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

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Fatal Wave

Movie time is not easy at our house. My husband and I have very different tastes in entertainment. I prefer a film in which the major characters live to see their happy ending. He likes Lonesome Dove. If you've never watched Lonesome Dove or read any of Larry McMurtry's other books, well, suffice to say that it's best not to get too attached to any particular character. The dead have tendency to outnumber the living by the time the credits roll, and Larry's not above killing off the star of the show. As you can imagine, this puts a real crimp in the whole happy ending thing. Somewhere in the midst of the fifteen hour marathon that is Lonesome Dove I discovered the secret of The Fatal Wave. The Wave or its variations are present in nearly every western, and most other movies that involve gunfire. Surely I’m not the first person to notice that pausing to wave good-bye is the kiss of death to a Larry McMurty character? When Jasper stops at the top of the hill and turns to give a jaunty, farewell salute, you know he's toast. And you might as well start digging the grave for the poor fool who yells, “See you in Dodge City!” as he rides away. He’ll be riddled with arrows before the turd his horse dropped on the way out of camp is done steaming. Nearly as life-threatening as The Wave is The Dream. On the eve before the cattle drive reaches Cheyenne, the cowhands gather around the campfire. Young Willy waxes poetic about the pretty neighbor girl he’s going to marry now that he has a few dollars in his pocket. Dirk is busting with plans for the patch of ground next to the river where he’s gonna build his cabin and start his own cow herd. Go ahead and measure up a pair of Willy- and Dirk-sized pine boxes. The bandits will be attacking at midnight, and you know who’s going down in that hail of bullets. Writers and movie directors do it on purpose, of course. With the number of bodies that bite the dust in the average western, the death of one more cowpoke doesn’t evoke much of response in the audience unless you get to know him first. The bad guys seem so much more evil when they cut down poor Willy before he can marry his lady love, and the hero's vengeance that much more satisfying. Emotional manipulation at its finest, if not its most refined. Oddly, my husband prefers that I not point out these behind-the-scenes machinations. He gets downright testy when I say, "Well, shoot, 'Ol Henderson just did The Wave. I think I'll go out and pick some weeds while they kill him off." As if that somehow diminishes his enjoyment of the movie. Must be a man thing. Well, lookee there. A Clint Eastwood marathon on TV tomorrow. That would be my cue to go for a nice long ride, maybe over to Fox Coulee to see how the chokecherries are coming. And don’t expect me to wave goodbye as I ride out of the yard.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

So How Was Your Day?

I spent my afternoon on the Going to the Sun highway in Glacier National Park. It's about two hours from our house to the top of Logan Pass. Along the way, we ran across a few of the locals:
(click on the photos to get a full screen view)
That's a baby mountain goat, in case you weren't sure. We also saw a black bear, but there was too much traffic to stop and take pictures.
For those of you who asked, back when we were butt deep in snow, why we live here...now you know.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Hog Days of Summer

Back when a small operator could still make money at it, we raised pigs. Pigs are cool—intelligent, entertaining, and often sociable. And the coolest pig on our block was a boar named Arnold. Those of you who are of an age to remember the TV show Green Acres, or who’ve run across it on Nickelodeon, will recognize the name. On the show, Arnold was their house pig. Our Arnold would have been happy to be a house pig, if he hadn’t been bigger than the house. We bought Arnold from someone who thought he was the pick of the litter, and treated him accordingly. Arnold loved people. He especially loved people who scratched behind his ears. Considering that Arnold weighed half a ton, stood over three feet tall at the shoulders, and wasn’t shy about asking for attention, the people who didn’t scratch Arnold were a brave minority. After the first time my fingertips cracked, I figured out that scratching Arnold with my bare hand was not the best idea. His tough, scaly hide and wiry hair ground away the thickest calluses. I kept a short, pointy stick handy to take along when I headed into Arnold’s realm. Scratching Arnold was as satisfying as petting a purring cat. He would tip his nose skyward, half close his eyes and grunt in utter pleasure. Through a combination of personality and persistence, Arnold convinced the management that he could be trusted to roam the lot around the barns, cordoned off from the sows by two sturdy fences during those times when his services were not required. It was there that he encountered his nemesis. At the time, my dad was roping on a sorrel gelding he called Doc, which he had obtained, oddly enough, from the local physician, Doc West. After many extended negotiating sessions, Doc the horse had been persuaded to tolerate people. He rarely even curled his lip and cocked a hind leg when we walked in the barn anymore. But there was no way he was putting up with a pig in his pasture. Doc made no secret of his antipathy. He stalked Arnold, sneaking around the corner of the granary and launching covert attacks on the unsuspecting hog. Arnold was quick for a big pig, though, and his thick hide protected him from nipping teeth. Not that you could tell by the way he shrieked in protest. With a contrariness that would make a Siamese proud, Arnold set out to irritate Doc at every opportunity. He’d sidle up just close enough to invade the horse’s space, delighted when Doc obliged by shaking his head, pinning his ears, stomping his feet. Bonus points if he could make the horse squeal his displeasure. The two of them whiled away hours irritating each other. One hot summer afternoon, Arnold made the fateful decision to take a nap in shade. Unfortunately, the patch of shade he chose was under the chore pick-up. Unaware of the snoozing pig, our hired man jumped in and roared away…right over Arnold. He was never the same pig after that. We weren’t sure if the greater insult was to his body or his dignity, although he showed no sign of physical damage. His sunny disposition turned surly. He no longer greeted us at the gate with a porcine grin, eager for scratches. I guess I can’t blame him. I’d have trust issues too, if someone up and ran me over in the middle of a really good nap.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Raft

Last night I went walking down the big coulee in our west pasture. The golden light of late evening intensified the green of the grass and threw the contours of the land into sharp relief. A coyote sprinted up the hillside, casting wary glances over its shoulder as it loped away. I flushed a porcupine from a patch of buck brush, and a dozen yellow-brown puffballs from the berm of the reservoir, closely followed by a mother duck who made sure I didn’t linger. Below the reservoir, the creek meanders on toward the Milk River. Here and there in the bogs that flank it I found the inevitable flotsam of nearly a century of ranching. The upper curve of a rusty barrel, its body buried deep in the muck. The skeleton of a cow too old to weather those three days and nights in January when temperatures dipped more than thirty degrees below zero. Within a month the bones were picked clean. Hawks, coyotes, foxes—survival of many from the death of one. On downstream, I found the first board. A weathered two-by-four, five feet long. Then a pole, cut to the same length. I recognized them immediately, and had to laugh. Thirty some years later, pieces and parts of The Raft are still hanging tough. I blame it on Huck Finn. After reading the book, I was obsessed with having a raft of my own. A challenge, considering we live two miles the nearest river—which immediately exits into Canada--and a bone-rattling hour’s drive from the nearest lake. But luck was with me that year. The culvert under the road below the house froze solid, and the spring snow melt backed up to form a decent sized pond. I set about scavenging broken posts and discarded boards from the pile behind the shop. My design was simple: four poles laid parallel and topped by a platform of boards. I hacked away with a handsaw, making little progress. Finally, my dad took pity and whacked everything to the proper length with the power saw. I hammered it all together. Completed, it looked like an oversized, mangled feed pallet. It was beautiful. And heavy. Eventually, though, it arrived at the bank of the pond. I heaved and shoved it into the water…where it promptly sank. If you’ve ever seen a log in a river, you understand what I didn’t. Wood doesn’t float on top of the water. It’s density—especially the hard pine I had used—is only slightly less than that of the surrounding pond. Like those logs, my unloaded raft just barely peeped above the surface. When I stepped aboard it sank another foot, flooding my boots with icy snow melt. Disappointed but not defeated, I reworked my plan as I changed socks. Obviously, I needed more wood. I dragged more poles to the pond, upended the raft, and inserted additional cross-members. To my amazement, adding extra weight didn’t make it float better. Go figure. Next, I removed all of the cross-members except the outermost pair. The raft sank faster. Had my future high school counselor been watching, I’m sure he would have reconsidered his decision to guide me into engineering as a career. Which may have shortened my stay at Montana State University considerably, as it could have averted that mid-stream change of majors. I dragged the raft to shore and sloshed off to the house for yet another pair of dry socks. What I needed was something lightweight and very floatable to insert under the deck of the raft. Aha! I raced to the shop, dragged out one of the rubber inner tubes that were always at hand in those days before tubeless tires. I fired up the air compressor, pumped up my tube, and listened to the air hiss right out again. Once again, my dad came to the rescue, this time with a tube patching kit. I rolled the innertube down to the pond. Through no particular planning on my part, it fit nicely inside the framework of my raft. I wrestled it into place beneath the platform. The effect was much like a saltine cracker perched on a chocolate donut, and decidedly top heavy. I shoved the whole works into the water. It floated. Hallelujah! I grabbed the long pole I had procured for the purpose of steering and propulsion and stepped aboard. The raft listed. My feet skidded across the wet boards. The inner tube popped out the other side and floated jauntily away. When I was once again clad in dry jeans, socks and boots, I reassembled the contraption and studied it carefully. The trick would be to center my weight directly over the middle of the inner tube. I eyeballed what I judged to be the correct spot, took a deep breath and a long step. It worked. I was so amazed I nearly fell off from the shock. I grasped my pole and shoved gently away from the shore. The craft rocked alarmingly, then steadied. I shoved again. The raft lumbered across the pond. I was floating. In the next week, I refined my balancing act to the point that my mother could stop washing socks on a daily basis. I merrily poled back and forth across the tiny pond, imagining that it was the mighty Mississippi and I was embarking upon adventures of all kinds. Then tragedy struck. The culvert thawed. I came home from school one day to find The Raft beached at the edge of a murky puddle that was the only remnant of my pond. Even if my dad hadn’t thwarted my efforts to replug the culvert, the spring runoff had long since ended. For days I stared glumly at my glorious, land-locked craft. There must be a body of water somewhere… The reservoir! On horseback, the reservoir was but a few minutes from the house. It couldn’t be all that hard to transport the raft down the road and across a short stretch of prairie to the coulee. I removed the innertube, heaved the raft onto our trusty Radio Flyer wagon and pulled with all my might. It barely budged. I needed more manpower. Dad was out moving cows. Mom was busy in the house. But my younger brother and sister were lolling around the yard, doing nothing important, as is usually the case when you’re six and eight years old. I persuaded them to assist me with a combination of threats and promises of rides on The Raft. They pushed. I pulled. The Raft rumbled slowly up the road. Things proceeded nicely while we were on the road, despite a few ruts and complaints that I may have slightly misjudged the distance. The first fifty yards inside the pasture were a piece of cake, being downhill. Then we started across the flat. The wagon dropped into holes, lumbered over rocks, and hung up on brush. Fatigue and starvation set in. Our progress slowed considerably. By this point, my indentured helpmates threatened mutiny. And back at the house, my mother had gone out to call us to lunch and realized we were all missing. A frantic search ensued. Dad set out on horseback and found us there, floundering across the prairie. Probably best not to repeat his opinions on the wisdom of the enterprise. Once he’d calmed, though, he attached his rope to the tongue of the wagon and dragged it the rest of the way to the reservoir. When my mother assured herself that the water was barely above my waist at the deepest point, The Raft and I were allowed to continue our journeys. The rest of that summer, I took every opportunity to escape to the reservoir, pushing my trusty raft across the water, or simply floating, laying on my back in the sun and contemplating fantasy pictures in the clouds. When winter came, the innertube was brought home, but the raft remained. By spring, ice and snow and trampling cattle had dismembered it. For years its skeleton remained, but it gradually disintegrated, the boards and poles carried down the coulee by the spring runoff. Even now, though, a few scattered pieces remain. And with them, the lingering yearning for adventure.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sure He Can Run...But Can He Walk?

We raise rodeo horses. Therefore, we breed for speed. Speed is important in the arena. On the ranch, however, speed is optional, and generally hazardous to your health. There are rocks. There are holes. Coulees, washouts and bogs. Slick green grass. Bottomless mud pots called soap holes. All of which are best encountered at a moderate pace. When it's time to work cattle, nobody cares too much whether a horse can run. But we’ll elbow each other out of the way and even throw a good trip on the way to the barn to get our hands on the one that can walk. Why fight for a horse than can walk fast? Because cows are best moved along in a leisurely manner. Especially cows with a calf by their side, if you’d like mother and child to end up somewhere in the same county. The cowboy rides along behind, shouting encouragement as needed, zig-zagging this way and that to keep the herd moving. Over to the right there’s a calf who just realized that he’s starving and he must eat right now. Hard for a cow to walk when there’s a kid latched on to that particular body part. Off the left is that old red cow that tries to peel off and head west every fifty yards. In the middle, three calves have lost track of their mothers and are convinced that they must go back to where they last saw her. Mostly it all happens in slow motion. Walk over here. Walk over there. Walk over here again. It can go on for miles. This is when you truly appreciate a horse with a smooth, ground-eating stride. It’s also when a horse that can’t or won’t walk becomes a four-legged torture device. Climb aboard a lazy horse, and at the end of the day you'll feel like you pedaled a tricycle over the Rocky Mountains. Worse, though, is one that does everything but walk. They jog. They paw the ground if you try to stand still. They run sideways, jerk at the bridle, perform gymnastics akin to the leaps of the famous Lipizzaner stallions, all the while grinding your butt and knees into a saddle that has no appreciable padding. A good fast walk isn’t automatic. It has to be learned. And it seems to come unlearned when a colt makes the move from pasture work to the arena. Suddenly, they discover speed, and it’s addictive. Who wants to plod when you can fly? The more aggressive the rope horse or barrel horse, the less likely that they’ll be a pleasure to ride anywhere else. Betsy was one of the worst. At barely fourteen hands, she was only a size larger than the average Shetland pony. A classic, well built roan, she was a pretty little thing…from a distance. She wasn’t quite so cute after she ran full length of you when you tried to corner her in the corral. And stepped on your foot at least once—with deliberate malice—while you were saddling her. Once aboard, she had a mouth like granite, a head to match, and roan Hancock attitude coming out her ears. But man, was she fun to rope on. Anywhere but the arena, Betsy was punishment from hell. Getting her to walk away from the barn was like pushing a canoe upstream with one hand. She veered left, then right, then left, and if you let your guard down for even an instant, she’d swap ends and head for home. Finally, after hours of kicking and wrestling her every step of the way, you’d dump the cows into the target pasture and turn toward the barn. What a relief. Not. The instant you turned around, Betsy would grab the bit in her teeth and blast off. Given her size, it should have been easy to stop her. Wrong. You’d brace both feet in the stirrups and haul back on the reins with both hands and all your might. She’d bow her neck, set her jaw and keep going. Assuming you’d eaten your spinach and picked a good stiff bit, you could keep her to a bone-rattling, side-stepping, nose-rooting trot. Forget stopping. If you tried, she’d flip around and run backwards. It would have been easier to get off and walk home if it hadn’t been for that trick where she ran a circle around you, over at least one set of toes, then tried to bolt while she had you tangled in the reins. Ember is Betsy’s child. She’s only half as obnoxious as her mother, and not near as tough. And she can’t walk a lick. It’s not her fault—she never grew out of the chubby little girl phase. She has the stride length of a gopher. Her short legs churn as fast as they can, and still the others leave her in the dust. Every fifty yards she has to break into a jog to catch up. I know just how she feels. At cattle moving time, you want to grab Vegas or Scotchman or Pocket or Julie. Nico if he hasn’t been roped on a lot lately and isn’t too fresh. Bailey as long you remember not to wave your left hand, or are prepared for the consequences. He can jump sideways a fair distance for a big horse. At some point, we will end up riding side-by-side. It looks casual. Reins slack, conversation idle, horses strolling along. Except I’m pretty sure Pocket can out walk Vegas, with a little extra squeeze of my heels. Greg is pretty sure she can't. And no way is Dad going to let us make his horse look bad. The race is on. First to the barn without breaking into a trot wins. ‘Cuz out here, horses that can run are thick on the ground. But one that can really walk—that’s something to brag about.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Living and Dying in Oil Country

When I was growing up, the oilfields around our area boomed. Then came the oil bust of the eighties. Only the most prolific wells remained in production by the nineties. But now, with high oil prices, rough necks once again roam the plains, and the pump jacks work relentlessly, everywhere from city streets to the cemetery.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Control Issues

As long as the government is going to take over the car companies, they might as well make some meaningful changes in how cars are built. Come on people. Let’s see a real impact on the safety of our roads. Take control of the controls. Let me give you an example. I drive a Jeep. I love my Jeep. With an hour commute to work each day, my Jeep and I can practically read each other’s minds. And then I get in the Dodge pickup. Forgive me if I’m confused, but aren’t Jeeps and Dodges made by the same company? Why, then, are all of the controls bass-ackwards when I climb behind the wheel of the pickup? The windshield is spotted with mud, so I flip on the squirter thingy to clean them. Except instead of squirting the windshield, I am now signaling for a left turn. I flip the lever the other direction. Now I’m blinding oncoming traffic with my high beams. So I pull on the lever located by my left hand. That causes the steering wheel to flip up into a near-lateral position. (Why does it do that, anyway? If I’d wanted to drive around with the steering wheel flat, I would have stayed on the tractor, for crying out loud.) By the time I finally find the mechanism that controls the squirty thing, it really doesn’t matter whether I can see out of the windshield. I’ve already hit the ditch while I was too busy poking buttons to watch the road. And those are the simple controls. Forget trying to set the cruise control. I end up with the radio blaring some French language station out of Edmonton. If I want temperature moderation I’ll have to either pull over and drag out the owner’s manual or dress in layers. Therefore, I propose that Congress develop and implement a standard set of controls for all American made vehicles. The windshield wipers shall always be located on the right hand side of the steering wheel. To dim the headlights, you shall always pull back on the lever on the left hand side of the steering wheel. None of this pushing forward in random vehicles. And when you turn the middle button on the console counterclockwise, the air conditioning will always come on. I figure the government is in the ideal position to take charge of the Automobile Control Simplification Initiative. They now have the financial clout to tell the car makers what to do. And who better to whip our automobiles into shape than the people who brought us Medicare and the IRS? On second thought… Maybe I should just give you fair warning. I really want to go to Disney World. So someday, if you’re in Florida and you see a rental car blundering down the interstate with the windshield wipers flapping wildly, the left turn signal flashing, and Cuban music blaring through windows that are rolled down because the heater is blasting instead of the air conditioner, it isn’t necessarily a ditzy blue-haired retiree. Could just be me and my control issues.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

What a difference a day makes..

The reward for all the snow we've had--everything is so green it almost hurts to look at it. Now it's just a matter of waiting to see how much damage the freezing temperatures did to the alfalfa in our hay fields.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Friday, June 05, 2009

I said Whoa!

Last night the bulls got out. Luckily, I had to go over to the stack to get hay for the horses, and I found the flattened gate before the bulls had time to scatter. Strutting around, doing as they please, bulls can create some serious havoc on a ranch. Fences smashed in pursuit of frisky heifers. Calves born in the bitterest cold of February instead of the slightly less bitter cold of April. Or the pride of the registered Angus cows sporting a gaudy, spotted Longhorn calf. Worse yet if it’s the neighbor’s prized purebred cow. Back in the sixties, when Rod’s shorthorn bull got out and headed down Milk River coulee, he had to get him back, pronto. He and his wife saddled up a pair of horses and took off in pursuit. They got him slowed down and turned around, and were able to push him to the base of the big hill below their pasture. Then he sulled up in a patch of chokecherry trees. Neck bowed, muscles quivering, he rumbled a low, bovine invitation to go ahead and try to make him move. Even if Rod and Joyce had been willing to accept his challenge, the horses were smart enough to decline. But they couldn’t leave him to run amuck with the neighbor cows. So Rod roped him. With the rope snug around the horns, he attempted to pull. The bull locked up and dug in. The horse leaned hard into the rope, hooves scrabbling on the rocky hillside. The bull didn’t budge. Which was when someone got the bright idea to get the pick-up. Rod snubbed up the rope to the stoutest tree and they high-tailed it home. The plan was to tie the rope to the bumper, then tow the bull up the hill. For safety’s sake, Rod would ride in the back, knife at ready to cut the rope if the bull should get tangled. They returned to find the bull still sulking in the trees like a fourth grader in time out. The transfer of the rope from the tree to the bumper went smoothly. The bull was tied off on about fifteen feet of rope, nice and short for optimum control. Joyce climbed behind the wheel. Rod climbed into the back. Like most feed pick-ups, it had no tailgate to get in the way of loading and unloading hay. The muffler was rusting in the sun beside a particularly large badger hole over in Fox Coulee. If the rearview mirrors hadn’t long ago been scraped off on a gate post or smashed by a cow, they were too muddy to be of any use. No problem. Voice commands would suffice. Joyce stuck the pick-up in low gear. Rod settled in, butt on the rear edge of the pickup bed, feet firmly planted on the bumper. The bull glared and huffed and yanked at the rope. “Go!” Rod yelled. Joyce released the clutch. The pickup eased forward. The bull reared back. She gave it some more gas. The bull skidded up the hill like a four legged water skier in slow motion. After the first twenty yards, the bull realized the futility of resistance and began to lead along pretty well. The plan was working perfectly. And then they hit the really big bump. The wheel of the pickup slammed into a badger hole so wide and so deep that the impact launched Rod right out of the pickup. He landed on hands and knees—face to face with the bull. It snorted and shook its head. Rod swapped ends and scrambled on all fours under the rear of the pickup, which Joyce had stopped when she saw him fall out. Or so he thought. In truth, ramming into the hole had bounced her head off the ceiling and her foot off the accelerator, and kicked the old pickup out of gear. She stuck it back in low and started off again. “Whoa!” Rod shouted. Over the roar of the unmuffled engine, Joyce thought he said Go! She hit the gas. The pickup bounced ahead, leaving Rod cowering in front of the irate bull dragging along behind. He scrambled after the pickup like a panicked hermit crab. Joyce glanced over her shoulder, through the dusty rear window. Wait a second. Rod wasn’t sitting where she’d last seen him. She slowed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Rod screamed. Well, geez! she fumed. One Go! would have sufficed. He didn’t need to be so rude. Annoyed, she hit the gas a little harder. The pickup shot forward. So did the bull. He blew snot into the rear pockets of Rod’s jeans as the mad scramble for the safety of the pickup resumed. Every time she slowed, he yelled “Whoa!”, and she heard “Go!”. They lurched and scrambled through the brush and the wild rose brambles and the rocks, and were almost to the top of the hill before he managed to cut the rope. The pickup jumped forward. The bull stumbled back, surprised by the sudden release. He and Rod stared at each other for a long moment. Then the bull shrugged as if to say, “Too easy, dude,” and sauntered back to his patch of trees, dragging the severed rope behind. Joyce jumped out of the pickup. “What did you do that for? Now we have to start all over!” Rod flopped onto his back in the dirt, panting. The knees of his jeans were shredded. So were his hands. He looked up at his wife. “Next time,” he said, “how ‘bout I drive?”