The rain has dissipated and the clouds have parted to reveal a crisp crescent moon that is descending behind the ridge before my eyes. Silhouettes from atop the mesa stand against it. Raindrops fall from the fresh leaves at random.
Got back to the ranch yesterday after my weekend in Flag. Before I came inside I spent a while in the corral catching up with everyone, it felt so good. I got sad about how I’ll be leaving Sugar soon and she seemed to understand. I mean, she didn’t cry but…
This morning I found that my feeding routine has been changed. Everything was chaotic! Bring in 2 pails of oats and everyone goes manic. I think it’s time for me to go.
A day of branding is not simply a day of branding. Nobody sat me down and told me what to expect. Nobody even warned me that we were beginning. So here we are, 8 of us all in the corral with the entire herd that we spent two days moving there. It’s unusually cloudy and breezy, we’re setting things up, just built a fire to heat the irons… and suddenly Joe rides over on his horse, dragging a calf over by the hind legs. The calf’s mother is following, and as Keith gets on the calf, that mother starts nudging him with her horns! Usually the mothers are bluffing but this one was not. What a great one to start out with…! I was frozen in shock and fear. They were holding down this bawling calf, yelling for vaccine, ear tag, etc. There was so much commotion. I didn’t have time to think about anything and before I knew it I was jabbing a needle into a calf, giving it a vaccine. That wasn’t too bad, and I decided that would be my job for the day. Aaaand then Eric put a pocket knife in my hand and said to make the ear slit. I didn’t want to, but it was an instruction, not a question. He told me to stab the middle of the ear and slide the knife out to the ear tip, so I did and I felt sick. Then I watched Eric castrate the next calf that I was holding down, and I felt sicker. And then Eric put the dang testicles in my shirt pocket with my chapstick, and I felt sicker yet. I watched the calf twitch and bawl as the scalding irons burned its ribcage, and I smelled the unforgettable scent of burning fur.
I have a strong stomach and wouldn’t say I’m overly compassionate, but my heart was pounding. I felt like throwing up at the sight of all the blood, the burning flesh, the smoking fur, and from the fear of getting charged from behind by a mother cow or getting kicked in the head by a calf.
Anyway the next thing I know Eric puts the knife in my hand again and tells me to castrate the calf he’s holding. For a fraction of a second I thought “YEAH FUCKING RIGHT!” And then I realized there’s no time to think, the calf is waiting and it needs to be done NOW, not when I decide to stop being a little bitch. So I did it with Eric instructing me. My trembling hands were covered with blood afterward and I rubbed dirt on them to get it off. Eric said not to bother cleaning my hands until we were done. But I was convinced that I sure as heck was not doing another castration so I wiped my hands off right then and there.
Before I knew it I had castrated 4 calves. I very quickly realized that it would not be possible to keep blood off my hands… or pants or boots or spurs or FACE, thanks to Eric’s great sense of humor. I started getting into the swing of things slightly. I wouldn’t say it got easier, but I felt slightly less like puking as we did calf after calf.
Eventually Keith told me it was my turn to flank a calf (get it on the ground). So Joe pulled over a black calf who was standing upright with the rope was around his hind legs. Keith instructed me to walk down the rope and grab a hold of the calf’s tail and yank it down. So I did that, but when I yanked on the tail nothing happened. So I yanked again, and nothing. This was a large calf. So I tried again and the calf started running, so I’m running after it, still holding its tail. Then I lose my grip on the tail and they’re yelling at me to “get it back, get it back!” At this point I have no intention to get that tail back, I just wanted to get out of the way. Well before I had a chance to escape, the calf changed directions, causing me to get caught up in the rope. You see, the rope is still attached to the calf’s ankles, and to Joe Cannon atop his horse, with me now stuck between the two. Well that calf kept running and I was getting dragged around on the ground. There was so much commotion, I don’t remember seeing anything, but it sounded like Keith and Edward were trying to stop the calf… after what seemed like an eternity of me being dragged around the corral. And then suddenly, I remember seeing the horse’s butt, right above my head. I realized I was right up under Peppi’s hind legs, still stuck on the rope. I closed my eyes and thought “no, no, no.” I covered my head and waited for a blow, and at that moment, the calf and Keith came crashing into me and plowed right over my head. And then I was free! I sprung up and started running away from the madness. The first thing I saw was Sugar’s face, looking very concerned, and I realized our horses were all spooked from the commotion – I was running into more madness! So I ran the other way, finally to a safe spot. Thankfully they didn’t ask me to castrate that guy… I took a moment to regain myself after that near-death situation. That is no exaggeration. Sitting under a horse’s back legs is asking to get kicked in the head and killed. I am incredibly lucky that I got stuck under Peppi’s butt and not Popcorn’s. We were roping off of both horses that day and Popcorn is a kicker. I am also incredibly lucky that Peppi didn’t step on me accidentally and bruise or break my leg, or ankle… or neck. Nothing hurt immediately but later in the day I sure felt as though I got dragged around a corral, and I had quite a colorful rope burn on my arm. I’d take those minor ills any day over a hoof print on my forehead!
Well this was about 2/3 of the way through the afternoon. Next it was my turn to hold the hind legs of the next calf. These calves are much stronger than I ever expected. It takes two people to hold one down. One person kneels on the neck and shoulder. And I don’t mean lean against ‘em… I mean you put your entire body weight, and then some, on this calf’s upper body. Even then, they can throw you off if you don’t balance correctly. That was tough for me to be in that position, to not get thrown off. And remember those branding irons are being used about 2 inches away from your leg. So you can’t let that calf push you into them. If you get thrown off that calf, everyone could get hurt and worse yet, the brand could get ruined. Another person holds the hind legs… with all their strength. Getting kicked by those legs can be serious too. Fucking up is not an option in this business. When the calf is done being branded you both want to let go and scram at the same time to avoid injury also. I got up from this calf too eagerly and probably tripped myself with my own spurs and landed on my knees snack dab on a rock. Cowboy problems.
We branded 14 calves that afternoon, which felt like 100 to me, but is actually a very small number. It’s tradition to throw the testicles in the fire and eat them for lunch, so we did. Nothing goes to waste!
I understand why we do these things to the calves and it’s important that others do too, especially environmentalists and animal rights activists who blindly claim that branding is “inhumane.” You can’t have a successful ranch if you don’t know whose cows are whose, which makes branding and tagging necessary. Calves are castrated because steers are better eating, plus they’re easier to handle that way. These things do not torture or scar a cow for life. We went into that corral today and those calves were springing around like nothing happened. They didn’t see us and cower in fear. And every mother cow in there went through the same thing. I think humans have the tendency to think in human terms… if this happened to you today it would be quite traumatizing, yes. If it happened to you at 4-months, you probably wouldn’t remember. And even then, you must remember that as an infant, humans are 15lbs of helplessness, while these calves weigh over 100lbs. It’s a totally different playing field.
However, this day of branding really affected me, and I don’t feel the same now. This was such an important experience and it bothers me that PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THAT THIS HAPPENS. That people do this. Today. By hand. THIS IS WHERE BEEF COMES FROM. McDonalds hamburgers… someone had to brand that cow. Even those cows begin on family ranches like this. (Some of our cows are finished here as grass-fed, but some get sold at the auction and go who-knows-where. YOU may have eaten a Cold Creek cow for all I know.) When I closed my eyes last night all I could see was blood. And I didn’t feel as though I deserved to eat our beef dinner, since branding has shaken me so much. It’s not exactly something I want to do again, and that right there, to me, says that I don’t deserve to eat beef… if I’m not willing to do what it takes for that meat to land on my plate. I guess that’s why we pay other people to do it and keep quiet about it all. I stayed up late discussing this with Eric and he said it’s good that I’m at least questioning these things and understanding the intensity of this business, that’s more than a lot of people can say.
Where I grew up, beef came from the store. Yeah, I guess it came from a cow too. But I never thought a minute more about it all. The more I do on this ranch the more my idea of it all changes… I see what these cows and these ranchers go through to make the magic happen.
I walked out the door yesterday to find Dink under the carport with Donk close behind. Turns out all the horses had gotten out and Keith had already put them back. Dink escaped because she’s an alcoholic and knocked over the gate. Then two of the neighbor’s horses wandered through. Dink and Polly are still out there, probably having the time of their life. Dink came back for Happy Hour. We’re borrowing a horse named Butter who was quietly watching this circus go on. Guests from England arrived yesterday and the kids were over tonight and we had a nice Easter dinner. (I had no idea that our first Easter celebration was weeks early!) Beforehand we were out shootin the BB gun off the back porch.
Today I rode with spurs. I was on ole Buddy, Daisy’s old horse. Joe Cannon and Peppi were along to help move the cattle. After riding Sugar, Buddy felt like we were gliding on ice! Those mesquite have been leafing out the past few weeks and Joe said in 40 years he’s never seen it happen so early.
Edward was on Sugar today and boy was she serious when were saddling her up. No tongue to be seen! She was being friendly today toward me during the ride, in contrast from her hostile attitude the past week.
I found out yesterday that after all this job searching shit I am going back to KBO to band all summer!! I had given up that dream months ago, but now it’s happening after all! So I expect I’ll leave here April 15 or so to make my rounds on the way up.
I had some whiskey tonight for the first time in 7 weeks and it tasted like sitting around a campfire outside a trailer in Northern California. Hmph.
This morning Popcorn and Emma Grace were in the small section of the corral when I walked in, and Seago stood right at the end of the chute with her nosebag so they couldn’t get out. There was some space where they could have squeezed past her, but they know better. So there they were waiting patiently while Dink, Donk, Polly, and Sugar ate in luxury at the feeder. It was so funny. Now I know where Emma Grace learned to do that to the mules.
Later at Happy Hour the 4 horses minus Sugar were all in the small section, looking fairly concerned. Emma Grace looked serious and didn’t have her tongue out. Smokey was in front of them all and they stared at me, motionless. Maybe cougar is back. And then good old Sugar’s over in the corner burping with her tongue out, oblivious.
I believe it was one year ago today that I left Arizona for the first time… that I drove north on 89A out of Flag with Humphreys in my rear view. I had no idea what adventures were in store for me in the following months. Makes me excited and eager to watch the next months unfold.
As I approached the corral for Dink’s Happy Hour, the usual afternoon scene appeared. Donk was in the small section hee-hawing so passionately with Dink pacing so intensely before the gate. I couldn’t stop laughing, there’s hardly anything more entertaining than how riled up these guys get over the beer. And then there’s Smokey staring at the chaos thinking “this is despicable, they should pay me to put up with this.” And good old Sugar’s in the corner being weird doing her neck thing. I just couldn’t stop laughing. Then Popcorn came over, giving me the googley eye, and Sugar got annoyed by his presence, as did I. If stomping my foot and swinging my head around would have helped, I would have joined Sugar. Then I looked up to see that Emma Grace and Seago had approached and were staring blankly at me, watching me and Sugar get flustered over Popcorn. I hope I provide them with at least half as much entertainment as they give me….!
I don’t know if I can leave here. I fear that nothing will feel overly fulfilling after living this lifestyle. Nowhere I go could be better than this.
Went out this morn to return the mailbox key that I stole accidentally but I never made it out of the driveway. Ran over something so sharp I could hear the air shootin outta my tire before I saw it. I thought it was quite funny. Pulled mustard from the front yard all morning. Then went out to fetch old blocks and place minerals. Took a heel to the ribs cleaning Emma Grace’s feet. Then Sugar and I were out on the mesa gathering a handful of cows, I got her trotting even, we were doing great. And then she took a tumble – her chest went down and my knee hit a rock. I jumped off as she regained herself. The cows didn’t notice and continued on in the right direction. Phew! So just another day at the office.
5 manes are waving in the eastbound wind that is moving through the corral. Dink and Donk are munching on oats and beer. The yellow bucket rests on its side. Horses are scattered beside the feeder. Afternoon sun presses down hard. Where the creek crosses the driveway is dry – the water disappeared 2 days ago within an hour.
We celebrated Easter this morning. In her little blue dress and shiny black shoes Anne retrieved the Easter eggs from around the creek that we dyed last night on the porch between rifle and pistol rounds. Cheyenne found 2 eggs and looked up with those big doe eyes when 8 voices reprimanded her for picking up the pink one. Katherine, in her sun dress, played hostess and served water and coffee to the porch dwellers. Hilaire and Hugo ran up Blackjack Butte while Edward and Benoit used the zip line. And Timothy and I collected snails from the creek. Edward joined us for a walk downstream to search for big water beetles. We found water walkers and paddle bugs and algae clumps, and a tree full of bees. Paul, Megan, Timothy, Katherine and I walked back to the main house along the creek. Jumping back and forth across the water on rocks, ducking under live oak, scrambling up cliffs to get around canyons, splashing in the water, picking poppies, munching on mustard, and admiring the art around us. The first turkey vulture of the year flew low over a slot canyon at noon. We returned to the house, I made lime juice, grabbed half a P&BJ and we jumped on the trampoline, followed by more splashing in the creek. I dunked my hair in and they soaked me. There was more “tramping” before dinner and even after, long past nightfall.
This day was perfect – everything I ever wanted as a child – catching snails in the creek on Easter morn, following the creek all the way to Grandma’s house, shootin’ guns in the afternoon while dying Easter eggs, feeding the horses, playing games all night on the trampoline. I’ve finally made this life happen. It’s not the same as having grown up this way. But it is real. I feel as a part of it as everyone else and I’m cherishing every moment of it – every scurrying lizard, dancing butterfly, crooked sycamore and gleaming primrose, every waterfall and rock display, the song of the canyon wren and the warmth of the blazing sun.
The 3 cows in the corral at Murder Camp finally ate some dang hay, so if they’ve been loco-ed it looks like they stand a chance now. The mom has good records too. I’m worried about Sugar’s leg, she’s sensitive about going downhill. Though it’s hard to tell if it’s just Sugar being Sugar or if she’s really in pain. Eric keeps dismissing it as nothing serious and I hope he’s right.
Two days ago I was given the privilege of taking Sugar out alone up the driveway to try stretching out her leg before guests arrive. Felt good with just her and I and the great big something. At one point there was a dove coo and she and I both turned to look at the same time, hah! I talk to her as we go, she seems to prefer when I talk because it shows I’m paying attention to her. I think. I really can’t get over her. It’s not because she’s exceptionally beautiful, the other horses are prettier than she is. It’s because I know her. When I approached the corral today, she and Popcorn were eating. I yelled out something at everyone and her head spring up out of that feeder to the sound of my voice. How freaking neat. Today I got all sentimental on her back thinking of the fact that I may one day leave this place. And just to make me quit my blubbering she disobeyed me to take my mind off of it. Ain’t she sweet?