Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

Visit the website.

 

--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Old Boots

March 7th, 2020 by

It won’t be long before we’ll be swapping winter bunny boots for summer footwear. Our assortment of boots sits on a shelf in the mudroom, out of reach of Lily, our shoe-chewing Aussie pup. The collection clearly shows that I prefer boots to pretty shoes. When I shop, I’m looking for comfort and mileage. I’m looking for a long-term, hard-working relationship.

              Sadly, like good dogs and honest horses, boots have a limited lifespan. I have outlived five dogs and two horses. Now friends are telling me it is time to say goodbye to my old cowboy boots. My husband even offered to take me shopping. 

              The boots are literally coming apart at the seams. The inside lining has long since ripped out. They are tattered and stained. All that remains are worn soles, cracked leather that lets in daylight, and a whole lot of memories.

              I bought them more than a decade ago in North Dakota in the small town where my late mother- and father-in-law at one time owned a working cattle ranch. We rode many miles checking and mending fences in the hot Dakota sun. In early spring, we pulled calves and watched newborn babies totter at their mother’s sides. We rounded up cattle on horseback and moved them from one pasture to another. We branded and vaccinated bawling calves in old wood-rail corrals. We hauled hay bales and planted trees and watched for deer that the guys would hunt in the fall. The day my father-in-law and I lay my sick horse to rest, those boots stood on prairie soil as our tears watered the ground. My old boots hold the memories of ranch life, hard and dusty but good.

              The boots also saw many fine experiences on trails in Alaska. One day, attempting to keep my boots dry as we crossed the Little Susitna River, I draped my feet up onto my horse’s neck. A school of salmon swam by and bumped into my mare’s legs. Startled, she wildly leaped out of the water, leaving me and the boots behind for a thorough dunking. 

The boots accompanied me twice as I went airborne off my new horse. That set me on a journey to learn a new kind of training and riding that expanded far beyond the cowboy way. I discovered that horses had more to teach me than I could have imagined.

              Not long ago, I took my husband up on his offer and bought that new pair of boots, but I confess I’m having trouble parting with the old ones. The new boots are young and inexperienced. They are strangers to my feet and have not yet melded to my stride. They haven’t yet kicked manure, been buried in mud, or pressed their heels against the flanks of a horse. Every time I slip into my old boots, it feels like a hug from an old friend. To think about throwing them in the trash seems disrespectful somehow. It seems far more fitting that they should be laid to rest under a tall birch tree.

              When I shared these sentiments with my husband recently, he listened without laughing. Then quietly he said, “I’ll dig a hole.”

              So someday, when the ground thaws in spring, we’ll bury the old boots. I won’t be parting with the memories though. Those I’ll hold dear for the rest of my days. Soon it will be time to take some brand-new friends out of the box. And maybe the best way to get acquainted will be to go for a nice long ride together.

1 Comment

One response to “Old Boots”

  1. Anne Craig says:

    Sounds like you should fill them with dirt and make planters out of them! Then When you see them you will always have memories!

Leave a Reply to Anne Craig Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Denali, the Chugach Mountains, and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

Connect