On a frigid January day in 2000, San Francisco journalist Maggie Chilton returns to Monte Alto, the small New Mexico ranching community she fled two decades earlier. She has recently experienced a divorce as well as a professional crisis. She interviews and becomes friends with a young Taos Pueblo Indian woman in a crisis center, but after Maggies story is published, this woman and her child are murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Unable to write, Maggie has lost her job. She is called home by her mother, the tough and respected rancher, Lucy Chilton, to attend the funeral of Elias Romero, the beloved ranch hand whom Maggie thinks of as her surrogate father.
Maggie quickly learns her mother is not well, yet Lucy rejects Maggies offer to stay and care for her. However, Lucys fragile health soon forces her to reverse her decision. Installed on the Chilton Ranch, a patchwork of drought-wracked old homesteads, in the neglected though still beautiful adobe house where she grew up, Maggie gradually discovers the purpose her life had been lacking. She sets to work repairing the house and ranch and attempts a reconciliaton with her proud, demanding mother, while she struggles to make sense of her encounters with Roger Dawson, the still-handsome high school boyfriend who broke her heart and who is now mayor of Monte Alto. Meanwhile, she tries to heal her relationship with Hannah, her wisecracking but lovable 14 year-old punk daughter who chose to live with her father, Maggies ex-husband, after the divorce. In addition, making peace with the harsh land Maggie both loves and hates as well as the small town she found so confining preoccupies her.
Along the way she meets up with spunky Ivy McGrath, her former high school English teacher, now the crusading editor of the local paper, and Randy Bradford, the young, good-looking Texan who is not what he seems. By representing his family development companys interests, he threatens the way of life in Monte Alto. However, it is not clear whether, without the influx of development, the town can continue to survive relentless drought and hard times.
Lorraine, who waits tables at the Kowboy Kafe, represents the small town penchant for gossip that Maggie finds so disturbing, wedded as it is with genuine warmth and concern. And Maggie seeks out her best friend from girlhood, Tommie Herrera, now Rogers ex-wife and an intensive care nurse in Albuquerque who still mourns the death of their 17 year-old son, Jesse. Meanwhile, the elderly ladies in Lucy's Wednesday bridge club provide a Greek chorus to Maggies journey as it unfolds.
The question of whether to rebuild her life in Monte Alto and contribute her vitality to the dying community or return to California haunts Maggie, but circumstances help her make up her mind. Despite their differences, Maggie and Rogers relationship continues to grow, particularly when she rescues him in a blizzard. When he gives Zia, the Palomino his son loved, to Hannah, the girl begins to bond with the place. And Ivy continues to provide Maggie with wry advice. When the newspaper office is broken into, Maggie is compelled to sit down at the computer and begin writing again. She joins Ivy in routing the unscrupulous developer, and she has the opportunity to confront her friend, Tommie, getting answers to questions about what went wrong in their lives that impelled Maggie to flee Monte Alto. And the Wednesday Clubs gifts of heirloom seeds fascinate Maggie, luring her into her own unique relationship with the land. She has the opportunity to make a peace of sorts with her mother before Lucy dies. And in a climatic scene, Maggie saves her daughter from a raging arroyo flood near Abo, the ancient Indian and Spanish Mission ruin that hovers over her life.
In the final scene, Maggie and Roger celebrate a harvest festival with the townfolk on the revived Chilton Ranch, while Hannah chases her border collie pup among the guests.
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