Friday, October 26, 2007

Outrunning Winter

We are heading south again and none too soon. When we wake up, the mountains are hidden by swirling clouds of snow. As they begin to lift, we can see that there is a lot more snow up on the peaks, very beautiful, but yesterday’s fun in the snow at Black Canyon has left us a little jumpy about driving in snow. There are a lot of vehicles that are snow covered coming down, and we ask the truckers about snow on the passes. Red Mountain, the cliff walk that thinks it is a road, requires chains this morning. The very word makes me shiver, remembering those New England blizzards. You won’t find me towing over Red Mountain on the best of days anyway. After a few more CB discussions and a phone call, it appears that Lizard Head Pass is just wet, so we press on.

I have driven this road before, and it was spectacular then, but with the snow on the peaks it is amazing. The road first climbs the Dallas Divide, where grassy valleys lie at the feet of the San Juans. Ralph Lauren has a huge ranch along here, with miles of pole fencing. Too much. Other passes just drag you up a big hill and throw you off the other side, but Lizard Head winds up then down, heading for Telluride, the beyond trendy resort. We have a number of steep grades, but then wander up valleys with streams and the aspens all gold. Every corner brings another astonishing rocky, snow-covered peak. The snow outlines the crags and slashes in the black rock. These post card mountains are literally breathtaking. So high, so cold, and in such sharp contrast that for a moment you are so astonished, you can’t breathe. And around the next corner, more and higher and well, almost impossibly beautiful.

The temperature was hovering around 33, and then we began the long slow descent along the Nuestra Senora de los Dolores River (Our Lady of Sorrows), through tired mining towns. In the rear view mirror, I can still see glimpses of the icy peaks, until at Cortez, they are only little bumps sticking up over the low brown hills. There was one icy patch, where a cliff kept the sun off the road, where we did the Hail Mary of the Ice prayer (where you just sit still, don’t touch anything and hope no one does anything stupid) but it was a great drive. We are now at the very southern end of CO, in a familiar desert. Like the TX Hill country, it is all cedar trees and rocks and cactus and other spiky things. Dry and aromatic. We stop for the night in a small CG in Cortez which has mostly construction workers in it, and a whole town of prairie dogs out back.

Mesa Verde, the Indian cliff dwellings National Park is here, and we have a mission to take a photo with a travel bug ( geocaching toy) in front of the sign. I am pleased to see that it is the original 1930’s CCC sign, although it has probably been moved over to widen the road. We do a little geocaching around town, walking around a pond in the fluffy dried weeds and flowers. There are yellow aspens and orange cattails and many ducks here, but also a sort of miniature mesa edge of sandstone, and a lot of prairie dog holes.

Next day, we head south into Navaho country. Miles and miles of nearly flat, dry lands with only sage brush growing on it. In some places the earth is very pale, with white alkali patches, and in others, dark red. Distant native compounds have their hogans, houses and run down barns, and although we see a fair number of horses on the land, only once did I see a flock of sheep, with shepherd and dog. But this land is so huge, anything might be out there. The ridge of rock that Mesa Verde is part of peters out, and there are only occasional classic western rock monuments, Chimney Rock, like a small skyscraper, and the cathedral that is Shiprock. Like Chartres in the wheat fields of France, you can see Shiprock for miles around. It draws the eye with its gothic towers of stone, and is a portent of powers we can’t understand. Volcanoes, earthquakes, sandstorms, big medicine here, and dangerous. The Navaho wisely consider it a holy place, and do not encourage more than a stop on the highway shoulder. There are, of course, folks who would like to try and kill themselves climbing it, some climb and are caught and fined, some are taken by the rock.

Eventually, even the rocks disappear and we are driving straight as an arrow south with hardly a tiny hill or wash to make a change. I always thought the desert was like the Sahara of the movies, one vast sand pile, but this is the real western American desert. We pull into Gallup, to meet a dear friend from back in MA who has moved here. She framed (and praised) my watercolors, and let me empty my talk tank, for which I am forever grateful. She has up and taken off for here and a nice guy that runs a very successful restaurant and bakery here in Gallup, shedding the chains of the East Coast. We have a lovely time over lunch and her guy worked at several of the same nuclear plants that Don did, so they have a merry time together while the ladies catch up. Glad to see she has had a good gallop and found a better place to be.

In Gallup, it is 70, oh joy, I shed my sweater and my chilly shoulders start to relax. We head on south to Show Low AZ to find some friends of Don’s who are at a CG there.

Ouray Rerun

Yesterday, we took Darth Vader and went to Ouray. This tiny town was big in mining days, and now is a gateway to folks touring the San Juan Mountains by jeep, foot, ATV or bike. The old mine roads are everywhere, and give us all a chance to see some astonishing country and also to scare both ourselves and challenge our vehicles.

Don and I met because he was a host up at the top of the valley where I was workamping, He also drove the tour jeeps up on the evil mining roads. When I was too chicken to drive up to the upper campground, he volunteered to drive me and then drive me again and, well, he is still driving Miss Daisy.

So our visit to Ouray was an anniversary party of sorts. We drove down the flats of the Uncompahgre River, and the great white crags grew larger and fiercer, nicely set off by groves of flaming yellow aspens. We stopped in town to visit old friends, and then proceeded up , and I do mean up. When you are on Ouray’s Main Street, it would be impossible to believe that a road exists going up the wall ahead. The main road, the Red Mountain Pass is nearly impossible, and it scares me too much to drive it. Hard switchbacks and screaming drop offs with no guard rail or even a breakdown space. Locals say it doesn’t need a guard rail, why would you even think of driving off the edge? But the abyss pulls on me mightily and in my imagination, the truck gives a snort, rears and jumps over the edge.

We turn off this evil road and go up the dirt one to my old campground, where we linger by the rushing stream that was off my rear bumper, and look up at the familiar cliffs. It was perfect here, and really kind of too bad that it was my first workamper experience, as it will never be equaled, I fear, both in sheer physical beauty, and in the paucity of people making impossible demands of a “camping” experience. I would really love to come back some summer, but I fear Don would be bored.

We are next going to see how far up the fabled road to Yankee Boy Basin we can get. Darth Vader is a big tough 4x4 truck, with good ground clearance, but it also is a full bed stretch cab, so the wheelbase is very long. Great for towing, but maybe not so great for the short deep dips and tight turns of this old mining road. We see more and more snow, and realize that we may not get all the way up, but it is warm and the road is clear. The road has had a lot of work done on it, and under Don’s expert guidance we do make it all the way up. There are several one lane shelves, including the ”Jeep Wash”, which features a rock overhang, as the road has been cut out of a cliff like a slot, and a nice spring that showers the vehicles. I do have to hold on tight to the grab bars and gasp now and then, but soon it is clear that the truck loves this, and I relax and fill up on the spectacular scenery. In summer, this is a carpet of wild flowers, now it is snow covered dried stems. The clouds swirl, letting only spotlights of sun on various peaks.

The ruins of the various mines are snow covered, their structures highlighted. Amazing the work it took to get up here, and carry up the timbers and machinery. There were little towns and villages up here in the Gold Rush days, some of these mines were worked until the 1950’s. The price of gold is up these days, and there are rumors that some of the more lucrative mines may reopen. They say it will be only a two man operation, just picking out the big chunks for specimen collectors, not the car loads of ore of the old days. The closest ore smelter is in El Paso TX, used to be in Pueblo down Rte 50 at the foot of the mountains. And then there is the question of all the deadly tailings piled up, leaching poisons into the streams, one hopes that will be cleaned up some day.

Next day, we set out for Black Canyon National Park. The lovely reservoir at Blue Mesa filled up a little bit of this, but by far the largest part is a very deep dark hole, you can barely see the water at the bottom, and the rocks are mostly very dark, and hard. We visit the interpretive center, learn about the rocks and the nutcases who decided they had to try and descend the river, because it was there. In those days, before the dams, there was so much water that it deafened them with its roaring , and in full spate threw huge boulders around like marbles, sometimes piling them up in the narrow places. The first people to get down it did it on air mattresses. This canyon is so “bad” that I don’t think it is even rated, I can’t imagine them just “tubing” down it. They were looking for a place to make a tunnel and divert some of the water down to Montrose to irrigate the fields. They found a place, they built the tunnel and the valley is green.

We came out of the movie to find that it was snowing with enthusiasm, the canyon invisible, and we didn’t bring Darth Vader. The road was still pretty warm and the snow quickly became slush. We decided to try to get out, but Don’s pickup has summer tires and no weight in the back. We had to be pulled back to where the snow stops, and never really did get to see the canyon.

The snow is pretty, changes the landscape, I don’t really hate snow for itself. What I don’t like anymore is cold.


At Can(y)on City, which should have a wiggle over the “n” but often doesn’t due to sign making limitations, we pick up one of my favorite routes, highway 50. I have driven it across the Middle West to here, it follows the Arkansas River from Wichita KS. This is one of the old transcontinental highways, it begins in Ocean City MD and ends in CA, lost in the tangle of freeways west of Sacramento.

The Arkansas River has cut us a slot up into the mountains, which now loom large as we turn west and start to climb the Front Range. I still remember my first sight of the Rockies, they just are there, bam, like a towering wall, with only a suggestion of any foothills by way of an overture. Soon we are in the BigHorn Sheep Canyon, brown rocks and the teenage Arkansas merrily twisting and turning. The road does some pretty good twisting and turning too, and around every corner a new series of rock walls and slices through to views of higher peaks. To the south we get peeks of the snow covered Sangre de Cristo mountains, makes your heart jump to see them, but then you have to look back at the road before you have another kind of heart jump on a tight corner.

We pass through Cotopaxi, hardly more than an intersection on the edge of the high plateau behind the front range. Another intriguing odd name, which this time produces a good story.

Henry (Gold Tom) Thomas prospected for gold and silver hereabouts and in the Andes. He saw a peak of the Sangre de Cristos that reminded him of the great active volcano in Ecuador, Cotopaxi, so he named this place after it. The Cotopaxi Lode was eventually a biggish silver and zinc mine, and the town had a RR depot, switchyard, saloon, post office, now all gone. The RR line was the subject of a serious turf war between the Denver and Rio Grande RR and the Santa FE over who would get this lucrative run between Pueblo Co and the mine traffic up into Leadville and beyond. The Denver and Rio Grande won, but the squabble delayed settlement for a time.

Emanuel H. Saltiel gained control of Gold Tom’s claims, perhaps not legally, and since he was a little late in the mining race and other mines paid better, he had trouble finding people to work the mines, placing ads in many papers further east.

Meanwhile, far away in Russia, Jewish farmers were finding it difficult to work under the Czarist system, and began to look at immigrating to America to homestead. In 1878 Jacob Milstein, was sent over to investigate, eloping with the daughter of the man funding his trip. Since the funding abruptly ceased after that, it took him a while to run into Salteil, who promised housing and land for farms in Cotopaxi. On March 1, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated and a series of pograms began, which sent thousands of Jews fleeing from Russia. This flood of refugees swamped the Jewish relief organizations in NY, and no one was able to check Cotopaxi or Saltiel’s promises out ahead of time. So in April of 1882 the twenty "family groups" began their long train journey via Kansas City, Pueblo and the Royal Gorge, to Cotopaxi. They did not have equipment and the promised housing was unfinished. They managed to get a crop in the ground which a late blizzard destroyed. After two years of trying to farm in arid, short seasoned Cotopaxi, the settlement was abandoned. Some of them did work in Salteil’s mines, but they came to farm and soon left. Many of them stayed in CO and became prosperous ranchers and businessmen.

There were other cooperative Jewish farming attempts in MI, KS and SD, none of them survived long, but have a place in agricultural history and in the history of Jewish immigrants to the US.

Up in Salida, the mountains are huge and snow covered. They seem an impenetrable fortress of rock and ice, I can’t imagine how people dared to try to cross them. They are so high and so abrupt that they give me a heady sort of feeling, maybe I imagine being on the top and looking down, and having vertigo twinges. It almost feels as though they are physically thumping on my eyes as I look up at them, and ahead is Monarch Pass.

Sooner or later, to get up into the high mountains, you have to buckle up and drive up an engineering marvel, stressing the rig and your nerves to get up it, not looking at the drop off, and then testing your braking down the other side. I’ve driven this pass three times before, the first time with a seriously overheating truck, so I am always a little nervous. All goes well, we go up slowly but in good order and come decorously down the other side. At the top, there is snow, although none on the road, and at 48 degrees it is melting fast.

Now we are really up there, the pass was 11,270 feet, we cross the Continental Divide and come into the watershed of the pacific in the form of the Gunnison River, dammed up most spectacularly at Curecanti and Blue Mesa, craggy cliffs and blue water. The road goes over two more smaller passes and finally comes to Montrose. Just as we are descending into town, we see the gloriously rugged and toothy and now snow tipped San Juan Mountains away on our left. Over there is Ouray, where I had my first workamping job, up in the mountains, up in heaven. We stop for two days at the campground that Don was workamping at that summer that we met. Montrose is on the southern side of the big Colorado Rockies, Vail and Aspen and all that are pretty much smack in the middle of the rectangle. We are a little safer from snow here, and warmer, but the snowy peaks, lovely as they are, remind us we need to keep going south before winter catches us.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

California Here We Come

California here we come!

On Saturday, with Don’s truck repaired, we left Hart Ranch and headed south.

Blustery and cold, it never quite rained until the evening. With the gray skies, what color might be in the grasses is muted, no green at all, just the straw colored dried grasses and the smoke colored sagebrush. The Black Hills are hiding behind the clouds, we can only see an occasional dark shoulder covered with ponderosas. The one color is the bright, almost neon yellow of the cottonwood trees that line anything that ever has water in it. It is an acidy, chemical yellow, sometimes with a copper blush. Unlike the more familiar New England fall colors that spread reds, oranges and golds over all the hillsides and valleys, these shouts of yellow are an intermittent jolt in a grey brown landscape.

Before we left we took one last drive up into the Black Hills, partly to get a photo for a geocache thing at Mt Rushmore, partly just to see the rocks and views again. We were a little late for the color of the aspens, which go a clear, almost painful yellow against the blue sky. In the sunlight, they look like a stand of matches aflame, especially when they are against the dark pines.

As we drive south, we are following the route of the Deadwood to Cheyenne Stage route. This carried the gold from the mines, and was robbed so frequently, by such a wild bunch of characters that its history was a part of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. He carried around one of the actual Deadwood stages and drove it into the arenas at a full gallop. I discovered this by looking up Rawhide Buttes. These hills went by on our left, rocky and abrupt, rising from the rolling prairie, and there was a sign for them. There is a big ranch there, that had one of the stage stops where the horses were changed out. Also there was a house of ill repute set up at a blowing place where the horses were stopped for a rest. This establishment was run by Mother Featherlegs, so called from her ruffley bloomers that looked like chicken’s legs. She was murdered, and a stone erected in her memory. If you want more, is a website full of good stories about the stage line and other parts of WY.

We pass through Lusk, whose name has always interested me, but it is just named after Frank Lusk who owned the land where it was built, first as a stop on the Deadwood Stage line. Various mines opened up nearby, and men came to live in tents and soon the railroad, and then oil and now it is pretty much a ranch town. The next town south on 85/rail line/Deadwood Stage line is Lingle. Another odd name, but it turns out to be named for Hiram Lingle who promoted the area. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Both Lusk and Lingle sound to me like the names of seafood or perhaps vegetables.

We finally make Cheyenne, and it is truly raining by now, a very unusual weather event out here where the skies are not cloudy all day. Our plan is to spend the night at the Flying J truck stop, mostly because it is free, and also it is easy in easy out and we can fill our tanks with diesel. Usually, we find a spot off in a corner and can put out the slides, but not this time, there is snow forecasted for the mountains, and the trucks are all in here for the night. So we use the Airstream instead, and oh joy, the new TV works just fine on the battery so we sit cozy and watch the Red Sox battle it out with the Indians.

The next morning, we wake up to big fat snowflakes !!! The ground is still too warm for it to stick, but still. We had arranged to visit some geocaching friends in Fairplay CO, which is right next to the ski resort at Breckinridge CO. But checking the weather on the laptop we learned that they were expecting 5-10” of snow !!!. Not for us, Don’s truck is not 4 wheel drive, and towing in the snow is not fun and not safe, so we have taken the low road instead, very disappointed it was going to be fun.

So down I 25 through Colorado Strings, with the mountains sulking under clouds, and rain on and off. The I25 corridor through Denver is a tiresome drive, often under construction, not big enough for the traffic even on a rainy Sunday. It is the only view of Denver I’ve ever had, perhaps that is unfair, but if there was another way to get through here, we’d jump on it. We climb up into hills as black as our Black Hills with ponderosas to a nice campground above Canon City CO.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Taking Down the Tents

We are now on our last weeks of the summer season, and the resort gets emptier everyday. Now, instead of lines and lines of RVs, there are many places that you can see right through several roads, with nothing there except the pedestal that holds the electrical plugs and the water faucet. Most of the departments are closed, the pool, activities, the restaurant, and the store and the main lodge are on shorter and shorter hours. The maintenance is down to a skeleton crew, which is oddly subdued.

Most of our friends have left for other places, many south to whatever winter place they go to, and Don left a week ago to head up north for the sugar beet harvest. He took the 5th wheel and I am in my Airstream. At first, I was very sad to see him go, and I do miss him, but the dog and I have settled into a comfortable routine.

It is really wonderful to be back in my Airstream. It is just the right size, and I am happy in my customized nest. I have been puttering happily, fixing things that needed attention, and making some minor changes. One major change is a TV. I never had a TV, well a little teeny LCD one that couldn’t talk to cable. Don can’t go very long with out a TV, so now there is 20” flat screen over my laptop table. Not sure about it, I watch it a lot more than I thought I would, mostly reruns. Since Don has it on a lot, I got kind of used to it, more for the background noise than actually watching it.

One morning I caught Mad Max- Beyond Thunderdome, one of my favorite movies. It stars Tina Turner for one thing and the rather yummy Mel Gibson. It is a violent, quirky and peculiar movie of life in the Australian desert after Armageddon, where methane from pigs is the fuel for a madcap collection of cobbled together vehicles. Then there are the children who survive a plane crash and live in a sort of salvage society, rather like Lord of the Flies. Several lines from this movie were part of our household : “wherever you go, there you are”, and “plan ? plan? There is no plan”. It has stayed below the radar of important movies, but I watched it happily, yet again.

Our agreement with Hart Ranch was to work until Sept 15. When I decided that going to ND to do the beets was too cold, too dark, and too much in general, I asked and the boss said that he could probably use me. When the time came, though, he is so over budget that he can’t keep me on. (Although there are two men who he has kept on salary, grrr) Kind of irritating as I had sort of counted on the money. But I don’t think I would have gone to ND anyway. I am now actually workamping, working 20 hours to pay for my site, which is better than nothing. It is very nice not to have to be there at 7 AM. Instead, I roll in at 10, just in time for morning break time and my downfall, doughnuts.

The weather is very odd, one day it’s in the 50’s then it’s back to the 90’s, I have piles of clothes that aren’t’ quite right for one day or the next day, but aren’t quite dirty enough to wash just yet.. We have had one frost, but today I lay under the trailer riveting patches on the underside, and the temperature climbed to 95. After lunch I turned on the AC. Then two days later we were wearing jackets and freezing.

Two days ago there was a brisk and chilly wind that came right in a giant crack in the Airstream’s door. I guess I knew it was there, but now it is letting too much cold in and I will have to fix it. This entails removing all the little rivets from the inside, and then shoving and pushing with boards under it until it goes back into the right curved shape to fit the opening. I have tried it before, but need to have a go at it again. Either that or I need a big fat piece of foam to fill up the hole. I borrowed an electric heater while I’m here which helps keep the propane consumption down. The nutty people who stay here in their RVs all winter get really big tanks from the gas company delivered, like the ones people with houses have. I guess it’s cheaper than a house that isn’t paid for, but it still seems odd.

We used to have the two way radio going all day, hearing what everyone was doing, whose TV wouldn’t work, whose water was leaking. Now, there is practically no sound from it.

From my window I can see the soft brown hills and the piles of big round bales stacked up for the winter. Pepe and I like to walk out behind the place in the hayfields, and the swales near the creek. If I face away from the CG, I can pretend I am really out in the middle of nowhere, with just the dried grasses and the wind. In one dip, there are some stumpy trees with bright red berries. We went over to look at them and discovered a depression down off the prairie level that must be a place that the deer go in storms. The grass there is lush and the weeds and brush have been either eaten or sat on so it is like a little secret pasture. The cattle that are now dotting the hillsides in search of what grass is left will come down to smaller, more protected fields for the winter and be fed the big hay bales. I kind of hope that will happen before I leave. And actually, I hope I get to see some snow before we flee to CA.

In the course of the summer, a big plastic “Quonset” hut has been put up as part of the old horse arena’s transition to a 6-12 grade Christian School. They are actually using the front office part of the arena as classrooms, which seemed impossible to me until I saw how small the student body is. A public high school tends to be huge, collecting as many students as possible so that the economics of scale make it more “efficient”. This size also makes the quality of education more factory like, and makes it harder to keep on top of the students. Most folks who can afford it send their children to these faith-based private schools, even if they are not particularly religious. Nobody says it out loud, but the public schools have a lot of Native Americans, many with the problems that go hand in hand with poverty, alcoholism, and despair.

The NAU, North American University still uses the arena and the stables are full of the student’s horses, so I get to hear and smell and see them. In the morning, the are turned out where I can see them beyond the piles of hay bales. As we have cool nights now, I can see them all having a small stampede for the sheer joy of running when they first get out.

Major change in plans: Don ran afoul of some ruckus with the union up at the sugar beet factory. He worked for a temp agency that recruits RVers to do this work, and although he signed up for his position of Assistant Mechanic properly, and no one else wanted it, the union people raised a big fuss. They invented several safety violations he was supposed to have made (which is ridiculous, as he is religious about safety regulations), and generally piled on the pressure until he saw there was no alternative but to leave. So he headed back to SD, and arrived here on Wed, but with a sick truck. It looks like the head gasket blew, so the truck now waits at the diesel hospital for its appointment next Thursday. I went from thinking I would leave here around the 25th of Oct, to thinking the 6th and now it’s the13th. Never a dull moment.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Buffalo Roundup

Custer State Park was founded as a hunting reserve, the first structure in there was the State Hunting Lodge, and the 77,000 acres were stocked with buffalo, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, ring neck pheasants, and so on, for the edification of the hunting elite. You can still get a very upscale and fabulously cooked and presented game meal at the Lodge restaurant. I think there is some hunting still, to control the populations, but by and large, the state park is now a sort of drive through zoo. You can camp here and stay at any of 5 lodges. There are jeep tours, and chuckwagon tours and trail rides.

The big draw is the herd of buffalo, roughly 1,500 of them. You drive around the various roads, and hope that you will see them, along with antelope, prairie dogs, and deer, (all native). There is a herd of donkeys too, which were used for pack trips and now run wild, well not very wild, they stage regular holdups looking for food. I guess if you get up early enough you can see the elk and the other exotics. Actually, the mountain goats all escaped and now run wild whereever there are nice rocks. They can frequently be seen at Mt. Rushmore, watching the tourists.

Once a year, around the first of Oct., they have a roundup of the buffalo. Ostensibly for herd management, to brand, vaccinate and assess the new calves, and to cull the herd to the right size for the grass, this has become a big tourist draw. The idea of seeing buffalo thundering over the prairies, instead of standing bored in a pen is irresistible, and I signed up for the bus ride.

We left at 6:30 AM, with an amusing bus driver, and followed the signs to the right parking place. There must have been more than 15,000 people there, sitting in chairs, all bundled up against the early morning chilly wind. We were arranged on two hillsides over looking a valley that the buffalo will pass through on the way to the big corrals. The road closes at 9:00 AM and the drive is expected to begin at 9:30. At this point. I begin to suspect that this is theater. People are searching the hillsides with binoculars and speculating and telling what happened the previous times. A group next to us raises reindeer commercially, they have two hides on their chairs and discuss the upcoming holiday season of reindeer appearances. They are good to eavesdrop on, partly because they have at least some insight on working with :wild: bovines, and partly because one woman (a retired teacher)holds forth at classroom volume on just about anything that she thinks of. The general flavor of the day and the crowd remind me of the annual big event at Bread and Puppet’s home base in VT. Thousands of people descending on a huge field to see something magic. (I can’t explain here what Bread and Puppet is, a sort of marriage of hippie commune and huge puppets that put on a strange unnamable pageant)

Suddenly (and suspiciously promptly) at 9:32, there is a dark moving line on a distant hill. We can just see riders and trucks behind and along side, and then they all spill over the hill, ants streaming at a full gallop. As they get closer, we can see that the buffalo are not cooperating, bits of the herd take off on other directions, and are chased by cowboys and trucks. As the first herd is milling around, yet another group comes on stage left and joins up with them, swelling the herd. After a breather, they are pushed on, right at the fence that separates them from the crowd, they go the wrong way, are headed off, and then go thundering by us headed for the gates into the corral.

Oh joy, what a sight! These beast are huge, the bulls can weigh a ton and stand 6 feet at the shoulder. They are very massive in front partly by build, but also they have way more hair on the front than the back. The hindquarters are actually smallish, and their legs don’t seem longer than domestic cattle. You wouldn’t think they could go so fast, or turn so fast, but a number of times a group will light off and try to escape, to be chased with enthusiasm by the riders and trucks. Finally they are all in a big field next to the corrals, still milling and panting.

We are all thrilled, bubbly with excitement. It was a wonderful thing to see. I am only a little disappointed that the wind was so strong that we couldn’t really hear the thunder, or maybe we did and just thought it was the wind. What a sight they were, running flat out, the babies keeping up with the bunch. I can sort of multiply it all by 1,000 and get a glimpse of what the plains looked like in the old days.

We all straggle down off the hill and walk up the road to the corrals. The herd is resting, and we often have to stop and just look at them, remembering the great stampede.

Was it a real stampede? Is a full tilt gallop the only way they can be moved? Cattle should not be run like that, hard on the steaks and dangerous for the cowboys. They are more properly moved in a sort of gently suggested amble. Western range cattle are pretty wild, and they can get to running pretty easily. On the other hand they usually spend the winter in smaller protected fields getting hay thrown at them. I think they may feed the buffalo too. I overheard that a lot of the buffalo were actually waiting by the gate the morning before, and had to be moved back so the show would go properly. So I am undecided how much stage-managing went on. The cowboys and girls ( buffalo boys ?) on horseback are a great sight. Apparently, one must volunteer and be trained for this, and serve a sort of apprenticeship back in the hills before you can be a part of the main event. A cranky buffalo would make short work of a horse and rider.

At the corrals, the big herd that did the show is resting, and another group, brought in earlier, is there to begin the branding, sorting and vaccinating. They wait in small groups in individual pens, only a fence away from us. It is a pretty stout fence and includes strips of metal guard rails.. I stood there for a long time, just watching. The calves never got separated, and stay close, nursing sometimes. They have purposely left the really big bulls out on the hills, because they are very dangerous to be around, although there is one all by himself in a corral. He periodically runs at the fence where people are watching in a business-like way. Several of the cows are grumpy too, shoving others out of the way, and also rushing at the fence to scare us.

I’m still wondering about how dangerous they really are, when a big yellow tractor with a massive metal gate mounted on the front comes into this corral, moving fast, and cuts out some of the buffalo and drives them into another pen. Just like a cutting horse, but with armor. When it is time to begin the processing, the same tractor is joined by an even bigger one with a huge curved fence on the front. No one on a horse, no one on the ground, just steel and machinery to move the buffalo. They are urged through the chutes and into the vet “squeezes” with noisy black plastic garbage bags on broom-sticks. There isn’t much to see, they are entirely hidden by green metal walls, although they are let out into a round pen afterwards, pretty revved up for the crowd in the grandstands. Ooooo. O00000.

I stand and watch for a long time, wondering what these beasts are like. They don’t make much noise, only a sort of grunting, and a cough when they are upset. None of the bawling that cattle make. Confined in the corral, they do a lot of pushing and shoving. They act as though being this close to each other is very irritating. Most of the shoving is by the teenage bulls, predictably. I think they would normally be sort of ostracized by the cows and calves. The big bulls do become pretty solitary, grumpy Dads off by themselves resting up for the mating season, and probably secretly watching foot ball games on TV.

There is a catered lunch, barbecued buffalo on a bun, beans, chips and a cookie. We all line up and then carry our food into a tent, but the wind is vicious and we have to eat holding onto everything at once and quickly before everything was covered with dirt. Our eyes are scratchy, and the tents put up by the folks selling “art” are trying to stampede. Not a very pleasant feeling, and many of the people I came with have fled to the bus way before the time to leave.

I ate and bought a T-shirt and went back to the corrals to watch the buffalo until it was time. I spent much of my childhood hanging out with dairy cows, and I kept looking for anything of them in the buffalo. There is a lot, they are bovines, live in a herd, have much the same sort of life. But the buffalo have not been selectively bred for anything except to be a buffalo and survive. There are a number of ranches raising them for beef, I wonder if they are selecting for attitude. I wonder if buffalo on a farm are more tractable than these “wild” ones.

It doesn’t matter, really, if it was stage managed, it was a splendid event, the buffalo and the people. If you have a chance, go see it.