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This ain’t no disco

Column by Hal Walter

Ranching – April 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S BEEN A COLD WINTER, but by all signs it’s ending early. Calves were born in early February and mares started cycling with the March full moon. A mourning dove arrived the first week of March, and flocks of robins followed in the warm still days. The small accumulations of snow that remained as depth hoar throughout the below-zero nights disappeared, lingering only on the north-facing slopes where large bowls formed around the trees. A person who is connected to the land takes notice of such things.

One of the warmer joys of this winter was reading a book called Hot Biscuits, a collection of short stories about the ranching West gathered by Max Evans and Candy Moulton. Each contributor was required, in addition to good writing skills, to have five years experience on a working ranch. The book was a Christmas gift from my parents and its title was derived from the common thread that each of the stories contained at least a passing mention of biscuits. Oddly, my reading of Hot Biscuits coincided with a strange series of events late this winter that led to my becoming a “part-time winter caretaker” at neighboring Bear Basin Ranch. I agreed to the work as my writing and editing duties for a major client of five years had become more tenuous, and the pay not only less in amount but also less dependable in arrival.

As a friend and neighbor of Bear Basin owners Amy Finger and Gary Ziegler, I have lent a helping hand here and there over the years (more than five) when they’ve needed it. Sometimes people get hurt. Or they just drift away. Sometimes they get fired. So I’ve come to know the ranch, the fencelines, trails, springs, and names and habits of most of the 45 horses in the herd.

Gary and Amy spend winters in Colorado Springs where they manage the business of their adventure travel company, which includes not only Bear Basin Ranch, but also trips to Copper Canyon in Mexico and the backcountry of Peru. As February ended, we agreed that I would caretake their ranch from Monday through Thursday, and that they would drive up each Friday and stay over the weekends.

The basic chores included feeding the main herd of 42 horses and one mule on the “North Ranch” which is near my house. There’s a stud horse, pregnant mare and some wild barn cats (essential livestock for keeping rats from chewing up saddles) at Gary and Amy’s house, also known as “Lee’s” for its former owner, on the west end of the ranch. And at the main ranch complex there are five longhorns — one bull, three cows and a new calf.

As is the case for nearly every ranch in the West, the first priority, of course, is water. The North Ranch is blessed by several springs that bubble to the surface in good-enough quantity for the main herd. But at the main ranch compound and Lee’s, the stock tanks can accumulate ice despite constant inflow from springs. Thus the measure of a day’s beginning could be taken by the thickness of the ice. The 20-below nights of February sometimes brought a layer 6 inches thick, which had to be cracked and broken with a pickax or maul, then scooped out with a shovel. After warmer nights thin ice could be removed with just a shovel. As the days grew longer and the sun rose higher, several glorious mornings revealed stock tanks free of ice. The dripping of water into an open tank sounds like laughter after so many polar mornings.

UNFORTUNATELY, warmer weather does not make hay any less heavy or dusty. In recent years the advent of “big bales” has added a new dimension. When the job first started, the standard operating procedure was to back one of the ranch pickups up to a stack of big bales, cutting the strings and “flaking” the bale off into the bed of the truck. We’re talking about 800 to 1,000 pounds of hay here. Depending on whether you were tossing the flakes down from a top layer or lifting it up from the frozen ground this could be relatively easy or nearly impossible. Occasionally I’d cut the strings on one that was baled too dry, and the entire 800 pounds of alfalfa would instantaneously disintegrate into green powder. I developed a great devotion to the traditional small bales that I keep for my own operation.

With the truck loaded, I’d drive the three or so miles over to North Ranch and begin to fork out the hay in as many piles as possible for horses who did not calmly walk up to my pickup and wait in line to be fed. This ain’t no disco. Amid the calamity of kicking, squealing and charging horses the safest place to be standing was in the bed of the truck with the hay. But first I had to make room. Once, while I was moving the truck, a horse slammed another into the passenger door with a resounding boom, rocking the loaded rig sideways. Amazingly there was no damage to the side panel, though the sideview mirror was adjusted to afford a view of the blue sky.

THERE WERE SMALL bales in the barn at Lee’s for the stud and mare and that made things easy. Each morning the foal seemed lower in the mare’s belly. Keeping track of the cats was more difficult. One morning I spotted one scraggly orange cat soaking up some sunshine but other than that they were invisible. Over at the ranch compound the cows were fed odds and ends from big and small bales of “cow hay,” which was stacked by the corral.

These rounds could take from a couple of hours to a half-day depending on daily happenings. One day the cows broke the corral by reaching through for scraps of hay and then pulling back on the boards with their horns. The calf escaped and ran lose on the busy county road. Neighbors Becky Kagan and son Wesley just happened to be driving by and stopped to help me chase the calf back into the corral. We visited while I jerry-rigged the corral for the evening. The next day I fixed it properly with new boards. Another day I found three horses had jumped a cattle guard into another pasture. In addition to rounding them up, I discovered one of them had cut his chest on something and the wound needed attention. When it was all said and done I figured I was losing from $50 to $100 daily by focusing on this ranch work instead of the writing and editing that I normally do. And, of course, my own animals and ranch chores were always waiting for me when I arrived home.

To make matters worse, or actually better in the long run as you shall see, I had developed an allergic reaction to the hay in the big bales in addition to a muscular reaction in my lower back. The biggest problem seemed to be loading the big bales into the trucks. I had noticed that the hay contained more than just alfalfa. There was lamb’s quarter, spiny lettuce, thistle and other foreign plant life, like fossils recording the aftermath of several years of drought. Whatever it was, something really started bothering my sinuses.

There’s an ancient Allis Chalmers tractor at the ranch and we agreed that every Sunday Gary, the only available person with the precision ability to do so, would tractor-load all of the ranch trucks with big bales for the week’s feeding. This eliminated loading, so all I’d have to do was drive out to North Ranch and feed the animals. While this reduced the sinus and back strain somewhat, it was clear that I could not continue messing with whatever it was in the big bales that made my voice rough and my throat sore. So Gary and Amy hired neighbor Nancy Hedberg to feed the main herd while I continued with the other chores and to keep a watch on the place.

Like me, Nancy has livestock of her own — horses and cows. But unlike me, throwing out 800 pounds or so of big-bale alfalfa did not leave her itching from head to foot, sneezing entire sentences, or croaking with a voice like Leonard Cohen. As we drove around and I showed her the chores, she mused that her only concern with the job was the impact on her personal time. We talked about how it really wasn’t worth the money we were being paid, but how there was something about driving a pickup into a herd of forty-something horses and single-handedly forking out a half-ton of hay. When you tell people about this it gets their attention.

Above all, there was the question of why educated and highly skilled people in their 40s signed up for work like this. Nancy laughingly noted it was sort of “sick.” But the reconnection with the land, which is something that falls to the wayside when I spend too much time in front of a computer, is beyond monetary value.

As the weather improved, I turned more of my white-collar ambitions to my own ranching operation. The annual manure glacier had begun to thaw and I cleaned out my corrals using an Ames Grain Hog Shovel and a big wheelbarrow. Canela the mule followed me around like a dog. At two years old, she’s almost a pest and is extremely curious about what I’m doing. One day she watched intently, and I could tell wheels were turning in her head. Then she turned around, backed up to the wheelbarrow, and, well, saved me some shoveling. At that moment I realized she was more intelligent and polite than certain corporate executives.

With my hands cracked from the ranch work and my mind hammered from my writing work, I went on strike for an afternoon and drove out to Avondale where I buy hay from rancher Doug Wiley. As I sat on my tailgate at the haystack waiting for Doug on that beautiful 70-degree afternoon, I listened to starlings shriek and cackle in the trees and pigeons cooing in an abandoned block granary. Those few moments were my most peaceful in a long time.

Meanwhile, back at the office, there was a matter of a largish check for writing and editing that had now taken more than a month to “trickle down.” There was also a 1099 from the same company incorrectly indicating payment in 2003 of an amount so laughably high as to be absurd. When my complaints about the late payment grew more impatient, I received a phone call marking the first time in my life I had been yelled at for not being paid on time. Luckily, Gary and Amy had paid me promptly for the ranch chores, and the smallish check from my ranching job bought groceries, including ingredients for biscuits, while the other check was “in the mail.”

A central theme in the book Hot Biscuits is an undying connection to the land that some people in the west feel. As Candy Moulton notes in the collection’s afterword, people of what she calls “The Working West” have an immense responsibility to preserve these traditions and lifestyles. Though they fight unrelenting natural elements such as extreme weather and drought, physical hardships, and almost unbeatable economic realities, they continue with their work. Whether they run their own operations, hire on as hands for other ranchers, or both, they approach this work with a stubborn but spiritual sense of a positive future. Perhaps these lessons are more important than the size of a paycheck.

Writer Hal Walter developed an uncanny craving for biscuits this winter — and these are exceptional:

Hal’s Cosmic Cowby Biscuits

Preheat oven to 450°. In a bowl mix in this order

2 cups organic whole white winter wheat flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 pinch of salt

1/2 cup heavy cream (whipping cream)

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup soft butter

Turn this out onto a lightly floured wooden cutting board. Roll into a ball and then flatten with a rolling pin to about 3/4 inch thick. Cut biscuits with a glass, place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 12-14 minutes.