As Far as the Eye Can See
The last day of the drive goes through a canyon that is always windy. In the fall, it gets downright brisk. There is danger here. The willows along the river are almost impassably thick, and yet have been known to swallow cattle. There are a number of steep, though short, dropoffs from the road into the river, and cattle can, in many places, simply walk through the fence.
But nothing happens. They trudge right through like the infantry. Hallelujah.
On the other side of the canyon, we pass through a gorgeous little valley with lush grass and alfalfa fields, and beautiful homes sheltered by massive trees. We're miles and miles from any major road, back where you can breathe—and it just seems safer. We all agree that the ranches and homes should belong to us.
Another few miles, and we come to the last ranch before Forest Service land. It belongs to Dale's cousin Gary. The stream meanders through grass fields that stretch throughout the tight valley. It is bounded on all sides by bare chaparral hills rising into forested ridges and peaks. This is the start of Three Forks land, and though Cow Camp, where the association cowboys are stationed, is miles up the road, we are going to deposit them on rangeland in the hills to the west. Hundreds of feet up. Oh, boy…
We start pushing and the cattle grudgingly begin their final ascent. It's steep. The slow cattle in the back—including the cow they call Grandma, and the cantankerous 818 and U21—take a dim view of this. But then an omen appears. After we round the first bend, we see a fully grown elk cow grazing in front of the herd. She trudges up the grade ahead of us, and you could swear that the herd starts following her. Even after she darts into the forest, the cattle steadily climb, prodded by the hoots and yah's and hut's and whistles and growls emanating from us. We climb the long incline in about forty minutes, without major argument. Will wonders never cease.
For their efforts, the cattle are rewarded with a mountain meadow thick with grass and wildflowers, near a brook, hidden in the trees, high above the road and its activity. Nearby is a broad grassy shoulder that looks out across the valley to the mountains in the distance. This will be their home for the summer. Looks like cow heaven to me. Looks like people heaven, too.
And so the drive is done. All the cattle made it, with no health problems and no major accidents. Part of it was the weather and part of it was just plain horse-manure luck. And part of it was that this crew doesn't screw up. Well, rarely, anyway.
Chewing the fat with association cowboy Ryan Banks as the cows mother up
As we stand with our horses on the edge of the meadow, letting the cows and their calves find each other—which they do quite well because they were driven—we look out over the intersecting canyons and high ridgelines spreading out before us. Bill talks about the trail that runs along the top of the ridge we're on, all the way to Sugarloaf Peak. We talk about riding it with a pack horse loaded with civilized provisions. Someday. Brian talks about snowmobiling all over the ridges in the distance to the east, and about how you can see both the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone from the top of Black Butte. He tells of the wild kid who works like hell with a single purpose in his life—to get a new snowmobile—and how he will charge up a steep slope, then crank it around to start a snowslide that he'll then outrun. We all agree that he's nuts.
Finally, we kill the last road bottle. We all take off our hats, and Bill says a quiet little epitaph before he slurps down the last draw.