teresa sabatine

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Part 2: Half Broke Horses and the Price of Freedom

This is part of a series where I write about how I moved to Austin, Texas. You can start from the beginning here.

The pandemic numbers were rising and spring was turning into Summer. The heat in Arizona was starting to become unbearable and it was high camping season in Denver, so we felt like we needed to return our borrowed camping gear to its rightful owner.

It would be a little less than a 13 hour drive and so we decided to make our way back, with the hope that when we got to Denver we would know for sure whether we wanted to make it our home.

It’s important to note that while camping in the hot springs in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico I had found a very special book, a life changing book really. There was absolutely no cell service in the forest, you had to drive 90 minutes out of the mountains to get a single bar, and even then it was another 20 minutes to have enough service to make a phone call, which for my searching mind was actually quite perfect.

The only way to get access to the outside world was to spend your morning at Doc Campbell’s mountain store connected to their wifi. I learned this from a 70 year-old man from a small town in Pennsylvania who had outfitted his van to travel the country. He seemed to be a regular in Gila National Forest and he had the skinny on the resources. One night he shared his salmon with me and we prayed the rosary. Not my typical Friday night, but when in the wilderness one must honor the spirits of their Catholic grandparents.

The next morning Billy and I jumped in my car and headed to the store. I knew my dad was anxious to hear from me and I thought it would be good to check in face to face. I know this is a dad thing that I may never understand, but every time I spoke to him I felt his fear about me being out there “alone”. I mean I not only felt it, he communicated it, loud and clear. He did not like me being out here and with him watching the news every morning and every night his fear just grew and grew, so each time we connected he was more worried.

This experience is what you will understand as you keep reading I learned is called “a half broke horse”. When alone and in my own energy, I am free and wild and happy, just like the wild horse who greeted me in Mesa, Arizona. When I am faced with the fears of others I become “half broke”—I lean slightly into the conditioning they live by which is that I must behave like a good little girl who doesn’t make anyone worry. The message is clear: I must come back from the wild and be tamed by fear in spite of the intense and almost animalistic desire to remain free.

To put it more simply, a girl traveling alone with her dog should be afraid for her life.

After I checked in with my dad and reassured him that I was safe, and healthy, and far from any exposure to any virus or psychopathic killer, I spent some time exploring the upstairs shop area that was full of books all related to the culture and history of New Mexico.

You have to remember I was (and sometimes still am) searching for a model, a blueprint. I am not even sure that if my mother were alive that she could have served as this model, mostly because I think if she were alive I would be an entirely different woman.

I wanted to be exposed to wild wild west women, the ones who charted their own paths, who didn’t have the pressure of modern society to tell them to be a certain way (although in reading about these women I realize they had different pressures, ones I am not sure I could even withstand). In my mind these women seemed more free than the modern woman—rougher around the edges, less likely to apologize. I wanted to know what that felt like.

So when I found this book on the shelf of Doc Campbells book store everything in me told me to pick it up.

Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel

Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds—against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold.

“Ok”, I thought to myself, “Now this is getting interesting.”

I wouldn’t actually read the novel until I got to Arizona.

It took me three days to finish it, and when I turned the last page of the book I cried heavy tears, I didn’t want my time with Lily to end.

She ended up being the exact model I was looking for (don’t you love when the Universe delivers?) she seemed to actually struggle with the same internal battle that I did. A wanting to stand in her authenticity and power and a life-long fight with the external conditioning to play nice for others (at the expense of yourself).

Everything about Lily’s life spoke to me. Her sense of duty to her family, her desire to keep her loyalty to her true spirit, the way she stood up for her sister in the face of judgement and at the expense of her own security, riding horses across the desert in search of something she couldn’t articulate. Even her stubbornness and her strength, the way she did the hard things no one else was willing to do and how more often than not, this aspect of her left her absolutely alone.

Out there in the wild, in the Gila National Forest, and the hot springs, and the Arizona mountains, I felt free. I felt a lot like Lilly. I often wished I could go back to the time of her story—transport myself into the pages, meet her, ride a half broke horse right next to her, and learn.

Obviously I knew this wasn’t possible, but the question remained in my mind as I packed the car in Arizona and headed for Colorado, back to civilization and the 24 hours news cycle and rules and expectations, “Can I, in the face of relentless pressure to conform, hold onto my freedom, and if so, what will it cost me?”.

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