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

Monday, November 30, 2009

Time Warp

In March, I started writing a book. Something fun and sort of sexy with a few serious moments here and there, about horses and cowgirls and goats and trying to balance the lifestyle we want and the family we need with a career. The kind of thing we all have to deal with somewhere along the line. Except maybe the goats.

Last night, nine months later, after four trips back and forth between me and my agent and two major rewrites, it was officially done. It didn't take me near this long to have a baby (which isn't necessarily a good thing, but that's a whole 'nother story). After sending it on its way to New York City, I emailed the finished manuscript to one of my online writing partners.

She read it in three hours.

It doesn't seem right. It should take longer for someone to read what took me so long to produce. But then I got to thinking--I should be used to this kind of thing. It's been this way all my life.

During rodeo season, preparation to compete starts on Monday. By the time you catch the horses, saddle the horses, warm up the horses, get the calves in, load the calves in the chute, and rope ten to twenty head, then reverse the whole process, you're looking at a couple hours a day. Eight to ten hours a week, minimum.

The weekend arrives. Sometimes on Wednesday (you need to have a fairly understanding boss if you're going to hit the regional circuit). You spend a couple hours packing the camper, loading feed and tack and stuff to keep the kid from making you insane during the drive. Our drives in Oregon were usually at least two hours, sometimes as much as eight, if we were hitting the outside of our range. Occasionally we lost our heads and entered Winnemucca. Or Twin Falls. Or Vernon, BC. Along about hour number eleven we'd remember we were too old for that stuff.

Finally, you arrive at the rodeo. We like to get there at least an hour before performance time. Unload the horses, give them a drink, go to the rodeo office to pay your entry fees and check the stock draw, memorize the number of your calf, check out the times for previous performances, see if anyone has already run your calf and how they did. Go to the catch pen and look at your calf and debate whether it looks like a good one. Try to remember what color it is, in case the chute help loads the wrong one by mistake.

Back to the rig. Knock the big chunks of mud off your horse and pick most of the burrs out of their mane and forelock. Saddle up, then engage in a brief debate about who gets to warm up first and who has to chase the kid around. Lose the debate because the calf roping is always before the breakaway roping. Drag a hay bale out of the trailer and pretend it's a calf. Rope the bale, grab the kid before he runs under the horse at the neighboring trailer, rope the bale, capture the kid as he makes a break for the midway, rope the bale, fish the kid out of the muck around the water spigot. Toss the kid in the camper. Toss in a pack of Oreos and a DVD player behind him. Tie the door shut.

Hubby returns. Bridle horse, ride over to arena. Lope around some. Ride into the roping box. Get off horse and check out the length of the neck rope, try to guess how much of a headstart you're going to have to give the calf in order to 'get out' good. Ride in and out of the box a time or two to get your horse used to it. Lope around some more. Go back to your trailer.

Get serious about roping the bale and stretching (yeah, it takes a lot longer than it used to). The rodeo finally starts. Gather up horse, rope and child and drag them all over to the arena, where you join the rest of the crowd clustered around the back of the roping box to watch the 'start'. Cross fingers and hold breath while hubby ropes. Cuss or cheer as appropriate.

Breakaway roping begins. Depending on your place in the order, either stay behind the box to watch the first few contestants, or mount up and get ready to rope. Ride in the arena when your name is called. Take a few deep breaths to settle the nerves while the calf is loaded and the neck rope is put on. Rehearse the start in your head as you ride in the box. Wait until the barrier rope is hooked behind you. Turn your horse around, back in the corner. Tighten up the reins, wait for the calf and the horse to both stand and look straight forward.

Nod your head.

One, two, maybe three or four swings, then throw. Stop your horse. Cuss or grin as appropriate. Time elapsed in actual competition: less than five seconds. On a good day, less than three.

So I sat down and did a little figgerin'. If I go to thirty rodeos a year, average time per run of three and a half seconds, total time in action per year would be 1.75 minutes!

All of the sudden that three hours to read my book doesn't look so bad.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mail Beef

There's a cow in my mailbox. Really. And she's stuck there. To understand why there's a cow in my mailbox, you need to go visit Carol Greet at Rimrock English Shepherds. To understand why she's stuck in my mailbox and see photos of the extraction process, stop by later this week.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has come and gone and I can still button my pants, so there's something to be thankful for right there. Plus I found out yesterday that Mackintosh toffee is available in Alberta again. Just doesn't get much better, as far as I'm concerned.

It's my day to blog over at Everybody Needs a Little Romance. Click on over and read about the first Thanksgiving, ranch style.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Expedition

I am not a huge history buff, but it’s impossible to live in the upper plains or the northwest and not know about Lewis and Clark. There are Lewis and Clark caverns and Lewis and Clark festivals. I drive from our ranch to Browning on Meriwether Road, named after Meriwether Lewis. Just south of here is the Marias River, named after William Clark’s niece, and we cross the Rocky Mountains through Marias Pass to get to the Clark’s Fork River. (Yes, it’s supposed to be Mariah’s. No, history maniacs, we are not spending a few hundred grand to put apostrophes on all the signs.)

Point being, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a big deal. But since some of the people who read this blog are foreigners from places like Australia and Ireland and Alabama and New York City, I thought I should start with a brief history lesson.

After the US did some bartering with France and acquired a small acreage known as the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were hired by Thomas Jefferson to map it. They were also trying to find an all water route to ship stuff across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. They headed up the Mississippi River from St. Louis in 1804 with a crew of eleven men.

Along the way, they picked up a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau and his Indian wife, Sacajawea. Her job was to act as interpreter between the explorers and the various Indian tribes. She had been kidnapped from the Shoshone, who lived near the mountains in what is now southern Montana. They supposedly knew the best way to get across the continental divide.

Basically, Sacajawea was the only one in the whole expedition who had a clue where they were going.

She did her job well. They made it clear to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast. Then they came back. In all, the trip took two years and they lost only one member of the expedition…to a burst appendix. Not bad, considering your guide is a teenaged girl packing a newborn baby.

On the whole trip, there was only one small skirmish with the indigenous tribes. Lewis got into a scrap with the Blackfeet, at a place he later named Camp Disappointment, which is about 30 miles from my house as the eagle flies. I like to tell people my ancestors were the only ones smart enough to figure out an infestation of white men wasn't going to turn out well for them.

It's also possible they were just cranky.

A few years back, several members of my family were visiting Two Medicine Lake. Two Medicine River flows east out of the lake. A mile or so downstream, it drops over Running Eagle Falls.


The river bed is a jumble of rock left behind by the huge sheets of ice that formed Glacier National Park. When the river is high with snowmelt, it flows over the top of the falls. Later in the summer, as the water level drops, the river sinks into the porous rock and shoots out of a tunnel in the middle of the falls, like so:

Someone told my mother you could hike from the lake to the falls and see where the river disappeared. On the map, it looked simple. No more than a mile, maybe a mile and a half.

“Let’s go,” my mother said, and set off, leading the way.

September in Glacier National Park can be fickle. And dangerous. The grizzlies are power-feeding their way toward hibernation. Snow squalls can pop up without warning. No one on the impromptu expedition had any survival gear. Or even a water bottle. But heck, it was only a mile to falls and there is a parking lot just beyond where one member of the party would be waiting with the car. They’d barely get out of sight of the Two Medicine campground and they’d be there.

They hiked. And hiked some more. The sky clouded over. The wind turned cold. They stumbled along the river bank over rocks and logs and what looked suspiciously like fresh bear poop.

“Maybe we should go back,” someone suggested.

“No, no,” my mom said. “It has to be around this next bend.”

They hiked around that bend. And the next. And the next. It started to snow. Some of the piles of bear poop were still steaming.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t go back?” someone asked.

“Not now,” my mother said. “We’re almost there.”

The snow was coming down in earnest, blanketing the rocks and making the footing treacherous. Huddled in their light jackets, icy hands stuffed in their pockets, they straggled along single file, heads bowed, faces grim.

From somewhere near the back of the line, a voice piped up. “You know, Lewis and Clark weren't so tough. They were just following a hard-headed Indian woman.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Recycled Pig Stuff

Back when I was a young 'un, we raised pigs. Some of the people who've been hanging around this blog for a while might even remember Arnold, the coolest pig ever. We had a pretty nice set up for farrowing (that's pig for childbirth). The barn had comfy little pens with a screened-off corner where the babies could lounge under the heat lamp, toasty warm and safe from getting crushed by their mother. Each pen even had it's own water nozzle and feeder, and a door flap to outside runs for the warmer months. When pork prices went south we got out of the pig business. Then the barn caught fire and the north wall was pretty much destroyed, and it stayed that way for the next twenty or so years.

Last fall we decided it was time to do something about the barn. We had a whole list of fix it and build it projects and a whole lot of perfectly good metal siding and wood just standing there doing nothing. So we started the gradual process of deconstruction and recycling.

First, we removed the siding and rebuilt the door to our calving barn:


Then we went to work on the lean to, which had been decapitated by the wind and a whole section of the wall torn up. We used rafters from the pig barn to replace this section of the roof:

Then rebuilt the wall with recycled siding:

Then we used the wall boards to build this calf shelter. Come March, a sixteen foot panel lined with wind proof plastic will be put on each end and between the two shelters. The inside of the shelter is bedded down with straw. The poles across the front allow the calves to crawl in and be nice and snug, but their mommas can't get in there to hog the best spots.

Throughout the last year, boards and pieces of iron and chunks of tin have been used here and there and everywhere, but the next major recycling project was this stockade on the new pen where we'll be housing our baby bulls for the winter:

Next up is a new back door for the roping arena, since our Jersey steer decided to shove his way out through the bottom half of this one last summer:

And last but certainly not least, are the wallboards. Turns out they're red cedar. My husband planed a couple down and now we have this in our house:

After all that, we've still got more boards waiting their turn to be sheds or doors or walls, or maybe, if I'm a really, really good wife, kitchen cabinets:

The only part of the building we couldn't salvage were the rotten floorboards. We were amazed to find that even the big support planks underneath were still good. Now this is all that's left. A footprint and a pile of kindling that will make one heck of a bonfire one of these days, when there's snow on the ground. Of course, we'll have to wait for a day when the wind isn't blowing.

Come to think of it, that may take another twenty years.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Horse Races

At any given time, we have at least six or eight horses 'in'. This does not mean they are lounging around neat paddocks behind white railed fences. It means they are out in the coulee but close enough that with a bucket of grain and that funky whistle only my dad can do, you probably won't have to hike more than a quarter of mile to find them, then persuade them to follow you back to the barn. Unless it's rainy, or snowy. Then they'll be waiting at the back door because it's dry inside the barn, and because when it's rainy or snowy you probably aren't going to ride them anyway.

Technically, all of the horses around here belong to my dad, except one. That would be Roo. He belongs to me. It says so on his registration papers, so I have to claim him. The rest are pretty much up for grabs. (Actually, so is Roo, but if he were a car I'm pretty sure I could leave him parked in a ghetto with the keys in the ignition and even if someone did take him, they'd go about six blocks, turn around and bring him right back.)

So today is the day we gather the big herd, for whatever reason. It's going to take every family member of useful age to accomplish the task. When I was in high school that meant all six of us. To help you put yourself more firmly in our boots, imagine the horses are bicycles and you and your parents and your brother and sisters are going out for a long ride. Out in the garage there are six bikes.

One is ancient and rusty and you have to work your butt off just to keep it moving. The instant you stop pedaling it stops dead and reaches for a bite of grass. No matter how hard you yank on the reins and kick, it ain't moving until it darn well feels like it. (Yeah, yeah, a bike doesn't eat grass. Work with me here, folks.)

Two are high performance racing bikes that are awesome when you're competing, but this ride is all about smooth and easy and they're stuck in high gear and you know you're going to spend the entire day reefing on the brakes and skidding sideways down the hills and bouncing through the holes and over the rocks at a rate of speed that makes those mountain bike racers look like wussy boys. And girls. (Had to add that or Sue would kick my butt.)

One is a brand new model. They forgot to put the instructions in the box and you're still figuring out how to get it adjusted right. The steering is a little loose so it has a tendency to wander rather than track in a straight line. The brakes don't always work. And if something unexpected were to happen, (Say, a rabbit leaps up out of the brush. Or a grouse. Or a fly.) you are fairly certain it will come completely unglued and parts of both of you will end up flying through the air.

One is last year's model. The gears all work. The steering is pretty well adjusted and the brakes are reliable. Inexplicably, though, the designer neglected to include shock absorbers. In low gear you lurch and roll down the trail like a robot with one leg sawed off above the ankle. In high gear, it's like being aboard a deer as it bounds stiff-legged through the brush. By the end of the day you'll have decided you really need a new career. Something that isn't quite so hard on your body. Like maybe a punching bag.

And there, over in the corner, is the last bike. You salivate at the very thought of riding that bike. It glides along so easy you barely have to move your feet. Turns before you touch the handlebars, anticipating your every desire. Stops when you want to stop and stays motionless until you want to go. You don't even have to engage the parking brake. It is the perfect bike.

Forget that bike. That's your mother's bike and even you are not foolish enough to throw a leg over it. You're going to have to scrap it out with your siblings for the rest of the bikes.

So now you get the general idea. Back to my family. Dad announces it's time for the big gather and everybody has to help. I'm assuming quite a few of you have kids. Or were kids. Or are kids. (If you don't fall into any of those categories, I'm curious. How are cattle prices this year in your galaxy?) It's not easy to get kids moving, especially if there's work involved. So you would be astonished at the speed at which we all dashed to the porch, donned our riding gear and sprinted to the barn.

Last one there gets the old rusty bike.

PS to Cyndi: This is sorrel.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Roaming New Pastures

Hey, everybody! I've got a new gig. I've been invited to join a writers blog called Everybody Needs a Little Romance.  I'll be posting there every other Thursday, stop by and check it out, and all of the other great writers in the group.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Rancher's Gold

      An early morning rainbow in the east may mean good luck. The same rainbow in the west means you’re about to get wet. The front swept down the slopes of the Rockies and met me a mile from the house. I tugged the brim of my cap lower over my face. Nico bowed his neck, slitting his eyes against raindrops that felt like miniature ice picks as we loped square into the wind.
     So much for the fifty-five degrees and sunny the weatherman had promised for shipping day.
     Didn’t help that we were on what I knew was probably a fool’s errand. Chances that any cattle would be in the west pasture were slim. But I didn’t dare assume. First time I didn’t bother to check would be the time a couple of cows were lounging down in the coulee with their big steer calves at their sides.
     So Nico and I fought the wind and the rain across the flat, down through the coulee, up the other side to the top of the rise, so I could see clear to the north fence.

     We wasted no time swapping directions and putting the wind at our backs. As we trotted along the fence, skirted a bog, and jogged through the gate into the east pasture, the rain buckled down and got serious. I yanked up the hood on my Carhartt jacket and cinched it under my chin. There was nothing I could do about the icy water pooling on the back of my saddle and trickling down into the seat to soak my butt. My thighs were already wet clear through my jeans and long underwear.
     I hadn’t even chased a cow yet.
     The John Deere tractor rumbled over the hill from the house, lugging a round bale. My husband, no doubt chuckling and patting himself of the back for agreeing the night before to let me ride instead of driving the tractor. He would lead the way, hoping the cows would follow breakfast right to the corral.
     Nico and I started east, toward where I’d seen a cluster of cows clear up on the ridge. Mom was there ahead of me. When I spotted the four wheeler bouncing up the incline through the buck brush, I swung south instead. I should go clear to the road, but the cousins who lived west of us would have driven past on the way to help us, and I figured they’d have unloaded a rider or two to bring anything they saw clear out there. So once I’d reached the point where I could see there was nothing at the far reservoir, I turned north.
     Four more riders had arrived while I was making my loop, the cousins from the east. They’d already pushed the cows down out of the draw and onto the meadow. The rain did bring one perk. The band of horses that generally did their best to cause as much trouble as possible was huddled behind the calf shelter, tails to the wind. They weren’t budging.  
      I circled up the hillside and helped Mom push her little herd down to the gate and across the meadow. We caught up with the main bunch as they hit the barley fields. Water beaded on Nico’s ears and trickled down to plaster his mane against his neck. He pushed at the bit, annoyed at having to slow his pace to match the cows. I had to guess the identities of the other riders from their general sizes and shapes, bundled up and hunkered down against the rain. Like me, they’d all dressed for cold, but no one had expected the rain.
      The cows moved along pretty good until we hit the corner and tried to turn west. They took three steps into the teeth of the wind and mutinied. By then, my gloves were soaked clear through. My hands turned to cramped popsicles as we all trotted back and forth, shouting and coaxing and cursing at the reluctant herd.
      And the rain stopped.
     A patch of sky cleared, golden sunlight streamed through. The cows turned, suddenly cooperative. As we topped the last hill, the rainbow reappeared, curving ahead of us, right to the corral where we would sort of the calves to sell.
     Despite the wind cutting through my wet clothes, I had to smile. It seemed fitting. Shipping day is as close to a pot of gold as a rancher ever gets.

Hauling a load to the scales.

A snow squall hit as I pulled out with my second load.

Trucks waiting at my aunt's scales, lined up and ready to head for Nebraska.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Cowgirl's Guide to Literary Agent Feedback

I recently submitted what I considered to be a finished novel to my literary agent. She made suggestions and gave it back. I made some major changes and resubmitted. She made a few more suggestions, and sent it back. I fixed it some more, and resubmitted. As I type these words, she is once again reading the same book for the third time, this time doing line by line edits for things like typos and unnecessary words and stuff that makes her go ‘huh?’.

Have I mentioned that I’ve never paid this woman a dime? And never will, if she doesn’t persuade a publisher to buy this book?

Those of us out here in the West hear all the time about how people in New York City are rude and pushy and don’t care if they hurt your feelings. I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been there. But my agent hangs her hat in downtown Manhattan, and she has developed an entire vocabulary intended to keep the sensitive writerly types on her roster from doing physical harm to ourselves when she tells us what she thinks of our latest effort. I, however, have learned to decipher her secret language. Here’s what she says—and what she really means.

Perfect! – Of course, we both know it’s not perfect. Nothing ever printed or conceived by a human being has ever been perfect. But it’s finally close enough to be seen by a real live editor. Who, should she purchase the manuscript in question, will promptly write up thirty-two pages of edits to be completed prior to publishing. See? Perfect.

Almost perfect – Other than the two hundred and fifty-three extraneous uses of the word ‘just’ and eighty-five sentences that start with ‘And’, plus maybe you could give the climactic scene a touch more oomph?

Getting there – The plot mostly makes sense, none of the minor characters’ names change from Frank to Joe midway through the book, and I don’t have a burning desire to shoot either of the major characters. We are definitely on the right track.

You’ve got a great start here – Holy crap, do we have a lot of work to do.

Hmmm – Hello, recycle bin.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Wanderer

We have tried to teach our kid manners. Honest. We did not train him to rifle your cupboards when we come to visit. It must have been the daycare lady. We also wish he was slightly less inclined to wander off on his own. For those of you who get exasperated because your kids are afraid of the dark? It’s also not so great having one that has no qualms about going for a stroll at eleven at night…by himself.

He’s been this way for as long as he’s been mobile. And yes, he has scared us to the point of someone sleeping on the couch on more than one occasion. (Come on, parents, admit it. You've all had the "I thought you were watching him!" fight.) At least it’s better now that we live on the ranch, away from traffic and abduction-minded strangers and the big irrigation ditch that ran right in front of our house in Oregon.

Not long before we moved back to Montana, my husband and Logan were home alone. Greg was shoeing a horse. Logan was playing with his tractors in the sand nearby. Nice thing about Hermiston, the whole place is one big sandbox. Greg hammered in the last two nails, set the horse’s foot down, and turned to check on Logan.


He had sixty seconds head start, max. The pickup and trailer were parked between the barn and the house. Greg zipped around it to check the other side. No Logan. He hustled into the house, figuring Logan had gone for snacks. Not there.

Uh-oh. The irrigation ditch.

He sprinted outside and through the twenty yards of sagebrush to the ditch. No boy in sight. By now, Greg was in a panic, yelling for Logan, for all the good it did, because he didn’t ever feel the need to answer. Greg dashed back toward the house--just in time to see Logan come strolling out of the neighbor’s driveway, munching a strawberry Pop-Tart. Definitely one of those if-I-weren’t-so-happy-to-see-you-I’d-kill-you moments.

Especially when Greg realized the neighbor wasn’t even home.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Milk Cow Blues

When my mother was very young, they had a milk cow named Blue. Her older brother and sister, Ronald and Hazel, were in charge of milking chores. Twice a day, every day. Blue was a good old cow who kept their icebox overflowing with milk and thick, rich cream for several years.

One sad day, Blue ran out of milk.

A dry milk cow is of no use on a ranch. My grandmother cried as my grandfather put the wooden stock rack on the back of the pickup, loaded Blue up and hauled her off to the auction. He came home with a washing machine.

Until that point, my grandmother had done all of her laundry by hand, with a galvanized tub and washboard. The washing machine was a minor miracle. Ronald and Hazel were so excited, they hustled down to the well, hauled up water, heated it, and washed every piece of laundry in the house. Then they rode over to their grandmother’s house, collected her laundry, and washed it too.

Eventually, of course, the novelty wore off, and hauling water and washing clothes became just another chore for the kids. But my grandmother?

She shed a few tears for ol’ Blue every time she used that washing machine.

(Photo courtesy of Answers . com)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Wild Women and Fuzzy Men

Two days of fifty degrees with forty and fifty mile an hour winds can get rid of a lot of snow in a hurry. Today we moved the Longhorns east, out of the way of all the sorting and shuffling that will be going on over the next week as we ship most of the calves, wean the replacement heifers and decide which cows we'll be keeping and which will be culled. There are also the baby Angus bulls to wean and put on feed. Hopefully by Friday the six inches of sloppy mud in the corrals will be dry.

The Longhorns

Vegas in his fuzzy winter clothes.