Thursday, September 23, 2021

Road Warriors

I’m lucky to have grandmothers on both sides that researched and wrote about my ancestors. Mom went even further and wrote a western history Along the Rivers which recounts, as she put it, “three stories, the Pioneering Story, the Mormon Story, and the Indian Story.” And as she told these stories, interwoven are my ancestors’ adventures as they interacted with those larger movements.

So with her book as a reference guide, my four sisters and I traversed across six states to find our roots and make memories in mid-September.

We went East on the same route our families came West. We started at Bear River where it makes a hairpin curve south. At this point the emigrant trail splits, with those heading to California going south and those headed to Oregon going north. 

We continued on into Wyoming and followed the Sweetwater, then the North Platte that guided travelers westward. We learned about the handcart pioneers, of which our great grandfather was one, and the tragedy that befell those who got caught in an October blizzard in Martin’s Cove, now a welcoming visitor’s site southwest of Casper.

We saw wagon ruts, actually a deep trench through sandstone, near the town of Guernsey, Wyoming. Register Cliff is nearby too, where emigrants carved their names and often the year of their travel. We even found the name “Just” which may have been placed there by our very own great grandfather. The date was 185- (the last digit illegible). Our Just family traveled in 1857. Could it be? My sister proclaimed on the spot, “We’re owning it!”

We stopped at Fort Laramie, a large restored complex of barracks, officer quarters, etc. of a fur trading post turned military fort in the 1800’s. We watched a live demonstration of heavy artillery put on by park employees in period soldier dress. They did the cannon shuffle for us, the five person dance of loading and firing each round. We also learned that these large arms were mostly for scaring the Indians, their most frequent use being the raising and lowering of the flag each day.

We drove through miles and miles of corn and soybeans that defined our route in rural eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. With neatly mown and manicured roadways and farmsteads it was stunningly beautiful. And it's green because it rains so much there in the summer. But the conservationist in me wonders why they can’t leave some plants to mature for the birds and bees and butterflies. 

We toured the old townsite of Nauvoo, Illinois, where our Mormon ancestors, the Webbs and Carlings who were Blacksmiths, and the Brownings who made guns, were important to the Mormon emigration to escape persecution. I'm not a Mormon, but the site is a joy to visit. And don't miss the performing missionaries if you go. They sing and dance like professionals.  

Human history aside, one of my favorite stops was to venture into a stand of restored tall grass prairie full of buzzing wildlife. 

All of us being ranch raised, we especially enjoyed the oxen ride at Nauvoo. Any breed of cattle, mostly male and castrated, is called an ox if it’s used to do work. They need to have horns so the yoke will stay put. For wagon trains, oxen were preferable to horses because they were gentler, stronger, could eat a wider array of forages, would not be stolen by the Indians, and were cheaper to purchase, They also required only a yoke, no harness and reins like horses. The “bull whacker” would walk beside the yoke of oxen (one pair) or two or three, calling “gee” and “haw” (directional demands) to keep them moving ahead. The families walked alongside as the wagon would be carrying their supplies.

We kept going east to Springfield, Illinois, to visit the Lincoln Museum and Library. It was good fun plus educational. The lifelike figures of Lincoln and his contemporaries bring the past absolutely alive. The exhibits profile a complex leader and a time of great divisiveness in our nation. It gives a useful perspective on our current quagmire. As a country we got past it then and will do so now.

Five women (someone said “elderly," I said “middle-aged") taking off alone for 4,000 miles? Crazy? We thought perhaps so when our left wheel sped past us while we were traveling on a country road near Torrington, Wyoming. We pulled off safely and the tire landed in a canal which was only mud not water. Through the kindness of a cowboy and a farmer/cop, we were back on the road the next morning.

Yes, we went to learn about our ancestors, but we mostly learned about us as sisters. We got along well as usual. Ok, so there’s a few subjects we avoid, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hours of drive time, the conversations over the less than luscious continental breakfasts offered by our lodging hosts, the comradery shared as we built sandwiches on various picnic tables across this beautiful country, and imagining our Mom's excitement as we cemented our relationships with each other and with the brave souls that preceded us. We made friends with strangers, found out google maps were amazingly helpful and flawed at the same time. And we couldn’t help but marvel at how in 170 or so years we’ve gone from weeks of near starvation and camping in the elements to queen beds in crisp sheets,  hot showers and an array of dining choices at our every beck and call.

Oh how lucky we are. To live where we do. To have the parents we did. To be so similar, yet so different. And to be the very best of friends.

reading from Mom's book at Chimney Rock, an important landmark along the Emigrant Trail

restored gun shop owned by our Browning ancestor
Nauvoo, Illinois

discussing strategy with McClellan and Grant
Lincoln Museum, Springfield, Illinois

how great grandfather Nels's family did it
Martin's Cove, Wyoming

Love the native prairie grass and forbs
Nauvoo, Illinois

my valiant sisters
me, Donna, Becky, Kittie, Merle

 wagon ruts at Guernsey, WY

Monday, September 6, 2021

Babies, etc.

Late August graced us with rain and cooler temperatures, and lifted our spirits. The grass is green again and we can imagine the cow herd will make it through ok. Fall is sneaking in. We were surprised to see frost on the grass two days ago. Luckily it only scared the cucumbers, a reprieve for now.

There’s a richness to late summer when all the plants are ripening, seeds are filling, and the haze of late summer fills the sky with smoke from faraway fires and dust from grain threshing. The garden is bearing full-on of course. Colorful beets and carrots, cucumbers galore, buttery cabbage and giant zinnias in hot pink and orange. I planted purple potatoes this spring and they’re such fun to pull out of the soil!

We got our second grandchild about a month ago. I spent a few luxurious days with her and her mom relishing the magical space a newborn occupies. It’s true that when you accompany death or birth one glimpses the transcendent. Something otherworldly manifests itself and we are awestruck.

Her name is Freya Rain. Freya is a Norse name for the goddess of beauty and fertility. Such a lofty title for such a tiny girl.

There’s a bit of a pause right now on the ranch. The streams Mark has been tending all summer are waning. The cattle are still in the mountains. The hay is in the stackyard. We’ve been harvesting grass-fed beef animals and there’s only a few left on the ranch.

I had Emma, the other granddaughter, one day and was not being successful trying to make her happy. She’s five months old and doesn’t think Grandma measures up to Mom at all. Mark came inside for a minute and took her from me and sat with her out on the deck. Outdoors always helps with Emma. She fussed for a bit, but was soon examining his rough hands and trying to maneuver his fingers into her mouth. I watched them for a while through the glass door. He whispered to me that she was happy as long as he didn’t talk to her and kept her facing forward. His calm fed her calm.

Oh, if this time of year could just stretch out - way out - like a lazy cat in the sunshine. And let us catch our breath from a hectic summer and allow us to soak up these bittersweet, pungent days of September. 


Monday, August 2, 2021

Irrigating with Emma

It’s been a brutally hot summer. Starting in early June the forecast stubbornly reported a string of mid 90’s stretching into the distance. Then it was super dry on top of that. Mark and I cuss and discuss how much grass we need to get through until winter and what hay prices might be. The drought covers the whole of the western U.S. so we have lots of company, which means more competition for feedstuffs across the industry.

The nights are sweet relief from the heat, but, oh, what a prime time for worrying! Mark and I just smile at each other over coffee in the morning, knowing what we've shared over night, and get ready to face it together another day.  

A welcome bright spot this summer has been the frequent company of our first grandchild. She lives just down the road. I had her for a couple of hours (as long as she’ll last without mom) and took her with me to change water for the first time. All I had to do was put a tin in a headgate, wouldn’t even need a shovel, so knew I could carry her. Plus it was overcast and cool for a change. At only 4 months old, she was content to bob along in my arms through the vegetation. Well, she cried when I laid her in the grass to open a wire gate, but quickly got over that.

Next summer she'll be walking along with me. I’ll still have to carry her where the grass gets deep. We’ll watch for blossoms and bees and listen for the whistling flutter of mourning doves as they flush ahead of our approach. We might see an owl glide quietly out of the olives.

We’ll hunt for monarch butterflies and yellow and black caterpillars in the milkweed patches. She may know what to look for only because she’s seen a picture of one in a book. That makes me sad. 

Soon she’ll be learning the names of plants and be able to tell the difference between yellow bee plant and mustard, between rabbitbrush and sagebrush. Later still we’ll learn how to identify bunch grasses by their seedheads in July and why perennial grasses are preferable to annual grasses. I joked with her Mom and Dad that I would be sounding out poll-in-a-tor to her before long. 

My hope is that she grows up loving the wildness of it all. That she is comfortable wading ditches and pulling weeds and petting a horse. That wherever she goes in life, she watches for the moon waxing to full, and appreciates the richness of the natural world around her.

But that’s a long time from now. For today I must remember to tell Mark we left that gate open. 

our first selfie


Friday, July 9, 2021

Pratt Ranch Hall of Fame

We had a major herd move on the only two mild days this summer. We were dreading moving cattle in 90 degree temperatures, but the weather took mercy on us and it stayed in the low 80’s with a nice breeze.

We did it without Martha, Anita’s border collie that has been a mainstay on the ranch for many years. She failed this spring quite suddenly and goodbyes were in order.

Martha stood out from the other herding dogs on the ranch. They’re mostly red or black with white markings and full coats. Martha had a mottled black and white coat, smooth, with prick ears, rare qualities in her breed.

She was always kind to people and animals and really wanted to be a partner to anyone who knew what they were doing with the herd. If they were just hollering, Martha would ignore them and wasn’t above working on her own! Anita told me that when Gary took Martha they were “a match made in heaven.” As Anita said, “Martha thought she knew best, and Gary thought Martha knew best too, so it worked great!”

I remember one brisk morning when we were gathering the Brush Creek field. We had a long way to go to start the cattle home for the winter. Gary had Martha with him, well mostly anyway. Dot and I were up the creek on a steep sidehill trying to reach a few cattle on the ridgeline. Here came Martha through the sagebrush!? She helped Dot, got the stock headed down, and then hurried back to Gary.

Anita described Martha as “having scope,” meaning she would naturally look around to see livestock that were way out and go fetch them. If the herd was all together she made sure they stayed that way, tucking them in nice and tidy with her constant back and forth motion.

The sheep that live in the corral out the front door of Gary and Anita’s house were Martha’s own personal property. They had an agreement – the sheep relaxed and didn’t pay attention to Martha if she was just patrolling the yard or lying at the corral. But when she got serious, they did her bidding. Martha was still tending her charges when she fell ill.

She had 4 or 5 litters and her progeny are working dogs like her. Martha would never quit if she thought you needed her. Anna’s Stella, Martha’s granddaughter, is the same way.

I’ve thought of a Pratt Ranch Hall of Fame and who might occupy the ledger. Certainly Sly, the sorrel quarter horse who tended little kids and dudes from the city, then could turn a cow (hard) for Mark, would make the cut. My Beauty dog would be there of course, the one that taught me the joy of a working dog companion. Rocker and Mac, equines, and Jack and Susie, canines, would be remembered. And so would Martha. These exceptional animals weren’t just helpers, but played integral roles in getting the work done that is required of ranching. They had not only intuition and drive, but something more that I struggle to describe. Something about partnership that is reserved for your most loyal of friends and family. They made our work enjoyable, nay, doable.

They leave big holes when they go. In the daily workload for sure, and in our hearts and souls at days end.   

all photos by Anita

Monday, May 10, 2021

Mom's Day

God shook out his great green cloth and spread it across the pastures. It’s the big switch over. We’re still feeding cows for a few more days. When they finish with their hay, they resume wandering around the pasture clipping it to a golf course finish. Thankfully they’ll be leaving for the mountains soon so the grass can take a nice long breath.

Spring, as usual, came on with a great lunge. All of a sudden it’s time to get the ditches ready to start irrigating. We had a little excitement yesterday when we were burning the dead grass from a ditch in a deep ravine. Good thing there were 4 of us. Anna had a handheld sprayer, Alan a shovel; Mark and I had pitchforks. We instituted a back burn, shoveled and sprayed and tamped and finally got the fire out before it got away. Then we turned on the water which meant more frenzied pitching as the stream moved along gathering debris. Trash can clog the pipes the water travels through and create trouble if you get behind. It’s exciting, but at the end when you get to see and smell (!) water on dry ground it’s a treat.

If we didn’t have enough to do every day, add moving the stream twice a day to the list. As Mark will tell you, “It’s non-stop fun.”

Mark was down with a back issue until just a few days ago. For ten days he laid on the floor, rising just long enough to have me ferry him to the chiropractor. It was a wake-up call for us. We know we depend too much on his physical labor, but this was up close and personal – and scary. We remembered a story told to us by a Canadian couple that came to work for us one summer. They thought the Pratt men worked too hard without a break. They told us about a neighbor back home in Alberta that had the same work habit, wouldn’t slow down like he needed to, and finally ”put his foot in an auger,” and forced the issue. Okay, lesson noted.

Our friends Dave and Alan, about my age and professionals in their own careers, help us often. I don't know what we'd do without them and don't want to find out! The kids have stepped up too, working every weekend to get the calves branded and the sick ones tended. We got the yearlings sorted and two loads weighed and shipped. And with water running across the land while we sleep, it’s starting to line out. We’ll be “shaping up” the herd and staging for the mountains this week.

On our last branding day, Mark and I left the crew to tend the last stretch of Sand Creek water. It winds through tall trees that are just leafing out. It was a lovely cool morning. We worked independently with his‘n hers pitchforks and finished up in time to share Anita’s lunch on Seth and Leah’s lawn in the sunshine. I got to hold the new granddaughter. It was a perfect Mother’s Day for this grandma. 


the end of Sand Creek

crisis passed

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Every April

It’s blowing from the north now. Mostly we get wind from the southwest, and this spring it's been horrid. And if it blows from the north, you can be sure it will be cold like it is today. Mostly, however, it’s not the wind that’s so bad, but the sand and dirt the wind picks up to pummel us with. Our pasture is covered with a layer of grit, as is the porch and deck, even the coats on the cows. An irrigation ditch that we rely on heavily every summer, and which follows along the north side of our neighbor’s farm, has filled to the brim with sand. How do you push water through that?

It’s discouraging. We’re only one irrigation hiccup away from our own Dust Bowl. Our community accepts the closures of the interstates north and south of us due to blowing soil as an act of God. No, God leaves plants on the ground and roots in the soil. Sometimes, when the mountains have disappeared behind a wall of blowing sand, I envision God as punishing us for our transgressions. I’m sure the folks caught up in the Dirty Thirties used that line too.

We’re on the tail end of calving. Mark has been, as usual, determined to give the herd the best care even if it means not caring for himself enough. Sometimes I have to look the other way. I help him, but it’s never enough. There’s some irony here because as I write, Mark is cooking breakfast! 

My interest in writing this blog is waning. After 10 years it’s probably not surprising. Still, the stories of a ranch need told - our struggles, my indecisions, the thrill of springtime, the agony of sick calves or weed outbreaks. Our story is fragile in a way. As is all our stories if you think about it. I often say to Mark, “What’s to become of us?” (How does one respond to a question like that?)

Will we ever figure out a successful transition of the ranch from Mark's Mom and Dad? When will the younger generation settle on how the ranch fits into their future? And in the meantime, while we’re figuring and re-figuring, the ranch work lays out in front of us like a mountain to be scaled one slow and steady step at a time. Day after day - some happy, some angry, some boring, some brimming with gratitude, some with burden.

And so I write to make it all better. This blog has always helped by turning my attention to the beauty here at home. I can be in the middle of an unpleasant task, shoveling in the heat, riding in a cold drizzle or tallying a stack of debits, and then think of writing about it! I turn my camera to the world around me, find a fat caterpillar, a pink sunrise or a fluffy barn cat and I feel better. 

a typical spring day 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Babes of March

There’s some bald eagles hanging out in the calving pasture. Mark saw up to 14 one day, many of them juveniles. They’re fun to observe, but they make us nervous that they might harass the newborn calves. So far they’re just eating afterbirth.

Birdsong surrounds us now as we go about our work. Starlings are doing acrobatics in great clattering murmurations, swooping and swelling from one cottonwood to the next. Red-wing blackbirds are making a racket in the tules.  And oh, the meadowlarks!

There’s a certain tension, a happy tension, hanging in the balance on the ranch this spring. No, not the annual arrival of a few hundred baby calves; something more profound than that. Leah and Seth are expecting their firstborn any day now. Our first grandchild.

I came upon Leah walking her puppy last evening. She said it was all quiet on the western front and asked how things were in the barn. She is quick to smile and reassure grandma that all is well.

It was early March, 28 years ago, that Anna was born. The snow was deep that year. I had been helping with the calving, what I could, then stopped abruptly to turn my whole attention to a new little life. There’s an entry in my diary a few days before she was born. “We agree that this baby coming just doesn’t seem real.” Anna would bless our lives in all ways. And the years have kept rolling by.

I had a blog written about calving. There’s always a lot to write about. But that’s not the story. Even on a cow-calf operation it isn’t. The story is happening in the little white house at ranch headquarters. The same house where Seth’s great-grandfather was born. The house where now grows a new life, tucked in close to Leah’s heart, just about to introduce his or her self to us. Soon we’ll look into those eyes, wise from the ethereal womb experience. “Oh, so that’s who you are!”