Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hoyt's Hotel

My hometown changed in the twenty-five years I was away. The grocery store where I got my first job burned down. We can’t drop by the Tastee Freeze anymore on hot summer days to have chocolate-dipped soft ice cream cones delivered to the car. The post office is no longer squeezed into a narrow space between the Milky Way market and the A&A Bar in the old brick buildings on Central Avenue.

But keep driving another block south and everything is remarkably the same. A dentist still wields his drill in the cinder block office on the corner of Central and through street, though the name on the sign has changed. Kitty-corner across the street, the Presbyterian church looks exactly as it did when my sister got married there. And if you go another block, take a right at the yield sign and a left into the alley, you’ll end up at my Grandma’s house.

 My grandparents lived on the ranch we now call home. The families of all four of their kids eventually settled within ten miles east and west, an average of an hour’s drive from town. The local country school ran only through the eighth grade. High school meant meeting the bus at seven-fifteen in the morning and climbing off again at five in evening. For most of us, home was at least twenty minutes down gravel roads from the bus stop. So in 1969, my widowed grandmother moved into town and the house that became known as Hoyt’s Hotel.

 Nine grandkids spent their weeknights in that house for some or all of their high school years, along with a rotating assortment of their friends. We posed with prom dates in front of her fireplace and in caps and gowns in her back yard. When she learned that my older male cousins were hanging around at the A&A to play pool, she bought a table and told them to bring all their friends along home.

Everyone was welcome at Eva’s house. No one left hungry. School kids weren't the only overnight guests. Basketball games, dinner at the Elks Lodge, any occasion that kept aunts, uncles and neighbors in town late into the evening meant spending the night at Grandma’s. My cousin Bobby would sometimes eyeball the crowd at dinner, then get up and go immediately to bed so he didn’t have to sleep on the couch.

 For twenty years, no visit to town was complete without a stop at Grandma’s. Heaven forbid she find out you’d passed through without dropping in, especially if you were going somewhere interesting. She kept the overnight bag behind the door in her bedroom packed with a nightgown and clean underwear, just in case.

 Heading to Billings for the weekend? “I’ll come with you,” she’d say, and beat you out to the car with suitcase in hand. Since she was great fun to travel with and always insisted on chipping in for meals and gas, you rarely heard a complaint. Truth is, there may have been a time or two when I swung by Grandma’s on my way out of town specifically because my wallet was a little thin.

 I was living in South Dakota when she died, and when the house was sold. I hadn’t really spent any time in my hometown since, until we moved back last year. Now I find that I’ve never really had a chance to get used to her being gone. When I stop in front of the dental office and look down the street past the Presbyterian church, I can’t quite believe that if I turned right at the yield sign and left at the alley, she wouldn’t be there.

 So my apologies to whoever owns that house on the last block of First Street now. I’m sure your friends and family told you the blue paint looks nice, and the patio doors off the kitchen are a great improvement. You probably love that big new garage. But in my mind, Hoyt’s Hotel will always be pink. There will always be a blue ceramic cat on the shelf in the dining room, a pool table in the rec room, Schwan’s corn dogs and burritos in the freezer for hungry teenagers.

 And a green overnight bag packed and ready behind the bedroom door…just in case.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Army's Answer to Gridlock

Yeah, we've all fantasized about something like this while idling our lives away in rush hour traffic.
My brother's job in Afghanistan is to keep these in the air. The helicopters, not the Humvee's.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blogs from Home

I confess. The real reason I started a blog is I'm pathetic at writing letters. It's another sequence just waiting to suck me in. First, I have to remember that I intended to write the stupid thing. Then I have to find a pen, paper, an envelope and a stamp. Then I have to remember how to write, versus typing. Finding something to say is minor compared to all that.
Getting the thing written is only half the battle. I then have to remember to actually take it with me to town. And drop it in the mailbox. After carrying it back and forth for several days because I have forgotten the address. It's all just way more than I can handle.
So I started a blog.
Normally, letter writing wouldn't be that much of an issue, but my brother is at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan with the Screaming Eagles, 101st Airborne Division, out of Fort Campbell, KY. And yes, I am aware that I probably didn't say all that in proper Army lingo. Sue me. I'll give you half of everything my bank owns.
So...Hi, Marty! And honest, I will send a real letter, just as soon as I find that old gas receipt I scribbled your address on.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Slud...or is it Mush?

Ah, March, that precocious month when atmospheric conditions are ideal for a unique phenomenom, where snow, slush, ice, water and mud all co-exist on the same road. Anybody game for skipping straight to May?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sequences Suck

Patrick McManus* wrote a story about sequences that solved one of the great mysteries of my life: He explained why we never seem to get anything done around here. According to Mr. McManus, “…on a farm you simply don’t go out and do a piece of work. No, the first thing you do is determine the lengthy sequence of activities necessary even to begin the job.” Amen, and double for ranchers. At lunch on Thursday, my dad said, “Could you saddle a horse and get that lame bull in so we can doctor his footrot?” No problem. Except I haven’t been on a horse since the last equinox. I found my boots in the third place I looked. I started to pull on the right one and dumped the barley an industrious mouse had stockpiled inside onto the floor. Knowing my son would track it all through the house, I grabbed the vacuum to clean it up, but the bag was full. I trekked clear down to the trash barrel to dump it. Then, after a fruitless search of the cupboards, I trekked over to my mother’s house to borrow a new bag. Finally, floor vacuumed, boots on, I headed for the barn. Tack has a weird way of becoming dismembered when not used regularly. I blame the mice. There are enough of them in the oat bin to pack off an intact roping saddle, let alone a tie down. The first two bridles had no reins. The third was missing a chin strap. The headstall was broken on the fourth, and my life isn’t worth as much as the silver on the fifth. I set it gently aside. I sifted through tangles and piles until I located all the requisite parts and attached them to a bit with enough whoa to keep my spring-fresh steed from doing either of us bodily harm. My saddle still had both cinches--a small miracle--but no breast collar. With this particular horse, no breast collar equals back cinch sliding into flank, equals my head driven into mud. Luckily, I had a spare stashed in the horse trailer. I trotted outside, only to find the tack room door guarded by a six inch deep puddle. I hot-footed it to the camper, found my overshoes, and forded the small lake to retrieve the breast collar…which was several inches too long. The leather punch was on the top shelf, exactly where it was supposed to be. Right under the leak in the roof. I jogged over to the shop, searched work benches, tool chests and shelves, and eventually located a can of WD-40 in the John Deere tractor. Leather punch lubricated, hole punched, breast collar properly fitted, horse saddled and bridled, I left the barn a mere fifty-five minutes after embarking upon my simple chore. It took fifteen minutes to ride to the pasture, sort off the bull, and put him in the corral. I planned to wait until the bull was doctored, then chase him back to the pasture. He strolled into the chute like a perfect gentleman. Which was when we realized that the headgate and the squeeze mechanism were embedded in three inches of solid ice. “We’ll need the crowbar to chip it loose,” my dad said. “It’s over at the calving shed.” “Not anymore,” my husband said. “I used it to brace that corner post the yearlings broke off last week. We’ll have to swing by the shop and cut a piece of pipe to replace it until the ground thaws and we can set a new post.” “The blade is shot on the cut off saw,” my dad reminded him. “I picked up a new one in town, we’ll just have to switch….hey, where are you going?” “Home,” I said. “It looks like you’re gonna be a while.” And I kicked my horse into a lope before this new sequence could suck me in. *Note to readers: If you’ve never read Patrick McManus, you are missing some of the best stories ever written about country life, hunting, fishing, and being a kid. You'll find Patrick at http://www.patrickfmcmanus.com/index.html. You’ll find ‘Sequences’ in a book titled The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw. Buy it, read it, and expect the people around you to spend a lot of time asking, “What the heck is so funny?”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The 50-50 Day

*

No, I don't mean it was so-so. And I'm not referring to that favorite fundraiser of high school teams, where you shell out a dollar for a ticket, win the drawing at half time, and get half of what was collected (might as well expose the young 'uns to the realities of gambling at an early age). A 50-50 day around here means that it was fifty degrees--and the wind blew fifty miles an hour.

 There is no hairstyle that can defy such a day. Alerted to possibility of high wind by the weather forecaster and the vibration of the west wall of my house, I sucked everything up into the tightest braids I could manufacture. Twenty yards from my front door, strands of hair were whipping into my eyes. I jammed them under the hood of my sweatshirt and drew the drawstring up snug, resulting in yet another fabulous fashion statement.

 We were sorting cows again. I dutifully clambered into the old brown pickup with my husband and headed for the corral. Now, anyone who's ever lived in the country knows that the passenger opens the gates. And somehow it's never me behind the wheel. So when we arrived at the gate at the top of the lane leading to the corrals, I had to hop out and open it.

 This gate is also located on the top of a hill, with nothing between it and the Continental Divide to break the wind. I yanked the door latch. The wind promptly ripped it out of my hand. Luckily, the hinges are slightly less worn and rusty than the rest of the truck, so it didn't fly right off. I wrestled it shut and headed for the gate.

 It has been cold here. Really cold. Twenty below zero, crystallize the snot in your nostrils if you breathe too deep cold. The ground is frozen solid. Except for, thanks to the aftermentioned fifty degree temperature, a thin film of mud and slushy snow on top. The effect is much like greasing a sheet of ice.

Two steps from the truck, the wind slammed into my back and sent me skidding. Thank God for that barbed-wire fence. Hard to say how I would have stopped, otherwise. I disentangled myself, leaving only a small scrap of my coat behind. The gate is sixteen feet long, made of pipe. Amazing, how much wind resistance is created by one inch pipe. I got a good hold on it and started to swing it open. Three steps forward. The wind shoved us back two. I hunkered down, put my shoulder into it. My feet slipped and I landed on both knees in the freezing muck. I gritted my teeth, determined to win this tug of war. Well, push of war, but whatever. A mere three or four minutes and much scrabbling in the mud later, the gate was open.

 My husband drove the pick-up through.

 I turned around intending to guide the gate shut. The wind yanked us both off the ground and flung us into the barbed wire fence. Again. The second hole in my coat was bigger, but nothing a chunk of duct tape couldn't fix. I staggered back to the pick-up, narrowly avoided being body-slammed by the wind-propelled door, and dragged myself inside.

 Breathless from battle, I shoved aside hanks of hair that had been sucked from under my hood. My husband scowled at me. "You need to be more careful in this wind," he said.

 I examined the holes in my coat and the mud on my knees. "I'm okay."

"I know. But you sprung the door."

*

Attention Prospective Guests

Due to the near mile high altitude and northern latitude here at the ranch, guest accomodations are available only during the summer season. Please plan to visit between June 28 and August 3, except for the week of the Fourth of July, when we are gone rodeoing.
Thank you,
The Management

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Vacation Rental Available

Now taking reservations for our guest cottage. Escape from the hustle and hassle of modern life; let yourself go unwired. Drift off to sleep to a symphony of coyotes and owls. Fresh air to spare.

Note to guests: Flannel pajamas and healthy bladder strongly recommended. Earplugs optional.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My dog is not Lassie

My dog would leave me for coyote bait in a heartbeat. If, while out on one of our daily hikes, I were to step in a badger hole and break my leg, she would only come back to check on me if she thought by chance a cookie had dropped out of my pocket in the fall.

Case in point: yesterday, we were sorting cows. It's calving season, and we have a bovine birthing center in our front yard. About once a week, we go out to the main herd and try to pick the cows that look most likely to calve in the next few days. This is an art at which my father and husband excel. I suck. They just look fat to me.

 Once we've chosen what we believe will be the next new mothers, we trail them half a mile home. There, they spend their nights lounging in piles of hay in the indoor arena, safe from snow and wind chill and their own poor judgement. What part of dropping your newborn in an icy mudhole seems like a good idea?

So, we were sorting off what we call 'the heavies'. After months of long, cold, snack-laden evenings, I feel as if I should be counted among them. This sorting is not an exact science. Therefore, along with those yet to calve are a handful of cows with babies at their sides, having fooled the experts and popped the kid out before arriving at the maternity ward. They tend to be very protective of their young. After all, this is coyote country. Which brings me back to my dog.

 My dog sees no reason she shouldn't jump in and help us out in the corral. Cows see no difference between a Border Collie and a coyote. One particular cow took great exception to my dog's proximity to her child. She took a run at the dog. The dog ran for her life.

 Right to me.

 I happened to be standing in front of the only fifty foot stretch of fence that the dog couldn't duck under and I couldn't climb. I yelled advice to the dog, consisting of a few choice profanities, an observation on her intelligence, and the suggestion that she relocate. She responded by cowering behind my legs.

 The cow took another run at the dog, apparently unconcerned with possible collateral damage to my person. I dove right. The dog dove left and through a hole in the fence. The cow slid head first into a post. The last I saw of the dog, she was topping the hill, running flat out to the house.

 And no, she didn't look back to see if I was okay.

*

I live with my parents...

Yes, I admit it. I live with my parents. Not in the same house, mind you, but close enough to see in their bedroom window. It hasn't always been this way. I made a valiant effort to find another place in the world that felt this right. A year in Texas, eight in South Dakota, ten in eastern Oregon. All were good in their own way. None was home. So now I'm back on the family ranch, with husband and son in tow. Our nearest neighbors are three miles to the west--a cousin and his wife. To the east the next house is ten miles, the officers' housing at the border crossing into Canada. That's also where we pick up our mail. Groceries are an hour's drive, the first twelve miles on gravel roads. The nearest mall is three hours, unless you cross into Alberta. Yep, folks, this is what they mean by living in the sticks. My son will be the fourth generation of my mother's family to live on this ranch. My great-grandparents homesteaded a mile north of here, on land now owned by my uncle. My great-grandfather on my dad's side was an itinerate cowboy in southwestern Montana. I attended my first rodeo when I was two weeks old, competed for the first time when I was eight. Rodeo is the addiction that has tainted every major decision in my life, from my career to my spouse, and kept me poor and humble more often than not. Luckily, my husband suffers from the same affliction, as well as most of my family. Ranching, horses and rodeo. It's what we do, what we've always done. It has been suggested that we just don't know any better. But to us, it is the norm. Much to our surprise, this world of ours seems to be a source of fascination to others. Movies, books and reality shows have all taken a shot at life on the range. And for the most part, they've missed. It's rarely as exciting or romantic as it seems on TV...but what is? So I thought I'd share a slice of our life now and then. The plain, unvarnished, day-to-day stuff. Montana, for real.