotion early. Trying to continue and enjoy myself, my stomach couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something was off. My empath ability could no longer distract itself with great company knowing that one of my good friends was hurting.
So that evening, when the person who brought joy and light into my life, snuck away early because she wasn’t feeling well, I knew something was up. Bidding the crew an evening adieu, I started my trek back to the staff quarters. I stopped by Jack’s cabin first, to see if Nora had stopped in for visit, but neither of them were there. Moments later, my ears awoke and my heart froze with the sound of coughing coming our cabin. Kneeing by her bedside, Jack ushered me in.
Nora was shivering and muttering uncontrollably. Jack told me that she wasn’t feeling well, so he hung out with her for awhile in his cabin, but then she decided to return to our cabin. He assumed she had made it there safely, but was confused when he heard coughing coming from outside. He went out to see what was going on and found Nora there, lying on the ground. He carried her to her bed and had been there ever since. Considering Jack and I both were the Christians, we attempted to pray together for her.
“Dear God,” I began.
“No no… Stop…” she muttered, her voice shaking.
“Please be with Nora and whatever’s going…”
“Don’t… no… stop…” she croaked softly.
“Nora, we need to get you to a hospital,” Jack blatantly stated.
“No. I don’t need a hospital. No, no, no. No hospital. Don’t. I don’t need a doctor, I don’t need a doctor,” she continued to repetitively stutter.
As nothing seemed to change or even get worse, a small voice inside urged that we needed to get help. And quick! Just in time, Calla walked through the door.
“Calla! We need help! Nora isn’t well,” I exclaimed and explained.
“What is going on?” Calla asked kindly.
“Nora is muttering, help… Our phones aren’t working and… 911 and…”
“I’ll run back and get help,” Calla stated confidently.
Jack and I stayed with Nora. I attempted to keep myself calm and in the process, keep Nora calm. I also continued to pray, silently.
It seemed like an unbearably long time before help came, though it was probably only ten to fifteen minutes. Jabez drove over in the red Ford Explorer. Justin and Asher carried Nora to the vehicle, and the three of them rode back over to the main side of the ranch, while the rest of us went over by foot. Back on the main side, Mr. Charming was trying to convince Portia to call an ambulance, as if that were something you needed convincing for. My heart was pounding and I was scared. I was attempting to “keep it cool” but frantically praying (silently) as well. A couple of the guests that had been playing pool with us, offered to help, so we had them flag down the ambulance as it arrived. When it did arrive, the EMTs loaded Nora into the back of the truck. At this untimely moment, Portia decided to call a staff meeting. I couldn’t stop the curse words from flowing through my mind. You want to call a meeting right now?! RIGHT NOW?!
“Never move the body,” she stated like a know-it-all, “In these circumstances, you should never move the body.” She spoke as if she actually knew what was going on, even though she didn’t. I was so mad at her, I don’t remember anything else that she said, I just remember slowly distancing myself from her as my eyes focused the flashing red and blue lights. For a single moment, my world was consumed by silence. I remember observing the way that Justin stared into the back of the ambulance, like he felt as lost and worried as I did. So I prayed for him as well.
Soon, the ambulance left. Jack and Mr. Charming decided to drive behind. I wanted to go with them more than anything, but Portia wouldn’t allow it. They told me to get some sleep considering I had to work bright and early in the morning.
Get some sleep?! Are you kidding me? You want me to sleep after this? I headed across the creek, but didn’t make it all the way to my cabin. I sat beside our fishing pond and stared up into the star-filled sky. I had to process all the crazy thoughts that were rushing through my mind. I prayed to God for answers and for healing for Nora. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew something bad was going on. I could feel it in the depths of my soul. Once I realized I couldn’t be alone anymore, I headed towards the fire pit where I saw a bright orange flame soaring out of the pit. The cracking sound and smoky smell soothed my soul for a moment.
Justin, Asher, and Brennan were sitting around the fire and reflecting on the night’s activities. Justin and Asher filled me in on the details of what happened while they were driving Nora to the other side of the ranch. Supposedly Nora’s heartbeat had stopped and they guys had to administer CPR. Wow, I thought taken aback. So the look on Justin’s face was his bewilderment of the fact that he may have just saved her life. Then we all vented about Portia’s strategically placed meeting that drew our attention away from Nora (who was rightly deserving) and focused it, once again, on herself. Bitch.
Lost in the moment, those of us surrounding the fire pit grew silent. We soaked in the warm and comfort provided by the flames, and lost ourselves in the dancing embers. For a moment, despite everything, the ranch was quiet and at peace. For a moment, we were all focused on the light amidst the darkness.
Breaking the silence, I heard the still, small whisper; this time coming from Justin.
“Will you pray, Sarah?” he asked humbly.
“Out loud?” I asked, surprised by his request.
And so I prayed. I don’t remember the words that I uttered, or if they had any lasting impressions. What I do know, is that at the beginning of the darkest season of my life, in a moment of true vulnerability: two wranglers, a maintenance man, and a housekeeper prayed around a bonfire. Three men who didn’t consider themselves Christians, bowed their heads as a Jesus-loving woman’s words cut through the darkness. In selfless hope, they fellowshipped for their friend that until that moment, had brought them so much light.