Watching the corrals from a distance:
young men a horseback dancing in the sort
of cows from calves before branding
amid a discordant chorus, the same
plaintive song of years worn thin
that holds the heart in place as the eyes
fade and the mind wanders a far
ridge searching for the first split
in the trail that leads to this short
moment of chance and circumstance—
apart and beyond the world’s fear and all
the raw conflicts that feed it senseless.
A man rides by the seat of his pants,
pockets of memory that reach for the rhythm
of a horse collected, the singing twine.
Through the cerise redbuds and wildflowers awaiting sunshine to fully bloom, our slow hour’s drive up Dry Creek, then descending a curvy 245 to the entrance of Woolley Canyon, we arrived to brand the last of Kenny and Virginia McKee’s calves yesterday, despite concerns of Covid-19. Social distancing is virtually impossible in the branding pen.
Virginia had soap and wipes available and Kenny had prepared a concoction of 90% alcohol and witch hazel to spray on our hands that I used several times. It took the dirt off as well. Though apprehension varied among us, there was none of the normal hugs or handshakes, most keeping a noticeable distance when possible. But when it came to the groundwork and vaccinations, the work was necessarily close.
My separate apprehension on my 72nd birthday centered on a horse that I had roped on only once before. Robbin and I have outlived our dependable mounts, and I have had to borrow horses to get through this year’s branding season. By the end of the day, “Twist” was beginning to overcome his cutting horse breeding and he and I were having fun. After a couple of more brandings next year, he’ll be reliable at brandings.
Though everyone was given the option of not participating, we were there to help our neighbors, a cultural exercise we all prescribed to despite the risks. Not unlike workers tending and harvesting crops, it’s what we do this time of year. Not branding is not a viable choice in Woolley Canyon.
Working together with neighbors for a few hours on a beautiful day was a luxurious diversion from the news as we await a forecast rain.
Despite warm temperatures and no rain for nearly 30 days, the calves have grown since we branded last in Greasy on January 9th.
Father and daughter, Garth and Audrey Maze pose before we start.
With a great crew, we made short work of big calves and were down the hill by noon. Thank you all.
On the edge of fog, we’ve been gathering Greasy to brand Thursday, while the forecast for rain varies from from a few hundredths to a quarter-inch from a half-dozen Internet weather sites. Above the fog, we shed all the jackets it took to get there, a true inversion layer. Time to fish or cut bait.
As of one of two old men among some good young cowboys at Tony Rabb’s branding yesterday, the importance of bringing young men along was self-evident. Schooled at home before the branding pen, a young man must ride, rope, roll a calf, dally, slide slack and stay out of trouble. This was Brandon Huntington’s first branding on New Year’s Day and he managed to do it all!
Despite local forecasts for rain, we made the trek up the hill with our neighbors to brand our first bunch of calves for the season. Over the years here, we’ve dealt with fog, rain and snow, but yesterday the sun broke through the gray to complete a beautiful day.
Additional hazards are these two Blue Oaks that Effie Hilliard incorporated when she built these corrals many decades ago, one of which is now a casualty of our 4-year drought. Though we’ve threatened to remove them, consensus has been that they remain.
Though we see one another individually throughout the year, the first branding of the year is always a special get-together for all of us.
One of the benefits of trading labor is that everyone knows how we want the job done, whether a horseback or on the ground. You just can’t hire any better help than our neighbors.
And one of the drawbacks, as we age, is that some of us have now outlived our horses. Finding a replacement gentle and trustworthy enough for old men is not easy, but Tony Rabb brought a young buckskin mare to the branding pen for the first time with impressive success. Robbin and I thank everyone for helping us get the job done.
How I crave the feel
of an old soft rope
in my hand,
like an open mouth
hungry for heels
in the branding pen.
I’ve marked calves
on this spot,
bog in the gate
that Giz built:
hog wire stapled
over a 2 x 6 rectangle
I drug through the mud—
replaced and almost forgotten.
It’s hard to let go:
same horseback look
creek meandering a bowl
of fresh green feed,
safe and apart
from a hazy world
beyond the narrows—
the feel of my rope
roping calves around a fire—
reliving a dream
on a borrowed horse.
Up early, awaiting
confirmation of the storm
slated to rain out plans
to brand calves
on slick roads
to thin cows
as grass grows
against the cold
Nothing on the news
but red and blue politics,
and fog on 99,
ads for fast foods,
and old age—
not one damn thing
I want. Nothing
I can change
but feed more hay
to hungry souls.
Another bunch of calves branded for Ken & Virginia McKee in Wooly Canyon yesterday, the culmination of a 4-day gather of tough country by younger men than I, all good hands on good horses with good dogs. Much has changed since I first branded my own calves in 1968. Gooseneck trailers have replaced bob-tailed trucks, pipe instead of board pens, women in the branding pen, but the ground remains pretty much the same.
Robbin, Bob, Terri and I went to help our dear friends and neighbors get their calves marked as we’ve done for years. It’s a 45-minute drive up Dry Creek Road to the Mountain House and curvy decline down 245 to the corrals, a green, E-ticket ride of crimson redbud blooming and piles of wildflowers spilled like gold coins around every turn in road as the sun breaches the ridgelines—almost a fantasy.
And was I relieved to see them parting cows from calves when we arrived thirty minutes earlier than normal, but mostly to know I’d be in the branding pen with cowboys I’ve watched mature into cowmen with talents with a rope I strived for, but never quite attained, to watch my back. The cattle culture in this part of Tulare County is in good hands.
The tourists came
parked outside the pen
along the road,
and watched us
head and heel,
stretch and throw,
cut and vaccinate,
burn a brand
in a swirl of smoke.
We held our breath,
in pleasant tones