Exhausted. These days have been exhausting. Rocket (#2 – the sad little face-down-in-the-hay goat) recovered well, he’s suckling now. Still has droopy ears, which makes him about the cutest thing in the world. However, his brother, Olay, who was the first-born, became weak yesterday. Like how Rocket was on the first night. Olay wasn’t eating and he was cold. Westi tube fed him and we held him under the heat lamp in a blanket and a sweater. When that didn’t help she realized he hadn’t pooped yet, so she did something to try to solve that. When that didn’t help, she realized his stomach was full still; he wasn’t digesting his food because his body temperature was too low. She brought him inside the house and put him on a heating pad and got his temperature up to normal. And he died shortly after. “He starved to death with a full stomach.” These attempts to help Olay took place over the entire day, and so his passing was an unfortunate relief. That’s how it goes.
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!
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.
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.
Yesterday we hung out in the corral while icing Smokey’s leg. I got on Sugar bareback in hopes that it would help me with my bouncing. It didn’t. But I think it enhanced our relationship for sure. Eric, Sarah and I went to the store in Clifton. Eric got chocolate chip cookies that turned out to be raisin (what a disappointment!), so Sarah and I went back in and traded them for chocolate, looking like fools. We ate them in the car and opened the milk jug so we could have milk and cookies. We came back and fixed the chicken coop for the 20th time. This time we put up a whole second layer around the entire thing. Hung up the laundry. Rushed to make a fruit dessert before Jean returned.
There’s new guests. I saddled up my horse and watched that little girl ride away on her. I gave Sugar a pep talk and that girl was crying by the time they reached the house! They brought back 3 cows and 2 calves. And then we got to go out! Made my day getting on Sugar because I feared I wouldn’t get the chance before I leave!
When Jean’s back was turned Sugar and I trotted up the mesa. I need practice, and time is running out. I bounced all over the place! Well we brought back a cow and calf. Okay, well, Jean and Sarah did. I did cactus training with Sugar. Before dinner we went out to brand the 3 calves. They had a hard time getting ‘em in the pen. We had a hard time starting the fire. But eventually we got on with it. I’m glad we separated the calves from the mothers this time ‘cuz that big lady was lookin’ us in the eye sayin “bet you don’t wanna know how I bent my left horn.” We said, “no ma’am!” Eric and Keith thought it’d be entertaining to have me try to lasso a calf while we waited for the irons to heat up. Well I got that thing around the hind legs! Of the wrong calf. Then I roped some dirt, some hay, and then, I couldn’t believe my eyes, my rope landed around the neck of the little black calf! I threw the coil around my hip and said something like “uh oh! What now!?” They said to just drop the rope, that’s good enough. Oh.
Yesterday morn we watched Eric and Keith ride around the corral to push 5 cows through the gate for, uh, 2 hours! Boy, was Eric mad, growling at the cows. We were over there by the tack room hiding our giggles in our horses’ manes. Then we trailered them to Murder Camp. Then we fixed the chicken coop for the 4th time since building the dang thing the day before. We went and played with rocks, and then came back to find a goddang hen wandering around the yard!
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….!