Sunday, August 9, 2009

Circling Back

Little Duke was not little. The cowboys named him that to differentiate him from his dad, Old Duke, who eventually became Duke Whitey, because of his thick white hair. Both Dukes are part of a long line of Phillips, which I think is now up to Duke the Fourth with Little Duke’s son. In my family nobody has ever made it past Junior, so this feels weighty to me.

I met Little Duke when he knocked on our door to offer Mike a job day riding. We didn’t have a phone so he had driven the eighteen miles out to our place and since Mike wasn’t there, he delivered the message to me. It was a brief conversation. I had yet to discover that it would be the beginning of years of working together and many late night campfire barbecues, with guitars, poetry and stories.

The Phillips came to the Snake River from Old Mexico. They were Texans, but grew up on a ranch south of the border. Duke and his brother Scott were our age and both spent time on the Oregon ranch between college and getting married. Their ranch included Dug Bar, Horse Creek, Camp Creek and Target Springs.

Horse Creek is now part of our winter range. The house is actually on the Imnaha River, and the range extends into a fork of Horse Creek. My first memory of Horse Creek is from a cattle drive from Dug Bar to Camp Creek. We overnighted at the Horse Creek house and our black half-wild pup escaped the truck and disappeared during a storm. The next morning after the cowboys headed out, Duke came riding back with the bedraggled pup under his arm. He had spotted him halfway up a rim downriver, said he looked just like a bear cub crawling through the rocks. That’s how one of our best dogs got the name Oso, Spanish for bear.

Phillips later hired Mike and I to build a large feedbunk on the river bar across from the house. We toiled for a couple weeks, setting the heavy railroad tie posts into the dense cobble of the river bar, sometimes unearthing enormous boulders and slabs of basalt. That feeder was stout and meant to last. In the evenings, I pulled books of poetry from Little Duke’s shelves and discovered the Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda, poems in Spanish that eventually led to our family moving to Ecuador for a year. The Phillips left the country after less than a decade (winters were too long) and settled back in the Southwest, but Mike and I still think of them. Especially last year as we labored to yank those same feedbunk posts out of the ground.

We laughed about the irony of our efforts, but under our management that patch of riverbar is one of our main restoration projects. After clearing out the feeder, burning and reseeding the bar with a rangeland drill, we are satisfied to see the new grass taking hold, the weeds becoming fewer and fewer. We admire the athletic river otters who make their way to a favorite fishing hole in late winter and we welcome the pairs of wild geese arriving to nest on the bar in spring. We think of our own migrations, one ranch to another, winter range to summer. People come and go, ranches change hands, decisions or weather take their toll for a time, or improve things. We keep circling back and when we arrive, we say, here we are again, and we look at what needs to be done.

From the Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef