I am told a few weeks ahead of time that we will have to move cows home as soon as there is a break in the cold weather. Kevin has plowed a trail in the miles closest to our house, a neighbor has done the same near where the cows are currently pastured. We ship the kids off to school and I am sent out in the side by side utility vehicle to "get a head start" so that I don't delay the journey. He catches up to me halfway there anyway and I put a little hurry up in the gas pedal. A sense of urgency, I am often told, can be an asset to a rancher. The greater asset, though, is knowing when it is needed.
We switch vehicles and I am turned in to the grand marshal of our 15 mile journey westward. I am stationed in a 20 plus year old pick-up with an engine that I like to kill often as I still struggle with the intricacies of manual gears. I won't see anything beyond 1st gear for about four hours. The passenger side mirror appears to be missing, though I learn 10 miles into the journey that it's just twisted around to the side, probably from someone hitting a fence post, possibly from a too-friendly cow looking for the grain pellet cake that is stored in the bin on the back and is ejected with the push of a button. The rearview mirror is rendered useless with the cake bin blocking any view and so I am left to look behind me with one mirror and I veer sideways on the road often to check the progress of the creatures I am leading.
The journey starts out well. The cows willingly follow the pick-up out of the pasture and down the bladed trail. I notice that I have lost a few through an open gate and so I stop to wait for Kevin to push them back on the right path. And of course I take pictures. As I stand on the bent running board, I notice out of the corner of my eye that he is out of his vehicle, jumping up and down and waving. I am unsure of what this means from 1/4 mile away but I assume it means I should get the cows moving again and so I do. I don't worry about his frustration with me, though. He has 14.5 miles to cool off. I begin my playlist, starting off with Broadway Songs and the Wellerman.
Soon may the Wellerman come, to bring us sugar and tea and rum...
Oh, isn't this amazing? It's my favorite part because you'll see. Heeeeere's where she meets Prince Charming, but she won't find out that it's him 'til chapter three.
It's time to try defying gravity. I think I'll try defying gravity and you can't pull me down...I'm through accepting limits because someone says they're so...So if you care to find me, look to the western sky! As someone told me lately "everyone deserves the chance to fly!"
I sing along loudly, not a care in the world, other than that part of our cattle herd is following closely behind, hoping for a click from the cake truck. I dance in my seat, tapping out the rhythms on the pick-up door. I play songs on repeat, and I eat all of the snacks that I have packed within the first 2 miles of our journey.
We eventually hit the long gravel road home and the monotony threatens to appear, if you can call it that when the day is beautiful and the snow is lovely, and the cows are relaxed. I turn to more introspective tunes, still singing along, still on repeat.
On a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler, we were both too tired to sleep..."Son, I've made a life out of reading people's faces, knowing what the cards were by the way they held their eyes. So if you don't mind my saying, I can see you're out of aces. For a taste of your whiskey, I'll give you some advice...You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away, know when to run."
The playlist continues on, but I ponder the words of Kenny. The lessons of picking your battles and picking your words - they're not always easy ones to learn. I am thankful for these moments of solitude where I get to ponder life and all the lessons it has to offer. And then I realize that I was way too far ahead of the cows, even in 1st gear, even with the brake slightly depressed as they move s-l-o-w-l-y due to the snow and ice. Excitement builds as a UPS truck heads westward and a county road grader heads eastward, both meeting at the point where our cattle are trailing. I am on the wrong side of the road. The cows are on both sides of the road. The other drivers are both slowed for a time, but everyone continues on, hustling through their days with a holiday looming on the horizon.
The bulk of our journey is on a gravel road called Brockway East. The gates are all closed, the fences are all good and the cows just simply plod onward west, knowing they are headed home, knowing that food and shelter awaits. Some take the hard route, plunging in to the borrow pits on the side of the road filled with drifted snow, looking for gentler footing on the fence line. Some just stick as close to the pick-up as they can, knowing they are first in line if I decide to turn the grain cake feeder on.
We pass a cemetery on the outskirts of the little town. I have closed the gates on the way to the pasture to protect the sanctity of the place from wandering bovines. Headstones of relatives and homesteaders fill this humble place, people who have lived their lives on the prairie, some of those lives harder than others. I am reminded of the cemeteries in Pennsylvania where my relatives are buried and acknowledge that I find both settings beautiful, the memories and history rising from them and surrounding us all, teaching us things if we care to acknowledge them.
We gently herd the cattle through the little town on the prairie, knowing that there is a strong need to find a balance between the sense of urgency and the sense of patience in moving cows past houses and equipment and over a busy highway where families are traveling homeward for the Thanksgiving holiday. I lead the cows for three more miles down a bladed path, across the Redwater River that is finally flowing after drought, and westward on the Green Trail. We leave the cows to their own meanderings when we are a mile from our pasture, knowing they will complete the journey on their own and Kevin will feed them upon their arrival home.
The last songs begin on my playlist as I have allowed myself to mellow out to Dave Matthews and Tyler Childers for the last few miles of our trip.
You seek up an emotion and your cup is overflowing. You seek up an emotion, sometimes your well is dry...
I've been up on the mountain, and I've seen His wondrous grace. I've sat there on a bar stool, and I've looked Him in the face. He seemed a little haggard, but it did not slow Him down. He was humming to the neon of the universal sound.
The dancing and drum tapping on the steering wheel have stopped by this time and I've become more attuned to my surroundings. The clicking of the cattle joints, the fact that 516 is always at the front of the herd, the yucca, the gravel, the snow, the joy of driving an old pickup westward with the window down while the winter sun shines its light on you and warms your body and your soul.