Author Archives: John

Craig Ainley Branding


Terri Drewry photo


There’s a lot to be said about not knowing when you were born. But I just checked Toby’s papers to find that this Montana Doc son was born in 1994—me 1948.

I tried every way possible to wriggle out of helping Craig Ainley brand his 4-5 weight Wagyu X calves at Mankins Flat, an hour’s 4-wheel drive from the asphalt to patched board corrals. I reasoned that the calves might be too big, too much work for old men in muddy pens. But we owed him for his help branding our own calves, and with all our other neighbors busy helping one another brand on the few days between rains, and he short-handed, I had no choice, no lame excuse for horse or me.

Craig wanted our whole crew, Robbin, Terri, Allie, Bob and me. Terri Drewry and I roped with Garth and Audrey Maze, Corrine Ainely Manes and Donnie Castle, finishing up an hour before the forecast 2” storm while wind gusts lifted snow off the Great Western Divide, the Kaweah Peaks and Sawtooth, seemingly a stone’s throw across the North Fork—a fun and beautiful, overcast day!

Shoulders sore, the old men recuperated while it rained.





When Zinfandel heavens part between rains,
we lift a glass of Cabernet at dusk
towards their fleeting magnificence

before the storm, beyond our reach
or responsibility, helpless but to bask
in the fading light of certain truth.





                                        nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.
                                              – Li Po (“On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to                                                            Meng Hao-jan Who’s Leaving for Yang-chou”)

Branding big calves an hour from the asphalt,
snow-laden Sierras dressed in diaphanous clouds
a stone’s throw across the North Fork canyon

from these corrals too short for modern cows,
we talk about the pressure-treated posts you set
six foot down back when I can’t remember.

Away from the world for years, you are both here
and beyond the Great Western Divide,
a fuzzy white river flowing south to somewhere.

                                                                  for Gary Davis





Fresh after-storm clouds,
of shadows climbing hillsides,
evening moon on snow.





The stage is set with
few days between rains
in years between droughts—

green hills hang fire,
begin to breathe
before they flower.

Knee-deep white egrets
comb blades of grass,
step lightly slowly

as tree frogs gather
to rehearse
an all-night chorus.


Old Packers



In his Model A, Bill DeCarteret stopped by our branding yesterday along Dry Creek Road. His visit with Tim Loverin, owner/operator of the Cedar Grove Pack Station, and me was much too short. We’ll do it again soon.





Last two hundred years,
six days afire—forgotten
ash and sediment.





Purple clouds up canyon,
an armada approaching
white skies at dawn…

battleships burning pink,
fleet afire and fading
into a bluer sea.





                                                                                                           The gods
                                               abhor halters and stirrups, even a horse
                                               blanket to protect our asses is forbidden.

                                                                   – Jim Harrison (“Poet No. 7”)

Handful of mane, wrap
of hair gripped and entwined,
I plowed the pine duff on the Kern
with my chin loping back to the picket line,
bell mare clenched between my legs
when she shied.

                    A pigeon-toed bay,
                    my legs and heart
                    grew into.

A plucky kid
leading mules and people

                    over granite scree
                    to snowmelt meadows
                    framing heaven’s
                    blue-cloud reflection

I could have died
half-dozen times
were I not so close
to the hands of gods
and goddesses

that may have placed
a rattler in the corner of her eye
for entertainment.

                                                  for Bill DeCarteret

“Mountains, Mules and Memories”





Burning twin Valley Oaks
gone dead in the drought,
undermined by the creek—

four-foot trunks
of smoking coals
two or three centuries old

stirred with the skid steer
three times a day

have left a hole
in my tangled world
across the creek

I cannot replace:
timelessness trapped
in mottled shadows

embracing me
each time I passed
beneath them.



* Really “DAY THREE”, (today is Saturday, not Sunday). Excused from Jury Duty, I lit the fire Thursday morning after Erik Avila pulled the trees out of the creek with an excavator for Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District on Wednesday.

The ranchy part of this common confusion for us is that we’re busy, we work at something everyday, doing pretty much what we want—no “hump days” with weekdays and weekends pretty much the same, we tend to lose track of what the name of today is. That’s my story and I’m stickin to it.