The following account was never supposed to be written. The story was intended to be something more uplifting — a piece that illustrated the power of the human spirit over a faceless and malignant evil.
But sometimes, malignant evil wins.
Sometimes, the cowboy in the black hat out-guns our hero in the street at high noon.
The audience doesn’t want it, but it happens. That doesn’t mean it, or this, is a sad tale.
This is the story of a woman I knew only a short while — but someone I felt I understood deeply — written days after her passing.
Modern cowgirl Jeana Noel was the owner and operator of Montana Cowgirl Camp — a weeklong, no-frills retreat in Central Montana for women seeking adventure. The stated purpose of the camp is easy enough to understand, but it would take me several weeks to fully comprehend the scope of its imprint.
Cowgirl Camp consisted of a handful of tents and a small hut perched on a hill overlooking the small town of Utica, Montana. The tents came equipped with an elevated cot, a few chairs, ample quilts and blankets, and little else. The quilts and blankets would prove essential; necessary ingredients for sleeping comfortably through the cold Montana nights.
Jeana’s vision for Cowgirl Camp was to bring women together through activities, bonding, and horseback riding. The activities could be anything from crafting circles and meditative exercises, to fly fishing and helping with cattle drives. Cowgirl Camp aspired to be a life-changing experience; a chance for women to get out of their comfort zones and experience Montana in an authentic way. The camp was decidedly not meant to echo the female empowerment platitudes so readily available on t-shirts and bumper stickers. This was an environment where actions speak, and words listen. Do more, say less.
The first scene I walked into at Cowgirl Camp was a memorable one: well-manicured women standing in stark contrast next to grizzled, unpolished cowboys. These were two disparate groups, roughly epitomizing law and lawlessness. Over the course of the week, perhaps out of necessity, the two lots found common ground. The innate stoicism of the Montana cowboy found its counterpoint in the tenacity of women returned to a primal state. The results were sublime.
I remember thinking on that first day of camp that we had, roughly, the quintessential group dynamic. There was a shy woman and a more boisterous woman; a skilled rider and a more novice rider; an outdoor enthusiast and a wilderness newcomer. Nothing at the outset hinted at the once-in-a-lifetime experience that would ensue. On top of that, the women would be living without electricity and running water for a week. If you missed breakfast, you missed breakfast. What I first believed would cause rifts in the group, actually instilled the need for punctuality and, in keeping the group together, helped foster a community.
What my initial impression failed to take into account was the underlying spirit of adventure that brought a group of strangers to this place. These women possessed a fundamental personality trait that eludes description, but deserves recognition nonetheless. They either carried with them, or created from nothing, a mercurial and contagious energy that reinvigorated all who were present. That kind of power rarely rears its head, and it’s often in the strangest of places. It takes a skillful intermediary to know how to harness its power.
Jeana Noel was the right woman for the job.
Jeana was a perfect mix of past and present. In the right light, you could see the romantic ideal of the cowboy way still riding the valleys and canyons behind her eyes. Turn just a bit, and you could see the silhouette of a woman on horseback charging forward before a blinding sunrise. Jeana was like that — a modern cowgirl with a penchant for bringing the best of the past with her in an unyielding path forward.
Jeana didn’t mince words. She knew what she wanted, and she went for it. She was charismatic, resolute, and always practiced what she preached. She somehow had the capacity to look put together and completely carefree all at once. She was independent to the bone, but was also able to open her heart and help others find their own path. She didn’t need a shirt to say she was a true cowgirl, she just was one.
When Jeana’s gallbladder cancer was discovered, Montana doctors gave her mere months to live. In spite of her prognosis, she remained incredibly optimistic. I didn’t get the sense that she was worried when we spoke a few weeks after her diagnosis. Jeana projected only what she always had: confidence and good cheer. She spoke of her diagnosis in a completely matter-of-fact manner; this was just another obstacle to overcome on her path, and it didn’t dampen her spirits in the least. Jeana had the enviable ability to focus only on the good, and she certainly didn’t want anyone’s pity.
Jeana moved to Atlanta to get care from some of the best cancer doctors in the nation as the disease progressed. The Whiskey Ginger team, consisting of myself and Loni Carr, visited her there during what would be her final weeks. Even then, her spirit was unbroken. She spoke optimistically about the future; about the things she wanted to do, and about all the great things to come. She lay heavily medicated and half-awake on her hospital bed, and I remember thinking she didn’t look like someone with only days to live. In fact, she looked great. She was beaming, and seemed about as put together as ever. Had I not known the full extent of her condition, she could have convinced me that she would be taking her horse out on the trail the very next day. This was Jeana. She had a manner of being that didn’t need your sympathy and felt tears to be a waste of resources. The cowgirl essence was written in her blood, and it outshined all else.
But, like so many occupations of yesteryear, the future is a tenuous place for cowgirls. We live in a time that has no love for the audacious nature of the cowboy way; no appreciation for the primal release that occurs when the whiskey flows and the fire roars with delight. The world we live in places little value on the words spoken without pretense to a new friend beside a midnight fire, and cares little for the power of the wild. Ours is a future that puts a premium on the more tangible things, and those fleeting moments of solitude and joy in the mountains can be difficult to put a value on.
Cowgirl Camp’s lessons were almost entirely intangible. Sure, there were pictures to share and stories to tell, but there really is no quantifying what one uncovers within themselves after a week in the mountains. Jeana’s gift to the world was introducing women to the outdoors and showing them the value in life’s intangibles.
When The Whiskey Ginger team attended Cowgirl Camp during that week in late summer of 2019, I clearly remember feeling a shift in energy on the second night of camp. It was the pivotal moment that ultimately brought the unique personalities of Cowgirl Camp together. Sitting around the campfire that night, a common experience was elevated to something otherworldly. Campfires always seem to bring out deeper truths, yielding a formidable power that defies description. The fire crackles, the whiskey flows, and thoughts are given room to breathe. This is Big Sky country, and it takes a long time for the echo of your voice to come back to you. This frees up some room in your chest where the self-doubt often lies. Speak freely and let your mind wander.
The scene around the fire that night was unforgettable. Women who would never order whiskey at a bar were pulling from the bottle; passing it around like pirates after the plunder. These women were celebrating, having recently been indoctrinated into a world of fewer cares — or at least, a world with cares more succinctly prioritized. An ancient ritual was taking place; performed in the present, but perfectly timeless. Those who were there will never forget the transformative power of a late-night campfire, and the magical simplicity of sharing a moment in good company. This was, of course, all thanks to Jeana. Like the fire, her glow radiated outward in every direction, warming everyone it touched. I am forever grateful to have been the recipient of such a magnanimous gift.
I occasionally think back to that night around the campfire. There was a more mysterious force at work. It occurs to me now that the age-old question of nature vs. nurture was being answered. At Cowgirl Camp, nature won. And it always will.
Article courtesy of The Whiskey Ginger