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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Got Skillz

When you live in rugged country like ours, ranching and farming, you develop a very particular set of skills. Around here, these are the techniques that make life easier. Or at least survivable: 1. The Knee Buckle--the fields around here are littered with rocks and holes. Big holes. Holes six inches around and three feet deep, dug by industrious badgers in pursuit of juicy gophers. In summer, the grass grows up and hides these ankle-breaking booby traps. Which is why your knees develop the instinctive ability to buckle when your brain realizes that you've just stepped in the wrong place, pitching you onto your face but saving your ankle from sure destruction. Skinned up knees and hands are painful, but rarely require casting or reconstructive surgery. 2. The Quick Feet Shuffle--primarily implemented around hooved animals, especially those with evil intentions. It involves keeping your feet in constant motion, thereby making it more difficult for said hooves to smash tender toes. 3. The Grunt-Heave--a cold weather special, the grunt-heave is an integral part of mounting a horse while wearing five layers of insulated clothing and packing that extra ten pounds you put on between Thanksgiving and Easter. Pretty self explanatory: lever leg up and into stirrup, grunt, and heave with all your might to drag yourself into the saddle. 4. Synchronized Door Opening--we get some wind. Okay, a lot of wind. On breezy days, opening both doors of the pickup at the same time is an excellent way to rid the cab of excess clutter. Like the mail. And your paycheck. After a few mad scrambles across the grocery store parking lot culminating in a flying tackle of your bank statement, you learn to take turns getting out of the car. 5. The Reverse Pysch and Snag--a homegrown technique developed in response to a herd of roan Hancock horses too ornery and too wise for our own good. The procedure involves a bucket of grain and a halter cannily concealed inside your coat. Hold out the bucket of grain. Shake it a few times. Stand like a statue while the horse you are attempting to capture sidles up, stops a few feet short, and stretches its nose as far as possible to get a bite. Implement the quick foot shuffle as the two other horses that you have no interest in catching walk right up, shove you aside and bury their heads in the bucket. Wrestle the bucket away from them. Turn your back on the target horse. Maybe throw in a casual whistle. Not interested in catching you. Nope. Not one bit. Wait for the horse to give in, ease up and stick his head in the bucket. Make a premature grab, at which the horse will bolt, spill the grain, and run to other side of the pasture. Retrieve the bucket, go back to the barn for more grain. Repeat all steps above, but force yourself to wait until the perfect moment to make your move. Throw an arm around the horse's neck, yank the halter from under your coat, and slap it on. Pray that one of the other horses don't bite him on the butt just as you're about to fasten the buckle. There are, of course, dozens of other special skills and techniques we've developed over the years. But it's Sunday, and there's fresh huckleberry pie calling my name from the kitchen. I'm sure the rest of you have skills of your own. Feel free to share. Especially if you've got a better way to catch a Hancock.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Relatively Speaking

My uncle Bill gave us a cow for a wedding present. She raised eleven calves, two of which are now part of our slowly growing herd, and a third that is a granddaughter. Fabulous present, that cow.

A year or two after we were married, when my husband had had time to sort through my hordes of aunts and uncles and cousins, he still had one question. “So just how are you related to Bill?” Once we had clarified which Uncle Bill he was speaking of, (I had four) I was able to explain. “He’s married to my mother’s brother’s widow.” “Oh. So you’re not actually related.”

Of course we were. He was my uncle. Because that’s how it is in my family. You can’t get away from us that easy. All of which is a big reason why I wanted to move home. My son deserves to be tormented by his cousins just as his parents were. Especially since he has no brothers or sisters to do the job.

 As imaginative as my son can be, a single child can never have as much fun as a pair, or even better, a herd. The potential for really great ideas is multiplied by a factor of ten for each little mind on the job. Would a child alone even consider hiking three miles over to their aunt’s house to see if she has cookies? (my brother and sister) Or commandeering a galvanized steel water tank for a boat, and paddling out across pastures flooded by ten feet of river water? (my husband and his brothers). Not to mention horse races and calf riding and the building of hay forts and mud pits, and the occasional hockey game/fistfight on the frozen reservoir.

 Even as an adult, those cousins come in handy. Like when you forget to bring your wallet and you really need to pick something up at the western store because your wife’s birthday is TODAY. How convenient that both clerks are cousins on her mother’s side of the family and know exactly where you live in case you fail to stop by and pay the next time you’re in town.  Or when you forget entry fees at the rodeo are supposed to be cash only and all you brought was three bucks and a checkbook. Big relief to see that your cousin is the rodeo secretary.

 Hmm. We seem to do a lot of forgetting.

 Being related to so many people can give rise to some interesting situations. Like the time my grandmother went to a wedding and the usher asked, "Relative of the bride or groom?" She said, "Both." Which really opens up the seating possibilities.

 Obviously, there are down sides to tripping over a relative every time you take a wrong step. Some of us have been known to do things we’d just as soon not have reported back to our parents, or discussed at Thanksgiving dinner for the next twenty odd years. Like when we ran out of gas fifteen miles from home and had to walk to the nearest uncle’s house to bum a gallon at a time slightly past our curfew. Or lost the car keys at a rodeo on the opposite side of the state.

 Or inadvertently arrested your wife’s cousin’s aunt on her dad’s side.

 You see, one my cousins married a highway patrolman, who transferred to this area and moved to their ranch. Working for the highway patrol out here isn’t easy, what with the long, deserted miles and bad weather and occasional horrific car wrecks. But we’re pretty sure what finally drove him into early retirement was the frequency with which he was greeted at family gatherings by statements along the lines of: “How could you give my Aunt Pugs a ticket!”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dead Broke

When you send your farmer out to the field and they return hours before they could possibly be finished, there is generally only one question on your mind. "How bad did you break it?" The worst possible answer to that question would be this: Happily--for us anyway--this was not our $150,000 weenie roast. But short of "It burnt up", the next worst answer is, "Well, I think I found all of the parts." Which is exactly what my dad said when he came in from the hayfield this week. According to my husband, Dad picked up a rock the size of a basketball with the swather. This was, of course, a gross exaggeration. I saw the rock in question and it wasn't a millimeter bigger than a standard bowling ball. At the moment the rock entered the header, an irreversible chain of destruction was set into motion. It jammed, bringing the auger to an abrupt halt. This caused all of the pins to shear off the twelve inch sprocket at the end of the auger. The chain attached to the sprocket whipped free and wrapped around the shaft at the other end, which brought it to a stop, but only at one end. The other end continued to spin, driven by the Power Take Off from the tractor, until the shafts bowed, and one snapped. Bearings and bolts and chains spewed across the field. All quicker than Dad could hit the brakes. Three days later, after a parts scavenging expedition that involved at least two neighbors, the swather has been reconstructed and is once again whacking away. Now let's just hope we don't see hide or hair of my dad until at least late this afternoon, which is the earliest he could possibly finish. We'll also be keeping an eye out for clouds of black smoke.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dogs, hogs and deck ornaments

Once upon a time, I worked as an athletic trainer for a hospital in Pendleton, OR, inflicting pain and fatigue upon physical therapy patients by morning, and providing sports medicine services to the high school and community college in the afternoons, evenings, Saturday mornings, Saturday afternoons, Saturday nights, the occasional Sunday…

You can probably guess why I made a career change. Don't they know there are rodeos on the weekends?

The human resources director at the hospital was a great guy named Jon. Though he’d been a city dweller for most of his adult life, he’d grown up around livestock. So when he brought his family to this nice, rural town in eastern Oregon, he naturally purchased property out in the country. And of course the kids had to join the local 4-H club and get animals to show at the county fair.

 Even Jon wasn’t sure why they settled on pigs. But everyone in the family was pleased—with the exception of his very non-rural wife. Even she relented once she got to know the little porkers. They were just weanlings; cute, and funny, and much cleaner than she’d expected. The kids would let them out of their pen to cavort and everyone would sit back and laugh as they played tag and tug of war and keep away with the dog toys and staged impromptu pig races. If the kids occasionally forgot to latch the gate on the pen, well, no harm done. The yard was fenced. Until the day Jon got The Call.


 Being a wise man, Jon dropped everything and got home. Where he learned from his frantic wife that the pigs had not only been left loose—they’d discovered the dog door.

 This story springs to mind because last week, my dad and I installed a new screen door which features, for the first time ever at our ranch, a dog flap. My mother decided that this might be preferable to having my dog tear chunks of aluminum off the old door when she wanted in. It took one afternoon to show my dog how to push through the flap. Five days later, she’s blasting in and out at will. Mostly in.

 Then there’s my mother’s dog. Joey is a house dog, as opposed to my dog, which we laughably call an outside dog. Which does not mean the actual outdoors. It means everything beyond the porch is off limits. Unless there’s lightning, gunshots, or no one’s looking. So my dog hops through the dog door, into the porch, straight to her bed. Voila! Happy dog, intact screen door.

 But Joey doesn’t stop at the porch. Joey considers the porch beneath his considerable dignity, unless there are steak bones involved. So once Joey comes through the screen door, someone must still open the door into the kitchen. Which is where we’ve hit a snag in trying to teach him to use the dog door. Because I have to play Howard the Doorman anyway, if he's going to get back to his nap on my parents' bed. So while I’m crouched down, holding the dog flap open a bit to encourage him to push on through, he’s sitting there with a disgusted look on his face.

 “What are you, a deck ornament? As long as you’re here, just open the stupid door.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Our Baby is Growing Up

This buck and three of his friends have lived in and around our yard for the past three summers, since he still had spots. In this picture, he's standing about twenty yards from the house.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Waiting to Exhale

Farmers around here are holding their breath so hard they're starting to keel over in the cafes and parts stores. This could be one of the best grain crops they've had in years. I say 'could be' because in farming, disaster is never more than one thunderstorm away. And farming at above 3000 feet in the shadow of Glacier National Park is an annual invitation to disappointment. Once in a while, you have one of those summers where it all comes together. The ground thaws and dries early enough to get everything planted at a decent time. The rain falls right on schedule. And the grain springs to gorgeous, bountiful life. And then you wait. There is nothing quite as nerve-wracking as watching that bumper crop ripen with all the speed of a snail racing up the side of Chief Mountain. Will it be ready to combine before the sawflies buzz through and whack off every other stem? Will the cold, damp weather delay it so long that an early snow mashes it? It's so thick, a wind-driven downpour could do almost as much damage.

Or it could hail. Hail is a hit and miss annihilator of farmers' dreams. Storms tend to be compact, often less than a mile across. Sometimes you can almost draw a line where the squall ended that turned your barley to muddy green pulp without touching the neighbor across the road. The weather man isn't much help. It's not like you can run out and throw up a tent over a hundred acres of oats. Listening to a storm forecast is like parking your car at a jam-packed Walmart, knowing a plane is about to fly over and drop a few bowling balls. The odds that one will go through your windshield as opposed to one of the hundreds of other cars are actually pretty low. But you know it's gonna hit somebody. Combines and swathers are just now beginning to chomp their way across the fields to our south. A week of good, warm weather and some of our neighbors will start harvesting winter wheat. But here on the upper slopes, we'll be holding our breath for a while yet.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Dead Easy Caramel Rolls

I have no idea where the recipe for these rolls came from. My grandmother made them, my mother made them, for as long as I can remember. One of those recipes that originated back in the days when everyone had at least one milk cow, cream coming out their ears, and as Patrick McManus says, before cholesterol was invented.. So, first you need cinnamon rolls. Any kind as long as they're uncooked. Even the frozen ones will work. It's all about the caramel anyway. Spread 1/4 cup of soft or melted butter in the bottom of a 9X13 baking pan. Mix together two cups of cream and 1 cup packed brown sugar. Pour on top of the butter. Place the rolls in the goop. Let rise. Bake @ 325 degrees until the rolls are done. Immediately invert onto a jelly roll pan or a sheet of tin foil with the edges rolled up to keep the caramel from running all over. Scrape all of the caramel out of the pan, preferably onto the rolls, but who's gonna know if you sneak a taste? Try to let them cool before eating. Hot caramel burns the heck out of the roof of your mouth. Enjoy.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Why Farm Girls Can Cook

People always seem surprised to learn that I can cook. I'm not sure why. Because I live in a house with a bare concrete floor and unpainted plywood walls? Or is it my tendency to avoid the vacuum cleaner until the carpet starts to crunch underfoot? Maybe because my husband and I didn't purchase a mutual piece of furniture until we'd been married for ten years. (Yes, it was a couch. With a recliner on each end. Priorities firmly in place here.) Whatever the reason, I fail to see the connection between lack of general domesticity and the production of food. I love food. I like to cook it, and I especially love to eat it. In fact, I love eating even more than I hate to sweat, which accounts for what I laughably call a fitness plan. I crave baked goods: pies, pastries, cookies, and cakes. When the nearest bakery is an hour's drive away, you're either going to suffer in vain or whip up something to satisfy your own sweet tooth. But that isn't why I learned to cook. There are four children in my family. Three girls and a lone, spoiled boy bringing up the rear. I am second in line. My brother is eight and a half years younger than me, and was practically useless around the ranch until he finally hit second grade. Which left us girls. Cows and crops are the original equal opportunity employers. They could care less whether the person on board the tractor is male or female. Neither did my dad. In lieu of sons, he made ranch hands out of his daughters. I'm not complaining. I've always loved the outdoors and animals. Farming, well, I believe I made opinion on that subject clear in an earlier post. So when it came time to plow or combine or bale, I started looking for a way out, pronto. I found the magic portal in the kitchen. "Well, gee, Dad, I'd love to go out and summer fallow the north forty, but this bread dough's got another hour to rise, and then I have to bake it, and then I thought I'd whip up an apple pie. But if you'd rather I went out and farmed…" Worked every time. Unless my older sister beat me to the kitchen, but I'm bigger than her, although she does throw a sneaky left hook. Oddly enough, my mother seemed to prefer hours alone on the tractor to hanging about the house with her darling children. Baffling woman. So I learned to cook in self defense, and at some point it turned into a passion. Which explains why I got up this morning and, after a quick chat with my dad, decided to make a rather labor-intensive lunch, complete with homemade bread. Then I followed up with a batch of caramel rolls for tomorrow's breakfast. What's that you say? Why, no. Whatever made you think my sudden burst of culinary activity had anything to do with my dad's declaration that it looked like a good day to pound fence posts?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Cowgirl Workout

In my career as an athletic trainer I spent a lot of time with people who liked to run long distances. Some of them seemed remarkably sane. Many rhapsodized about something called an 'endorphin high', which apparently occurs when you punish your body to the point that it begins to crank out its own painkillers in self defense. As thrilling as that sounds, I decided to pass. On the rare occasions when I lost my head and ran more than the width of the corral, I was quickly reminded why it was a bad idea. My lungs are not meant to bleed.
Given all that, you can see why I was amazed to find myself jogging the other night.
Obviously, I hadn't planned to jog. If such a plan had crossed my mind, I would have had the sense to stay on my couch until it went on its merry way, as most of my thoughts are prone to do. Along with the grocery list, the location of my keys and the whatever-it-was that my husband asked me to be sure and get done today.
On this particular evening he asked me to bring his tool pick-up out to the far north hayfield, where he was baling hay. Normally, someone else would follow along in another vehicle or on the four wheeler to give me a ride back. But it was a lovely evening and I had spent most of the equally lovely day poking at computer keys in my basement office.
No need for a ride, I decided. I'll just walk home.
I like to walk. Walking rarely causes my thighs to feel as though they're being jabbed with a hot branding iron. I especially like walking in the pasture between the hayfield and our house, across a flat strewn with tipi rings and wildflowers, through a coulee where I might flush the three point buck who spends all of his summer vacations as our guest.
To drive the pick-up out to the hayfield I had to go through the pasture gate near the corrals. Stop the pick-up, climb out, open the barbed wire gate and drag it out of the way. Drive the pick-up through, stop, and reverse the process. Except, as I was driving through, I noticed that the only animals in the field, our small band of Longhorns, were clear out in the farthest corner, over a mile away, beyond where I would be leaving the pick-up.
I left the gate open.
I really should know better. Longhorns are not normal cows. They are much more...active. And crafty. And capable of smelling the breeze blowing through an open gate from over a mile away. They are also smart enough to know that if they made their move too soon, I would simply turn the pick-up around and drive back to shut the gate.
So they waited.
I dropped off the pick-up. Chatted with my husband for a bit. Each time I checked on the Longhorns, they batted innocent eyes at me. Who us? Why no, we're not working our way closer to the gate. Nope. Just sort of casually grazing over here. Pay no attention to us.
I set off across the field for home. A hundred yards from the pick-up, I realized the Longhorns had stopped pretending to graze and were marching along the fence, directly toward the gate, with a big old black spotted cow taking the lead. I could practically hear her calling out cadence to be sure everyone stepped along smartly. The bull, I noticed, seemed a little testy. Rumbling and growling and shaking his head. You know, the head with the big poky things.
I stopped. Looked back. Looked forward. If I went for the pick-up, they would beat me to the gate. But on foot, I had a good angle on them. If I kept going but picked up the pace, I could get across the coulee and to the corral first.
I broke into a slow trot.
I hit the coulee a few yards ahead and a quarter mile west of them. Don't ask me how I managed to blunder down the rock strewn trail, hopscotch across the bog at the bottom, and chug through the buck brush without breaking an ankle. It wasn't for lack of trying. I staggered, rubber-legged and huffing like a steam engine, to the top of the other side just in time to see the Longhorns hit the reservoir.
So much for getting ahead of them. The lead cow had out-maneuvered me. They were now between where I stood and the open gate. And I was dead center in the middle of the pasture, at the spot farthest from the protection of any fence.
The bull glared at me and did some more rumbling and head shaking. And the lead cow, recognizing my dilemma, made a swift command decision. Forget the gate. She led them straight up the opposite side of the coulee, thereby cutting off my direct line to the corrals.
Luckily, a smaller coulee intersects the main coulee at the point. I was on one side. The Longhorns and their bull were on the other. We were all moving south.
Ignoring the protests of my oxygen-deprived body, I kicked myself into a brisk jog. The lead cow also picked up her pace. By now, my vision was beginning to blur. I stumbled over rocks and into gopher holes. But I didn't dare slow down. The side coulee ends a good quarter of a mile from the south fence, and we were all on course to collide at its head.
I drove my shrieking legs and hemorrhaging lungs onward, assisted by a healthy dose of adrenaline. The bull was only twenty yards away when I scrambled through the fence. I hunched on the other side, hands on knees, gulping air. The Longhorns gathered across the wire, elbowing each other and pointing and snickering. Then they wandered off in search other entertainment.
I shoved myself into an upright position. My head spun, then pounded like a ceremonial drum at Indian Days. I did a quick system scan. A few wild rose thorns in my knee caps. One small puncture wound from the dive through the barbed wire fence. My chest felt like I'd snorted a fistful of cayenne pepper. My calves were starting to cramp.
I hobbled down to shut the gate. The experience confirmed my suspicion that joggers are not mentally sound. If this is what they call a natural high, I'd hate to see what they consider a low.
**I'm beginning to think some sort of evil plot is afoot to force me to jog. Directly after posting this blog entry, I went out for a walk. It was cloudy, but it had been cloudy all day, so I wasn't too concerned. I headed south, up the hill and across the barley field, then circled around to the pasture and started home. Which was when I saw the first bolt of lightning bounce off Chief Mountain. I lengthened my strides, not particularly concerned. The storm was a good twenty miles away.
The next bolt crackled above Squaw Flat. Wait a minute. That's only ten miles. I launched into speed walking mode.
When the third bolt lit up Emmigrant Gap, I started running. I was still half a mile from the house and the storm was moving a heck of lot faster than I was. And I was on top of a hill. Once again, I arrived home sweating and in need of supplemental oxygen. I flopped onto the couch to recover, and watched the thunderstorm fade harmlessly off to the north.
I swear, I could hear the Longhorns laughing.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Summer's blooming

The payoff for a rainy summer:
Bachelor buttons....
Wild roses.... And grass that's almost Pocket high...