Sharing Our Solitude


I’ve always been pretty good at social distancing. Hell, I’ve been practicing it for sixty years.
Writing and ranching are both solitary pursuits, so from the time of college days, I have pretty much lived alone. It has never been unusual to go for days without coming in contact with another human being. But, until the last few weeks, it has mostly been my choice to be alone.

dan o'brien sitting in a chair in office looking out

Like many people, I’ve heeded the warnings and instructions coming out of the radio every morning and sequestered myself. Jill is in Arizona taking care of her very ill mother (not sick with coronavirus), so the only inhabitants on this part of the ranch are me and my old friend, Gervase who lives in a small apartment over the barn, about a hundred yards from my house. We’re both old guys, so we laid down some rules for the siege that we knew was coming now for months: no new visitors to the ranch, one of us goes to town once a week for essentials, hand washing upon returning to the ranch. Once in a while the grand kids stop in, but mostly it’s just one day of solitude after the next.  

There are a million half-finished projects around the place, and I try to tackle one each day. A broken wire in a fence three miles from the house, a huge compost pile that has needed to be turned with the skid loader now for six months, dusting the hundreds of books in my office, watching for buffalo on the river breaks. Nothing that is essential. Mostly just hours of a lush’s solitude, thinking back to things that I should have done differently, listening to the dreary news on the radio, and wondering how my friends across the country are dealing with this taste of the apocalypse.

dan o'brien on horse

Loneliness has seldom been a bugaboo for me, but now it nibbles at the edge of my consciousness. I am bored and need a job where I can find some purpose. At night I sometimes dwell on that loneliness and can’t sleep. All day long I’m tired. I feel like the Ancient Mariner, cursed to be on a ship becalmed on a stagnate ocean. My ocean is one of grass and I haunt those miles of grass at odd hours in my Toyota Four Runner.  


Beginning one morning last week, I heard the first male meadowlarks singing from fence posts as I passed. Their song through the car window has a penetrating quality that can connect you to the outdoors like a shot of electricity. That afternoon, I wandered to the far west pasture to a giant dam where the ice had receded a few days before. There is a feeling that sometimes descends on me and that is usually a bit of a thrill. It is the notion that no one on earth knows where I am. But that afternoon all was sad as sad can be. In time, the horned moon rose at my back and the sun began slipping behind the Black Hills. I reached the top of the hill above the dam, still a quarter mile away, and shut the Toyota down.

Dan O'Brien
It was chilly as the sun set but I rolled the window down and scanned the far bank of the dam out of habit. The evening was still as the shadow of the Black Hills crept across the prairie. Then, in a far corner of the dam, came a brilliant flash of an eerie white that baffled me. I felt for my binoculars without taking my eyes away from that spot of white, and with the tiny tweaking of the focus wheel, the brightness came as close as the hood of the Toyota. It was a pair of Trumpeter Swans, birds as large as an albatross that have rarely been seen on this prairie since man overran their habitat a hundred years ago. I had seen that young pair the year before, and they tried to nest and now it looked as if they would try again.

Prairie Playa

I studied them through the binoculars, and they gleamed like two exquisite pearls through a magnifying glass. They were settled on a small island in the tail-waters of the pond, the female lied down with the male standing behind. It was a perfect place for them to nest. Two exquisite creatures sharing our solitude: two long necks, arching like elegant parentheses. I lowered the binoculars, but the iridescence remained. Here was the job I needed. The promise of a brighter day. I will watch over those birds, day and night, until the curfew is lifted.

Photo Credit: Jim Henderson (first photo); Tahnee Janis (second photo); Jill O'Brien (remaining photos)


  • Posted on by Joyce

    Your post calmed and soothed me. It also brought forth precious memories of the many hours I have spent in close-to-solitude at a remote ranch in Wyoming mountains where sandhill cranes visited. At home here in Virginia, since I am in my 70s, I rely heavily on nature to bring peace and so look forward to hearing the song of the white-throated sparrows that have not yet arrived. They are my meadowlarks.

  • Posted on by Sharon Pociask

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful prose.

  • Posted on by Laural Bidwell

    We’ve all suffered a jolt to the normal rhythms of our lives. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the changes. Sad, I’m sure, is how many of us feel. I watch, on the crane-cam situated at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska, the annual gathering of the migrating cranes, to uplift my spirits. Nature is the grand healer.

  • Posted on by Larry Pelter

    Thanks Dan, I"m a city slicker artist now, sequestered with my wife in my house/studio in Eastern Nebraska. Spent part of my early life herding sheep in western Nebraska and working on a ranch in eastern Wyoming. As young as I was, even then I loved the solitude of spending days alone with a horse, two dogs and a thousand sheep on prairie land along the Nebr/Colorado border that occasionally yielded up the remnants of wild bison horns from years gone by. Long ago I traded the prairie life for that of a city dweller. Now my pottery studio is my wild land where I spends hours in solitude at my work. I do travel and spend time in western NE and the Black Hills very often not far from your ranch. Your meditation on solitude today stuck a note in my heart and created a longing to be back on prairie soon. Thank you very much.

  • Posted on by Tress

    You have a real gift of bringing the reader right on the prairie with you. Thank you Have enjoyed all your books and look forward to reading your newsletter.

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