Tony Vagneur: The warmth and chill of feeding memories
Like the breaking of the dawn, feeding cattle in the winter is a reality that gets under your skin, a way of life that doesn’t go away just ‘cause you don’t do it anymore. Its reach is limitless, the reminiscences inculcated by years of doing and witness, its memories indelibly hanging in the air that surrounds you. Except maybe on the ski mountain, but even then, sometimes.
Just as daylight begins to push back the deep darkness that has covered the end of the valley, the crew meets at the tack room, across the driveway about fifty yards from the main house. The first one there brings the team in from the pasture out back and begins harnessing them up while they eat their grain. Thirty below, thirty above, or any variation in between, the routine doesn’t change. Quiet exchanges are made, no time for small talk, and it’s out to the sled to get hitched up, the dogs scrambling aboard with seasoned enthusiasm.
Break those frozen sled runners loose with a metal bar stashed nearby for the purpose, a ritual made of habit and good sense, especially when there is no time for repairs. Steam blasts from the horse’s nostrils as the driver positions them on either side of the tongue, their big, stomping feet giving away their immense strength; chains clink against metal as the appropriate links to the singletrees are dropped and hitched behind each horse, and there is no time to fool around – let’s go – pull on the lines and give ‘em a cluck-cluck and snap — those big, powerful brutes put it all in motion through the cold morning air.
Mist hangs low over the partially iced-in, meandering creek as the empty sled glides effortlessly over the snow-packed, wooden-planked bridge, and a smile crosses the driver’s face. No matter the worries lining his face, the external forces pulling on his reserves, no matter. He can’t help a smile as the morning entourage crosses the creek. Does he know how fortunate this day is, how wonderful this opportunity that comes around every morning? He guesses he knows, but he doesn’t, not really. It takes years to mark the changes that will fade away the magic of these mornings, but that’s not on anyone’s mind this day.
On a mesa high above the valley, about a mile in, the team jogs along, feeling their oats, heel chains clacking, reminiscent of far-off sleigh bells, runners squeaking in the cold snow, and there’s an eagerness in everyone’s breast to get to work. Follow the draw at the bottom of the Big Hollow, past the decaying original homestead, and there they are, hundreds of red-and-white Hereford mother cows, eagerly awaiting breakfast and the warmth of the sun. If you’re late, they will let you know.
The horses know which hay stack to head for, and most times they pull the sled alongside just about right. One person climbs the pile and starts throwing the small, square bales down, rattling the floor of the sled, but the horses stand still, unperturbed. Another hand or two arranges the bales, the knots of the wire or twine ties facing the same direction, making it easy to cut the ties and flake the hay to the eager white-face cattle as the horses, once lined out, pull the sled along at a walk without further direction.
There’s a certain warmness that comes with the rising of the sun, whether real or not, on fingers and toes tingling from winter temperatures. The stalks and leaves of hay left on the sled surely give off a sense of warmth and there’s a certain kinship with the collective heat of the herd, actually tangible or not. Even clouds and fog seem to have a warmth about them, but it goes back to the milling cattle, eagerly sorting themselves out as they attack breakfast.
It takes 2 or 3 loads to feed the cows; well-fed cattle make for a healthy and happy herd. Each cow gets a cursory once-over, looking for early-calvers, or sick or lame ones. If there’s a problem, it’ll get taken care of after lunch by either bringing her in to the corrals or roping her and doctoring her on the feed ground.
Throw on the last load for the horses and replacement heifers down by the house, and head for home, hoping the fire in the kitchen woodstove didn’t die completely out. Stoke it up for heat as you make a sandwich or heat up last night’s stew, and rest easy knowing the animals have been fed.
And the smell of fresh, green hay mixed with the scent of horse sweat, steaming cattle, wool-lined coats, and crisp, cold mountain air, follows you around like something good and years later, its memory catches you at the oddest times, making you miss it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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