Becoming a Rancher

A day in the life of...

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.

My One Month-iversary

Musings

Yesterday was my one month anniversary of settling in Hyattville. I feel champagne is in order. Although, there are a lot of times I feel champagne is in order. Easter. Weekend brunch. Evening writing. Getting paisley shirts in the mail from a cowgirl friend. Any number of occasions warrant champagne in my mind, because champagne is so darn fizzy and delightful; very full of pep. This event definitely qualifies.

This week has been full of all sorts of forays into the ranching world too, which feels toast-worthy. On Monday I went to a friends ranch and got to see sheep getting sheared. I was even handed a prod shortly after arriving to help move the sheep along in the process. Though I didn’t really want to use the prod (it wasn’t an electrical prod mind you), I preferred the approach of simply cooing to the sheep, ‘c’mon,’ or ‘move along’ and surprisingly that about did it. Or if I simply dragged the prod along the gated chute they were walking through, that moved them forward, along with my shadow moving past which seemed to make them skittish enough to move along without incident.

Except for the obstinate ones. About one sheep, every 15 or so was not having it. And assumed—by his irrational behavior it seemed—that he was being led to a death chamber. He would go ballistic in the chute, trying to turn himself around in the narrow space and run back the way he came, therefore riling up the sheep behind him so they backed up in fear. Or a few particularly brazen sheep would charge the chute at the corner, leaping upwards and nearly scrambling over the gate before a fellow sheep prodder would catch the large sheep and wrangle him back in line. For being decently large creatures they sure can jump if they want to. So those were the sheep I ended up having to prod along. And I must say I admired this small and stubborn bunch a great deal. What gumption!

Then a few days later I got up before the dawn to go over to a friend’s ranch who had dairy cows and her own creamery. I must admit, there was something very Laura Ingalls-esque in my mind about learning to milk a cow. I naturally assumed I would have to sit on an upturned wooden bucket with a piece of straw in my mouth, and perhaps even be wearing red plaid and a tipped back cowboy hat in order to do this. I was wrong on all counts.

First of all, I bundled up in a sweatshirt, a fur-lined vest and brought gloves and coat as well, because when I left the house that morning, it was not yet 30 degrees. Also I had thrown on a baseball hat, not a cowboy hat, because at that hour I was too lazy to even think of cowboy fashion.

Upon watching the whole cow milking event take place—as my friend told me I could surely milk the cows myself in time, once I learned the ropes—I realized times had changed and no upturned bucket or straw in mouth was required. My friend was methodical about getting the udders cleaned and saying sweet things to her cow Daisy, before affixing Daisy’s udders with a contraption that hooked to a tall metal pail via tubes that would pump the milk for her.

Well, I’ll be. Who the heck knew?

And it seemed to not take very much time at all and just like that it was over. Once the milk was poured into jugs and put away, it was cleaning time. Cleaning the barn and sweeping it out, cleaning and sanitizing all the pails and equipment, mopping the floors and putting everything away, including Daisy. Although she was the first to be set free after her contribution was given.

After that I followed my friend up to her house where she was starting to make butter. Again, my brain latched onto the only image of making butter I knew. A woman dressed in Amish garb, wearing a bonnet and dutifully sitting with a large wooden chamber between her legs while she furiously churned away for hours on end.

That is one hundred percent not how butter was being made in this house. She started out with a large gallon of cream and attached another mechanical device to the top that started doing the churning for her, making the cream rise to the top of the jar. She told me eventually the white cream would turn yellow.

I was stupefied. I wouldn’t call any of this stuff easy. It was all time consuming; I mean milking cows at dawn required serious work, even if that work was accompanied by new technology. And then to make homemade butter to boot. I was sincerely impressed with this woman. She also made homemade cheeses and Greek Yogurt. Friday would be my cheese making lesson and I was beside myself over that notion.

I want to be that kind of pioneering woman as it is beyond impressive. Before I left she gave me a jar of fresh feta in oil and I about swooned. I wanted to throw my arms around her in deep gratitude. Honestly that is how I feel about anyone giving me cheese as a gift, much less fresh homemade feta (which is one of my favorite cheeses). I went home and had to stop myself from just tipping the jar into my mouth like a total heifer, pun intended.

I instead rationed the cheese, putting little dollops on crackers and trying to tamp down nirvana which was running through my veins at the taste of this cheese. And I took a note from Wisconsin and accompanied this rich treat with a bottle of beer.

Good job, Daisy. Or Bess. Or whichever cow had contributed to the making of that wonder. And good job Anheuser Busch. I have never liked your beer more. Although my beer was expired, so that’s really giving most of the credit to the cheese for taking the edge off of the beer.

At any rate, this week and this month here has been nothing but fruitful. I am beyond grateful to all the ranchers who continually let me shadow or participate in their work and experience a part of their livelihood. And then do wonderfully kind things for me above that, like giving me their homemade feta, inviting me to their homes for dinners and celebrations, including me in Lenten Luncheon carpools, having me over for midday bonfires and wine, and talking to me about my dreams and believing they are as possible as turning milk into butter. You are all what makes it easy for me to see that Hyattville is a place where graciousness and goodness are as large as your cattle herds. If not abundantly larger.