Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Leaving Home

. . . with the cows that is. It’s wonderful to get them home in the fall, but it’s even better to get them gone in the spring.

Many scenes run through my mind. I see cows and hear cows behind my eyelids at night. This year was eventful as always. Forty-five miles and two herds on the Trail at once doesn’t just happen. Mark had to change irrigation water before and after each day and kept ruthless hours.

Anna is home and helped us every day. We always have extra herders along, people that like to ride horses, but you can’t replace home grown help. She’s followed the herd without complaint for lots of years. She and her horse, Mater, and her dog, Clyde, make a good team. But her best quality is her easygoing and happy nature. And I need that this week; just ask her!

Our route takes us past the local solid waste transfer station and one morning as we passed through lush farm ground with no fences, an onslaught of trucks and trailers converged upon us. They shoved the cattle off the road as we struggled to put them back on to save the crops. The trailers held all manner of sundries, old couches, tree limbs, a rusted lawnmower. Oh! It’s county clean-up day! No fees at the dump! Groan.

Anna has a Shakespeare quote on our memo board in the kitchen: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I roll that one over and over in my mind. Moving cattle to the hills certainly qualifies. “Cowboying” used to be the most fun in the world when I was a kid. And even when I first came to Pratt Ranch, I loved it. Now I’m like a colt that got soured from a bad experience. I’ve had too many long days when things went awry.

As spring arrives each year, I feel the worry start in the pit of my stomach about getting the cattle to the hills. Will we find enough help? Will it be too hot and the cattle peter out at 10:00 a.m.? What if someone gets hurt? I know it’s silly. I know I need to chill out and trust it will all work out. It always does in the end. There’s a sign on someone’s kitchen wall, “tomorrow I will relax and go with the flow.” That’s me.

The good and the bad stuff of life, the breathtaking moments of pure joy, and the moments of anger, frustration, and worry, are a hair widths apart. They march along side by side, two sides of the same coin. We (some of us especially) are vulnerable to switching sides at any moment. It takes conscious effort to bypass the stress and worry and open ourselves up to the beauty. It’s something I know I’ll work on the rest of my life.

My mother-in-law Anita took this photo. Wonderful isn’t it? It captures the best in trailing cattle. It’s got breadth, drama, and a bit of majesty. It’s about an hour before the free dump day traffic started going through the herd. The flip of a coin.   

More photos of the Trail.
the first leg - leaving the valley

stringing the herd after leaving farm ground behind


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Water Works

It's much too hot and dry for May. And we never got those April showers, so it’s looking bleak outside. As ranchers, moisture is key to a successful season. It’s how the cows get fed, so our livelihood hangs in the balance. I seem to worry about it mostly at 3:00 a.m. when sleep evades me.

It’s crunch time trying to get the irrigation water started and the cows moved on to grass. Some folks who share our ditches, newcomers to the country, think you walk out, pull the headgate and voila – water! Not so. First, most ditches need burned to either set the grass back or to get rid of tumbling mustard and Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) that clog the channel. Then, depending on their condition, some ditches need to be cleaned with a v-ditcher or similar larger implement. Then the headgates, the concrete pipes that let the water flow on to a section of ground called a “land,” need to be dug out.

It’s exciting when you let the first stream in. As the water moves down the channel it picks up all burned refuse and any trash that didn’t burn like leaves and twigs. You stand in the ditch walking quickly backward, pitching as hard as you can. Or if it’s more water than you can stand in, pitching from the side, a back breaker for sure, is the only option. Clogging a pipe downstream would mean disaster.

I started a stream last night, not a very big one, but it tested me pretty hard. I told Mark he must think I’m a lot tougher than I am, even though it was my idea. I said to him, “that was hard work!” His reply, “it’s all hard work.” The older I get the more I know it.

I remember the first time Seth out-pitched me starting a stream of water. We were both working as hard as we could and he saved the day. No more did he need “mommy muscles” to tackle a job. It was a bittersweet evening as I remember.

I was wishing Seth was with me last night.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

An Original

I picked a bouquet of tulips from my Uncle Doug’s garden today. He hasn’t been home for many months. He is gravely ill and staying with my Dad and his caregivers. I am reminded of a line from Garrison Keillor, telling his Prairie Home Companion audience about recent Lake Wobegon events. He mentioned his elderly aunt who was readying for death. He referred to her condition as “going about her business.”  I like the phrase, very matter of fact and accepting of our fate. As natural as birth, death is.

I found the flowers, in true Doug fashion, a hodgepodge of color. Blood red long-stemmed tulips with velvety black stamens. And to their right the delicate shorter stemmed pinks that stay closed up, shy and demure. Then finally the flamboyant yellow blooms with fluffy petals curling this way and that, streaked with crimson. Hardly demure, they open wide like a flamenco dancer in fluffy skirts. Despite their differences they look gorgeous in a bouquet together. I guess Doug would know that; he lived original.  

Doug didn’t look at the bouquet, but told me “good for you.” He always loved to share his flowers with friends and family. He would take me through his yard, laboriously clipping every perfect bloom from a bed even when his knees didn’t work anymore.   

My visit to his yard today was comforting as it always is, even without Doug. The apple trees are in bloom, the quakies quiver and the gloriosa daisies wait their turn. The worn chair setting under the apple tree looks forlorn though, not even a folded newspaper left behind to suggest an owner. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lessons at the Youth Ranch

Take one screwed-up kid. Add routine meals and a safe bed, adults that care, and animals to tend. Trust this kid and provide him or her the “opportunity to fail” and impressive things happen. 

The Idaho Youth Ranch, established in 1953, was my Mom’s favorite charity. Whenever someone died she wrote out a small check in their name to the Ranch, where “problem” kids get a second chance. I wish Mom could have tagged along when Mark and I attended the Ranch’s donor appreciation dinner this week. We had some great prime rib, toured the residence halls and the indoor riding arena, and heard from instructors and students about the services offered there.

The staff member in charge of the equine program described how kids are given the latitude, the freedom, to screw up, with the only consequence being a fall off a horse in the soft plowed dirt. Each child is assigned a horse to take care of. They learn lessons, most of which are acquired by failing the first time. They learn to catch and halter their horse, feed and water them, and groom their coat. Then they learn to ride - step by step.

Animals are very forgiving. They won’t abandon you. They won’t bully, judge, or chastise. They’ll be there the next day and give you a fair shot to start over. It is this acceptance that begins the healing process the kids go through while staying at the ranch.

The ranch also has its own 4-H program with steers and dairy calves for the kids to show at the county fair. The children learn quickly that this animal depends on them. Very scary stuff, according to one girl, but one that taught her courage, patience, and how to be responsible. Learning skills like these make it possible for most to return home after a year at the ranch.

At the end of the evening as we assembled for dinner, the students were nowhere to be seen. They were out gathering up the horses that had gotten out of their corral. “Just what might happen on a real ranch,” said our host. After the vagabonds were back in the gate, the kids joined us and were distributed among the tables to talk to the adults, a bit windblown, but proud of their efforts.

Of course, Mark and I already know the value of putting kids with animals. We had our own 4-H club when our kids were little. We're very glad the method is alive and well at the Youth Ranch ( 

Anna and Dan