Becoming a Rancher

I oftentimes wonder how my life unfolds so swimmingly. I tend to think of my life as an overflowing, haphazard basket of whimsy and want, so when it unfolds how I want it to, I am always taken slightly by surprise. I like to think I somehow manifested the wonderful happenings of my life, but that’s giving me far too much credit. Especially considering that half the time I am vexed with worry and doubt that the life I yearn for won’t pan out, or worse yet that I don’t deserve it.

So when I thought about making a go of this whole ranching business back in January/post-breakup, I really didn’t have overwhelming confidence in any of it. I simply hoped for the best and went forward. I wish I could say I had mountains of faith and that was the ticket, but I couldn’t muster much of that then either. I was simply trying my hand at that whole one foot in front of the other/keep breathing/don’t freak out business while throwing myself in the way of ranching possibility.

Where I found myself the other night was lying awake in bed in complete and utter awe of it actually happening. Ranching that is. I was playing the events of the day over and over in my mind in wonder and gratitude, thinking how could it be? I thought, sure, I had wanted it real bad. So bad in fact I was scared of how much I wanted it.

And it happened. It simply happened.

In spite of my fear that it wouldn’t, it happened anyway. I sighed in delirious contentment and thought if there was a lesson in all of this, it was that I probably needed to believe more in the beautiful possibilities and yearnings of my heart, because they clearly were not steering me wrong.

So about that day, the one that kind of sealed the deal on my feeling like a rancher. Let me wax poetic for a spell.

I have been shadowing in the arenas of cheese-making, cow milking and brandings with the kindest and most patient ranchers this side of the Mississippi—at least in my humble opinion—but also the ones most likely to help me accomplish my ranching goals. Not many tasks have made me feel as accomplished as making homemade mozzarella by myself, which I did this week. Or milking a cow, which promptly shimmied up the list as well.

I had actually been yearning to milk a cow since first arriving in Hyattville. I’d even watched my friend do it dozens of times over the past few months. But when she finally gave me the go ahead to milk Daisy while she left to go run an errand, I panicked slightly, wondering how she had so much confidence in me with her rather large and slightly intimidating animal.

Okay, I had thought, hopefully, I can do this. I got the milk pumping machine on Daisy with no incident with my friend’s supervision before she left, giving me instructions on when to pull the pumps off. I nodded brightly, trying not to show my nerves. I could do this, I repeated to myself. I could milk Daisy and not over-milk her or under-milk her. Was that even possible, I wondered. If it was, I knew I would be the one to accidentally do it.

I kept tabs on Daisy and patted her side lovingly, like I had seen my friend do, and said nice things to her, so that when I had to walk around her backside she wouldn’t kick me for being an imbecile. Not that I really thought I would get kicked, but nonetheless, I hoped Daisy sensed my timid awe of her size and milking abilities.

According to my friend, all the udders would be soft once she was done milking, and all but one was, so I kept trying to urge that one along while continually checking on it and growing slightly worried about whether I was doing something wrong. I kept walking around her and checking the udder in question and the milking machine, when I saw the barn door open and a very nice fella from town poked his head in and smiled at me, asking if I was alone today.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, deeply relieved to have a second opinion on whether I was over-milking poor Daisy. “Could you perhaps have a look and tell me if she is done milking, because I am not exactly sure…” I ventured.

He stepped in, walked around and had a look. “I’d say she’s done.”

“You’re sure? Even that one back there?” I pointed to the udder in question that I was concerned about. He checked and nodded.

Phew, I thought with deep relief. I unhooked the machine and walked around to unlock the barn door. I unhooked the latch that held her neck in place for her to enjoy hay and oats while being milked. I then moved the posts that lined up next to her body, and told her, “alright you can go now sweetheart,” with gratitude that she had tolerated my slight ineptitude with such sweet cow aplomb. She backed up to get out the door and then stared at the still closed door with me now on the other side of her.

Well crap. I had unlocked the door, but didn’t open it for her to get out.

“Okay, one second,” I said apologetically, shimmying under the posts to get back to the door while she politely backed up excusing my error. I am certain Daisy is the loveliest and most gracious cow, because I bet if she could have, she would have rolled her eyes at me.

I let her out.

I had done it. I had milked a cow and no one got hurt. Not me, nor Daisy. Sweating slightly, I wiped my brow, finally feeling confident to make my morning cup of coffee.

Now as if milking a cow all by myself—well with a smidgen of oversight from a very kind sir—wasn’t enough to make my ranching dreams seem like a reality, I was informed that on that very same day I would get to go on horseback to help move cows for a branding.

Moving cows by horseback was something I had been itching to do ever since I had first laid eyes on this occurrence in the West many months prior. Later that afternoon I came back to the ranch to help gather up the horses, saddle them and get ready for the branding. I use the term help very loosely as my friend’s husband, who is even more lovely and gracious than Ms. Daisy, did all the gathering of the horses and showed me how to saddle, while still doing the bulk of the work himself.

I mounted my horse Oscar, loosely holding onto the reins, and mentally trying to conjure up all the things I remembered about horses and maneuvering from my years of sporadic riding lessons. I also mentally tried to communicate with Oscar, to please cooperate with me and not make me look bad in front of all the cowboys—this includes the cowgirls, I just deeply enjoy the term cowboys—that were now mounted and ready on their horses. Most of them had on chaps and cowboy hats and some were holding ropes. I felt a heady anticipation.

As soon as we began to move, however, Oscar picked up speed seemingly wanting to go into a trot, while I pulled back on the reins as no one else was going that fast. He clearly had not heard my mental message. He did his speed up and go business for a bit while I tried to pull him back. His response was to shake his head, no, and try it again. Until we got to a river crossing where he seemed altogether hesitant to go across. I urged him forward, until finally with us near the end of the grouping, he crossed and then began to pick up speed once more.

I tried my best to steer him and rein him in, but he really wasn’t having it. By this point we had gotten to where the cows were and were guiding them back toward the corral. Oscar wanted to run forward still and I didn’t want to be the one person mucking up the whole cow moving effort.

By this point my friend motioned me over to her, to grab one of my reins, holding it along with her own reins until we got back. I should have felt slight mortification over being an incompetent horsewoman in front of all these awe-inspiring ranchers and ropers, but I didn’t care, because with Oscar now being handled and seemingly calm, I could bask in my first experience of moving cows. And take in the scenery.

I happily swayed in my saddle while watching the baby calves trot alongside their mamas. The afternoon radiated warmth from the strong spring sunshine, while the rich green grass was a perfect contrast to the blue grey mountains along the horizon. I watched the others on their horses and wanted to fold up the field like a fresh sheet, with all its accompanying animals, cowboys and feelings of western grandeur and timelessness and put it in the linen closet of my mind.

Later I lazily leaned against a fence watching the men rope the calves, feeling much less flustered this time, than my first time at a branding. This was now my third branding, so I felt I could probably even contribute.

My ranching friend who was roping asked why I didn’t bring my rope. And I laughed, pointing out that everyone present would have to possess a lot more patience for the day and expect no calves to be roped if I was left with that daunting task.

Later I sat on a flatbed trailer while watching the men rope and drag the calves ready for branding, while a young tough girl I fiercely admired for her wrangling abilities, gave the little ones their shots.

When it was all over, food was lined up on truck beds in vast quantities, while a bottle of Crown Royal was passed around. I was offered a swig, though I did nothing of note to warrant my earning a drink, but I tipped the bottle back and drank anyway. It singed down my throat but felt nice, and I quipped, “that’ll put hair on your chest!”

“I hope not!” the cowboy who had given it to me said aghast, “If I thought that, I wouldn’t have given it to you!”

I laughed and waited until everyone who had worked much harder than I had got their heaping plates of pastas and BBQ’d meat and strawberry rhubarb pie and beer.

I helped myself to all of the above, except beer and was just helping myself to more German chocolate cake, when my friend asked if I wanted a beer. I said yes and he brought me a Coors. I gulped it down in between bites of cake and thought, Coors and chocolate actually are a mighty fine combo. Perhaps the new best combo of my life.

And that’s when it really hit me.

The moment was freaking perfect.

The beer and cake, the temperature dropping in the air, a couple cows come to watch the feasting and us, the ranchers milling about visiting after a hard day’s work of roping, castrating, branding and being in the saddle. And I deeply admired all of them and felt that it was an immense privilege and honor to know people like this, but furthermore to even be included in this sacred part of the West.

It was such an exceptionally rare moment of peace for me that I asked myself if the moment or even the whole day could’ve been made better by any of the things I normally fret about. If I had a husband or babies or health insurance would my beer and cake have tasted sweeter? Would my saddle have felt smoother? Would the air have been warmer? Would the cowboys’ smiles and generosity of spirit been brighter?

No. There was no doing anything to that day to top it in my mind or to take away from that simple state of wondrous being and belonging. If I could make these Hyattville ranchers fields forever fertile and their cattle extra plump and their beer and whisky even finer, I would, to show them how grateful I am for what they’ve given me.

Unfortunately I don’t wield that kind of power, so my honest hope is that I become half as incredible a rancher as any of them, and maybe one day really can rope a calf from atop my horse. And perhaps remember that the next time life’s problems seem a little out of hand, that it’s nothing a Coors and cake probably couldn’t solve.

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A Day in the Life of a Rancher: The Branding

I got to experience my first calf branding the other day. I was unnaturally elated and felt like this was the height of cowboy culture—other than perhaps moving cows by horseback which I am also dying to do.

I am not sure why I went into it so full of pep, as the very words, calf and branding together don’t exactly speak to a lot of joviality. I knew branding would probably be intense but I still wanted to see this iconic ranching experience.

Upon arriving I noted a smell similar to that of being in a dental chair having a cavity drilled. I could see billowing white smoke coming up from the backs of where the calves fur was being singed. Then I noted small trickles of blood coming from both their ears and lower extremities, having just been castrated and dehorned as well. The testicles were then thrown into a Folgers Coffee container. My eyes kept going from Folgers container of testicles to the calves’ eyes. I watched on trying not to get shook-up when they struggled on the calf table.

Every time I could feel myself being slightly taken aback by the very rawness of ranching and that animals would indeed need to experience some pain in their lives—much like us humans—my rancher friend who was castrating, would smile reassuringly when he caught my eye, in a way that seemed like a shrug, what can ya do?

What can ya do, is right? This was the rancher’s job and all of the things taking place needed to be done. For starters, I myself, like almost everyone in America enjoys cheeseburgers; and I know that a cow doesn’t simply lie down and die in a field of daffodils on a dewy morning, only for a rancher to stumble along and go, hey, this would make a fine meal! I happily and blithely enjoy cheeseburgers with no thoughts of the dirty work involved. All that aside… Castration, I learned, prevented inbreeding, or breeding too early and allowed the bulls to focus on their feeding versus breeding. The dehorning had several purposes too, involving safety for the ranchers and the cattle’s ability to move through chutes unencumbered at meat-processing plants.

The calves were given two shots during this process. This is where I got put on in the lineup. Shot detail. I filled up the shots for each new calf about to have his first real-eye opening experience about life in the Wild West, just like I was having my own. I felt helpful in this way, though, and like I was doing something of import and healing for the calves. Every time I got to fill a new vial and see a calf hop off the table, I felt a little better.

They were corralled into a small pen that doubles as a table which flips up. Then the calf is held down with prongs while all the necessities take place. A lot of bellowing goes on and their eyes get slightly bulgy. But the interesting thing about their bellowing is it doesn’t get that loud. I thought, if that were me on the table getting branded and castrated and dehorned, they’d hear me bellowing clear over in Thailand, that’s how much I wouldn’t be having it.

Now here is the really interesting part. Once the calf is let go, he’d hop off the table and scamper away looking no worse for wear. Truly. And all of this is only a couple minute process. Either calves are great pretenders, or they really are quite resilient even if they’re hurting and they simply go back to the business of being young’uns who curiously run around the yard and play or go looking for their mama. I couldn’t believe it. About 97 of the 100 or so calves that were being branded that day all looked right as rain and like nothing at all had just happened to them.

About one looked as if it had gone through some sort of ordeal, while two others had the grandiose notion to perhaps lay in the sun and take a well-deserved nap. If I was a calf, not only would I be the single calf in the herd looking as if I’d just had an ordeal, I would also be the one napping and I would be running and bellowing to my mama about said ordeal. I probably wouldn’t shut up about it for weeks. The other calves would roll their eyes and think I was a pansy-ass. But it’s true. I now knew that one of my “bad” days was nothing in comparison to a calf’s bad day.

I was also informed that sometimes the calves get diarrhea and spew all over whoever happens to be at that end of the table, either brander or herder. My friend told me that one year her young son—who was also helping that day—was standing decently far away on herding patrol and still got diarrhea splattered all over his face. His face. I can’t even… Although her comical response to this, was that it probably boosted his immune system. Ranchers, gotta love ’em.

But all of the shock of what very real ranching and branding looked like aside, I had a whole new appreciation for my cushy life that had hardly touched on real farming, or any truly harrowing experiences. I had never been branded, thank God, but I also had never had to brand anything either.

My day of branding may have been the first day I wasn’t altogether romanced by ranching. But on the tail-end of this sobering thought was that it was okay. I didn’t always have to be romanced by ranching, because like the ranchers had been saying over and over to me, there were lots of aspects of ranching that didn’t look particularly romantic. They were gritty and filthy and tough and bellowing and covered in diarrhea and/or blood.

And if I thought I was the only one struggling to see the calves struggle I would’ve been wrong. I later talked about it with my rancher friend in charge of the castrating and he agreed, branding was a tough thing to see and an even tougher thing to do, but it was a necessity for the herd. It had to be done in order to prevent their animals—their assets—from getting lost and unrecovered or stolen and it was the best way, where other ways, like merely tagging weren’t nearly as reliable. He confessed he didn’t like it any more than I did, but that it did have to be done. And I admired him deeply for that.

He also pointed out that our culture as a whole was getting a bit too soft over the animal killing thing. He said, “Nowadays, I’m afraid if you put a couple people in a room with a gun and a rabbit until they starved, several people would choose to starve or end up shooting themselves before they killed the rabbit. And we have to get away from that.”

I thought that notion was slightly comical, but probably true. I will admit I recently ran over a rabbit on my way home from work and felt horrible about it. But, I would have no problem killing a rabbit if that was my only means of sustenance. Especially if I was starving. If you have ever seen me when I am starving you’d understand that I’d probably kill you if you got in my way of some juicy meat over the notion that it was cruel. Ask my sister Kia about this, when she dared to eat a bagel in front of me during competition on The Biggest Loser and I wasn’t allowed to touch a carbohydrate. Needless to say, Kia probably now has a complex about bagels because of how poorly I reacted.

And don’t get me wrong now either. I am an animal lover through and through. I think Sea World and zoos are incredibly cruel for animals and I don’t support that shenanigans. I don’t however think ranching, hunting or eating meat as sustenance is in any way cruelty to animals.

As the day wound down, and mama cows got reunited with their calves and everyone seemed content, I noticed my friend’s young son snatch what I thought was a calf testicle and pop it in his mouth. Now it was my turn for my eyes to bug out of my head. I thought I was mistaken and watched intently as he went to do it again, singeing it first on a still-hot branding iron, and even offering me one. I shuddered and said no thank you. He laughed and said, “I betchya I could get you to eat one by the end of the day.”

“It’s highly unlikely,” I said while leaning over a fence leaning into the warm sunshine, but smiling at his gumption anyway. I later learned they were full of nutrients and all the ranchers seemed nonplussed by his eating them, even noted that it’d probably be good if I ate one too.

I couldn’t bring myself to, even when the young lad cooked them over a handmade grill instead of a branding iron. I knew I was inching ever closer to the vicinity of my dreams of being a rancher/farmer, but yet… I still had a long ways to go. At least until I could ever dream of branding a calf or eating one of their testicles… but maybe one day. Stranger things have happened.

But for days after, I thought a lot about the branding in particular and the romance of the West. Was there a romance to be found in branding? The calves being branded was not terribly romantic perhaps… But then about a week later, I found myself sitting in a rancher’s home having been invited by my friends to a jam session. There were about ten musicians in a circle playing banjos, harmonicas, a bass and guitars while singing old Western tunes. I had just eaten the most unbelievable steak that my friends I did the branding with had brought and cooked perfectly. I sipped on cool white wine while watching the makeshift band tap their toes in time to the music and wondered how I could burn this memory to my brain? I didn’t want to forget the music in the large and open log cabin facing the Wyoming mountains with the April sun on my face.

And that’s when my brain answered back, you could brand this to your memory. And I smiled on the word brand. Alright. I will somehow brand it to my memory bank, burning it there with a hot, hot iron, singeing it into my neurons, so I could draw it up one day for the same warmth the sun and the sounds and the wine had given me. And just a few songs later, the band wanted to dedicate a song to our beloved Merle Haggard. They played Merle’s, “Branded Man.” I couldn’t help but think maybe the universe was with me on this one. Maybe the romance could still be found. Even in things branded.