A letter from Outpost to home, which means you, my cowboy son, home in my stead feeding my horses, my dogs, checking on water, our cows–is there water enough in Disappointment Creek, or will you have to move them without me?
I think of you there in one of the houses on the ranch–my small ranch, which is too small for you, but you’ve come there to help–instead of some big sprawling acreage on which you could actually cowboy.
Like the ranch you left in northeastern New Mexico.
Like here, on the Zumwalt Prairie.
A year ago you looked online at a cowboy job near Joseph, Oregon. Oh, that’s too far away, too isolated (from family, we meant), your wife and I lamented. I thought about this for about 800 of the 946 miles I just drove. You left the 96,000-acre ranch you managed in New Mexico, took a job in California near the ranches on which you grew up, the drought drove you out (no cows, no cowboying), and there you are at my place in southwestern Colorado. And here I am, almost in Joseph.
I turned off Hwy 82 three miles shy of town. But it wasn’t the town you were interested in, anyway. It was this: open rolling hills (green, and it’s July). Rivers entwining like fingers through the valleys, canyons, and mountains. Grasses–maybe fifteen varieties–covering the moist hillsides, alfalfa and wheat coating the valley floors.
This, The Nature Conservancy’s homestead (for whom your father gathered wild cattle in years past in California), looks like an old ranch headquarters, the kind I grew up around and you worked on in your teens. Lovely old barn, the thick plank floors polished with use, big stanchion-type stalls, a huge upstairs hayloft. Several house-dwellings, all down in a little draw. But no trees.
No cattle, either, to be seen. Heard, though, in the night, for sometime in the last week a trailer-load was brought in, or two, the gooseneck backed up to the corrals, the cattle unloaded and left to mill long enough to knock the weeds down but not long enough to eat them. Perhaps a few pairs, or maybe bulls, were pushed up the old road past the barn, the shit loose from green grass or stress, dry now but not for long as it will soon turn to powder in this sun. One set of shod horse tracks headed up the road after them, and back down alone.
The Nature Conservancy allows cattle to be grazed on this piece of prairie. Funny how back then they wanted every last cloven-hoofed animal removed from Santa Cruz Island, remember? But that was a quarter of a century ago. You were a small boy. Today some environmentalists have learned the value of cattle and proper grazing practices–perhaps the same ones who see hunting as a necessity for effective conservation.
But that’s not what I really want to say. I want to tell you about this country. About what it has, and also what it’s missing.
It’s big–grass-covered hills clear to horizons of mountains, a deep canyon tucked in between to the north and east: Hell’s Canyon. The Snake River. Water. In the small arroyos–or so we’d call them in the Southwest–thick water-loving bushes grow (it’s late and I can’t think their names), and ponderosas and Doug firs climb up the steeper hillsides and on the ridges of things. Basalt outcroppings show here and there, but mostly it’s a country free of tree and stone. Not one sage bush lurks. No juniper or pinon pine or Gambel oak. No redrock or rimrock, no sandstone. Just grass and smooth curves and a river somewhere nearby.
It’s beautiful. And yet–and I’ve also been thinking this for about 800 of the miles I just drove–what’s missing is: wildness. Not since I left the redrock of Moab Valley and the stretch of Hwy 191 immediately to its north have I felt wildness. Perhaps for a minute after crossing from Utah into Idaho, watching large ferruginous hawks flying over sagebrush sweeps of what was once lake bottom, I felt a fleeting wildness, but it vanished quickly, replaced by awe at the hundreds of miles of irrigation, all the different systems, no people in the fields to be seen carrying pipe or hooking up hoses like you and me in our knee-high rubber boots, or you alone, now, just elaborate contemporary systems and water shooting everywhere from no visible source. Until I saw the river. The Snake. As wide or wider than the Colorado near Moab–a real river–its water flying over thousands of acres of farming fields. So even that gorgeous clear wide flowing river did not feel wild.
You would like this country–its mountains and rivers, the sweet little towns, these prairied hills–and then, like me, you would want something more.