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I'm Brittany


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The long-winded ‘why’

posted by

Brittany Johnson

July 16, 2022

The story of how the Ranch was born from a broken heart is no short story; it is long-winded and has lived in my heart for many years.

The road that led to the Ranch was a path I didn’t see myself or my family taking. I think if you asked those closest to me if they pictured me finding my way here, they would give you a firm head shake with an astounding “NO way.”
Life has a funny way of throwing curve balls and leading you where you’re meant to be.
God’s plan always prevails and without a doubt, He led us to where we are.

Growing up, I was definitely a people pleaser and to some extent, that part of me still firmly exists within my being. I have a very empathetic personality which I think sometimes ushers me into a position where I feel so deeply for people in my life, that I want their realities to exist over my own.

As many young women who grew up close to their Dad might agree, my Dad was my whole world. I loved him beyond measure which drew the empathic side that dwells in me out and gave it priority when he called and asked me to come work at the family business for him. I had always swore I wouldn’t work there. I wanted to live in the big city in a high rise apartment working as a Child Life Specialist. But it felt like a call of desperation; the type of call you just couldn’t say no to. Especially not when I lived to make him proud.

I set aside the four years of college I had just attended and put my Psychology degree up on a shelf. I put my professor’s letters of recommendations for Grad School in the back of my closet (literally), gave notice at the local hospital I was interning at and pushed that part of myself aside to live out my Dad’s dream because at that time, it became my dream too.

Funny thing is, now looking back, I don’t regret that decision at all. God knew He was going to take my Dad home 6 years later and He gave me those moments to work alongside him everyday even when I didn’t realize those were going to be the last years I had left to stand shoulder to shoulder with him.

For anyone who has worked for their Dad (or a family member in general), you know how hard it can be. The expectations are always higher and you simply cannot separate business and emotion; the highs are high and the lows are low because you feel so entangled with the business. It becomes a reflection of you; your identity.

Every year, my Dad and I would play the Company “Santa.” It was our thing. We would go spend hours shopping for our primary Customer to make sure that they felt special and appreciated every Christmas. The last Christmas we spent shopping, it was different. My Dad wasn’t acting like himself. He was sitting a lot and started complaining of stomach pain. It wasn’t long after that he finally went to the Doctor.

You’ll never forget where you were or what you were doing when you receive bad news. The kind of bad news where the floor really does feel like it has fallen out from under you.
I remember sitting in my office when he called after his appointment and said, “Hey Sunshine, I have a tumor.” I don’t remember anything else he said other than “they think they can remove it, I’m having surgery soon.” This moment truly did seem like the beginning of the end but it really was just a scratching of the surface of this deep desire I had building to just run.

My Dad quickly went in for exploratory surgery and I got a call from my Uncle saying I needed to get to the hospital, they had some news. Things are so blurry during this time; I was 7-months pregnant with Sawyer and Landyn was only 2. I frantically started packing Landyn up to get in the car when I saw Keith came rolling down the driveway; my stomach sank. He left work to come drive us to the hospital and somewhere in me, I just knew it wasn’t going to be good news.

When we got to the hospital, we were the last of my family to arrive. My Uncle took Landyn from my arms and we were escorted into a little room. I honestly couldn’t even retrace the steps between the car and where I ended up. When we turned the corner, I saw my Mom crying in my Grandpa’s lap and all I could muster up the courage to ask was, “is he dead?” She just cried, so I asked again, “how much longer do we have?” … “Not much time.”

A nurse came in and said he was ready to see us. There were so many of us that walked up and squeezed into that tiny little hospital room and the first thing my Dad said was “well it must be bad if you’re all here.” No doctor or nurse had even told him his prognosis yet. I had never seen my Dad cry until that day.

He was diagnosed with Stage-4 Colon Cancer and woke up from that exploratory surgery with a colostomy bag and a hard dose of reality that we all learned before he did; there wasn’t much time left.
My Dad was a fighter and he fought until the very end. It was less than pretty, but it was what it was.
There were moments of hope and there were so many moments of defeat.
We would text each other pictures of Rainbows we would see out and about and say “if God could create the miracle of a Rainbow, He can create a miracle in you too.” And He could have, but He didn’t. (hold that rainbow miracle thought…)

They don’t tell you the emotional storm that comes with Cancer.
When the storm arrives, it is chaotic and loud. Everything is a hurry and nothing makes sense.
With time passing, you start to move from the outside chaotic walls of the storm into the center, in the eye. It’s calm because it has become your new reality; living for the bloodwork reports, all the appointments, the absent moments from everyday life – its all this new normal.
But even in the eye, the storm keeps moving, things keep changing around the edges, you just become less aware because you’re living in that numb reality.
As the storm starts to change, moving faster and faster, you start to move closer to the walls again, into the chaos with debris swirling and big changes always coming at you.
The storm finally comes to an end. And here you are left standing looking around at all the things you have left to mend.
Broken fences, broken hearts, family distress, debris everywhere; the storm passed and left you with so much to repair, but it took something and you’re left to do the cleanup work without your loved one.
But even in the residual chaos, there is always a rainbow after a storm, you just have to find it.
And even if you don’t find your rainbow, you need to dance in the rain while you wait.

The last week of my Dad’s life, we were told by hospice that things were going to start moving pretty quickly.
That Monday, he woke up and asked my Mom, “we have something this week?” (It was my birthday that Thursday.) Even though hospice continued to make mention that things were looking grim and he wouldn’t make it another day, he continued to stay one day at a time. He told my Mom he wasn’t going before my birthday and he kept that promise.

It was this surreal feeling during the last days where you could almost feel him quite literally floating between Heaven and Earth. In and out of consciousness, his body was failing. Even when time stood still, he was fading so quickly.
When you watch your loved one slip away, it becomes such a rollercoaster of emotion between wanting them to stay and wanting this suffering to end.

I treasure our last real conversation we had that week; those words mended so many open wounds that we had left alone for so many years. So many things left unsaid were finally closed.

Thursday morning finally rolled around and I sat next to his bed, put my face right next to his. He peeked his eyes open at me and said, “Hi Sunshine, Happy Birthday. I love you.” That was it; those were the last words I ever heard my Dad whisper.
He closed his eyes and God took his soul home at 12:10am Friday morning when it was no longer my Birthday anymore.

the longwinded why

Learning to live without someone is difficult because it is learning how to live with a different version of yourself; but it restored a version of myself that I had set aside for so many years.
I had to start living for my little family again. The family I had started with my Husband. I didn’t have my Dad to put first anymore and that was a healing experience.

For so many years, it has been hard for me to admit that it took losing my Dad to find myself, but it was true.
After my Dad passed, I needed to run. Not run in a bad way, but I needed a fresh start with just my little family of four. We needed to create something that was just ours but we had no clue what that would look like.

When Keith turned 30. I booked a surprise trip for just the two of us. We flew into Bozeman, Montana and stayed in the most beautiful off-grid cabin set atop a hill looking over Livingston. When I tell you thats my version of Heaven, it is. There was no TV, barely any cell reception; just us.
It was a reset that our souls needed so desperately after what we had all just walked through that year.

When we came home from that trip, we were so consumed with the idea of starting over we literally started looking to move ASAP. We started packing our house and hired a realtor from Montana (keep in mind, this was before the big real estate hike in prices). We had so many houses lined up to see but near the last few when we were walking through the tour, I felt God say “not here, not now.” I wanted to live in Montana so bad. It felt like I could will it into existence and force this move but nothing was panning out and I had to stop. Stop forcing a reality that quite frankly wasn’t going to exist.
That last trip home from Montana back to Washington I was disappointed, but I was at peace. I knew it wasn’t right for our family and it was something I just had to accept.

Even though Montana (or Idaho, Wyoming, or any other State we considered) didn’t work out for us during that period of looking to move, we still had this deep desire of creating something that was just ours; starting a Ranch from scratch.

When I told Keith that I wanted to start a Ranch where we were, on a 10-acre parcel carved out in the woods along a private airstrip in a gated community… (no, I’m not joking). I’m sure he thought I had officially lost my mind.

But my sweet Husband who has always stood beside me and gone along with my crazy bought me a Mother’s Day heifer that changed our lives forever.
Fiona came rolling down the driveway the weekend before Mother’s Day in 2020. And when I tell you we were simply not prepared, I mean it in every stretch of the meaning.

When we purchased our Western Washington house (before this Ranch dream came to be), it was our first house on acreage. There was this little poorly fenced area where the previous owners kept their Horse. So naturally, now that our first heifer was here and since we hadn’t even started fencing the rest of the 10-acres we lived on, we directed the sweet couple who was delivering Fiona over to this area. When they backed their trailer up to our alley way (made up of pallets and deconstructed Costco shelving) Fiona was escorted to her new residence in this pen with our goat, Ollie.
Did I mention we also didn’t even have 1 bale of hay? Oh no… none.
So we ran to Tractor Supply like the giddy new Highland owners that we were and purchased the most expensive tiny bales of compressed hay.
Where did we put that hay? In a trough? Oh no… we tossed it in my old Audi tires. (I’m laughing as I type this).

where hillside started

If we didn’t want this as bad as we did; we would have failed miserably.
The big things like fencing, trailers, locally sourced hay, etc… we didn’t have until we just learned.
We started on complete faith that this was a life we needed for our family and we weren’t stopping until we were staring at it.

In December of 2020, Keith received an email with a home on land that was a previous Angus Operation in Eastern Washington. He sent me the link and asked if I wanted to go look at it.

Two-years after I felt God whisper “not here, not now” while standing in Montana touring homes, I felt Him reach back down to tie up the laces on my running shoes, crack the door open and whisper “Go for it“.

When we arrived to the Ranch, there were already 4-other showings going on. The house had been on the market for roughly a year and of course as soon as we opened up our hearts to start looking again, it was swarming with people.
In a strange way, the showings didn’t bother me; I was overwhelmed with peace. When we rolled away down the long gravel driveway, I took a picture in the mirror. I felt like I was leaving home, like it was already ours and I had a gut feeling we would be back.

We quickly made an offer, it was accepted and we found ourselves making our way to Eastern Washington.
It felt so full circle. I had lost my Dad on January 26th, the day after my Birthday 3-years prior in 2018. And there we were, in 2021, also on January 26th living towards our dreams, signing on a dotted line.

The journey to this place was no straight line but it was always together and that was the deal.
Keith and I made a promise to each other that it was either both of us all in, or not at all. We each play different roles on the Ranch, but we are a team and we can’t do what we do without each other’s support.

We didn’t sell our home in Western Washington right away because we had animals to move, we had full time jobs and we had so many loose ends that we needed time to tie up. So we would leave every Sunday morning from the Ranch and drive 4-hours West. Then we would go to work Monday – Wednesday. We would leave after work Wednesday evening, pack up either our cattle hauler full of however many animals would get in or we would load up our enclosed trailer full of essentials and drive 4-hours East back to the Ranch. We would wake up and work Thursday – Friday in Spokane either from home or the office in town.

We did this back and forth trip for almost the entire year of 2021. It wasn’t easy to run on no sleep and live out of duffel bags, pulling our kids between both sides of the State but we did it because we saw the big picture; we knew deep down this would be the thing that gave our Family the fresh wind we desperately craved.

When we finally sold our Western Washington home and moved out the end of October 2021, it was a bag of mixed emotions. We had mustered up the courage to dream beyond what we had always known in that little house in the woods. I had driven out of the driveway to say goodbye to my Dad for the last time from that house. We had re-done almost every square inch of that house; built our dream shop there. It was our ‘home’ both the feeling and the place. But it was time to say goodbye.

We had already been creating this new adventure 4-hours East and it was time to plant our feet firmly in one location. We had been trying to slowly grow our herd that year in 2021 and had built the idea of Hillside Highland Co. it was time to be all in and that meant staying put, especially with Winter approaching.

As soon as we moved to the Ranch full time, we stopped thinking of Hillside as a hobby but rather as a business. Big or small, if you have something placed on your heart, you owe it to yourself to try and make it happen.
We decided to go into animal sales vs. beef boxes. Highlands are slow growers and the beef market just didn’t make sense for us at that time.
We created a website and sold our first animal in December of 2021.
We went ahead and drew up 3 versions of cattle brands that we sent to Washington State for approval.
Remember how I mentioned earlier that my Dad and I would text each other rainbows?
Or how after a storm passes, you can find a rainbow if you look hard enough?

Hillside’s Brand has an arch over the double H. That was the brand that Washington sent back to us as approved; it was our third option.
Hillside is our rainbow after the storm we walked through.

When you start from scratch, there are so many things you need both big and small.
I’ve been asked so many times, “What is the total cost to save before getting started.” “How many acres do you need?” “Can you give us the Start A Ranch shopping list?”

I couldn’t even begin to explain or write a “Ranching for Beginners” book because it truly varies on location, type of animal, brand of equipment, etc.
We don’t think of ourselves as examples on how to start a ranch when you don’t have family land, equipment or experience. We are just two people who really wanted it and made sacrifices and a whole lot of mistakes to land where we are.

But here is what we can tell you, we love living on a Ranch.
Living here brings a peace and allows our family an opportunity to make memories with our kids right alongside us.
It’s certainly not for the money or financial security, that is why we still work full time jobs. The Ranch truly is something that set our souls free.
We started with what we had, where we were and stumbled into the place we are now.
We truly believe that even slow growth is still growth; just keep moving forward – one step at a time. It doesn’t matter how fast you get somewhere, just don’t stop.

It is so interesting to look back at your life in fragmented details when in real time, things are happening so fast, you often miss the little things that brick by brick built where you are.
I lost my Dad and felt this desire to ‘run for the hills’ in the same year.
We signed for the Ranch on the anniversary of my Dad’s passing.
We built Hillside Highland Co. to bring peace back into our family.
We sent off 3 Cattle Brand options to Washington State for approval and they sent back our arched double H. The same Rainbow Arch I had texted my Dad while he was in chemo.
It felt like our hearts were being prepared for Ranch life without even knowing it and it is all intertwined because all these little pieces are who we are.

Keith and I were city kids. We had never been raised on a Ranch or Farm, we had desk jobs. We didn’t know what it meant to fence, haul trailers around or care for a large animal let alone a herd.
We started with zero knowledge; none.
But we started with huge faith that this was what our family needed even when no one else saw it.

We took a huge risk and we let a lot of people down when we decided to start the Ranch.
We risked a lot to move to a town we had never heard of to start a life we had never lived.

And it all started from a Mother’s Day heifer that came rolling down the driveway in a cute little red trailer to a naive couple of city slickers who day dreamed they could start a ranch in their back yard and against all odds, kept going one foot in front of the other.

Comments +

  1. This is so touching. Such a beautiful beginning to a sad ending. This brought me to tears a few times. Your faith in God and letting him guide your path is such an encouraging part of your story. We too are trying to start our own little ranch and this story gave me to courage to keep at it and live by faith. God is so good and it amazes me how he really does work all things to the good of those love him and are called to his purpose. Thank you for sharing your story. We love following your journey on social media and love it even more now that we know the story behind it.

    • Brittany Johnson says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read our story! God has been so good to us and learning to trust Him has been a huge part of our story.

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