Friday, July 15, 2011

About Being a Woman in Ranching Country

"My 95-year-old neighbor told me, 'If a man asks for your help and you tell him that you'll give it, give it your all and do it right, or you're just wasting both your time.'"

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

For a cow, fences are merely a suggestion.

There are “those days,” and then there are days repeatedly so awful it feels as though you're living someone's poorly written creative writing essay.

It started on Wednesday when we drove upriver to the other part of the ranch to load hay for the horses. We drove by the cattle pasture, and I didn't see a one of our ten black heifers, the cows we lease from a neighbor for the summer. As Katie backed the truck up to the barn, I watched the mirrors, waiting for the hopeful face of one of our hungry cows. Not a blade of grass moved, nothing appeared. “Rachel,” I said, “Why don't you go check and make sure the cows are still in?” She made a joke and walked off-- Katie and I straddled bales of hay. One bale, four bales, six bales... still no Rachel. Thirteen bales, twenty bales, no Rachel.

“I'm beginning to lose hope of hearing good news,” Katie said between bales thirty and thirty-three, wiping sweat from her eyes. Rachel came back shaking her head.

At the barn, we saddled horses for Katie, Kevin and I. Two hundred black cows were wandering the side of Saddle Mountain, countless unfenced National Fores acreage, and among then, our ten black cows. The farther we rode, the less hope I had of finding them. No new tracks surfaced, no hot trails or crashing brush to cue us into a herd containing our missing ten. Even if we did run into cows, we reasoned, could we honestly tell from a distance that they ours?

Finally, we split up. Kevin and I returned west down the ditch, while Katie dropped down to the road. We rode dejectedly along, until Katie radioed: “I believe I have found our girls!” Scotch started squealing-- I grabbed the radio from Kevin-- “Where are you?”-- Scotch squeals again as my horse continues to grind his paw in the dirt-- “I'm in the first meadow past the cattle guard!” I look down, expecting Scotch to have a broken paw, but he's licking it and limping and crying. If I lose these ten cows, I'm going to end up buying them, I think. I tell the dog to stay with Kevin and start loping off the same way I came.

I reach Katie in the meadow and she's holding a herd of about seventeen. Some of them are ours, some are not. I can't tell if all of them are there. Scotch appears, running wildly, no longer limping. I holler at him repeatedly, but the excitement of the cows and the running and finding me are too much for my year-old puppy, and he bursts right through the center of the heifers, scattering them. I leap off my horse and pull my halter to tie the dog to the tree. It appears he hasn't broken any bones, but I might break some for him if he does that again.

The waiting game begins.

Seventeen heifers increases to twenty-one, plus a bull. They warily circle the meadow. I am off my horse, better able to head them off in the oak brush on foot. Katie and I keep them between us. The radio calls to the ranch increase in frequency-- “I don't care who you are or what you do here, just get in a truck and drive down here.” I briefly consider gathering enough electrical tape to create a makeshift corral around the cows, from which I can load them into the trailer, but abandon the idea when I realize no one on the ranch will be able to figure out where the electric fence charger currently is. I get sick to my stomach. I can't imagine how we will possibly guide this herd of cattle from this meadow, out to the road, over a cattle guard, and nearly a mile back to their corral (not to mention separate the ones I lease from the ones I don't). I get sicker, and consider lying down and dying.

Down the road, six bodies have arrived to fill holes in fences and guide the heifers on their way home (and hopefully not scare the heifers on their way to sweet, sweet freedom). I maniacally radio each of them sixteen times, confirming exactly where they're standing, to the inch, so as to coordinate our planned attack. Eight people on ten heifers... you can tell I'm not a real cowgirl. Anyway, so figuring I was either going to throw up or move, we decided to move. I remained dismounted, and ducked through the brush, my horse tearing out trees as he followed behind. I lost sight of everything-- no cows, no people, no road-- and started radioing maniacally again: “Does anyone have a visual on the cows? I have lost visual; does anyone have a visual?” Suddenly, Katie appears in front of me. We hustle together to block a path to the south, and turn a stream of cows towards the road. Katie leaps aboard her horse, and her saddle turns sideways. I lose sight of her in the increasing jungle, bouncing off the side of her horse as she struggles to maintain control and pull herself upright... one down in this ugly battle, I think.

The cows have hit the road! We reach our first triumph! The sense of elation is quickly dulled as the cows stall up and mill about at the cattle guard. One side of the road is hot wire-- electric fence-- and the other side is Katie, bravely on her horse again and facing down the escapees. Gingerly, Jessalin, Kevin and I approach. The cows know not how to cross this obstacle. Although there is clearly a path through the creek, designed especially for escaped cows, they are too stupid to realize this. I dramatically insist no one moves toward them, lest one fall to her doom in the iron clutch of the cattle guard. After waiting, and waiting some more, I announce my intentions to ride in and through the herd, pushing them into the opening in the creek. Everything goes to hell as Kevin's horse backs into the electric fence, gets zapped and bucks him off. I retreat to regroup. Number two is down.

Katie's persistence on the edge of the field has the cows looking the right direction. Kevin and Jess' horses are just barely controllable, and so I edge mine in alongside our heifers, turning their noses to the water. Finally, one blonde cow starts her descent into the mud. We wait... our breath halted... our horses chomping and plunging... and the cows turn and follow through the creek!

The time slows as we follow the cows. Adrenaline turns back to worry, and worry to anxiety. We have a half mile of dirt road left to go, and innumerable places where the fence is no longer cow-proof. I mince along, keeping my distance and berating my wranglers to do the same, like a nagging mother or a broken record. Slowly, we proceed down the road, traveling strictly at cow-speed. Finally, the driveway appears in front of us. Chris, Holly, some neighbor dude-- they're all there, waiting to turn the heifers in the right direction. Finally, we're home-free.

Twenty cows in our corral, ten belonging to us, and ten belonging to a neighbor. One bull, wandering the perimeter of the fence, and one cow, not ours, in the pasture across the driveway. Now, to separate them all.

Sorting is generally done in set of tight corrals, thirty feet or less in diameter, with a gate between on well-trained horses who move instantly at the touch of a spur or lift of a rein. Our gangly, goofy dude horses just won't cut it for this kind of work, and so Rachel, Kevin and I are on foot, in the mud amidst the heifers. I read the numbers and brands repeatedly, memorizing my own cows and thanking the angels that we have all ten.

Kevin and I start cutting them out, one by one. Three are separated, four, now six! Nine cows, grazing in the pasture. We're almost home free. Number ten won't have it. Too much pressure, she cries! You're too close! She sails over the fence in a ballerina's jump, her arching back belying the pregnancy she carries under her ribs. She's free! I growl and snap and holler orders-- get around! On the road! Don't let the bull get by!

With a bit more pressure, she flies through the air again, to join the lone cow in the opposite pasture. This pasture has two strategic holes in the fence. We form a plan. Rachel will block the driveway, and Kevin and I will drive her through the gate into the original pasture. Rachel moves the truck and trailer to block the driveway. With a splash, we watch in horror as she sinks the entire underpowered half-ton truck up to the axles in the muddy irrigation ditch. Casualty. We leave it.

We dart around the cow, run headlong through willows, and leap ditches as though we have wings on our feet, like Mercury. The cow does us one better, flying over enormous piles of roofing tin and lumber as though she is Pegasus, as though she is weightless, as though cows can fly. Finally, we aim her flight back into the pen she came from. She joins her sisters, and in doing so becomes just a cow again.

The Dodge remains stuck. The plan had been to load the extra cattle in the trailer and drive them up past the cattle guard, where we would unload them into national forest, where they belonged for the rest of the summer. This plan remains impossible while the Dodge remains mired in mud. I send Rachel home to handle the guests, and ask myself, “What would Levi do?”

The skid steer surely should be able to pull the whole mess out. Could we pull it sideways? No, the Dodge has a short bed and the trailer would break out the back window. Could we pull it forward, into the opposing pasture? No, there's too much junk in the way, and we couldn't get the skid steer in there without sinking it, too, in the ditch. So we have to pull it backward, trailer and all, straight out of the ditch. The trailer refuses to cooperate. Offering only a 2” gap around the axle and no solid bumper or anything of the like to attach a tow rope to, we are left stumped. Finally, I say, let's just put the tow strap through the holes in the side, and hopefully the door will hold. It's our only choice-- pull the door off, or succeed in breaking loose the entire chain of events.

We attach the chain. I put on some cheap sunglasses I find in the glove compartment of my truck-- better than nothing, in case the chain snaps or the trailer door flies off and hits the skid steer. Climbing in, Kevin and I coordinate our cues. Jim signals for us to pull, and like magic, we hear a pop and the truck and trailer are free again. We breathe a sigh of relief.

With Jim delivering the skid steer back to her place in the garage, Kevin and I load the cattle. The job feels anticlimactic as they climb in the door without any trouble. We latch everything securely. I decide to drive all the way across the bridge before turning around-- not taking any more chances on a day like today! The Dodge is severely underpowered for the amount of weight in the 20' trailer. She chugs, and lurches. I put her in 4WD high. I am concerned about the hill past the Safari club-- it's a long one. She climbs the first half alright, slowly, but climbs. When we hit the middle of the second hill, she's struggling. The smell of smoke drifts through the cab. “Antifreeze?” I say, hoping nothing more than a radiator hose has burst. “I don't like that,” Kevin says. “Smells like the transmission is smoking.” I have this mental picture of a demolition derby at the county fair, a car trapped running between two others and unable to move. He revs his engine, pushes the rpms until the engine bursts, explodes, flames arise and the driver bails in triumph. I imaging Levi's face when I tell him I blew the engine on the Dodge. I hit the brakes.

Wait-- we're not stopping. We're not moving forward, either, we're sliding backward, down the hill, off the cliff! I spin the wheel, crush the brakes to the floor, and spin the wheel the other way to stop the trailer from pulling us off the mountain sideways. Kevin is grasping at anything to keep himself upright while I put the transmission in park, slam the emergency brake on, anything to stop our inexorable slide towards certain death! I pray, and the entire wagon train comes to a stop, the end of the trailer hanging over the edge. Kevin throws himself out of the vehicle to get to the trailer, and I fumble for my seatbelt, checking the steering wheel for an airbag and waiting for the backward slide to resume.

Behind me, Kevin can't get the door of the trailer open. It's jammed with gravity and above him as he slips on the edge of the drop-off. The cows are shuffling around, slamming their bodies against the trailer walls as Kevin finally hits the latch. The door can't swing with gravity against it, but the cows start falling against it and it opens and they pour out, knocking Kevin off the edge, bouncing and tumbling their way to freedom again.

Once the trailer is empty, I breathe a sigh of relief. Leaving the parking brake on, I slowly engage the gas, then release the brake, and the trailer pulls forward, out of danger. I turn it around, pick Kevin up, and bring it back to the barn to load hay, and move our heifers to the unbreakable steel pipe fencing of the arena. The sky opens, and we feed the cattle in a downpour.

Two hours later, I am home. Levi calls, and I pick up the phone and settle in front of the window to watch the alpenglow and reflect on the ridiculosities the last two days have brought. The sun shines on the rain-freshened grass as cattle graze below the arena. I look again-- I grab my binoculars-- there are cattle grazing below the arena. My radio is in my hand, and as I hit the button to talk, three voices blend as Kat and Rachel see/feel/hear/know the same truth that grazes the meadow before: “THE HEIFERS ARE OUT AGAIN!”