Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cowboy Up!

Prologue: As I was growing up, I spent every summer of my life with my grandparents on their Cattle Ranch in Randolph, Utah. From time to time, I will share experiences from my cattle ranch days. The following is a story about my memories of participating in a cattle drive, during which I was a real, live cowboy.

In the Northeast sky, the black of night was giving way to shades of gray. It was still so early that not even the rooster had crowed. Even though it was summertime, there was still a cool crispness to the morning air – at nearly 7000 feet elevation. I was still buried under grandma’s quilts. Sleeping in the same room (and maybe even the same bed) that my mother had slept in when she was a child. I was 12 years old. Suddenly I was awakened by the creaky floor as my grandfather’s footfalls came towards the bedroom. “Come on, David – Let’s go!”

I quickly got dressed and went outside. There was now the faintest shade of pink along the Eastern skyline. Even though we had a big day ahead of us, we still had to do the “chores” – Milk the cows, feed the chickens and pigs, and gather the eggs. We had to bottle-feed the “bum” calves and lambs who had lost their mothers. The chores had to be done twice-a-day, without exception, 7-days a week, 365 days a year. The chores had no weekends, no holidays, no vacations. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold, summer or winter, rain or shine, the chores always had to be done. Such is the lot a rancher.

While we were up doing the chores, grandma had risen as well. She had cooked us breakfast, and had fixed us sack lunches to take with us on our big day. For today, we would drive the cattle to the “Forest”.

We had begun our day so early to take advantage of the cooler part of the day, and to cover as much ground as possible while the animals were still fresh.

Next we saddled up the horses and loaded them into the back of the truck. We also packed our lunches and water jugs into cab. Then we drove to the corral where the cattle had been penned-in the night before. We unloaded the horses from the truck, opened the corral gate, ushered the cows from the corral, and began the drive. At this point, it would still be another half-hour until the sun would rise over the Crawford Mountains to the East.

In this type of a cattle drive, there would be several horses and riders, a well-trained cattle dog, and the truck following along behind on the or trail. The truck served as a modern-day chuck wagon. We would be outfitted with a hat, long-sleeved shirts, Levi’s (or bib overalls in grandpa’s case) and a good pair of boots and spurs. Each of us would also have a whip of some kind should the livestock need a little extra encouragement -- nothing abusive, just a little tap every once-in-a-while to remind the cows that this was a journey -- not a camp! We would usually carry some hard-tack candy in our shirt pocket, along with a small piece of rock salt. The candy would help keep our mouths moist (important in all the dust that was kicked up) and the salt would help us retain water. We would get a drink occasionally when we were near the truck.

Typically we would have a rider on each side of the herd, to keep them pointed on the trail. We would also have two or three other riders bringing up the rear of the heard and pushing the cattle along.

In a large cattle drive, of perhaps hundreds of cattle, cows and calves would invariably become separated. One of my jobs, when I was younger (say between 10-14 years old) was to follow along behind the herd to make sure none of the calves got left behind. The calves were still young and very inexperienced – some 2-3 months old. This was usually their first-ever cattle drive. Their instinct, once they were separated from their mother, was to turn around and go back to where they came from – back to the point where they were last with their mother.

The calves, and sometimes the cows too, would stealthily their way to the outer edge of the herd, and then, when they thought the time was most opportune – they would bolt out from the side of the herd, and then try to double-back to the point form whence they came. The cows would also try to bolt if we were crossing a particularly steep or difficult part of the trail. Like most of us, they would rather go down-hill than up. My job was to chase after the calves, or any other escapees, catch up to them, and turn, or “head” them back to the main body of the herd.

Cutting Horses
A well trained horse was an invaluable tool when performing this task. Such well trained horses made it possible for even young and inexperienced riders to get the job done. The horse would know how to accelerate after the calf, and would know just the right point to turn and “head off” the calf. I was usually given one of the gentle old mares to ride on the cow drives when I was a boy. They had many years of experience with this sort of work. All I had to do was to point the horse in the general direction of the straying animal, and the horse would practically do the rest. At first, I pretty much just held on to the saddle horn, and tried not to fall off the horse! Over time, it seemed like the horse actually trained me how to do this job, until I was quite proficient in my own right at driving and “cutting” cattle. I also learned how to move with the horse, so that falling off was no longer of concern.

Cutting cattle involves not only heading stray animals back to the herd, but separating, or “cutting out” individual animals from the herd (for medical attention, branding, weaning, or other purposes. Horses that specialize in this kind of work are called “Cutting Horses.” There are actually cutting horse competitions, which is a whole other take on equestrian sports. (No chasing foxes, or jumping fences or ponds here -- but something actually useful!) Heck, I would much rather see cutting horse competitions become an Olympic event, rather than the current equestrian events.

Cattle drives are not quiet rides through the woods. When I was younger, and I would tell people that I had spent the Summer on my grandpa’s cattle ranch, they would swoon at the thought of just leisurely riding horses all day out on the range. There is nothing leisurely about a cattle drive. There is a lot of noise. First there is the constant bellowing, or “mooing” of the cows and calves trying to locate one another when they became separated. Second, there were the sounds we made as well. We would constantly holler, whistle, and make hissing sounds to keep the cattle moving. The person driving the truck along behind the herd would make generous use of the horn as well to keep them moving. Combine the noise with the dust, and the manure, and you have something quite different altogether from the idyllic what my city friends could ever imagine.

Cool, Clear, Water

Occasionally we would come to a stream. We would pause there for a few minutes, and let the cattle and horses rest and drink. Sometimes we would come to a spring along the way. We too would get down on our bellies, and sip the Cool, Clear Water (Think of the Sons of the Pioneers song here!) as it bubbled up from the ground. I’ll tell you NOTHING could taste better after all the heat and dust that we had endured. We would wash our faces in that cold water, and maybe even dunk our heads in the water to stay cool for a little while.

At some point along the way, we would eat the lunches that grandma had prepared for us. Sandwiches, chips, some home made cookies, – and best of all, a bottle of grandma’s home-canned peaches. I’ve had some nice meals in my lifetime. Some of them at some very nice restaurants. But I don’t think any meal has tasted better to me than those lunches on the cattle drive when you were so hot, tired, and HUNGRY.

After a few hours on horseback, your hip joints become kind of displaced. It really felt good to dismount, stand up and stretch, and straighten out your legs for a bit. Although walking felt good, your knees would be a little wobbly from having stood up in the stirrups so much.

Then we would mount up again, and keep those doggies movin! (Think of the Rawhide TV show theme song here!)

The End of the Trail

Eventually in mid to late afternoon, we would arrive at our destination – some 10 hours later, and at a gain of 2500 feet in elevation. We would open the gate that separated the BLM land from the Forest land, and herd the cows through the gate, and close it behind them. Of course, the cattle would immediately head/run for the watering hole. The cows and calves would bellow and moo until they found one another, then they would pair up, and the calves would have their dinner, courtesy of mama.

We would let the horses drink, then we would tie them up to a nearby tree and let them graze for a little while in the tall forest grasses. Meanwhile we would refill our water jugs from the fresh, clean, and cold water from Longhurst Spring, and perhaps have another sandwich courtesy of grandma. We would lie down under a tree, watch the puffy white clouds move across the deep blue sky, and listen to the wind rustle through the leaves of the aspen trees.

Let's Head For The Barn

After resting up a bit, we would load the horses in the truck, and begin our descent off the mountain, and back home to the ranch. Upon arrival, we would unload the horses from the truck, take them to the barn, and remove their saddles. The horses were then turned loose in the corral, and they made a beeline for the watering trough. After they had their fill of water, we would turn them loose out into the pasture.

It always amused me that after a long, hard ride like that, that the first thing the horses did after being turned loose, was to find a patch of bare, dry, ground, and roll around in the dirt on their backs. I suppose it was a way for them to scratch their backs, and to get rid of the feeling of the saddle blanket. Then, as horses do, they made their way out to the green grass, and started grazing away, with their tails a-swishing.

As for us, we still had the chores to do, once more. After that we would have a nice dinner prepared by grandma.

Then came the fun part – the “tick check”. Everybody had to strip down and check each other for wood ticks. Having been around the cattle all day, and having brushed up against the same sage brush and trees that the cattle had been brushing up against, there was a good likelihood that we may have picked up a wood tick or two. Usually the ticks would embed themselves where your clothing would fit tightly, mainly under your waistband, or around the top of your socks. On more than one occasion, I found that I was host to a wood tick after a cattle drive, and the same with my companions. We removed the ticks right away. If we had a stubborn one, we would get grandma to help us. She had been a Registered Nurse in her day – and she had her ways.

Following the tick check, we would have a bath or shower, and go right to bed. We were sooo tired. It had been such a long day. Usually the insides of your knees, thighs, and calves would be rubbed raw by being on horseback for so long. Oft’ times you would have saddle sores on your behind as well. Worst of all were the knees. They would really ache, from spending so much time standing up on the stirrups and bouncing on the horse all day long. The knees acted as shock absorbers for the rest of your body.

Finally we would lie down to sleep. As I closed my eyes, my minds eye could see nothing but cows and calves, dust and manure. I could still hear the bellowing and mooing as if it were right there before me. But soon – very soon, fatigue would overtake me, and I would be fast asleep. – Until, that is, I would hear the floor creak once more. It was time to do chores – Again!

1 comment:

Carol said...

A beautifully written ride down memory lane, and a real eye opener for a city slicker like me. I've never even drank "raw" water before!
Thanks and Happy Holidays to you and yours as you prepare to celebrate the birthday of our beloved Saviour.