Saturday, November 26, 2016

Windy Hell

I trudge north along the Zumwalt road trailing cattle in an unrelenting wind that brings the chill to single digits.  It's day one of four days winding our way north and down into the canyon to the winter range. In my mind I hear the name Windy Hell scattered in the talk of three tired men huddled around the stove in cow camp. Their jeans are slick at the knees, their necks wrapped in stained silk scarves. Coats heavy and stiff in canvas, buckskin, wool. Hats cinched on with stampede strings. Above the stove, sodden gloves and mittens steam. The stink of wet gear fills the room. 
First day, Sara ruminates on the windy walk north

The cow camp is in the bottom of a canyon. Cow Creek?  Pumpkin? The men have come in out of the weather after hunting cattle off the ridges, bringing them down to safer ground. The snow has arrived quicker and fallen deeper than expected, the springs and seeps have frozen solid, the trails packed to ice chutes in the rims. 

                                     Day two, headed east toward the breaks

I am awed by their going out in the dark and their coming in again in the dark, alive. I love the horses who manage to stay on their feet, sharp shod and still sliding. I love the cattle who struggle to safely pick and wade their way down. I crave leaving the cabin and the small children asleep in the attic.

Dropping off the top with Andi

I'm not sure where Windy Hell is, because I've never been there. But that doesn't stop me from naming it in my mind as I trudge north inside the furry warmth of my winter hat, flaps down, fuzzy neck warmer pulled over the tip of my nose, collar up on my parka. 

                                                     Into Log Creek

Any place with a hell of a wind can take me there, invoking the relief of shelter, the offering of a warm fire, a hot meal, fresh water. And I hear cowboy voices recalling the bad spots, the sting and bite of driven snow, the slide and crash of a fall, the incredulity of a finding new calf waiting out the storm with its mother in a high sheltered basin. I hear the naming of Windy Hell and conjure a landmark lurking far above me in the stormy dark. 

Headed to the bench

I used to think I needed to go to all these places, Windy Hell, Rheumatiz, Jakey, Sleepy. In case I needed to know the way. In case I had to go out looking for someone who did not come back.

Day four, nearly to the Hall Place

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef

Sunday, November 6, 2016

On My Own

Abigail Marie - two days old
Granddaughter Abigail Marie Hale arrived just before Mike left again for Kyrgyzstan. It was so good for him to meet her before starting his journey, sharing in the joy and relief that this beautiful little girl was now safe and sound in the arms of her family.

The short month Mike was home had flown by.  Beef harvests, deliveries to Portland, trailing cattle on the Zumwalt. Before I knew it he was leaving again and I was on my own holding down the ranch. Still, I took advantage of having the cattle settled and headed to the river with Gabe and the boys for a day of harvesting walnuts and fishing.

Dawson uses his hat to gather walnuts

Last year I missed the walnut harvest and the turkeys got them all. This year Dawson and Wes helped gather nuts onto a tarp and cavorted about, climbing the broad limbs of the walnut trees, building train tracks in the house, exploring the river after what felt like a long absence.

Looking north from the Salmon hole

It was turning into a beautiful evening when we headed down to the salmon hole. Gabe and Dawson hooked several fish right away. Weston and I wandered, sneaking around in the willows, following the twists and turns of an imaginary quest.

Canyon rattler

The biggest adventure was Weston finding his first rattlesnake. We were hiking back to the truck, holding hands as we walked through the bleached grass, when suddenly Wes jumped sideways against my legs. "I thought I saw a..." and there it was coiled and camouflaged next to the trail.

The first time a child of the canyons finds a rattlesnake on their own, it's a relief to know they will have the heart-pounding instinctive reaction to move away as fast as possible. At three years old, Wes was right on schedule.

Early morning checking cows on the Zumwalt

After the river trip, I got busy. The cattle needed checking, and there was fence to fix and steers to move. My dawn trips to the Zumwalt were rejuvenating. I sped over the gravel road, riding the familiar washboard and watching light sharpen the peaks of the Seven Devils and creep across the canyon.

Cows coming to see me on the prairie

The solitude was good for me.  Meadow larks singing, coyotes yipping, hawks screeching, and cattle calling in the invigorating chill. I listened, breathed, absorbed.

Enjoying the morning 

My list of chores was growing. When Mike and I skyped, he reminded me to harvest the great basin wildrye seed, check on the bulls, take more salt to the cows, treat the bridge planks, clean out the barn, get the hay delivered, doctor the horse. I made myself start early and work until dark.

Clipping great basin wildrye for seed

Stubborn gate fix

At the steer pasture the fence repair I thought would be a half-day job turned into three days. A cowboy pastured his horses there last year in trade for fixing the fence, but he never got around to it so the job fell to me.

Once into it, I was discouraged by the number of broken wires, rotten posts and busted gates. There seemed to be no end to the tangle and mess. Stretch, splice, pound, repeat. I managed to scrounge enough material to get it all to where I thought it would keep the bulls and steers in.

A mess on the ground, now up looking like a fence 

It was a relief when Zeke came home for a few weeks and pitched in. Splitting and stacking wood, hauling protein and moving cows, keeping me company, talking about the world.

Zeke putting out salt

Pairs in the new pasture

Hunting season arrived. Gabe was siphoned off on a pack trip into the Minam with Luke. After getting his elk he came home to haul the bulls and steers to fall pasture and helped me put treat on the new bridge material. We got all the planks treated on one side and I followed up a few weeks later to treat the running boards. I feel intimidated when I think about the job of redecking the bridge at the river. I try to take one step at a time and not let myself think too much about all the work ahead. I try to picture us at the river when the bridge is already done.

Many boards to be treated

It's an old habit of mine, leaping ahead in my mind to the other side of something I want behind me. As a kid walking home in the rain, I'd say to myself, now I'm at the top of the hill and in a little while I'll be down by the corner thinking of when I was back up here.

Rotten bridge deck

This month, when I bogged down in my chore list I pictured myself at midnight in the lobby of the Walla Walla airport. Watching the weary travelers straggling in from the tarmac, watching Mike walk through the glass doors.

From Sara at Magpie Ranch, home of Bunchgrass Beef