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Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Modern-Day Cowgirl's Craigslist SOS

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Jessica Anderson, 19, sits in a borrowed room at the back of a trailer, not knowing when she'll have to leave. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

HELP! young female needing a place to stay asap!
i was laid off with out enough pay to even drive back to colorado, i have a dog and sugar gliders very reliable worker good cook and great at cleaning house will watch kids in exchange for rent. really desperate. need somewhere by wednesday!!!

CHEYENNE, Wyo.--I was searching Craigslist, as I sometimes do when we get to a new place, and typed in the word “desperate” in the jobs listings. That’s when I saw the posting above. It was already a few days old.

I sent an email – curious about who had sent it and whether she had found a place – and within an hour, I was talking to Jessica Anderson.

She was 19, alone in a state she didn’t know and running low on gas and money. In the few days that had passed since the Colorado native had put up the posting, life had taken her from Wyoming, where she had lost a job as a ranch hand, to Montana, where a man had promised her work, only to leave her stranded once she got there.

“The last time I talked to him was 6:10 in the morning,” Jessica said. “He said, ‘Call me when you get here.’” She called at about 10:30 a.m., but there was no answer. She would spend the next hour and a half trying to reach him before realizing he had no intention of meeting her. By noon, she said, she was sitting in a hot car in a gas station parking lot with her dog and sugar gliders, crying. “I was scared. I was in the middle of nowhere. There was nobody I knew, nobody I could call for help. I had no money. I had nothing.” (Sugar gliders are small, nocturnal marsupials; they look like miniature raccoons.)

A friend posted a second Craigslist ad for her and among those who responded was a man named Kevin Hochstrat, who offered Jessica a room in the back of a trailer.

That’s where Michael and I found her when we arrived in Montana.

“I’ve been in her same shoes,” Kevin, 23, said, explaining why he responded to the ad. “I’ve lived that story and nobody helped me.”

Jessica said she didn’t know whether to trust his intentions at first because she had received dozen of responses to her posting, mostly from men offering neither a job nor a place to stay. (“One guy was 38 and said, ‘I’ll be honest with you, I’m interested in sex,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not your target. I’m terrified, I’m alone, and I don’t know anybody.’”) But once Kevin sent a text with the words, “Let r buck,” she said she knew she could trust him because he was a cowboy. In the living room of the trailer, chaps hung from a coat rack and an antique gun sat on the coffee table, waiting to be cleaned.

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Kevin Hochstrat, 23, and Jessica Anderson, 19, have developed a friendship in just the few days since he responded to an ad she posted seeking a job and a place to stay. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

The son of ranchers, Kevin has worked as a livestock brand inspector since February. The job pays less than half of what he was earning a year ago in construction, but is steadier.

Jessica said she is hoping to find work on a ranch, but is now competing against men in their 40s and 50s who have been laid off from jobs in once-thriving industries such as trucking and construction.

“Nine times out of ten, they are going to get the job,” Jessica said. At 5-foot-3 and 120-some pounds, she said she has no problem tossing an 80-pound bale of hay, but she will never be as strong as her competition. Still, she added, “I’m a hard worker and I know what I’m good at.”

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Jessica Anderson calls the buckle her "pride and joy." She won it at age 11 as a national class rodeo participant, competing against riders much older than her. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Michael and I spent the day with her and Kevin, and over breakfast alone, her phone buzzed a dozen times with new messages. Responses, she said, were still coming in for her posting.

“She showed me one and it was pretty bad,” Kevin said. “It was like, ‘I got a place for you – it’s in my bed.’”

“No, it was worse,” she said.

Such come-ons bother her, but at the same time, she said she's partly to blame. She listed her weight and height in one posting, in part to show that she was healthy and could do tough work and in part because she knew she'd have a better chance of getting help if she sounded attractive. That’s dangerous, I told her. She was desperate, she replied.

“There’s nothing smart about it,” she said. “But the bigger risk is sleeping out in the middle of nowhere waiting for someone to pick me up. So I’d rather filter my options than have my options filter me.”

“My girlfriend is just positive I’m going to get killed on Craigslist,” Jessica added. “I’m like, ‘Yeah I could, but it’s already saved my life.’”

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As she sits at a diner, Jessica Anderson's cell phone buzzes and rings every few minutes with responses to her online ads. Mostly, they are from men who aren't offering jobs or a permanent place to stay. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Just a few months ago, she was attending prom and graduating from high school. If she had a choice, she would have gone on to college to study wildlife rehabilitation. “But you kind of have to have money to do that and I’m not a big fan of loans,” Jessica said. Her father died when she was six and her mother is a paramedic instructor in Colorado, “struggling to survive,” she said.

So, Jessica headed toward what she knew best – ranching. She was working at a place in Wyoming when she became ill with a stomach ulcer and had to spend a week in bed, she said. She started drinking baking soda, which made her feel better, but when she returned to work, the rancher told her she was no longer needed and had to be out by Wednesday. That’s when she wrote the ad I saw.

After that, Jessica said, she spent two days staying with a man who responded to the posting and then headed toward Montana for the job that never happened.

“I’m surviving,” she said. “I’m just glad nothing bad has happened to me. I’ve been lucky.”

As she was talking, her phone rang and for a moment it seemed she might have a job.

“Hello?” she said.

(Pause)

“I’m not really stranded. I found a place to stay but I’m still looking for work. So I am, but I’m not.”

(Pause)

“I’ve been known to be a pretty good ranch hand. I’m pretty good in that respect, but I’ll do just about anything right now.”

(Pause)

“Yeah, I can cook pretty darn good.”

(Pause)

“Really? What did you say your name was again? Yeah, possibly. No, not really. That’s what I was making at my last job, so I know how to live off of that.”

(Pause)

“Maybe. We’ll see.”

She slammed shut the flip-top phone and said, “Creeper!”

“He said, ‘Would you be interested in fooling around?’” Jessica said. “He said, ‘I’m looking for a lady who can dress up and look good in a pair of jeans.”

Depending on the moment, Jessica can seem both younger and older than her years. Inside a 2003 Pontiac Aztek crammed with her belongings, she keeps provisions, such as a sleeping bag, tool kit and food for both her dog and her. But there are also teenage treasures: whimsical charcoal drawings, raccoon stuffed animals and a small framed photo of her parents and her.

“This picture’s been everywhere with me,” she said, wiping it with her shirt. “It’s in rough shape.”

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Jessica Anderson's Pontiac Aztek is crammed with her belongings. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

There’s a toughness to her: She spouts off recipes for groundhog, cuts her nails with a knife and eats biscuits and gravy when she can. But there is also an undeniable softness: She uses notepads with cartoon figures, wears a cross with tiny jewels around her neck and coos over her tiny, wide-eyed sugar glider. On the day we met her, she was wearing a John Deer tank top with hot pink lettering that said, “Will trade boyfriend for tractor.” She said most of her clothes were either gifts or came from a thrift shop, except for her boots, which cost $300 and which she was still paying off. Michael and I didn’t say anything at the time, but it hit us both that she was a cowgirl in boots she didn't own.

“What are you going to do at this point?” I asked her. “Are you staying in Montana?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t really talked to Kevin about how long I can stay. I said I’d try to be out of his hair as soon as possible. He said it was okay. But you don’t want to wear out your welcome.”

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"I'll be okay. I will get through this," Jessica said, shuffling away from a house where she had hoped to do some day labor but was told she wasn't needed. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 19, 2009; 1:46 PM ET
 
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Next: Meet Lost Springs, WY (Won't Take But A Minute)

Comments

She knew he was okay because he's a cowboy? Yeah, okay...

Posted by: Akinoluna | August 19, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

She's got sand!

Posted by: ponyab | August 23, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

To "Akinoluna"

Perhaps she trusts (feels comfortable with) people she grew up around.

Posted by: TroutHound | August 24, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

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