As great (for us) as the three-week Atmospheric River was, it put everyone’s branding schedules behind, most roads too wet to get to our cattle. Normally, we’d be at Elko this time of year, but with travel and time away from business, we needed to stay at home before our calves got too big to handle easily.
When I look around our community’s branding pens I realize now that most of the old timers are gone, that we have taken their places going ‘old-people slow’, and we prefer it. Fortunately we have some young muscle to work the ground.
Robbin and I have scaled our operation down, in part due to our heavy culling to adapt to consecutive years of drought and also by selling half of our cows to my son Bob. Branding pasture by pasture, our bunches are now small enough to get by with three ropers, one calf stretched at a time. Our relaxed pace has become even more conducive for old friends to visit while we get the work done. These photos from our second branding of the season, it’s been great!
We head to Tony Rabb’s next week to brand after he assesses the rain forecast for this weekend.
Sometimes I sell ‘em ten bucks at a time, but mostly
when I give ‘em away to friends, I tell ‘em
like I tole Baxter a few months after he signed
“Croutons on a Cowpie” for me years ago in Elko
where all the cowboy singers and poets meet
in the dead of winter, everbody huggin and shakin hands
like famly, new boots and silver glinting coin piled
in rooms like warm cocoons to listen, safe from the outside
news, just to sing and tell stories with roughshod poetry.
First time I went in ’89 to read my stuff I was skairt
until I run into Ramblin Jack who I hadn’t seen since ’66
at the Ashgrove, plumb skairt ever since Sunday school
stage plays screwed my face up so tight to where
I couldn’t say my lines. But seein Jack made ever thing
all right. Now that Baxter’s older, he understands
that it was a compliment, ‘specially since he’s a vet
and knows how the body sometimes works best
when the brain is busy with something else,
busy and out of the way of regular business.
I wrote to Baxter that I’d took his book off my desk,
pulled it out from under loose stacks of poetry
for my top shelf—so I mean it when I tell ‘em
my poems are mostly short and will work best
if you take and leave ‘em in the bathroom.
Always a joy to see Brigid & Johnny “Guitar” Reedy at the Gathering, to see how they’ve matured both on and off stage. Performing at the Gathering since she was two, Brigid made the cover of Alta Magazine on January 1, 2020. Now 19, she and Johnny (14) have been writing their own songs and Brigid has been writing a little poetry as well. A great show Monday night! We also caught a set with them on stage with Ernie Sites and the Sagebrush Ramblers at the the Stockman’s.
All recent history, we’re branding calves this morning.
On our way home from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Robbin and I replay a collage of meaningful moments, fragments of conversations, poetry and music as we cross the Great Basin. Avoiding I-80 and Donner, taking the longer, southern route over Tehachapi instead, it has become like Groundhog Day, both coming and going over the years as we cross the pastel sagebrush expanse of the high desert.
Since 1989, I’ve watched the Gathering evolve from strictly traditional recitations to more contemporary expression rooted in a hands-on, rural ethic of the livestock culture where a man’s word is still his bond, where neighbors trade labor and the land offers a living for those tough enough to endure the whims of the weather. With more hugs than handshakes, it has become a reunion where respect remains high, but we’ve lost a few of the best along the way.
With many new faces, an obvious effort to inject some youth into the offering, it was invigorating and inspirational. Included in a great session with poets Forest VonTuyl from Oregon, Jonathon Odermann from North Dakota and singer-songwriter Tracy Morrison from Idaho, I was assured that the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering will survive with renewed energy and originality. My kudos to the staff for locating so much young talent residing in the West.
I always look forward to visiting and reading with one of my favorites, Patricia Frolander, past-Poet Laureate of Wyoming, pictured above. Robbin and I will continue to replay the moments as we get down to the business of branding calves. It’s good to be home.
The Elko undercurrents
often missed by journalists,
the thoughtful streams
of love and long respect
retained for old friends—
those profound associations
not secreted away,
My right hand offered
held in his both
as he contemplates
my eyes, and I his.
We breathe deeply.
Two gray old men
face to face
within a loud crowd,
we block the aisle
beside a tableful of friends,
warm food and wine.
We know we are rare
birds in these fast times,
reading, writing poetry—
reaching for what we know
exists: like the language
of horses, cattle and people
who live on the land
it takes a lifetime to learn
As we were leaving Cowboy Joe’s with coffee, Bob spotted me this morning in downtown Elko, on Cedar Creek’s store window—an aged portrait by Kevin Martini-Fuller with my poem “Our Time”, dedicated to our neighbors at home, Virginia and Kenny McKee.
By scanning the bar code in lower left hand corner, you can hear my recitation of the poem or see ‘Audio Poems’ in the menu above.
Heading into Bishop on our way home from Elko, Monday afternoon, the east side of the Great Western Divide shimmered with luxurious snow while it was storming on the other side, against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills. By the time we made it home on Tuesday, the rain was finishing up, 1.22″ in the gauge as the creek was gaining momentum from the four-plus inches upstream, from its low-elevation headwaters less than 20 miles away. The foothills are saturated, every crease and crevice now collecting every drop of rain to send downstream. Roads are closed, creeks and streams flooding, dams failing.
Fast-forward to Thursday night, another warm, pineapple express will arrive here, forecast to bring another 1.5″ of rain, and who knows how much precipitation at the higher elevations that may also reduce our existing snowpack. This is not a part of our historic 4-year drought; the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.
“Story” was the story, the theme at Elko this year, kicked off by Andy Wilkinson’s spellbinding, poetic keynote address last Thursday morning entitled “Storyline”. With offerings more diverse than ever before, audio, video and all forms of visual art blended well with the poetry and music. I’ve maintained for years that the keynote address sets the tone for the Gathering, but never more true than this year. Currently sequestered inside with current weather conditions and the near-term wet forecast, Dry Crik Press is working with Andy Wilkinson to reprint “Storyline” in chapbook form.
Meanwhile back at the ranch it’s a warm 72 degrees as we batten down the hatches in preparation for Thursday.
Robbin and I have been crossing the Great Basin from Tonopah to Carlin in January for twenty years, choosing the longer route to Elko instead of I-99 towards Sacramento congestion and Donner Pass. Once known as the World’s Loneliest Highway, going home we met only a couple of vehicles on Highway 278 towards Eureka, Monday morning February 1st, after Sunday’s storm.
Twenty years ago, everyone waved a passing hello when meeting a vehicle on these back roads, but the habit seems to have waned in the past few years. I never fail to wonder about the first wagon crossings, the weeks it took to overcome this high desert expanse, the people, their courage and endurance, as they made the trek. How many of us today would have done as well, invested the patience and dedication to get to a place, presumably California, that they’d never seen?