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Off the Hook: How a Texas Woman I met in Arizona Inspired My Love of Montana

I’m 65. I don’t usually reveal that because ageism is real, and many editors would rather hire chatty millennials than sage boomers. But hiding my age is exhausting, and columns about 40 years of fishing in Montana will make more sense if they’re set in the decades when they happened.

So, this story takes place in 1975 when I graduated from Manhattanville College in suburban New York. As a graduation gift, my parents sent me to the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson to ride horses for a week, my passion then, and plan next steps.

The 640-acre, guest-and-working ranch attracts visitors from around the world. At 8 o’clock each morning, before the sun began baking the Sonoran Desert, we’d mount horses for a trail ride past towering Saguaros and into the Rincon Mountains.

I was 22, a young woman from the East traveling solo, an object of curiosity back then – and now. But the guest who fascinated me was Elizabeth, a 40-something, married lady from Houston.

For two weeks each year, Elizabeth left her husband and three kids and took herself to the ranch. In the morning, she’d ride. In the afternoon, she’d lounge by the pool. After dinner, she’d retire to her deluxe, hillside cabin to read, write letters, and wrap herself in “me time.”

Maybe a Mom retreat is standard practice for the upper classes but it was a foreign concept for me. As a newly-minted adult, the only lifestyle I knew intimately was the middle-class one I grew up in. Dad worked downtown. Mom, tethered to the house and kids, and would no sooner allow herself two weeks of R&R than rocket to Mars.

I probed and prodded Elizabeth. How could she abandon her young kids? Travel without her husband? Feel entitled to ride horses and sip chardonnay by the pool as much and as late as she wanted?

Elizabeth explained she took two weeks to recharge, to gain perspective, to miss her family. The kids complained but survived. And her husband knew a happy wife meant a happy life, and even enjoyed the change of pace at home.

Fast forward 20 years. I was married, had a 5-year-old son, and for the first time since becoming a wife and mother treated myself to a four-day fishing trip on the Big Horn with its reliable Pale Morning Dun hatches and fat brown trout.

I’d throw a dry fly until sunset, then drag myself into the lodge to down a warming whiskey shot and phone home.

During these daily, dump-on-Lisa calls, my husband would tick off everything that went wrong that day, implying the disposal wouldn’t have ground up a spoon if I had been home.

My son, still wrapping his young brain around where on earth Montana was, would ask, “Are you ever coming home, Mom?”

I’d hang up rung out with guilt and anger that my family couldn’t cut me some four-day slack.

What happened to that happy wife/happy life thing? Why hadn’t Elizabeth warned me about those calls?

Through the years and annual fishing trips to Montana, the calls got easier. My husband still sounds a little desperate without me – now, it feels like a tribute after 25 years together – and my 22-year-old son barely registers I’m gone.

Every summer, I wrap myself in a few days of aloneness. And as stars light up a big sky, I thank God for planting Elizabeth in my path.

— Lisa Kaplan Gordon

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