Saturday, June 25, 2011

One of the Boys

Writers, especially us human-interest types that lean towards the first person, walk a fine line. Most of the cattle drive staff, including the trail boss, Brad, and the cattle boss, Randy, knew that I was "on assignment." Whether I wanted to out myself to my fellow participants remained largely at my own discretion. But since I needed to interview them, I figured the cat would be out of the bag eventually and it would be best to tell what I was doing up front.

The end result was that I did the drive with a split personality. From 7am (or whatever earlier hour the day got started) until the time we got into camp, I was just one of many wannabe wranglers, hustling cows along and doing my best not to make any trouble. On good days, I felt as if I was actually being helpful.

But once we hit camp, I switched from cowboy to journalist. I wiped the dust off as best I could, changed out of my filthy Carhartt jeans, and grabbed my notebook. Taking interviews the old-fashioned way, pen and paper in hand, seemed more fitting than typing something on my laptop (although that was packed away in my duffel bag, just in case.) Most people were happy to talk. A few got extra-inquisitive and kept asking me about the story while we were out with the herd, trying to keep 300 steers "on task." Those were the moments when I wished there was something called journalistic immunity. I wanted to keep the story for myself and tell it when I was ready. I didn't want to answer questions while it was still gestating, drifting around half-baked in my brain that already felt overloaded taking in some many new experiences.

The drive did not give me any profound moments. I didn't have brilliant insights, or reach a Zen-like state by discovering my place in the universe. I was there to do a job, and my visions began and ended with that. I was there to ride a horse and punch cows, and following that, I was to write.

As a result, pragmatism found its way into my luggage as well. I brought 39.5 lbs of gear out with me, including my tent, sleeping bag, and clothes. None of it was makeup. (Ok, I had a little face powder, but with SPF 15, it served a practical function.) I did not come West to play pretty. My legitimacy on this trip rested on whether or not I could rise to the occasion. I figured after I mastered those priorities, then I could worry about glamming it up on some future venture. I didn't want superficial stuff to get in the way of immersing myself in the experience, whatever that might entail. I didn't want to be a fake, the female equivalent of a man who is "all hat and no cattle."

In the end, I'm not sure if my attempts at authenticity made the trip any more or less genuine. As I mentioned, I didn't experience the profound. But I did experience satisfaction. There is a simple contentment in taking risks and finishing a job. And that I found in spades.

Note: The Toby Keith bumper sticker was affixed to one of the chairs in the dining tent. I had to take a picture!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move--and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd--constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the "dynamic principle." If there's a gap in front of you, move up. If there's a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse's momentum to push 'em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider's efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference. Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives. They're fast. They know how to block. They'll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn't afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn't. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it--falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows--that was just like the movies. I'm not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

Friday, June 10, 2011

"All Horses and Men"

Teddy Blue Abbot is my favorite cowboy. He's been dead for nearly a century, but that didn't stop him from making me laugh, making me think, or even making me a little envious. Teddy Blue (born Edward Charles Abbot in Norfolk, England) emigrated with his family to America as a child, had a hardscrabble life on the Nebraska plains, and ran off to play cowboy as soon as he was able. Late in life, with the help of a New York writer and aspiring novelist named Helena Huntington Smith, he published a set a memoirs that I was lucky enough to discover at the Library of Congress.

Teddy Blue is a great storyteller. Like other spinners of Western yarns,his accounts do take a turn to the bombastic on occasion. But unlike others whose writing mushes into an ooze of stock characters and heroics, the accounts barely distinguishable, Teddy Blue stands with distinction. Reading his book gave me the uncanny sense that I was hearing him talk. Helena Smith sensed this as well. In her introduction, she writes, "My part was to keep out of the way and not mess it up by being literary."

He has an ear for anecdotes, as well. An example:

I heard a story once about a schoolteacher who asked one of these old Texas cow dogs to tell her about how he punched cows on the trail. She said, "Oh Mister So-and-So, didn't the boys used to have a lot of fun riding their ponies?"

He said, "Madam, there wasn't any boys or ponies. They was all horses and men."

Tomorrow, I am heading out to Nevada to go on my own cattle drive. As Teddy's anecdote points out, events are different once they are experienced from the inside. I can't travel back to those days of the 1870s. But I can get a glimpse of it. Maybe.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Back to the Future

When I got in the car to leave Montana on July 12, 2010, it felt like a breakup. It was a goodbye I did not want. And as the car moved further east, into the Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, I kept hoping that somehow, I'd be able to get back to this place that had carved its way so deeply into my heart.

I did. In late April, my boyfriend and I flew out to Bozeman. We saw the mountains from the plane window, their tops dusted in thick snow. We had reached a different latitude, and a different season altogether. One night dumped 6", which we scraped from the rental car and I was grateful for. If I could love Montana even when it didn't cooperate, then it must be true love.

Walking around Bozeman felt familiar enough, and in a town that size, it was easy to revisit the bookstores, coffeeshops, and restaurants that had been part of my sightseeing last summer. But what I really wanted to get back to lay outside of the city.

Lava Lake trail. In my mind, it beckons in perpetual summer, the slopes of the mountain covered in lush green and the stream trickling trailside. In late April, freak snowfalls cast the mountain in a wintry shroud. We layered up, pulled yaktraks onto our boots, and headed onto the trail.

As we hiked, my mind kept flickering between what I remembered and what I was seeing. There were no wild roses, just conifers still drenched in snow. The stream was still flowing, but its waters were frigid, its banks crusted in ice. Piles of elk droppings peppered the trail. And the woods were very quiet. We hiked alone.

Would I feel anything when we reached the top? This placed pulled me. In absence, perhaps it had grown bigger and deeper in my mind. It was my totem, as surely as any shrine that ever served as a point of pilgrimage.

Walking out of the trees to the lakeshore took my breath away. It was not the breathlessness of surprise that I'd felt when I first caught sight of the top. But I was breathless with recognition, breathless with gratitude that this place had waited. Some places we only visit once, and that is enough. Others, we find our way back to.