The West lives
Five-thirty a.m. comes early when you’re getting up for the day, although I recall early morning being the late-night end to the night before back in the party days. Whatever it is, I beat the alarm clock by about a half-hour, making 5:30 seem reasonable, and wonder if it’s enthusiasm driving me, or just some form of insomnia.Ten of us gather at the landmark corrals and get ready to drive a couple hundred Black Angus cows and calves up to some early summer pasture above the main ranch down in the valley. Before you worry about getting your shoes dirty, let me assure you this was all done on private property, except for the three or four miles of county road we used in our mission.Before long, I’m riding up the trail on my new horse, Drifter, a big, blue roan who is getting used to being a cow pony. That means he spooks occasionally, or gets a little nervous about small details, but generally likes working cows. Along with four others, we’re riding point, which means it’s our job to keep these cows headed in the proper direction. If we see a hole in the fence, or an open driveway along the road, one of us stays there until the cows pass, ensuring that they keep their noses headed toward the higher pasture. Then, we skirt the herd and get back in front for the next challenge that may face us. The mood of any drive takes shape based on the experience and personalities of the cows. A good ranch outfit, like the one I’m riding for today, keeps its cows year-round to give its managers the ability to breed in (or out) the characteristics they feel will be most advantageous in the marketplace. Therefore, the leaders are just that, walking with purpose up the trail to a destination they remember from the year before. At the back of the herd walk those who might not be as aggressive, who are trying to stay with their calves, or who are maybe just plain lazy. A long cattle drive is tough on the cows and calves, and we try to move them deliberately, but not too fast. Once the pace of the herd makes itself known, things travel fairly smoothly, and there’s time for conversation with those riding next to us. Our horses have averted disaster for us a time or two and have become reasonably well accustomed to their traveling companions. Even though we have some real hall-of-famers riding with us, including Nikki and Connie, the real drovers, the cow dogs, soon take over the intricacies of keeping things in line. Young Hank, a border collie whom I baby-sat when he was a pup and is now my good buddy, needs a little more direction than some of the older, more experienced dogs such as Jeep, Amos, Shelby, Sass or Dodger. Bayleigh, the Chesapeake Bay cow retriever, is deserving of honorary mention. About a mile from our destination, a small dog with a high-pitched yap burrows her way under a yard fence and joins the drive. More hair than brawn, this modern-day ringer for Toto is accepted by the other dogs and gives us all a chuckle as we admire her unbridled enthusiasm. On our way home, somebody drops Toto off back at her house, her owner none the wiser, leaving Toto to daydream of her experience moving cows through the mountains.It’s been just another day in a vanishing way of life, a way of life that will soon be nonexistent in Pitkin County. But today no one seems to be too worried about what the future holds for any of us. The cows are happy to have greener pastures, the horses are tired but walk proudly toward home, and 5:30 p.m. has come and passed without notice. We finally gather at the ranch house, the dogs crashing in the yard wherever they can, although it takes only a whisper to get them up and moving again, if need be. It’s been a good day and it’s a sure bet we’ll all sleep well tonight. Tony Vagneur will miss the ranching families and their dogs. Read him here on Saturdays and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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