Mike pulled to the gate of the Triple Bar K ranch. The GPS had done an admirable job of delivering them to the remote location. Ash was glued to the rear window, straining for a glimpse of the builds among the trees. The Mountains ringed the valley and created a dramatic backdrop to the scene. Bethany held up her phone, “Well, we are officially off the grid. I have zero bars.” Mike laughed, “well not quite, we still have GPS signal.” Ash was grinning from ear to ear as a ranch hand stepped from the small building beside the gate. The man’s grey Stetson was stained from years of sweat and dirt. His shaggy brown hair was cropped short, just above the collar of a non-descript blue work shirt. It fabric was as worn as the man but clean, pressed and neatly tucked into faded denim wrangler jeans. His work-worn boots shed dust as he stepped off the small porch and approached the car. “G’afternoon folks. I’m Ray Masters. You here to check in a camper or did your GPS get you lost and this is the only civilization you’ve found?” His smile and hazel eyes gleamed with a relaxed humor. “Ash had rolled down her window at the same time as Mike. “Yes! I’m the camper!” Ray leaned back from the car, gave Mike a quick wink and tucked his thumbs into his pockets. “Well, now, you look like a little city princess! Are you sure you are my camper? This is a rough and tumble horse ranch, missy. Not the Gaylord Plaza.” Ash huffed, “I am NOT a princess! I’m here to ride!” Ray tipped his head to one side, “huh, you want to ride eh? Well you’re feisty one but horses are big, smelly brutes. You aren’t gonna get scared and spend the whole time hiding under your bunk are you?” Ash laughed, “No way! I have waited for this my whole life!” Ray slapped his thigh with a hearty laugh, “Your whole life? That’s forever! Well, we better get you checked in and not waste another second!” The lanky man reached behind him and withdrew a well-worn tablet computer from his waist band and turned back to Ash. “So, we have to make certain you aren’t on the escaped Disney Princess list. What’s your name?” “Ashlynn Randall, my reservation id is AR1195.” Ray, looked up from his tablet, “Well, there you are, clear as day, AR1195.” Mike and Bethany both laughed. Mike stuck his hand through the window, “I’m Mike, this is Bethany,” he shook Ray’s hand, “We’re AR1195’s parents.” Ash huffed, crossed her arms and flopped back against the seat, “It’s easier for them to access records by referencing the unique identifier. What if there was another girl with the same name?” Bethany reached back and patted her daughter’s leg, “Come on, honey, we’re just teasing.” Ray, did you find Ash?” Ray leaned down, nodded in Ash’s direction, and met the girl’s gaze, “Yep, right there.” He winked at Ash, “One feisty firebrand, female, too smart fer her own good some days. Full summer reservation.” Ash met his gaze, then broke into an embarrassed smile. Ray straightened and fished a marker from his shirt pocket. He grabbed light blue tags from his rear pocket and scribbled on them. He pressed an icon on his tablet. The gate swung open. “Welcome to the Triple Bar K ranch, folks. Head up the road to the big log building. Follow the signs for parking.” He handed Mike the strips of plastic. Each had the word ‘Palo’ written on them. “Put these on her luggage and leave everything behind the car after you park. The crew will come by with a Gator and drop it to her bunkhouse. If there was anything on the pack list you weren’t able to get, the camp store likely has it in stock. The store is next to the main lodge. First year families are gathering in the dining hall. Orientation will start in about 30 minutes.” He glanced at the tablet again, glanced at Ash, then addressed Mike and Bethany. “You can drop any medications and the medical files with Dr. Lightman. You’ll see the infirmary on the base of the trail to the bunkhouses.” Ash sighed loudly, “Let’s go already!” Ray laughed and Mike nodded, “Thanks, Ray.” He moved the car through the gate and toward Ash’s dream adventure.
They connected with other first year families in the dining hall and sooner after, the Camp Master took them on a tour of the ranch. Palomino, Roan, Buckskin, Chestnut. Ash loved that the bunkhouses were named for the coat color of horses. During the tour, she had admired the construction of the camp buildings. Each of the log structures were evenly spaced, across from one another along a paved trail that connected the main lodge, dining hall and infirmary. The front door to each bunkhouse had hand carved images of horses, colored to match the name. Each structure housed 6 girls, 1 counselor and Chestnut even had a resident cat named Mouser. The cabins were constructed of log but the rustic nature hid modernity and the buildings were comfortable. Each had central heat and air, a closeted washer and dryer, and recessed lighting. Broad skylights provided a connection with the outdoors. Ample toilet and shower rooms ensured no one would have to wait long for facilities during the busy times of day. Each girl had a raised bunk constructed of hand shaved timbers salvaged from earlier buildings on the ranch. Each bunk had a small locking closet at the head end and a dresser, lighted mirror and desk beneath. Horseshoes were fashioned into hanging hooks for whatever miscellanea the girls may have. The counselor had a private bed and bath room just inside the front entry. The door faced the mud room where boots and rain gear were donned and stored. Outside, wrapped around the front and halfway down the long side, a covered porch invited campers and ranch crew alike to relax with seats and a swing. Even more exciting than the bunkhouses were the narrow trail to the stables and pastures. The heady smell of horses and hay filled Ash’s senses and she grinned from ear to ear as the Camp Master explained the process of horsemanship. The man focused heavily on the topic of safety and Ash wandered down the stable aisle. She felt drawn to the animals. The sight of a tawny buckskin head made her heart skip a beat. The animal intently watched her approach bobbed his head as she looked at him. He nickered softly as she reached a tentative hand to his cheek. As soon as her fingers brushed the creatures coat, her mind spun, her vision dimmed dangerously and Ash felt dizzy. She placed her other hand on the stable wall to steady herself. “No, dammit, not now. I can’t blackout!” She had read in Andrew’s journal that he experienced the same sensations when the memory of a prior life was unlocked. Ash began breathing very deeply, willing herself to remain conscious. She didn’t cry out or otherwise draw the attention of anyone. The last thing she wanted was to be thought ill before camp even started! None noticed other than the buckskin who had turned to nicker softly at her again. Ash shook herself and did her best to calm the rush of her thoughts. Her mom’s worried voice echoed along the stable, “Ash, I don’t think you’re supposed to be down here yet!” Ash dropped her hand from the warmth of the horse’s coat. She didn’t want her mom to discover she’d had an ‘episode’. “I’m fine mom, you’re right, I’m coming!” Ash tried to sound artificially upbeat even though she wasn’t feeling quite right yet. She turned and strode toward her mom. “Come on, let’s get back to the group. I don’t want to miss anything!” Ash took her mother by the hand and they caught up with the tour.
Ray stepped from the shadow of a stall further down the row. Sweat dripped from his forehead and he leaned the rake against the wall to loose a red and white kerchief from his hip and wipe the evidence of his efforts from his brow. He had seen Ash’s interaction with Rooter, the young buckskin gelding. Rooter wasn’t usually one to tolerate campers. He was one of the horses that the highly experienced ranch crew used for trail rides. They were seasoning the horse, letting him get used to the camp environments and work for a year so he could settle a bit and be placed in the camper rotation. Ray stepped over to the animal and offered him a bit of carrot from his pocket. “Well, boy, what do you think? Is that your camper girl?” The buckskin whinnied and thrashed his head up and down then strongly nudged Ray, seeking another bit of carrot. “Ok, I get it. I’ll talk to the boss and see if he’ll agree.” He thought a bit more about Ash’s reaction to the animal and vice versa. A couple carrots and a few minutes later, Ray patted the horse on the neck then turned back to the unfinished stall to complete his chores.
Orientation was all about putting parent’s minds at ease and giving the bunkmates a chance to get to know each other. So far, Ash liked the 5 other girls in Palomino. Most of them were about the same age, Kerri was a few years older and had been to the camp for 3 years running. She and Megan were both assigned to the Palomino bunkhouse as “scouts”. The scouts were older campers who had experience at the camp. They weren’t leaders necessarily but were tasked with ensuring their bunkmates were accounted for in the morning round up and the evening last call. They were also the ones to police any hazing or other issues that might arise. Other than the twice daily check in, most of the bunkmates were scattered among various activities. There were no male campers, they had their own 6-week session later in the season. During dinner, the ranch crew, counselors and owners had all made introductions and recommendations. There were updates about new activities and announcements about the schedule for the following day. As soon as the meal concluded, the campers said their goodbyes to the parents. The experienced campers then helped dry tears and distract anyone who was upset over the separation by teaching the new campers their favorite trail songs. The rowdy singing and stomping and clapping chased away the angst of their folks driving away from the camp. The crew then led the campers out to the bonfire ring and handed around marshmallows and sticks while sharing tales of the land and people who lived on it in eons past. Mike and Bethany were well down the road by the time Ash had stepped up to the warm blaze to roast a sticky treat to golden brown perfection.
The long drive back to their hotel in town was too quiet, Mike finally gave up on finding a radio station. “Did you get a chance to talk with Dr. Lightman?” Bethany glanced up from the report she’d been drafting on her laptop. “Yeah, she certainly wasn’t what I expected. She is Harvard educated, has been in pediatrics for 10 years. That was unexpected in a camp doctor, you know?” Mike was surprised, “yea, that’s quite the pedigree. How do you think she ended up out here?” Bethany thought about her conversation with the medical professional. It hadn’t gone quite the way she had expected. “She mentioned that she used the camp as her get away. Her practice is in Denver. She was good, just not what we’ve been used to these past couple years.” Mike glanced at his wife, “What do you mean?” Bethany sighed, saved her report and closed her laptop. “Well, I’m certain Dr. Lightman is fantastic but when I tried to explain about the situation with Ash, she listened for a few minutes then interrupted me to ask about seizures, allergies, asthma and blood disorders. When I said there were no problems like that she rattled off things like violent out bursts, suicidal episodes and a bunch of crap like that. It became really apparent she thought I was some over protective lunatic.” Bethany was obviously becoming upset but she continued, “She asked if there were any issues beyond the nightmares. I tried to explain about how smart and talented Ash is but she shushed me. Actually shushed me! I tried again to explain what Ash had been through but the woman just waved me off and told me Ash was the least of her worries and nearly pushed me out the door!” Bethany turned toward Mike, “Do you have any idea how insulting that is? I mean, no, Ash doesn’t have many physical problems, but really! The woman shushed me!” Mike wasn’t certain how to address the conversation. He finally decided to be blunt. “Bethany, look, I know all this stuff with Ash has made you feel like she’s fragile, but you’re wrong. Granted, the nightmares are terrifying and the lack of sleep can’t be good for her but honestly, you like to act like she’s got cancer or hemophilia. You have to come to grips with the fact that Ash is fine. Seriously, fine.” Bethany just stared at Mike as he continued. “You need to get over treating her like she’d diseased! She’s not sick. Period. NOT sick. She’s beyond smart and creative and has incredible talent. She doesn’t show it off because of how you react.” Mike glanced from the road to see that Bethany was crying. “Oh, honey, please don’t. Don’t you think there’s been enough tears?” Bethany turned away from him and stared into the darkening landscape passing the window. “I just wanted her to be my normal, happy little girl. Is that too much to ask? I wanted princess parties, and fanciful dreams. Not super girl full of nightmares. She talks about technical coding, engineering, history and speaks languages we’ve never even heard! Last night she asked me about reincarnation. I know there’s much more that she has questions about but she isn’t telling me because it freaks me out. I just wanted to play with Barbie dolls and go to dance recitals. That is the normal I wanted.” Mike reached over and took Bethany’s hand. “I know you are scared, it was hard for me to realize that my little girl was going to outpace me in every imaginable way before she went to high school, but I got over that because she still is just my little girl. Even if she is smarter than me, I’m still her dad, you are still her mom, and we have to figure out how to be there for her.” Mike squeezed Bethany’s hand as she wiped her tears. “Besides, our little girl just opted to spend 6 weeks with horses. How much more typical girl can she get?” Bethany grimaced, “Horses scare the crap out of me, Mike. I’d rather have spent the summer at dance camp.” Mike just shook his head as Bethany opened her laptop and escaped into the familiar and comfortable world of her business reports.
The campers were settled onto the benches around the bonfire pit listening to Ray play guitar while one of the counselors sang an old trail ballad about lost cattle and long nights. Ash stared into the night sky as the story of the song wafted over her. The counselor’s melodic voice reached her, “The fire’s dying long in the night / Cassiopeia tends the drifting herds / the hands sleep til morning light.” Ash leaned over to Megan and pointed up to the sky, “That’s Cassiopeia there. Those 5 stars that make a ‘w’ just where you can begin to see the Milky way.” Megan followed the line of Ash’s arm and stared into the stars, “Ah, ok, I see it. That’s cool. How’d you know that? You do an astronomy report last year?” Ash winced, “Yeah, a report.” She didn’t do a report but she certainly wasn’t going to tell her new friend that she could name all the constellations they could see tonight. Ash’s head began to ache slightly. She knew as certain as she knew her own name. What was an interesting topic of conversation now had been a lifesaving navigational tool in another life. It was a life she was just beginning to remember. Ash smiled to herself, she was glad to know this joy of being away from the city was something she shared with a prior self.