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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pancho Done Left Me

I was amazed to learn recently that my first horse was a part Welsh pony named Pancho. Amazed because he couldn't have been part pony. He was huge. Or maybe I was kinda small. Pancho came to us through a teacher my dad had worked with in Harlem. Sadly, the horse was available due to the death of its previous child. He had a thick, bowed neck, a mass of flaxen mane, a head as long as I was tall, and feet like pie plates with long feathers of hair around his ankles. Pancho came fully equipped with all the kid horse basics. Patience to stand stock still while I wound the extra long saddle laces around my hand, tipped back to wedge my foot into a stirrup that was at eyeball level, braced my other foot against the back of his front leg, and turned nearly upside down in process of reeling myself up into the saddle. Pancho was the equivalent of an equine mini-van. He could carry four kids of varying ages, car seats not required. We once managed five, but when he broke into a trot the last kid slid off over his tail and hit the ground. Pancho also had a full ration of wisdom. He was smart enough to know exactly how fast I could go without bouncing off on my head. I could kick and cluck myself red in the face and we weren't going any faster. Given that my legs were about six inches long and I was kicking the saddle blanket instead of the horse, he didn't have much motivation to exceed his personal speed limit. He would go almost anywhere, though, at that speed. Up hill, down hill, across the creek (as long as he was convinced the crossing was appropriate). He would also go under tree limbs situated at the ideal height for scraping a child off the back of a horse, and we learned pretty fast to close the barn door before mounting up. When it came time to move cattle, we wandered along with the rest of the riders, somewhere in the vicinity of the back of the herd. Once in a long while we accidently got in the right place and were actually helpful. But mostly Pancho was just a mobile daycare provider. I, of course, decided that he needed to be a barrel horse, so we could compete at the local roping club races. In my estimation, Pancho and I went around those barrels nine thousand and thirty-six times. As far as I could tell, it was a whole new experience to him every trip. If I had recognized this early indication of my prowess as a barrel horse trainer, I could have saved myself and a long line of horses much time and frustration. My male cousins had a similar horse that they called Chips. My cousin Charlotte, however, had a real Cadillac, her dad's old roping horse Baldy. Sometimes he would even lope around the barrels, unlike Pancho, who could be urged into a lumbering lope between, but always stopped to walk through the turns. As we got older, our need for speed and thrills grew. Now we rode under the tree branches on purpose, grabbed on, and slid off the horses' butts as they trotted out from under us. We had slow motion races across the pasture. We played Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and wild Indians, chasing each other through the shelterbelt. And then there were the hay bales. In late June and into July, the field adjacent to our house is scattered with small square bales. They just beg to be jumped. Or so we thought. Our horses were of a slightly different opinion. They would trot up and stop dead. We, being kids and therefore invincible, assumed that we just needed to go faster on the approach, so the horse wouldn't be able to stop and would therefore have to jump. I kicked up to a fast trot. Pancho stopped harder, bouncing me out of the saddle and onto his neck. Always helpful, Pancho dropped his head to expedite my slide to the ground. Trotting was not working. We needed to lope. So I scrambled up his leg, into the saddle, and kicked Pancho up into his lumbering lope. We made a wide arc just like the show jumpers on TV, and took dead aim on a bale. We thundered up to the take off point. I braced for the leap. Pancho went left. I went straight. The good news is, I did clear the bale. Unfortunately, my horse didn't come along. My son is four years old. His Pancho is called Doc, a crotchety little sorrel gelding who decided early in life that roping just wasn't his thing. In another year or two, Logan will be big enough to ride Doc without a lead line. He'll be trailing along when we move cattle and getting scraped off on the trees in his grandmother's yard. Maybe they'll even compete in a barrel race or two. Hey, Doc has been known to lope all the way around. You know, I bet he would even jump a hay bale.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Random Snow Day Stuff

The other reason we have an indoor arena
Maybe they'll just let me come in the house.
It's officially belly deep to a short horse.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When It's Springtime Near the Rockies...

April 28, 2009. Anybody up for drinks on the patio?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not So Pretty Woman

A few years ago my husband and I made a rodeo swing through Idaho. We roped at eleven-thirty Friday night in Gooding and one o’clock the next afternoon in northeastern Washington, an eight hour trek. Driving south to north across Idaho is an adventure at the best of times, let alone the dead of night. It involves multiple mountain passes and offshoots of Hell’s Canyon. The hills are steep, the curves sharp, the deer suicidal. We hit Riggins at four a.m.—bless them for letting wayward cowboys camp at their rodeo grounds—and bailed into the camper for a solid four hours sleep. By noon we were rolling across the Washington border, bleary-eyed and rumpled but right on schedule. I dug out my make-up bag in attempt to avoid scaring small children. I suggested to my husband that I might be less likely to poke an eye out with my mascara wand if he would drive a little smoother. He looked over at me and said, in all seriousness, “I don’t know why you bother with that stuff. I didn’t marry you ‘cuz you were pretty.” Luckily, I was too tired to crawl across the console and strangle him. And once the first homicidal impulse had passed, I considered what he’d said and got warm and tingly all over. See, in my husband’s terms, ‘pretty’ equals high maintenance. Hair and clothes and shoes and large chunks of his money and time wasted on all of the above. None of which he considers necessary. When he tells me I look great in a baseball cap, he is not kidding. And let me tell you, when you live on a ranch, a man who loves you in spite of how you look is a very good thing. I always have to laugh when I watch a movie set on a ranch. The women are out chasing cattle in their tight jeans, neatly pressed blouses, artfully tousled hair and full make-up. Yeah, we look a lot like that around here. Except the clothes are generally supplied by Carhartt not Calvin Klein. If I have anything on my face it probably wasn’t manufactured by Revlon. My four year old son has never seen an iron. And the only tousling my hair gets is from the wind. Yesterday was a prime example. Spring has sprung at the ranch, meaning we had six inches of new snow and the temperature was just above freezing. The weatherman tells us we can expect more of the same right up until the first of May. The decision was made that the ‘heavies’ needed to come back in from the pasture (see previous blog, My Dog is Not Lassie). I donned my standard winter ensemble: wool socks, long underwear, jeans, insulated windproof pants, turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, men’s Carhartt coat, gloves, cap and sunglasses. Believe me, it is not necessary to ask if this outfit makes my butt look big. My summer ensemble is much the same, minus the insulated pants and the turtleneck. On the two or three days a year that the temperature tops the seventy-five degree mark, I have been known to switch to a lighter coat. On the really cold days, I add a neck warmer, knitted cap and a fleece pullover. Back in the house, layers peeled off, my hair was smashed flat, with strands glued to my face and neck by static. My nose is terminally red from sun and wind. The turtleneck used to be navy blue, but has faded to a dark shade of gray with a pair of large bleach spots on the front. My jeans were chosen not for style but for the ability to accommodate long underwear and still allow me to mount a horse. There is a permanent streak of black down one leg from my encounter with a bucket of used motor oil. Washing up for lunch, I got a glimpse of myself in mirror. I remembered that morning on the rodeo road and had to smile. It’s a darn good thing that man didn’t marry me ‘cuz I was pretty. April 28, 2009 Modeling Winter Ensemble

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Grandmothers' Pie

For any of you writer/editor/agent types who might pop in to read this, no I did not misplace the possessive. You see, both of my grandmothers were excellent pie bakers. And at this point, I don't really remember what parts of my own technique I learned from which grandmother, so this recipe really belongs to both of them.
Step 1
These are all the ingredients you will need for pie crust. If you're new to pie baking, buy Crisco. It's better and it's more forgiving. This recipe makes one nine or ten inch double-crust pie.
Step 2
Add two cups of flour and a teaspoon of salt. Mix well. Then heap a 1/3 cup measure with shortening. Don't ask me why it's necessary to do this instead of measuring 1/2 cup. Nothing else works, so this is how I do it. Add two heaping 1/3 cups.
Step 3
Cut the shortening into the flour until it is completely mixed in, no little white blobs still floating around. What you end up with will be almost like dough if you've added enough shortening.
Step 4.
Add 7 tablespoons of the coldest water you can get out of your tap. Mix only until the dough balls up and there are no really slimy, wet parts left. Overmixing at this point is the most common pie-making mistake.
Step 5.
The dough will be very soft, maybe even sticky. Divide it in half. Dump a big handful of flour on whatever surface you'll be using to roll it out. Pat one half of the dough into a smooth ball with your hands, but be careful not to knead it. Set it in the middle of the floured surface and flatten it into an even round disc.
Step 5.
Turn the disc over to coat it with flour on both sides. Roll out gently, sprinkling with more flour if it sticks to your rolling pin. Pie baking is never successful unless it results in flour scattered all over the kitchen and most of my clothes.
Okay, I've got two step fives, no step six, and I'm sick of trying to keep track. From here on out, we'll just skip the step numbers. Next, roll the dough around your rolling pin to transfer it to the pie pan without tearing. Set the pin on the edge of the pie pan and roll the dough out across the top.
Pick up the edge and ease the crust into the bottom of the pie. Try to avoid stretching it as much as possible. Filling it is up to you. I was barely ambitious enough today to teach you how to make the crust. Just make sure you put in lots of whatever it is. Nothing worse than a skimpy pie. Apples should be heaped at least a couple inches above the rim of the pie pan. Once the pie is filled, repeat the rolling out process with the second half of the dough and put it on the top of the pie. There should be plenty of excess around the edges. Pinch off all but about two inches all the way around. Roll the rest into a rim. Pinch pretty designs into it with your fingers if you're in Martha Stewart mode. Poke half a dozen holes in the top with a knife to allow steam to vent. My sister says its family tradition to make a tree design. I guess I missed that memo, 'cuz I just sort of poke 'em any which way.
Bake the pie at somewhere between 325 and 350 degrees for at least an hour. With fruit pies, assume they're done when the filling bubbles over and makes a huge mess in your oven. Sometimes I remember to plan in advance and put aluminum foil under the pie to catch the mess. Mostly my oven looks like nuclear waste depository. This is also an excellent way to test your smoke detector. Now, for the most important part, or at least I thought so when I was a kid and under my grandmothers' feet when they were baking. Take the extra dough you trimmed off, pat it into a ball, and roll it out. Put it in a pan. Sprinkle it with sugar and cinnamon. Bake until just brown around the edges. Try not to eat it until it's cool, or you'll burn your tongue, which is why I'm sucking on this ice cube. My dad's mother called this a pie cracker.
After an hour to an hour and a half (turns out altitude does make a difference, I have to bake the darn things 30 minutes longer since we moved to this mountainside) you should have something that looks like this:
If you don't like your crust that brown, cut strips of tin foil and wrap them around just the outside rim for the first half of the baking.
Now, toss baking soda on that pool of flaming filling in the bottom of the oven, open the windows to chase out the smoke...and enjoy.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't Mess With My Rock

I mailed a rock to Afghanistan. You'd think my brother would have been thrilled to get a piece of the ranch to keep him company. He seemed a little underwhelmed. He obviously didn't inherit the rock thing. The rock thing comes from my mother. At least, I think it's her. I don't recall my grandmother ever dragging home rocks as souvenirs from her own pasture. My dad tolerates it and hardly ever lets us see him roll his eyes. My mother, on the other hand, gave each of us a big rock for Christmas one year.
Personally, I am constitutionally incapable of returning from a walk across the field without my pockets loaded with rocks. These are not valuable rocks in monetary terms. No diamonds, gold, or even semi-precious stones involved. But I consider my Christmas rock priceless. The land we live on was once buried under a huge glacier. Hence the name of nearby Glacier National Park. The sheet of ice picked up rocks, dragged them along, and left them behind when it melted. Thus we have dozens of different kinds of rocks, transported from miles away. Red, purple, green, all shades of gold and brown, pink and gray. Striped rocks and speckled rocks and rocks that look like frozen ripples of water. If I remembered my geology better, I could tell you whether they were sedimentary or igneous or whatever. Some are frosted with snow white lime deposits. On the south facing slopes, lichen blossoms across their surfaces in brilliant paint-splashes of orange, yellow, pale green and black. The rock my mother gave me is half the size of a bowling ball, crusted with orange lichen. I hauled it home to South Dakota, then moved it to Oregon, and now it has come back to the ranch with me. What's so special about a rock? It's just plain old granite. But my mother carefully extricated it from the edge of a tipi ring perched on the rim of the coulee over in the west pasture. Once, a hundred, maybe even two or three hundred years ago, my rock helped pin a hide in place and protect a family against the ever present west wind. And now, it holds a place of pride in my home.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Mad Cow Chronicles--Say Open

Calf tagging is a major part of our calving ritual. Soon after birth, each calf gets a quick ear-piercing and a green or yellow tag. Our tag colors are different from our neighbors', which makes strays easy to identify. In addition, each cow has a number, and each calf gets a tag to match. It’s a simple and effective way to keep track of which kid belongs to which mother. I’m surprised WalMart hasn’t tried it. Calf tagging has a high potential for mad cow encounters. We prefer to tag calves while they’re still wobbly enough to catch on foot. Generally, that’s within the first twenty four hours, unless they’re a Longhorn. Then it’s before he dries off. We like to tag calves from the pick-up. When our cows see the pick-up, they think, “Lunch!” When our cows see a horse, they think it’s time to pack up the kid and go. With the proliferation of badger holes in our fields, chasing anything down with a horse and a rope is downright dangerous. Surviving a mad dash through the holes and rocks is only the first half of the battle. Once the calf is caught, there's only me, the cow, the calf, and the horse out in the middle of nothing. Not the ideal situation should a mad cow incident develop. Horses aren’t big fans of mad cows. Their instinct is to vacate the area as soon as possible. They don’t really care if I come along. Mounting a horse that’s running sideways while a cow grinds snot into my ribcage would be a challenge if I were wearing a track suit, let alone Carhart coveralls, long underwear and insulated boots. The pick-up, on the other hand, usually stays put. It offers multiple escape options: bail into the cab, jump into the box, dive underneath. With enough motivation, ranchers have even been known to execute a Bo Duke slide across the hood in full winter attire. A few days ago, my husband, dad and son headed over west to check the cows and tag the new calves. The boy is four. He mostly goes along on these missions to scale down the amount of damage he can do to his grandmother’s house in any given day. Not to mention his grandmother’s nerves. The calf tagging was going well until they came across a precocious little heifer that jumped up and tried to escape. My husband went after her on foot. The pursuit took him a good thirty yards from the pick-up. The instant he got his hands on the calf, the cow let loose with one of those deep-throated bellows that only a mother can produce. She shook her head, blew some snot, and would have pawed dirt if it weren't frozen solid. Seeing a mad cow encounter in the making, my dad turned to jump into the pick-up and roar to the rescue. The boy flashed a toothy grin through the closed window of the locked door. “Say open, Grandpa!”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Storm Warning

The tension begins to mount as soon as the forecasts are released. Winter weather advisory. Storm warning. Blizzard. Bad enough in January and February, when temperatures drop into double digits below zero, and the wind chills are murderous. But spring storms--March, April, May--have a special brand of cruelty. Calves are days, hours or minutes old. Cows have been lured from the shelter of corrals and haystacks by the first flush of green grass.

All have been lulled by a few bright, warm days.

You prepare as best you can. Shelters are strategically placed, bedded with straw. Hay is rolled out to tempt the cows to bring their babies to safe haven. You have to honk your horn to push through the herd, scatter the calves that buck and play. A bull calf stands his ground, shaking his head, ready to show you who's boss. Will that sturdy little body be strong enough to weather what is to come?

 The youngest and the weakest and the most likely to give birth are gathered into the barn. You want to take them all, but there isn't room. Overcrowding is as dangerous as the storm. Babies could be trampled. Too many warm bodies in the enclosed space turns the air into an incubator for pneumonia. Killing them with kindness.

 So you do what you can to protect them in the pasture. But what if the wind changes? Your shelters are designed to protect against prevailing northwesterly winds. An east wind could drive them away to bunch against fences, the little ones mashed in the herd, separated from their mothers. If the fence gives way, they will drift with the wind, scattering over miles of countryside.

You wonder what it must have been like all those years ago, when your grandparents were a young married couple. Life without twenty-four hour radar maps on TV and Internet. When you got only an hour, maybe two at best, as the wall of grim, gray clouds rolled over the Hudson Bay divide from the north and bore down on your unsuspecting herd. When you risked your life to lay out feed with a team of horses and a hay sled before the storm hit and you could no longer find your way home.

 Even now, the weather reports are unreliable. The two nearest reporting stations are fifty miles away, one north and one south. Both are over a thousand feet lower in altitude, and a world away in microclimate. The last storm barely dusted them with snow, but dumped over a foot in your yard. You listen to reports from both towns, extrapolate the difference, then calculate the effect of increased altitude and proximity to the mountains.

 In other words, you guess.

 The wind sharpens to a bitter edge, cutting through your thickest coat. The first flurries sting your face as you break and scatter the last straw bale. The horses are last. They stand hunched against wind, watching the barn door. When it opens, they come at a trot, snorting and blowing puffs of steam into the frigid dusk. 

Finally, you retreat to the house, physically exhausted by the scramble to prepare, keeping a leery eye to the north and west as darkness falls. You lie in bed, listening as the front rolls in. A slow roar builds in the trees behind the house. Snow pelts the windows. The landscape dissolves into a swirl of white. Then there is nothing left to do but wait. To watch the mercury plummet, and remind yourself of the times that the wind blew harder, the temperature dropped lower, the snow piled deeper.

Incredibly, miraculously, for the most part the cattle survived. Their capacity to endure is staggering. Through the endless, brittle night you remind yourself of those past miracles. Try to forget the times when nature won the battle. And you pray.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ranch kid jungle gym

Can't beat it for climbing and sliding and crawling and jumping, all with a thick cushion of straw underfoot in case you fall!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Rancher's Curse

Ranching is hard work. Ranching in winter can be downright hazardous. Ice and snow turn everyday chores into a battle with the elements. Wind chills inflict frostbite in minutes. A sudden whiteout can leave you driving in circles. But ask any cold climate rancher and they’ll agree on the most persistent threat to life and limb. The Frozen Cow Turd. Cows poop. A lot. Big piles, small piles, in between piles. Anything from the size of a baseball to mounds that defy the imagination. I know they’re big animals, but dang! That’s a lot of organic fertilizer. And then it freezes. Walking across a field of frozen cow turds is like picking your way along a river bank strewn with boulders. When the sun shines, the surface of the turd thaws. Then they’re greased boulders. You can be sure a cow turd will be strategically placed wherever you need to plant your foot, especially when that cow you’re trying to sort off makes a break for the gate. Then comes calving season, and someone has stroll through the pitch dark over the frozen turds once or twice a night, sometimes while packing a slimy, newborn calf with an irate mother snorting up his butt. I wonder how many orthopedic surgeons have asked, “So, Joe, how did you blow out your knee?” “Well, doc,” the rancher replies, “there was this cow turd…” Driving across frozen cow turds is like climbing into a cement mixer and turning it on. The chore pick-up doesn’t get a lot of maintenance. Shocks are a fond memory from younger, shinier days. Springs have long ago sprung. The old brown Ford lunges and lurches and slams from side to side, each tire bounding over a separate turd. It's a wonder we're not all suffering from whiplash by the end of December. I’ve even managed to get a pick-up stuck on a cow turd. Well, several cow turds, perfectly spaced so that one blocked each tire when I stopped to open the gate. There I sat, wheels spinning helplessly on bare, flat ground. Then there was the day I volunteered to feed the roping calves. My husband backed the feed truck into the corral and I hopped out. I reached into the back of the pick-up and latched onto a bale with my hay hook on one end, fingers under the twine on the other, and stepped back. My heel caught an especially large cow turd. I stumbled, tripped on a second turd, and thumped onto my butt, with the bale in my lap. The roping calves descended. I shoved on the bale, trying to free my legs. They shoved back, pinning me in place as they gnawed hay from under the strings. I dropped the hay hook so I could scoot myself loose. My hand squished into something soft and slippery on the ground beside me. Because of course, the only thing worse than a frozen cow turd…is one that’s not.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Lilly's New Car

My grandparents moved to our ranch in 1931, but my grandmother had lived within a few miles her entire life, except for the years when she was sent to Indian schools in Carlysle, PA and Chemawa, OR. or the mission school near Browning. When she was a girl, it took at least a day to travel to the nearest town in a buckboard wagon. In her seventies she flew to Hawaii in less time.

My great-uncle Bish and his wife Lilly lived a couple miles north of my grandparents. If their children wandered out of the yard they ended up in Canada. Uncle Bish worked hard, often taking on outside jobs to supplement his ranch income. Thus they were able to afford the first car in the community.

The car was undoubtedly a miracle after rumbling around in buggies and wagons. There were, however, some down sides to being a step ahead of your neighbors. The most obvious was the roads--or complete lack thereof. The countryside was criss-crossed with a network of wagon ruts. Forget pavement, there wasn't even any gravel.

Aunt Lilly was bursting to show off their shiny new car. She loaded up a handful of kids and roared over to take her sister-in-law for a spin. Another kid or two were stuffed in the back seat and they were off.

The second, more hazardous down side to being first to own a car was that Lilly had never actually had an opportunity to learn to drive. For reasons known only to herself, she determined that the best method for dealing with bumps was to go faster. Perhaps she figured the harder you hit 'em, the farther you'd fly, skimming over a few rocks in the process. Every time she spotted a hole or a badger mound, she jammed the accelerator to the floor.

They careened across the prairie, women giggling, kids squealing, heads rapping off the roof of the car, having the time of their lives. Then they came to the creek.

The crossing was narrow and deep. Lilly approached it the same way she did most everything else in life--at full speed. The car bucked and jolted and lurched to a stop, buried in mud.

Grandma couldn't recall how they got that car unstuck. After much pushing and praying, rocking and spinning, it finally lumbered onto dry ground.

The bumper, however, remained in the creek.

Grandma stared at the detached bumper in horror. "Oh, Lilly! Bish is going to be so upset. What are we going to do?"

Lilly contemplated for a moment, then marched over, yanked the bumper out of the mud, and tossed it off into a patch of tall weeds.

"No one will even notice," she declared.

And away they went.

The Best Thing About March

Actually, the best thing about March is it's over. But these are the second best:

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Will Marry for Horses

I can't say how many books or movies I've seen where the hero has a renegade stallion that only he can ride. This always makes him madly attractive to the heroine. My apologies to the writers but...are you kidding me? That's the equivalent of a man who owns a single-seater Ferrari that will only start if he's behind the wheel. Big whoop-de-do! If I can't drive it, what's the point? Forget renegade stallions--as a mate-magnet, nothing is better than a good rope horse. This assumes, of course, that your heart's desire is to spend the rest of your life in a state of rodeo-induced poverty. If your ideal summer vacation involves beaches and candlelight dinners versus dust and hotdogs, you might as well stop reading now. Family history bears out my theory. My mother headed off to Montana State College with a great deal of trepidation and a dandy buckskin gelding she called Yo-Yo. She came home with a calf roper. She seems to feel that this is not a coincidence. My dad might stand a better chance of changing her mind if he remembered more about their first date and less about the first time he roped on Yo-Yo. When I first arrived at what had by then become Montana State University, I only hauled a barrel horse. I dated a couple of bullriders and tried tying goats with no appreciable success, but a great deal of entertainment for the college rodeo fans. I didn't get serious about roping until my junior year. Thrilled that one of us had finally shown an interest in his favorite pastime, my dad sent along his number one calf horse, a roan gelding named Feather. Suddenly I had a whole new circle of friends, most of whom packed a piggin' string. My future husband had a horse of his own when we met. Ol' Brown was remarkable in many ways, not least that he wasn't brown, but sorrel. Still, I made sure I got Greg home to meet the folks as soon as possible. While there, I encouraged him to test drive my dad's horses. I had full confidence in my irresistible charm, but two or three well-started prospects can't hurt when wooing a man whose mount is getting a little long in the tooth. A pasture full of young horses isn't always a plus in the matrimonial market. My older sister once dated a guy who was in the colt breaking business. My dad, always struggling to keep up with his herd, took full advantage. Unfortunately, our colts tend to be a bit...aggressive. We were all pretty amazed when Richard married her anyway. He did, however, retire from horse training. Apparently he thinks he's safer setting off avalanche charges for the ski patrol. So you see, I do appreciate the skill and persistence involved in conquering an especially difficult horse. Lord knows we've owned enough of them. And I truly admire a man who is up to the challenge. But I married the guy with the good rope horse.