The Arctic cold has finally subsided on the Ranch. We are enjoying sunny 20 degree days now, and are relishing the balm of breezes that are over 55 degrees warmer than we endured over the last 3 weeks. Amazingly I don’t notice any particular difference in the cattle. The only thing I have observed is that they spend more time lounging around in the sun. It’s because their dietary needs have dropped by nearly 50% since it warmed up, so they have more time to spend lounging and less time eating. They come fully equipped to maintain body heat in any weather. The genetics we have selected for our herd are the heritage Angus that long thrived in Arctic winds in coastal Scotland, provided they have enough to eat and keep those internal home fires burning.
The great herds of elk have migrated back away from the ranch and I no longer do midnight patrol to see if they are in my haystacks. When it was very cold, they spent time in the lower and warmer valley to get away from higher elevations and deeper snow and colder temperatures. In addition, wolf pressure has now likely decreased a little, and the elk are safer than they were last week in the mountains. Wolves need more nutrition in the bitter cold like everyone else.
You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief among both native and domestic with the abatement of Arctic conditions. Where a week ago it was unthinkable, it now seems possible that red-winged blackbirds could return to the ranch next month, as they have every year before. For us, they are the definitive harbinger of spring, and among the first returnees from southern wintering domiciles.
It’s a funny thing, the human mind. Something in this winter white triggered a memory in me of a summer sound: cicadas.
Cicadas are the “seventeen-year locust.” Familiar in deciduous forests of the East, they are the buzzing “heat bugs” that scare small children (and some adults) when they show up on back screen doors humid eastern forest nights. They are huge, some almost 4 inches long. They look quite menacing, and their mating sound can be deafening through both day and night.
They don’t bite, but their menacing look is real. Incredibly powerful, their mouth parts can bore into wood and into the hardened soil surfaces of the desert. Unfortunately, we Western food culture wimps do not enjoy them as a delicious food source as the Chinese do in Shandong Cuisine. They’ll happily stir fry the 2-3 inch larvae and enjoy their protein-rich, nutty texture.
People don’t talk much about cicadas on the desert ranges—part of the Sagebrush Ocean that dominates the great basin of Idaho, Utah and Nevada; I think it’s because nobody lives here. But every 17 years, the cicada emerges from the dry sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass desert soils to create a deafening racket for horseback rider crossing the sagey sea.
It was 2005, and I was that rider, along with Tim Grant, a recent hire we brought on who hailed from New York. Tim had just finished up a biochemistry major, and had grown up on a grape farm. He was a smart, good-natured quiet sort, but had never been on horseback until he came to Alderspring. He was about to be tested.
After starting at daybreak and gathering cattle, we headed across brand new country (to me) with about 150 head of Alderspring’s finest. It was early July, and the low ranges were curing out in the heat of summer. Our destination: verdant, waving green grass high up on the forested part of our 70 square mile range, where plenty of shade, water, and cool air would be a delight for my beeves.
Meanwhile, in our starting point in the low elevation sagebrush ocean it was hot. Even at 6500 feet elevation along the rugged Salmon River Breaks, our saddle seats became pools of sweat under our behinds. We had just emerged from Pig Creek Canyon, a cast iron fry pan cranked up to high. Pig Creek was also fairly lively with western diamondback rattlesnakes that we found underfoot of our horses. Tim’s education was moving right along on schedule.
Thankfully, both of our mounts were snake-wise, and gingerly stepped aside when the “shakertails” sent off their alarms. Fact of the matter was that the snakes didn’t want to bother with us any more than we did them. They liked their shade under sage. Maybe the diamondbacks were stuffed full of cicadas, living their dream like those who enjoy Shandong Cuisine.
We stopped where we could at creek crossings and stock tanks to keep our cattle and our mounts hydrated. The animals all appeared to be doing well because we kept them at a slow pace; we humans were having the worst time of it. Tim and I dipped our straw hats in tanks and creeks to give our cooked brains a chance to cool.
It was nearly impossible to talk while riding- the cicadas in the brush were deafening. It was their year, after all, and they would have to keep their squawking to themselves for seventeen years as larvae underground. Their next chance to call would be in 2022.
We rode on, higher and higher. It didn’t help that none of us-cattle, horse nor human-knew the country well enough to find the shortest route across the wide-open sagebrush plateau known as Bear Basin. I had consulted topographic maps the night before, but the maps didn’t show the rocks, deep rattlesnake-rich gullies and heavy brush that impeded our route. The cattle, hot and getting tired, began to fight our ever-climbing route. Only I knew from the maps that the ridge and downhill to water were not far away. Even my normally reliable border collies were lagging, with tongues dragging. Whenever we took a break, they were quick to escape the sun in the shade of our mounts.
Tim no longer attempted to communicate. Perhaps he was tired of shouting, but I wondered if he was cracking. He was aboard Gus, a seasoned veteran of the range, and a fairly steady mount for the still green Grant to be astride. But even I was beginning to get a little rummy. The cicadas seem to get louder and louder, melding with the heat, sweat, and dust.
Finally, we reached the windswept ridge. The beeves, horses, riders and dogs stood quietly among the rocks, appreciating the breeze and occasional shade that came down from gathering thunderheads. We sat resting among the herd for a half an hour, watching the sun start its slow descent to the horizon.
Horses and humans gathered up, and started to stir the cattle for what was a gentle downhill toward the cool and refreshing waters of upper Little Hat Creek, where they would spend the night. It took a while to get the herd motivated but they finally starting moving down into the lovely basin below where their situation would be much improved over their former residence in the hot, low country that morning.
Tim and I turned around for the long trip back. It would be well after dark when we would reach the Salmon River where our truck and trailer were parked, so we knew we needed to get going.
“Let’s split up on the way back, Tim,” I shouted over cicada din. “You go over that same ridge-a little downhill from where we went over. We gotta see if we have any stray left behind in that heavy brush along the break.”
“OK.” It was all he said. Actually, he shouted this because of the cicadas. He looked tired.
“I’ll head down the far end of the ridge to the north side of the basin and check for strays over there.” I watched him on an impatient, irritable and crowhoppy Gus trot over the ridge. I hoped they’d be OK.
We’d been apart for nearly an hour, when I heard the familiar whinny of Gus above me on the ridge. He didn’t like being away from my mare and was letting her know he was coming back (I don’t think she cared). Apparently, Tim had not found any cattle. Good. We could start for home. The heat had barely relented in spite of it getting dark and the cicadas kept droning. It would be so much quieter down at the home ranch in the valley!
I turned my mare to wait for Tim and Gus. Correction. Gus only, no Tim. Gus barreled down the hill, riderless, with empty stirrups flailing against his sides, spurring him on as he called out to his beloved mare. He pulled up to us from his full gallop, sweating and a little foamy. Dang.
I put my heels to Missy and turned her to where Gus had just come, and as I did, she made it crowhopping clear that she didn’t give a whit for Tim’s wellbeing or whereabouts. She was ready to go home too, dreaming of cool night pasture and bubbling spring water, but I had images of Tim piled up on some volcanic rocks, shatter-boned and bleeding, dragging his broken frame in desperation across the brutal substrate. I looked back at Gus as we rode off. He thought for one microsecond, and decided to follow us.
It didn’t take long for us to rendezvous with sheepish Tim, afoot on the Sagebrush Ocean. He broke the ridge in 10 minutes or so with what looked like a little bit of a limp, and gladly remounted trusty Gus.
“I had to readjust my gear because it was sliding off Gus’s back in the sweat. I tried to remount, but he got ornery, bucked sideways and took off on me my before I could swing my leg over.”
“Did you land hard?”
“No…I almost managed to keep my feet under me.” I was glad Tim was pretty athletic, albeit dirty, a little fabric torn and worn out looking.
I smiled. He didn’t.
We pointed our tired mounts toward home. We had a long ride down through Pig Creek and Deer Gulch in the gathering darkness, and had to lose about 2500 feet in elevation. At least the edge came off the day with a break from the heat. Cool breezes finally silenced the din of cicada. Unfortunately, misery would continue for Tim. His riding skills still had a ways to go, and I wanted to get back to the ranch before midnight. He didn’t know that it meant we would have to trot; otherwise we’d be riding until two in the morning. It was quite a few miles over rough canyon country we’d have to move out, and he would be racked along the rough buckskin backbone of Gus enough that he would have trouble walking the next day. Tim was already a sweat streaked mess; it was the perfect recipe for road rash.
I checked on my partner often as we trotted along. About midway, I turned back and tried a smile in the gathering dark as we bounced down the Deer Gulch trail. No dice. I remembered a time not too many years prior where I was a green rider in Tim’s spot in the gathering darkness, and old Ed Corbett smiled at me as he subjected me to the endless trot of a 40-mile day. I finally knew why. Ed too, was there once, many years ago, a young one himself in the saddle.
The long day didn’t break Tim Grant. He was, as I expected, a little stiff and gimpy the next day, but the smile was back. He’d made the cut; he was tough enough.
And it’s stood him in good stead, because after some time on Alderspring, he headed back to New York to start Stand Fast Farm. He raises great grass fed beef in Western New York State in a model similar to Alderspring’s.
Through the difficulties of starting a small farm from scratch, he’s persevered. He’s a great friend.
And that’s how it works, days swinging between tenaciously prevailing over weather or distance or breakdowns, to days where things go well and seem almost easy. Even now in the middle of winter, something will remind me of days where the temperatures 120 degrees warmer, and I’m on the back of a good horse. I look forward to these seasons, and the changes in the challenges of the daily work. I even look forward to the sounds of cicada coming when the noisy beasts re-emerge in 2022.
Those things become a part of us; a part of our psyche. Experiences, even adverse, create a deep relationship with the land and the cattle on it. I try to share that with you, because you truly are a part of it. I hope you continue to enjoy this gift of good land and hard work.
Glenn, Caryl, Cowboys and Girls at Alderspring