Wild Turkey & Work
The whiskey bottle starts circulating among the crew as soon as we gather at the Nyhart Ranch at 4 am. Richard Coad, the wirey and wry camp cook, who drives the pickup pulling the camp trailer, pulls out a bottle of Wild Turkey. It makes a couple of passes as the four horses are loaded into the horse trailer.
In ranch country, people help each other. Brian is joined by Dale Giem, a Dillon stockbroker who grew up on a ranch a few miles north of the Nyharts. Dale's made the trip many times. Joining the crew is Bill Holden, a Twin Bridges saddlemaker who was the Three Forks Association cowboy for years. Between the three of them, they've got an encyclopedia's worth of data about ranching, observations about cows and horses, and local lore. A city boy like me can watch and listen to it all day long. I've been helping on these drives for over a decade—spring and fall, if I can—and I've never gotten bored.
Of course, the work is mixed with a lot of humor. Dale acknowledges the pending birth of Brian's first child. "Brian's going to be a father," he cackles. "That's all right, Brian, nothing is going to change." Dale and Bill, with five kids between them, laugh uproariously.
When we finally hit the trail, Dale takes the lead, making sure that gates along the trail are open, that gates to the side are closed and the fences are solid, that there aren't any cattle in front of us. I met Dale twenty years ago when we worked together at a California high-tech company. We've both come a long ways since then, Dale back to the land and the culture that he—just like his father before him and his grandfather before that—is devoted to.
"The old man just wanted to leave the land better than when he found it," Dale says. It's a theme that Teddy Roosevelt apparently made around the turn of the twentieth century.
Bill calls Dale Trail Boss, and Mr. Chisholm, and that's Bill all over. He has a dagger wit and a stable of stories that will continue unabated for all four days of the drive. And you best watch out: he's the king of practical jokes and will skewer the unsuspecting.
Brian, Bill, and I push the slower cattle at the rear of the herd, keeping an eye out for other ranchers' cattle trying to join us or our own looking for greener grass. We trade impressions, observations, experiences, and wit. We can do so because cattle rarely do much of anything fast. They usually saunter along in slow motion, a meat locker's worth of beef swinging on each bony frame. Besides, the Border Collie cow dogs do much of the work, nipping at the cows' heels with or without commands. For a person like me used to insane freeway traffic and the pounding pace of urban industry, this is refreshing.
Of course, it's mildly cool, clear as a bell, and we haven't had any wrecks yet. This is the spring drive, moving them from bottomland to mountain range, pushing calves as well as mature cattle. Wrecks will happen, they always do to one degree or another. But the notion that the cows are ready to bolt for freedom in a headlong sprint at the slightest provocation is usually horse manure. Hell-bent-for-election stampedes are Hollywood. Now, the cows do head off on their own now and then, and a horse will get a wild hair. On a couple of past drives, Dale brought a new horse, big and brawny, that he thought would make a great cow horse—and twice, the horse has blown up on him. Brian and I have both on occasion been unloaded. But Dale didn't bring Maynard this trip, my mount Nutmeg is very dependable, and Brian's powerful horse John has steadied.
So, we talk. Bill tells me how the saddlemaking is going. The business is growing, and he never misses Gilligan's Island in the afternoon, a dig at the breakneck pace of our lives. He talks about how he learned from a master saddlemaker who will recommend Bill when he deserves it, and how he picked up some pack saddle business that is really helping. He can put a pack saddle out in two days, whereas a riding saddle can take three weeks, or if he's doing some trucking, much more. Of course, riding saddles make you more money.
A moment later, Brian relates what kind of water year it's been: pretty good, as evidenced by the fact that there's plenty of grass up on the bench beyond their fields. It's his business to know. They're his family's cattle, and from working the land and the stock every day he knows how this year stacks up to the previous fifteen. At the next gate, we celebrate the lush grass and the lack of excitement by passing around the bottle. It gives them a chance to bring up once again, as they are wont to do, how I got smashed three years ago trying to keep up with Max, the rider for the Warm Springs Association, and how Max and Bill set to banging pots by my ear and lighting matches in my boots. And oh, how much fun that was.
Driving Cows near the Old Joe Smith Ranch
Near the end of the first morning, the first real excitement happens. As we get closer to Stone Creek, we enter a pine forest that gets thick and hilly. The cattle start spreading, and we have to outflank them, making sure that they don't find themselves an opportunity to get left behind. Losing a cow is losing money—big money—and losing a calf producer for years to come. We all think back to the times it's happened in the past and get serious in a hurry, hoofing up and down dusty inclines, and bouncing between stout trees with spiky boughs like pinballs between bumpers. After we take them down the last steep hill into Stone Creek, they spread out into thick grass, needing more prompting as the day gets warmer, the grandma cows get crankier, and the calves get more confused. The tension doesn't dissipate until there's open road in front of us, and we drive them through a gate that affords Brian the opportunity to count them.
They're all still with us.