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Growing Up Ranch Chapter 9

Play and Exploring become Work.

Growing up Ranch Chapter 9 Working and Exploring 

Work. That four letter word we all grow to know eventually. Growing up "Ranch" meant that work started early in life and was intertwined with an element or curiosity that I will call "exploring". The line between the two was often blurred. Work was also so much a part of ranch life that it was something I looked forward to rather than dreaded. Getting to be part of the family's work was a rite of passage and bonding.

An example might help. We had an extensive irrigation system for our hay meadows passed down to us by previous owners. Water came down from over a mile upstream before being let out onto the hard dry meadow lands. We had some nice friendly brown critters known as beavers, which lived along the ditch where a patch of yummy aspen trees grew.

This was a formula for lots of heavy work by both beavers and boys. Naturally, we wanted to help with the ditch, playing in the water and controlling it ourselves was both fun and different. To a beaver, the ditch was a gigantic leak in desperate need of repair. Nearly every day, a quick check of the ditch revealed no water flow. Darn! Beavers again! Grabbing shovel's we trudged the mile upstream to the beaver's home. There we would find a nice dam blocking the ditch and creating a beaver heaven pond for Aspen eating.

Removing a beaver dam is hard word work. They make a mud and stick dam in which there is no rhyme or reason to the sticks. Apparently, they just keep jabbing sticks in at random wherever water is leaking. Eventually, it is almost stopped and little beaver hand full's of mud are slapped on and pressed in until nothing is flowing at all. The random tangle of sticks makes removal slow, hard, and painful. Add in the mud and it is now heavy back-straining work. The formula for success; remove dam completely while dreaming of a nice beaver skin coat, wait for the nightly rebuild, remove dam etc. repeat daily for the next month.

So the work part is obvious. As soon as a boy can lift enough dirt to make a hole, he is eligible for this task. Where did "Exploring" come in? Well, at some point a small boy begged "Daddy, can I come along and help you on the ditch?" This exploration of what Dad did quickly lead to the work of keeping the beaver dam out and water flowing. In fact, that same boy's curiosity had already goaded him into following the ditch, just to see where it went. That exploring extended the work to check the whole ditch for downed limbs and any other obstruction that needed removal.

There is a very important point to all this. Ranch hands for hire were scarce and expensive. Family labor was ready at hand and cheap. A small outfit like ours needed every able body working to keep going. You see, Dad wasn't back at home reading a magazine, while I worked the ditch. No, he was down along the meadows setting up the day's watering spread. He was cutting precise holes in the ditch bank and then creating a system of furrows that spread the water evenly across the growing hay field. My work freed him up for this more difficult task. "Exploring" led to "Work" which in turn multiplied the labor force.

It could work the other way too. Especially when we were younger there weren't as many jobs we could do, so summer was a time to just go exploring.  Things like riding up Valhalla, just for fun. Often we spent the day just following game trails just to see where they went. We were always looking for some new raspberry patches. Usually, this was done on pony back so we could cover more country.

Down south we call this a "sinchuwis" situation. ( Since you is)

"Where are you going?"

"Oh just up the creek."

"Roaring Fork?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"Well since you are goin', watch for cows and sign, OK?"

"Sure Dad, see yuh bout lunch" We lit out at our usual pony express speed. After all, the good stuff to find was up the creek, and the trail would slow us down as it got rough up there.

You see how an "Exploring" trip became a "Work trip? You might also catch the delayed work trip. "Say Dad have you ever ridden that trail that cuts across above the Elk Meadows?"

 "Which one? The lower one, or the one that goes up the Peak?"

"The one that goes up the Peak. But there is a branch that comes back down toward Ashenfelter."

 "I didn't know about that branch. Why, did you ride it?"

"Yeah, lots of cow sign and I think we saw an elk track or two."

"Where does it come out?" (Now Dad is exploring)

"Up on the ridge above where you go down to Roaring Fork if you turn too soon."

"Well I never knew that was there"

"Oh and we did see a lot of cow sign up by the Elk Meadows, counted twenty head down by the sawmill set at the forks."

Now boys are happy because they found something, Daddy didn't know about. Dad is happy because he just learned a new trail to ride for cattle and come fall a new area for hunting. Granddad Art is happy because we just found some more trails to guide our visitors along to see the country from a different view. We had also checked the herd saving a day trip for some adult who was needed for haying. All this happened, just because we went "Exploring." In actual fact, there was a sort of family competition to find new things. Valhalla being closer was our normal roaming grounds.

One of these Valhalla trips resulted in finding a new rough rock scramble up the face of that bald rocky mountain. As we had tied up the ponies down below in a cool aspen patch, we expected our cow dog Tilly would stick with them until we returned. We noticed that she was following us scrambling over huge boulders. Often out of sight she still followed us step by step. At last, we reached what we figured was an insurmountable obstacle. A huge flat slab of granite blocked the entire crevasse. It was at least twelve feet long and steep enough we had to scramble up on all fours. Poor Tilly looked forlorn and hurt as we left her behind. As we continued our climb, suddenly here came Tilly wagging her tail and scrambling along with us again. We reached the top and enjoyed the marvelous view spread before us. On a later climb, we watched to learn her secret. She simply backed up as far as possible. Then, at full tilt ran up the slab to join us.

One unusual feature of our exploring was the freedom we were given to simply play and explore. Within the yard, once I was five or six years old, I didn't even have to say where I was or when I would be back. Even Paul had this freedom. As we grew, exploring took on a new level of activity. By now we knew how to ride, and our world expanded tremendously. Now the entire Big Meadow, the East End, up the creek to The Forty even over to Grandma Ruth's house. As our world expanded, not only did we find more things, our freedom continued to expand as well. Once we were old enough to handle the barbed wire gates and were runaway proof, we had the run of the entire ranch. The only requirement was to give a general direction "We're going up the creek on the ponies. We'll be back" was about all we needed to say.

Up The Creek was very general and open to interpretation. Side trips were common especially since part of exploring is letting curiosity to know lead your feet where they should go. We might tie up the horses and climb up some rock face or hidden draw. Up which creek? There was in general an understanding it was Horseshoe Creek but we sometimes continued up Roaring Fork if the whim occurred. We might be going to Lost Creek but there were several ways to get there and we often didn't say which way. One word on this though is that safety meant being as specific as possible.

Our freedom was so great, that by the time I was 10 years old I had the full run of over twelve thousand acres of rugged wilderness, open prairies, and mountain streams. This even included our neighbor's property provided we followed the proper guidelines. Gates were to be left the way we found them, usually closed. Any stock was to be given a wide berth. No stopping to play around we were to just ride through.

This freedom extended into trips to Douglas. Douglas at that time was a quiet; perhaps you would call it a sleepy little town of about three thousand. Only two main streets; it was a big deal when we got an actual traffic light. Two Grocery stores, a Five and Dime store, Library, one Hotel, just a typical small Midwest town. It was entirely normal for us to be dropped off at the library around eight A.M. with the instruction "Be back here at twelve for lunch," We had free run of downtown, the city park, any of the stores. Some call it street smarts, I call it common sense, whatever it went by we did exercise it. Vacant alleys were avoided. It just made sense to give groups of other kids a wide berth. Those were the days when the police (not the cops!) were your friends and being law abiding might be kind of nerdy, but no one held it against you. We didn't need to bend the rules to go exploring.

One caveat to this freedom was that we absolutely obey the "Yu Ho" call. Mom sang a high-low "Yu Ho" that we could hear far away. Our town or country friends were often amazed when we suddenly announced, "Gotta go! Mom's calling!", and took off at a trot toward the sound of her call. It was less useful in town but we were ear tuned to hear it and come.

Balancing this freedom was the growing lack of opportunity to exercise it. The older and more capable you became, the more jobs you got assigned. At first, it was simple guiding, such as Boy Scouts or other visitors.

 One such assignment was as guide to a troop of Eagle Scouts up into the Back Country. Having to be lead by an eight-year-old was somewhat galling to these advanced explorers in their own right. Gradually, they began to recover their dignity as they discovered I was a fountain of information. "These are kinikinic berries. The Indians used them as part of the ingredients in pemmican." Later, "This is a Yarrow plant. It is used sometimes as a natural laxative." Further up the trail, as I kept Toby from eating a plant, "That is Larkspur. One or two plants are poisonous enough to kill a cow or horse." "Do you see that trail off to the right here?" "Where is it?" "Right here, see where it goes by that tree? Well, it will take you down to Ashenfelter Creek, Good fishing there for Brook Trout." One scout finally chimes up, "How do you know all this stuff?" "Oh, my Dad and Granddad taught me. Some of the trails I just followed to see where they went."

Soon simple guiding wasn't enough. We were sent regularly to check up on the herd. This worked both ways, finding our cattle and keeping them on our land: Finding neighbor's cattle and returning them to their land. This could be exasperating at times.

Our cattle guard got silted in during spring rains so our neighbor's steers were in on our land every day one summer. They soon got cagey about what going through that gate meant and started playing dumb. Mostly they just had to be really pushed with cow dogs to convince them but one steer made this a memorable event. This steer in particular at the last moment bolted up a rocky ridge and took off through the timber. We put the rest of the steers through the gate then trotted off to round up this last rascal. That steer had more run than brains! We chased him end to end of the East End Ridge twice!

We boys gave up and went to get Dad's help. He saddled up his Mustang pinto Spot and joined in the chase. After several more runs back and forth on the ridge, the steer finally broke for Horseshoe Creek which meant getting out of the trees that had kept us from heading him off. As we tore down the Big Flat at full gallop, Spot took matters into his own teeth. Yup, I said teeth! As the steer ran full tilt, Spot reached out clamped onto the root of his tail and then lifted that steer's hindquarters off the ground and carried him for about 50 feet. The steer was terrified! Bawling and running, he took off even faster. Now we could hardly keep him in sight at all. We finally got the steer turned round, and this time he did see the gate! Spot just wanted the stupidity to end and had finally had enough!

Work included motorized equipment as well. We had all ancient to heavily used tractors, so shade tree mechanic work was a continual chore. We also used a number of implements which while currently tractor drawn, were previously horse drawn. This combination often contributed to some hair-raising adventures.

Our Ford tractors never seemed to be able to crank start reliably. The easiest solution was to simply roll start them by backing them up a small hill when parked at the end of the day. As I got ready to harrow the Big Meadow, I noticed the start roll was short and flat so I had to start up in third gear instead of first or second. That meant when it started it would take off blazing fast. These tractors also didn't have much brake to speak of, so I would need to turn and let the tractor roll to a stop. The real problem with this is that if I didn't turn in time, I would get a fast ride over the bank and into the creek.

I threw the clutch out and worked the shifter over to third gear. The wimpy brakes held so far. I released the brakes with the clutch out and started the roll making sure to get plenty of speed up before I popped the clutch and the tractor roared to life. Looking ahead I only had fifty feet to get a twenty mile an hour tractor turned and stopped. I grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel and stood down as hard as I could on those almost useless brakes. Cutting the wheel hard I was just barely going to make it before the creek bank sent me on a barrel roll into the creek. I also had the tractor up on two wheels threatening to roll over anyway. As it turned out I made the turn, rolled to a stop, and went about hitching up the harrow. I spent the next few hours smoothing out the meadow for seeding, all the while eating the dust I was kicking up, doing it.

The follow up to planting was of course haying. Boys work here was more limited since the equipment in use was more prone to damaging itself or the operator or both.  The sickle mower was too easily hurt by hitting rocks or sticks. Since Granddad Art was the prime repairer of that gear, he insisted on being the only user of that mower.

I was permitted to run the dump rake. This was one of our converted horse-drawn machines. A long row of sharp curved steel teeth dragged the ground gathering hay. When full I would pull the chain that dumped the hay out by kicking the teeth up into the air and then dropping them down again. The first row was just done this way. After that, you had to time the dump to make a nice straight windrow of hay. This seems safe enough, but if you were to fall off the tractor those teeth would at least tumble you real bad, if not actually impale you.

Raking wasn't the only means of getting impaled while haying. On our ranch, we put our hay up loose. To keep the cattle and deer from raiding the stacked hay, we put it up in "cribs." These were simple square open topped pens into which we dumped the hay and even stacked it higher until the last of the hay formed a neat rounded "roof" much like a thatch top. To keep the considerable winds from blowing these tops off we tied old tires together and tossed one over the top so that the wire attaching them held the hay down.

The hay stacking tractor was a complicated machine to run, so boys got to do the hay stacking instead. At first, it was just miserably hot, and we got a hay dust bath as we tramped down the hay to pack as much as possible into the crib. As the hay got up over the top of the crib sides, we had to start building the rounded off top. Our summer hired hand Jimmy and I were at the very top nearly finished. The narrow stack top wobbled with every step, and it was a little nerve-racking. Suddenly, I heard Jimmy holler "Ouch, " and it turned out I had accidentally stabbed him in the leg with my pitchfork. After convincing him, it was actually an accident we took another load of hay to pull off and stomp down. In no time it was my turn to holler "Ouch" as Jimmy also accidentally stabbed my thigh. I have a small circular scar there to this day. We were both more careful after that.

The most dreaded hay stacking incident was actually an animal in nature. Rattle Snakes! The raked up hay made ideal shade for them to hide from the blazing mid-day sun and the stacker would scoop them up with the hay. We always kept a sharp ear out for the buzz of an angry snake who had just got a rude awakening! This was more complicated than it would seem. We also had various weeds, whose seed pods rattled enough like a snake that the noise of the tractor made it hard to tell the difference. There was one field in particular where this problem plagued us. Up Bolen Canyon, there was a natural meadow of fine timothy grass. There was also a snake den less than a quarter mile away up a small draw. Every load of hay sounded like a snake, but only once was there one. Both of us hay stackers used that stack as a slide down so fast we tumbled when we hit the ground! Granddad Art was furious we were messing around until we showed him our slithery friend making his much more graceful exit.

Ranch work had one underlying fact; no one could escape. It was inherently dangerous. Horses kicked, bit, ran away, ran you into fences and trees. The least likely but most hazardous was getting bucked off. Tractors and other machinery could break down flinging metal parts or falling on you. We had no guards, OSHA would have had a field day.

We used a tractor with a power take-off belt to drive our cook wood cutting saw. No guards anywhere you had to be extra careful of touching anything from the belt to the saw. One winter while sawing a new load of slab for the upper place there was a typical such accident. Grandma Ruth was catching the single pieces of wood as they were cut. Very dangerous as it put you within six inches of an unguarded saw blade. As the last slab finished, she noticed a piece of bark lying on the frame of the saw. Without thinking, she flicked it off with her pointy finger, and the saw gratefully ate its offering. No more index finger on her right hand.

She was fortunate. We had a neighbor down Horseshoe Creek who had gone out in the morning to bail hay. He told his wife where he was going and that he might not be back for lunch. Somehow the bailer jammed and instead of shutting down the whole rig, he just hopped off the tractor and went around back. He reached in to free something up and the bailer snatched his hand. Quick reactions let him get the other arm in too and somehow stall out the whole machine before it could actually drag him in and bail him. Now he was trapped with arms inside the bailer and no way out without help. He stood there all day until when he missed supper, his wife came and freed him. However, he lost both hands to the greedy bailer.

I still have a 2-inch long scar on my scalp where Toby ran me into a tree. I was bringing horses in from the Far End one morning. The shortest route was across a tiny rivulet of water and straight up the hill to them. Naturally, they were going to take the same route down. Hidden in the brush along the trickle was a hung-up wind-fallen tree about eight inches around at just the right height to scrape off a rider but let the pony through. To avoid this danger I pulled back on the reins to slow down and neck reined Toby to go right. Of course, he was such a good pony he sped up and went left! I hit the tree at full gallop! The world exploded in a huge burst of orange stars, and I blacked out. I came to, already on my feet, glasses gone, blood pouring from my head. Toby was just ahead but seeing a crying bleeding monster coming sent him off towards home. I walked about a mile before my Mom saw me and drove up to get me in the pickup. I got a ride to town for stitches and lost about three days memory to the concussion.

Still and all, the ranch was work and work was the ranch. The two could not be separated. I count myself fortunate to have grown up in such a demanding but rewarding home.

Some family members had special duties and talents. Grandma Ruth was one of them. As she was a full-fledged Registered Nurse, she became the only medical help within miles. This was often critical to the family when we were snowed in. During my first grade year, I fell while playing on a snowdrift and seriously broke my right arm. At the time we had been snowed in for a month and the men folk had all gone to town for supplies. I was kept lying quietly on the floor in shock patient position as prescribed by Grandma.

As it grew dark the men returned to learn of the accident and they began to work on getting me transported to a proper hospital in Douglas. Horses, snowmobiles, four-wheel drives and snow plows all played their part. The break was extremely serious. I had managed to break all the joint knobs off all three bones at the elbow. The Douglas doctor was not encouraging, amputation was the best he could do but he knew a specialist who might help.

He perused the X-Rays, rubbed his chin and remarked, "Pretty bad, but I've seen some interesting things. Besides the trauma of losing an arm so young, it would be better to have an arm with limited use." He put me in a soft cast and gradually the bones floated back together. I have ninety-eight percent use of my arm today largely due to Grandma's continuous nursing

As mentioned before, my mother Miriam was the teacher for both Paul and me. Because of her special skills she also was the organizer and leader for all the Rural School Holiday Programs. More work but richly rewarding.

As I grew up Ranch, work was not a burden, though sometimes I would have liked to play. Work was a reward in itself, a recognition of being valued and a full member of the family.





This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright © 2016 by Vernon Fawcett

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the copyright owner, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

Vern Fawcett
710 Charter Place
Charlotte NC. 28211

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