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High Altitude Ranch Life, by Phoebe Cranor

Review by Martha Quillen

Mountain Life – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

High Altitude Ranch Life
by Phoebe Cranor
A Low Altitude Transplant With a Music Degree
published in 1996 by Davidson Publishing
ISBN 0-9655322-0-8

HIGH ALTITUDE RANCH LIFE offers light-hearted reminiscences of the author’s days as a ranch wife near Gunnison before she and her husband retired to their home in town. The short articles in High Altitude first appeared in The Gunnison Country Times, and are accompanied by family pictures.

From first to last, Cranor’s musings are invariably amusing, as she recalls her first experiences with cooking, cream separators, tractors, cattle, household chores, and Gunnison winters.

Yet curiously enough, her columns are more about her mishaps than they are about her triumphs, and more about the hard times than the superlative moments. Cranor often pokes gentle, self-deprecating fun at herself. For example:

“If anybody knows the value of practice, it is music teachers. One day my daughters challenged me to a cartwheel turning contest — clear across the lawn from the back gate to the front. I lost painfully.

“As a result, I decided to practice a bit. I picked a time when the kids and the sheep dog were playing in the barn and the men were working in the field. Over and over I went with my flowered dress flying around me. I felt rather smug about my success.

“However, I wasn’t aware that somebody else was also keeping score. A couple of the hired men had come in for drinking water and were standing, elbows on the pole fence, watching my gymnastics. I am sure they were choking in an effort to keep their laughter quiet. I know they thought the show would stop if the audience laughed. It would have, too.”

With buoyant good humor, Cranor writes about her difficulties learning to make cottage cheese, about the fancy but inedible birthday cake she once made by forgetting the sugar, about the time she couldn’t budge the Shetland pony that took up residence under her kitchen table, and about her inability to ever back a pickup with a trailer on the back.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Cranor has a rare ability to laugh at all the frustrating inconveniences of ranch life — from electrical outages to a dog too fond of skunks. In spite of the rigors, Cranor obviously enjoyed her life.

Thus, it’s not too surprising when you get to the end of the book, and find out that the author has written several inspirational works (even though only a few of the pieces in this volume mention religion).

I suspect readers who have pulled calves, raked fields and operated cream separators, will especially enjoy this book. And Cranor’s jocularity may even convert some of their glum memories of bad weather and exhausting work into fond remembrances.

The author has an old-fashioned country style reminiscent of ’50s westerns, sit-coms, and Disney, however, which may leave some readers — who aren’t accustomed to that tradition — looking for more. Cranor is so loyal and true-blue that there’s nary a complaint in her entire collection. There’s no agonizing, dejection, regrets, or sex either.

In truth, I didn’t realize how personal, introspective and confessional most narratives had become — until I realized that Cranor was never going to tell her readers if she sometimes wanted to run back home to the warmth of Phoenix. Nor was she about to reveal any dissatisfaction, resentment or disappointment she may have felt about her circumstances.

Instead, Cranor loves word-play and whimsy. She writes about MINS and MUPS as in: When it rains and there’s hay in the fields, a rancher must get a MIN, or get a MUP. And about dragons, as in:

“The first spring after we were married, my experienced rancher husband announced over breakfast, `Well, I guess today I better get busy and take care of the draggin’.”

“Dragon?” I gasped. “What dragon?”

“The meadow draggin’.”


“Although I later found out about pulling a big drag behind the tractor to break up the cow piles, I have never been entirely convinced there is not a large green monster who yawns himself awake every spring on the back side of the place — and then enjoys being taken care of for a bit.”

There are a lot of things Cranor doesn’t tell her readers in this collection, which sometimes makes the reader wonder about the memories she left out. For example, in 43¾ years on a ranch between Crested Butte and Gunnison, one assumes there must have been a few killer years when the calves froze in the fields, and it seemed that the sun would never shine again.

But this isn’t a collection by a long-suffering ranch wife who perseveres with patience and endurance. It’s a story about a woman who cartwheels, cross-country skis, and frequently makes a picnic out of serving the ranch hands’ lunch.

At first, this joviality makes the collection seem almost too light. But as the columns mount into a story of Cranor cooking, cleaning, tending animals, having four children in four years, teaching music, and writing books, it becomes clear that her mirth carries her through it all.

Rather than being a book about ranching, High Altitude Ranch Life is a book about the laughter and joy Cranor found in life on a ranch. The author shares her warm, comic memories of life in the Gunnison country, and in doing so she also delivers a message that there really are true-life happy endings — for those who know how to laugh.

— Martha Quillen