May 4: day 5

The land is illuminated in an eerie way, dimly with thick gray clouds overhead. I think it would be exciting for Elaina to give birth tonight during a storm. With the half moon above. But it looks like she is holding out for another night. She is behaving differently these days, but it doesn’t mean it’s happening quite yet.

It is very still out here with only robin clucks. I am in the hammock, though daylight is dwindling and a few mosquitoes are buzzing, but it is stuffy in the trailer. It was in the 90s again today.

I hit a big rock with the mower this morning and broke a spindle. Mike fixed it. Then I got the thing stuck on the side of a hill. Mike got it unstuck. Then the belt snapped. So I called it a day with the mower. Mike later fixed it. Then I went to chip some wood but I couldn’t get the chipper started! So I called it a day with that too. Mike later fixed it. I moved on to the weed whacker and did not break that.

May 3: day 4

Today I rode the lawnmower around in circles. Then I overflowed the duckling’s water and turned their marsh into a full on pond. So we had to tear apart the whole thing and clean it at 8pm. Oops. I’m getting better at milking… sorta.

May 2: day 3

My hands smell like goat’s milk. Not like the refreshing beverage from the store, but like warm and sticky bodily fluid. Today I got a little more to come out but my aim is all wrong. It runs down my arm and squirts on my shorts – not even close to the cup! Liane’s been very patient with me. But I caught her giving me this expression over her shoulder that reminds me of the way Sugar would roll her eyes at me.

A cougar was allegedly spotted today at the edge of the property. The goat kids were making progress with being weaned but now separating them from mom means that one of the two groups will go unprotected.

I went hiking today and was dumbfounded by the bird sounds, walking around with a crook in my neck and frown on my face. I’ve possibly never seen so much poison oak in my life – arching over the trail at waist height, like evil snakes trying to entrance you. I did well at avoiding it until I saw a fresh pile of bear poo and then my focus strayed and I think some brushed my ankle, and finger, and arm. Will find out in a few days I guess!

May 1: day 2

MORNING
Nashville warbler and ash-throated flycatcher are vocal at dawn. And turkey. A scrub jay, a crow. The lilac bush glows. The sun moves quick – the shadow on the ridge drops before my eyes.

EVENING
I got bit by a goat today, because I thought it was so cute to let them nibble on my fingers. Turns out they have sharp back teeth. Tried my hand at milking this morning and got about a half an ounce. It takes practice. It’s a relief to be around goats – no need to fear for your life every time you’re in back of one. And let me tell you, that bite was a pin prick in comparison to the bite of that mustang Emma Grace.

April 30: day 1

Goats are way cuter than I imagined. There’s chickens, thank the lord, because eggs and entertainment. There are 4 ducklings that are deathly afraid of humans. And a huge black bunny, bigger than the cat. 2 cats. One is skiddish and one has an eye ulcer.

It’s so insanely beautiful here. It feels the way Trinity did to me in the spring, and it brings back all those feelings of bliss and invincibility. Until I’m laying here at the end of the day half paralyzed from hours of digging and gardening and running and sunshine (because I’ve been so lazy for the past 6 months)…!

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March 29

Beautiful robins poking in the grass made me smile today. I saw two mating yesterday – what a commotion!

I am concerned about my life. The magic of traveling can’t last forever. I’m somewhat done being homeless. I feel that I want to go home… though I am here in Michigan. That is supposed to be home. I would like my own place, though, and nobody to answer to. I’m tired of being a visitor everywhere I go. But I don’t really have much option at this point, do I? I should probably figure out how to make money.

Enough bellyaching… I am choosing to be miserable. Instead of whining I could take measures to move myself away from despair… startingggg NOW!

April 15 – my last day as a cowboy

After leaving the ranch I went and spent the day with Joe Cannon. Joe and I went for a ride. It was the most beautiful day – sun pressing down, so warm and soothing on bare shoulders, the sky a deep cerulean, little wind. We rode through creosote and ocotillo fields, way down into a canyon. We rounded a bend and I found myself prancing across a north-facing slope full of at least 8 different flowers – there were poppies, those bright yellow ones on the weed-like bush, those new lovely delicate looking white ones – maybe lilies, small white ones, small yellow ones, blue dicks, those purple ones, those neat square purple ones, red and pink penstemons, those deep fuchsia cactus flowers, red ocotillo, yellow prickly pear flowers, violet thistle flowers, and probably more. At a glance it looks like a field of gray tobosa, but you blink and see a million and one tiny dots of color. Everything was so lovely. Quail and doves fluttering about. Aaaand then Buddy rammed my leg into a cactus. It swelled immediately and I knew right away it was bad because I could feel pain all the way down my leg. As I was trying to regroup, my hat fell off. And as I got down to get it my saddle started flipping! It hurt down my leg into my foot when I walked to my stupid had, which didn’t seem right. I was on the downhill from Buddy so I tried getting up on the right, but I couldn’t put pressure on my right leg. So I spun Buddy around… in a full circle. So I spun him again half way, and got on. Good thing we didn’t have much further to go because that leg was hurting! But then Joe told me to go ahead a lope with Buddy. Man, it hurt, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run! It was so fun and I do feel like I don’t bounce so much anymore when trotting. Joe even said so!

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We came back and ate ice cream, got out some Jim Beam, and eventually ate an amazing steak dinner, while I limped around pathetically. There were hardly any needles to remove. But there must be some deep in there or somethin. Every time I move my foot a sharp pain shoots up my leg. Oy. I got about 8 different pieces of advice. And have taken none of them. I don’t think there’s anything much I can do… that’s what I have an immune system for. Right?

Anyway, said goodbye to Joe the next morning. His chin quivered as I drove off. And as soon as I hit the pavement tears fell from my eyes. I cried down the highway half way to Safford as more and more miles separated Sugar and I. It feels like heartbreak. And tears come to my eyes not as I write. I want to look at our pictures together her but I’m doing all I can to not think about her.

April 13, day 65 – last day on the ranch

I awoke this morn atop the hay bales in the barn. A slight pink tinged the eastern sky and the sound of hooves could be heard among the ash-throated flycatcher. My body ached in most places from yesterday’s ride and my eyelids begged for moments more. The unusual smell of damp, fresh earth seemed to be becoming normal, along with the condensation dripping from the rafters… directly onto the few inches of my exposed face of course. When I slowly and stiffly rose to a sitting position, I saw the long ears gathered at my gate staring amusedly at my sleepy face. It hurt getting up and climbing down, but the ride was worth it. We were granted the privilege yesterday of going out for a fun ride. I started Sugar trotting up the driveway and I could hardly believe it when she broke into a cantor. I couldn’t keep from laughing out loud and squealing a bit. I felt so proud. Of Sugar, of myself, of our relationship. I didn’t know she had the motivation in her to move at that pace… but she knew I was finally ready to run. We went up the driveway, across the mesa, through the tunnel, up the road in Lookout Pasture to a high peak overlooking the land I’ve called home for the past 2 months. On the way back we were enveloped on the north, south and east by deep gray rainclouds. Lightening struck over the mine. The wind blew a cool, constant breeze through our shirt buttons on the mesa. But the storm didn’t catch us.

The evening was warm and gay. It was the twins’ 12th birthday so we celebrated into the night. We bounced on the trampoline past dusk until elk spaghetti was steaming from our plates. Prickly pear margaritas littered the table. We churned ice cream by hand, with all the kids (including me and Joe) taking turns. It turned out mysteriously salty, which was interesting for a moment, but quickly became incredibly unappetizing. Nevertheless it was served, along with Sarah’s Guinness cake that failed to rise. Oh, but we sang and indulged anyway. There were marshmallow creatures, broken glass, deep laughter that ached sore gut muscles. And then… hugs for a goodbye that didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem real.

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April 6, day 58

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.

CALLING ALL BEEF-EATERS! (March 30, day 51 – about branding)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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