Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
June 2, 2012
“Ten thousand goddam cattle,” but what do you know about cattle, for chrissakes? The effervescent, environmentally diligent and wildly charismatic Katie Lee had something to say about it all in her book of the same name, although Singin’ Sam Agins, a traveling musician who used to come through here, first mentioned the lyrics on my account.
We trailed ’em up Collins Creek, my granddad and I, a couple of characters generations apart but thick in blood and in our love of the ranching life. I learned well the lessons he taught, for somewhere in my naivete, I thought we were playing for keeps. “Keep ’em movin’, now,” he always said.
Near the top of the Collins Creek trail, there’s a split around a bald-sloped mountain we called the Boiler-Set, aptly named after an abandoned sawmill boiler, lying in a swamp. Then we’d cross a small tributary and slog up the hill through the burned-out stumps of a long-ago forest fire. “A big blaze,” Gramps declared, “burned for a couple of years.” Then, we’d hit a relatively flat, cool pathway through dark, old-growth timber, pushing the cows to the emerald expanse of Kobey Park.
That trail through the pines was like a dream to me, so thick were the trees on either side that the cattle couldn’t escape, and it came to represent much of what I craved about the mountains, all in a swirl of olfactory sensation. Sweet-smelling pine needles covering the waft of the spongy, detritus-laden floor, the strong aroma of cattle on the move mixed with horse sweat and the occasional whiff of Granddad’s plug of chewing tobacco.
“Goddamit to hell,” he said. “That bull in front won’t let the cows go by.” And off Granddad took with a big branch for a club, ready to do battle with the imposing white-faced Hereford sire whose ivory-hued horns, ready to hook and tear, imperiously framed his curly-haired face while slobber slung from his bellowing mouth.
My grandfather showed me the land and how to move cattle through it, and when he died, I took it over, packing salt to the hidden licks that kept the cows spread out, pushing stragglers along that same trail that Gramps and I had used before.
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The lumber company at Lenado got a big increase in its Forest Service contract; new roads were built, new sawyers hired and markets expanded. I went to college and tried to leave the ranching way of life behind, but that special trail through the woods hung in my memory.
After the lumber company’s expansion, there wasn’t much to find of the old days around the Kobey Park area. The once-intriguing salt licks were buried under slash, and long swaths of trees had been felled, obliterating the ancient trails that once crisscrossed that vastness of a long-ago cattle haven.
Sometime in my 50s, the urge came to follow again that trail, which some said couldn’t be found, not since the lumberjacks came through. My travels were arduous, through thick stands of tall trees with dangerous deadfall across endless tracks that went nowhere except to another trace that wasn’t right, sometimes wondering if the clearing in which I stood was once that well-hidden path.
And then one day, my good horse Willie and I found part of the trajectory through the woods, the very one I remembered. Some of the still-standing, moss-covered stumps, sentinels along a path that once fired my passion for what lay ahead, stared back at my smiling face. It wasn’t much for traveling shape, but Willie and I danced through the deadfall, excitement in both our hearts, and for a brief moment, we went back to what used to be.
Ten thousand cattle – you bet. There isn’t the slightest whisper of one in the great Kobey Park area, not anymore. Nor can you find the paths they once roamed unless you were there with them. Gramps and me, we cussed and cried and laughed our way behind 10,000 of the goddam things if we moved even one.