Back in the day, I had a slightly larger herd of cattle. At its prime I had 22 head. Not pair, just total animals. Is that enough to qualify as a real herd? Well, it sure beats three, right? And they still all had names, of course.
I lived and worked as a caretaker at a kids camp in the mountains, and although not quite as remote as where I live now, the road getting there was ten times worse. I used to suggest to first time visitors to come in at night. That way, they couldn’t see the drop off on the passenger side through the many miles of one lane road, twisting and snaking along with 5mph turns up to the ranch. Although the kids were awesome, the camp scene was definitely not my thing. (It’s all those grown ups in camp still living out the dream of being a camper that had me worried most of the time.) I took care of the gardens, the farm animals, the horses and riding program, and that was plenty to keep me out of trouble in the summer. The rest of the year, alone on the ranch with my little boy and a lot of animals, I felt like the ranch was mine, and for years, treated the land and animals with the love and pride and respect as if I owned it all. Best part was, I not only didn’t have flip the bills, I got paid for it.
When I first moved there, I had a boss who could sense my enthusiasm and genuine interest, and encouraged my every whim. I told him I wanted to try raising sheep, and next thing you knew, I had sheep. I told him I want to have a real herd of cows, I wanted to reinstate our grazing permit on adjacent Forest Service lands, and I wanted to be allowed to play cowgirl. And the next thing you knew…
Thing is, I never moved a cow in my life, except dairy cows that come when you shake a bucket. And I sure didn’t know these mountains that were thick and heavy with timber and draws and cliffs and drainages. None of the open parks where you can actually see your cows, or see where you’re going, like we have here in Colorado. Its thick there. I learned why those cowboys wore chaps. Always wish I could figure out a way to rig up chaps for my cheeks, because I’d always come home from moving the cows with welts and lashes on my face. I learned the hard way that cows like to hang out in the willows. At least when we’d be trying to move them.
So, I’m getting better at this cowboy thing, and start increasing my heard from one, to 5, to 15, to 20… and every year to help increase that herd size, I would rent a bull. I’m serious. There was this wonderful man who hand raised his Black Angus and Poled Limousine bulls, and they were the sweetest and gentlest little things you ever did meet. OK, well, maybe not little. I guess they weigh in at a ton. But sweet, they were. So, the rent-a-bull guy would drive up that road to the ranch, that twisty winding narrow road with this big huge trailer, and drop me off a bull every year. We’d let it run with our herd, and then he’d come collect his sweet bull in the fall when the cattle came off the grazing allotment.
Worked great! Except for one slight problem. One year I lost the bull. No really. I lost him. In the mountains. High in the mountains, in these thick steep mountains with the heavy black timber, where the roads close due to snow in October and don’t open up again until June. Nice.
I found my cows, all 22 of them, no problem. See, I ran them with the old dairy cow. Ingenious cowgirl thinking! I could ride up in the woods and just call her name, and shake a can, and you know what? She’d come running, and bring the rest of the herd with her. Anyway, we’d been checking on them weekly, moving them along the mountain, and making special trips any time we got a report that they were hanging out in a camp ground. But that bull, well, I guess he did his job and lost interest and wandered off. I really lost him.
I called my boss in hysterics. He just said, “oh well, these things happen.” I called the rent-a-bull guy as well, and he pretty much just said the same thing. But I felt so terrible! (So stupid, too, of course.) So I called the old cowboy. The best tracker on the mountain. The man who knew that mountain before there even was a road up there. The man who had been chasing cattle around this high country for, well, by then, nearly 90 years. I called Bud.
No doubt, I’ll have to tell you more about Bud later. One of the most wonderful people I’ve even had the honor to meet. A man who, despite his age, or because of his age, was so open minded, so cared about people, that he truly believed this little former-city-girl really could grow into a cow girl. He’d invite me over to his house with his wonderful wife and I’d be happy listening to his stories of chasing cattle in the old days, or tracking lion, or panning for gold. He’d teach me about his stallion, and share his enthusiasm for the Quarter Horse, and allowed me to breed one of my mares there. He’d even let me ride with them when they’d gather the herd and collect the strays. Up there it was different, not the one big man owning a ton of cows like you got here, but a bunch of families each running a bunch of cows together, sometimes just one or two. I think I had the biggest group in there with my 22. Folks worked together, a real sense of community, just to survive and raise a little meat, and get out and ride together, work together, spend a day in the mountains together. Tell you what, that’s a good thing.
But now it was late in the season. We had gathered all the cows. No one was left on the mountain, and winter was approaching. And Bud says we better go one last time, scouring the mountain for tracks of the bull that got away… I just remember riding along in the old truck, squished on that bench seat between Bud and his wife, and Forrest in the back of the pick up. Bouncing along, listening to Bud’s wonderful tales and tracking tips, his voice loud and cheerful above the buzz of his hearing aid, forewarning us that his batteries were low, so no matter how loud we yelled, he could not hear us. But we all knew we had nothing to say in comparison with Bud and his stories… I could listen forever and never be bored.
Anyway, the snow came before we found the bull. And that’s the end of that story. I really did lose a bull. But the bright side being, of course, having had the chance to spend time with Bud and his beautiful wife, to learn a little more about life, and have the chance to believe the world is a pretty good place because of folks like them passing in our lives.