A Year in Review

A year ago, the coronavirus occupied the news waves, and the world was given instructions to wash our hands and not touch our face. A year ago, I packed up my computers and work and caught one of the last “normal” flights to Arizona to assist in caring for my mother.

I arrived at my sister Susan’s, right as she was returning from the hospital with our mother. She had been experiencing swelling in her feet and legs, which she was managing with drugs and diet, but then she had a fall. She would need to regain her strength before she could consider living independently, which she really wanted to get back to. Three years prior, she had been diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis that had reduced her ability to maintain her vigorous walking regimen. Walking she could still do, but going any distance was in the rearview mirror - we were pretty sure independent living was too. She had just turned 84. 

Together, we got her settled in. She was impassive of my presence and mentally something wasn’t right. Her mind, along with her beauty, were always her greatest gifts. Each day her mind deteriorated a bit more. Sometimes she spoke in letters, other times, not at all. Delusions and hallucinations occurred daily. Some were frightening. Some adorable. My sisters' and my strengths are those that involve food, drink, lovely settings, entertainment and overall great hospitality. We can make you feel great! And, if any of the above are a cure for ailments – we’re your girls. 

Meanwhile back at the ranch, a Patagonia film crew had just arrived to shoot video for the launch of the “Wild Idea Work Boots”, which are made from our buffalo hides. The family was busy with filming, while keeping an eye on the Wild Idea crew as the news of the virus continued and sales started to rise.  

The next week, Jilian implemented additional hand sanitizing stations throughout the plant and office areas. All staff were required to wear masks and our departments could no longer interact. Scanning thermometers were ordered and temperature logs were created. We locked our doors to local traffic and went to curbside pick-up only. Sales continued to increase, which we were grateful for, but so did the COVID tensions. 

Back in Arizona, during one of the more “frightening” experiences, we took our mom to the ER. We were desperate for help. Due to restrictions, only one of us could go in. My sister reported that the doctor said that other than being old and confused there was nothing wrong with our mom. When did the brain not become part of the body? If you can fix a broken arm, why not a broken brain? We finally secured an appointment with a neurologist the following week. The doctor did a simple non-invasive Q&A test and had her write down some words. He couldn’t say for sure without more invasive testing, but he thought it was Steroidal Psychosis and prescribed her an anti-psychotic. In need of more support, we reached out to hospice. After making their evaluation, they agreed with the diagnosis. They also reviewed her many medications, reducing or removing some based on her needs. A nurse visited once a week to check on her and to give us updated medication instructions. Slowly, she came back to us. But even as she gained her strength and looked great, we felt an atmospheric energy shift. 

My other sisters and family showed up to offer support too, so on one of those occasions, my sister Susan and I slipped off to her restaurant for our first lunch out together. It would also be our last before she closed her doors due to required restaurant shutdowns. She too had been dealing with a lot on the work front; closing a restaurant and not knowing when or if she would open again, all while guiding her staff on what to do next, is no easy task. We let go a bit at lunch that day and polished off a couple bottles of wine – it was a much-needed break. We continued to care for our mother in any way needed, and we made her fabulous food, accompanied with the beverage of her choice. Champagne with breakfast was always a popular request and she looked forward to our 5:00 pm cocktail hour, where she would ask for her usual, a Makers Mark, two ice cubes, with a squeeze of lemon and splash of soda. Salute!  

As COVID raged on, now a full-blown pandemic, stay-in-place orders spread across the country. News of outbreaks in meat plants started to make all the headlines, prompting shutdowns of our accepted “fast food” meat supply. Our broken food system was now making its way into many American homes. Some seeing crowded feedlots and confined holding barns for the first time. They saw slaughter facilities and meat plants packed with workers trying to hustle through 30,000 to 60,000 animals per day! PER DAY! PER PLANT! With the plants closing, it cut off the flow from the farmers and ranchers, leaving them stuck with too many animals and no place for them to go. The orders for healthy, sustainable, humanely raised and harvested Wild Idea Buffalo meat continued to pour in.

At the end of my fourth week, my sisters and I gathered at my mother’s apartment and cleaned it out. Although she was so much better, she would not be returning. The next week, I rented a car and headed for home. The drive was beautiful and as I moved over the vacant highways and through the now like ghost towns, I slowly unraveled the bizarreness and beauty of my past four weeks and started preparing for what was ahead. I missed everyone so much. My family, my dog, the Wild Idea crew and the open prairie - where I could recenter and breathe again. 

Jilian did an excellent job in leading the way forward and had the support of the whole Wild Idea team, who pulled together and kept things going. The work that needed to get done was getting done – the other work could wait. They were establishing a new normal rhythm, under new normal conditions. They hadn’t shared with me some of the challenges they had experienced as they didn’t want to worry me, but now I could see the COVID stress on their faces. 

The stress wasn’t just COVID work related, it was COVID life. In addition to underlined fears of being an essential worker and getting COVID, there was also the closing of schools, online learning or homeschooling had begun and some had no alternative day care available. So, children came to work with parents and had their own designated work and play areas. Schedules were shifted and we accepted it all; everyone helped one another. We would get through this, following all the guidelines – but we would only get through it together. 

My mother, still at my sister’s home in Arizona was having good days and then a bad, but for the most part, all was going well. I had made a plan to be back in Arizona for Mother’s Day and stay a bit for another shift of care. The Monday prior, I had just gotten home and my phone rang. When I answered, my sister’s voice cracked. “What, what is it?”, I asked. “Mom’s not doing so well, I just called the nurse to see if she would come.” She put the phone to my mom’s ear, and I tried a little humor, then told her I was on my way. I called Dan and Jilian straightaway and within minutes they were at my side. They helped me load up my car, with the unknowingness of how long I would be. I was on the road within the hour. I planned on driving straight through, with maybe a cat nap at Raton Pass. If all went well, I’d be there by 5:00 pm the next day.  

Somewhere on a remote, dark county road in Wyoming, flashing lights appeared. I departed the little roadside soiree with a $100.00 speeding ticket and the echo of the highway patrolmen’s voice, “Rules are rules, regardless.”  I pushed on, only slower. Even though the middle of the night traffic was light, driving through Denver with all their endless road construction, leaves one white knuckled. An hour later, I started to relax and as my fingers started to loosen from around the wheel, my phone rang. It was around 2:30 am - I answered without looking. It was my sister Teresa, who also lives in South Dakota, “Mom’s gone,” she said. In that moment, I was concerned for her - she was crying hard and I tried to offer comfort. Once a bit calmed, she asked if I was going to press on, I said I would, followed by, “You should still come too.”

I was disoriented and in shock. I made many driving mistakes as I looked for a place to pull off the road. Now parked, I let the tears fall freely. I made my calls, stating “I didn’t make it,” to those that would then offer me comfort. I walked around a bit, wiped my tears and continued south. I arrived at 5:00 pm to warm embraces. My nephew asked me if I’d like a drink – “Yes!”, I replied. I’ll have a Makers Mark, two ice cubes, with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of soda. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mother’s life with family. It was lovely,  complete with tributes, music, great food and champagne.

I was back home by Tuesday. Things had started to relax a bit at Wild Idea Buffalo Company (WIBC). The country was starting to open back up and groceries were being replenished with “fast food”. Consumers got back into old habits - putting meat in their carts that had disgusted them only a month prior. How quickly we forget. And how can we judge the Wuhan wet markets, while turning a blind eye to our inhumane incarceration of animals here at home? A petri dish waiting to explode.  

South Dakota never shut down, except of course for our schools. Go figure. We were even advertised as “open for business”. In addition, we would host the two largest attended events in the country that summer; the presidential fireworks display at Mount Rushmore and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where around 500,000 people from all over the country and world would attend. We held staff meetings in the parking lot, encouraging team members to stay safe and practice CDC guidelines and WIBC policies that we had put in place. At the end of August, South Dakota had 2,644 active cases and 167 deaths. This would quickly change in the following months and we would soon take our place as #1 per capita for COVID. 

Before things got too crazy at WIBC, with school closures, online learning and homeschooling, I decided to take a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. I had never been and so wanted to see wolves! I toured around and settled into an area close to the Lamar Valley, which had established wolf packs. A friend met me for a couple of days and in the evening, we ventured out to a restaurant for dinner. This would be my first time in a restaurant since my lunch with my sister. The restaurant was partially open air and we had a table (the only table) between the entrance and the bar. We could see everything. The tables were spread far apart, and with the exception of the local crowd that gathered at the end of the bar, most patrons wore masks. There were two servers, who were also the bartenders and they were really moving; we graciously thanked them for everything they brought to us. The busier the place got, the faster they moved. They were now running. A mask-less man at the door waiting for a table, expressed his feelings of discontent to another guest waiting, “This is bullshit, he said, why can’t we be seated!” How quickly we forget, I thought, as my mouth opened uncontrollably and I set the man straight. Our food and drinks continued to magically appear and disappear. What a treat it was to be served! We left a thank you note along with a very generous tip. 

At the end of October, COVID had found its way to WIBC, with four plant workers testing positive within two days. Three of which run in the same social circle. The remaining plant team members were tested and given the choice to work through the next day to wrap things up or to stay in place. They all showed up to finish. We shut down for four days, did a deep clean, and all the buildings were professionally sprayed with a germicide. 

We regained our footing in the plant and remained COVID free for one month, before two team members in other departments had family members with the virus. These staff members would be required to quarantine, which meant they would be out for two to three weeks. We had two other team members get the virus before the year was over. Once again, we worked through it, testing those in need and quarantining those exposed. Once again other team members stepped it up and filled in, working even harder. And, once again, we regained our footing. 

News of the vaccination lifted spirits, but we encouraged all to not let their guard down. At the end of January, COVID had found its way to our family with Jilian & Colton both testing positive for the virus. They, along with other team members who had the virus, luckily recovered back to 100%. 

Back in Arizona, my sister has reopened her restaurant "The Gilbert House".  Her first customer story she shared with me was of a man who stated that he would never come back because he didn't get a free birthday dessert. My sister told the man she was sorry to hear that and explained that they were just getting back on their feet and operating at half capacity and they simply couldn't afford to give away free food.
Go figure.

And currently on the home front and at WIBC, Dan and Gervase have received their vaccinations and many of our Native American team members have also received their first shot. The rest of us are registered and await our turn as essential workers, which is currently scheduled for some time in April. Go figure that too. 

This past year - I've learned a lot; but there are three stand outs, 1) - I can’t stop touching my face,  2) - if you want a free birthday dessert don't go to The Gilbert House, and, 3) – my increased awareness of GRATITUDE.

Cheyenne River

Gratitude for family, their touch, their support, their love. Gratitude for the brave Wild Idea essential workers that show up every day, to help provide healthy food to Americans across the country! You are so awesome WIBC team, and I am so very proud to know you! Gratitude for the magic of dining out and the joy and pleasure it brings! Gratitude to our courier services who are working hard to maintain to-your-door deliveries. Gratitude for the voice of a friend at the end of a line, that listens with care. Gratitude for the animals that comfort us and provide for us! Gratitude to Patagonia, for doing more good and turning our hides into super cool boots! Gratitude for you, our customers, who trust us and care where their food comes from and how it is raised! (I promise we won’t let you down.) Gratitude for the rivers that flow and remind me that we (all of us) are much like a river itself; always finding a way to move forward - even through the obstacles of pain, stress, loss, homeschooling… And, even though the journey can test us along the way, we can find beauty and appreciation in it.

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  • Thanks, Jill, for your vulnerable and open-hearted story. I am so grateful to all of you at WIBC, more so hearing of the challenges of the year. I’m grateful to the bison and the amazing prairie that supports all of us, body, mind and soul. All of you are teaching and nourishing my family.🙏🏼

    Linda C Nelson
  • Hi Jill,

    I remember going through similar times when my own parents passed on, and you did a wonderful job giving your Mom love and support in her last days. I am happy that your business is still going well and that you are not having Covid19 deaths. I just got the Maderna Vaccine myself, and I feel a bit safer now. Thank God Joe Biden is doing all that he is doing now, and I wish him the very best at restoring our democracy to better health.
    I thank you guys every single night when I eat my 1/4 pound of Wild Idea Ground Buffalo meat which I get from Natural Grocers. I have Eric at the store trained to put aside 7 pounds of it every month which I pick up on the 3rd of the month because that is Social Security Payday!

    I am so glad that you have your sweet daughter and her wonderful husband and their two boys living with you on the ranch, and I suspect that one day they will be running the ranch for you and keeping up your wonderful heritage. I put your whole family and all your employees in the arms of God.

    Love, Don

    Donald Meyer
  • Jill, you have a way with words. Beautifully written. You had me crying and then laughing. Last year was very difficult and having a death in the family made it even more so. Your story brought back so many memories, a lot of phone calls, a lot of of tears and much needed laughter.
    I too am so grateful for things I now realized I used to take for granted. I can only hope that people like the man at that restaurant will wake up and be grateful for all who do so much for us like you and WIBC. If everyone had your outlook and gratitude think what a wonderful world we’d live in.
    Great story! Thank you for sharing.
    Love, Trese

  • Jill,
    Thank you for the whole story. You are a woman of heart and strength.
    The description of your mother brought back memories of my own mom, who died ain her 90’s, was sharp, witty, and went thru a similar time of medication induced psychosis. She also had her daily cocktail hour when she lived with us in the summer—scotch on the rocks please. I could so feel how hard it must have been for you to live far away PLUS COVID travel restrictions when you received the call of her moving into dying.
    You truly bring home the message of supporting each other during hard times. Your care for your family and all the people who work at Wild Idea shines brightly.
    Thank you for telling this story, Carrie Wilson

    Carrie Wilson
  • Thanks so much, Jill, for sharing your pain, your love, your friendships. Sounds like the family O’Brien et al and the WIBC family rocked it through this awful year. Hugs to all.

    Liz Aicher
  • I have a daily gratitude practice with two friends; we email each other each night with 3 things we are grateful for. Could be in my case as simple as a warm pair of wool socks or to the incredible gift of good health in my late 70’s. But WIBC has been mentioned more than once in these emails—not only for your incredible product but most of all for the ethic behind its production. Your stories and photos are such testaments to it. Thank you for all you do. And heartfelt condolences on the loss of your mother, Jill—she sure raised some good ones!

    Linda Clark
  • So sorry for the loss of your Mother Jill. I too lost my mother this past year and feel like the loss has been even harder due to the difficult circumstances of the pandemic. I am grateful to have had my mom in our lives for so many years-she was 91 but the downside of this is being without the person who loved you first and most for the first time ever. Beyond sad.
    Kudos to you and your family for all you are doing for animals, the land and feeding people quality food and thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us.
    Please continue to stay safe. We are not yet quite at the end of this. Soon though.

    Sue Carroll
  • Thank you for this heartfelt article. While some may have already forgotten and slipped back into buying from factory farms, there are many of us who have solidly learned to support regenerative agriculture and ranching. For many, shopping habits have forever changed during the pandemic. Online we can find other sellers that are working toward a better future. It was Wild Idea that taught my family and we thank you all for the work you do.

  • Thank you for sharing your COVID-19 story. Thank you also for keeping us nourished during the lockdown. My wife and I live in a retirement community in Arizona ( not far from Gilbert, Arizona). After the virus is under control we will check out The Gilbert House. The menu looks great!
    Thank you to Wild Idea for keeping us well fed. We order and enjoy many of your bison products and prepare and consume in the safety of our cottage.
    Thank you again for sharing your story!!!

    Jon G Crawford
  • Jill, I am so sorry on the loss of your mother! I love the picture of her, and imagine what a marvelous time you “girls” must have had in years past, during the healthier times. I see lots of smiles, and a little Makers Mark too!!!!!!

    Robbie Etter
  • Jill – My condolences at the loss of your mother, and how wonderful that you were able to spend that month with her. You and your family are such an inspiration – thank you for sharing part of your lives with us, as it makes your company that much more special. My first vaccine tomorrow. Yeah!!

    Kris Dilworth
  • Been a rough year.

    It sounds like WIBC has got this far without any COVID fatalities, which is highly unusual in the meat business. Something to be grateful for. (Of course just about everything you do is unusual in the meat business…)

    Grant Price
  • Nice post, Jill. I lost my parents within a week of each other a couple years ago and dad’s primary Dx was pulmonary fibrosis so your story resonated with me. Condolences on your loss, congratulations on your successes and for expressing your increased awareness of gratitude. This is one habit I have developed over the last couple years – I read my list of daily goals and gratitudes (most every day) and it just seems to set the day up to be a better day.

    Keith Valachi
  • Great Sharing, Jill ~ Thanks! Blessing to You, the Family and the WIBC Team! “BUFFON!” Doyle

    Doyle Hughes
  • Bless your hearts… all of you! Yesterday I just received my 5th (I think… but have lost track) order from WIBC. I unpacked, and with each package I sent up a prayer of gratitude for the animal’s life that was now my gift, and for those who cared for it and its processing. Gratitude is the best way to start any spiritual conversation, and I speak for many who are so very grateful to you as a company and each individual, from Melissa who took my recent order and her team mates, all the way to Dan and Jill. Your commitment, photographs, books and comments make me a better consumer and more aware of our world and our role. Thank you! I could go on and on, but you guys are busy and have work to do….!!!!!!!!

    Robbie Etter

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