What if I…failed?

It is hard to fail quote Theodore Roosevelt“Oh, umm, I can’t make it out this weekend. I have other plans. Maybe next weekend?”

With the dial tone ringing in my ear, I shook my head. Plans, Erica? Maybe curling up on the couch for a Grey’s Anatomy marathon. To never know if this could have been my chance? Utter silliness.

I gulped in a big breath and hit redial. “You know? I’ve canceled my plans. Saturday noon work for you?”

It was the first real possibility in a long line of empty attempts in obtaining gainful employment on a ranch, and I was scared. I never would have admitted it at the time, but now I can nod and tell it like it was.

Scared that it wouldn’t pan out.

Scared that it would.

It’s difficult to explain how terrifying a dream can be when it suddenly orbits within reach. Dreams are easy to talk about when they’re floating on a fuzzy horizon. They are infinitely harder to live when they swoop so close you can see their belt loops.

I had busted my tail in pursuit of my dream of working on a cattle ranch. And all of my best efforts lay alongside a heap of rejections. I’d started to give up. To the point that my application for this job lay on my kitchen table for days before I finally plunked it in the mailbox.

Because even though I wanted to work on a cattle ranch in the hardest way imaginable, I was equally worried about how I would handle such a seismic shift in my landscape should it become reality. I mean, what if I…failed?

Ah, there it was. Truth peeping out from the pile of excuses it’d been hiding under.

Of course there was the usual apprehension about leaving friends. Parting with a place I loved. Stepping out of the comfort of a job I knew how to do into the arms of a job filled with unknowns.

But really I was just scared I would fail, and in the moment that phone call came, it was easier to put off a potentially life-changing moment than it was to grab hold and wrestle it to the ground.

The Fitting Room

The last thing I wrote about was calving season. Now here we are in mid-August, the summer slipping silently past into the river of no return. It’s been eight months since I started a new life. I’m still wiggling around in it to see how it fits.

You don’t know much of anything about a new job until you’ve been there a year, especially in the ultra-cyclical world of ranching. Until you feel how the seasons sit on your shoulders for a second time, you don’t know if a job is the right fit or ready for a trade-in.

Right is different from perfect, you know. Right is liking it most days, loving it some. Disliking it a few days, hating it none. It’s fights and squabbles with frequent moments of catching your breath and soaking up how lucky you are to be in a place like this. But perfect, is there such a thing? Maybe grandma’s apple pie or a summer sunset on the river.

I still get questions about how I ended up here. In the words of my newly acquired Kiwi friend, “I drove here.” Knuckles, new Kiwi friend.

You don’t do this in our society. You don’t leave a nice office job with a good company. You don’t step off the career ladder you’ve been climbing. You don’t toss years of effort into the garbage to wrangle cows.

But I did. And I don’t regret it. I don’t care if others think I’m sitting at the bottom holding the ladder I used to be climbing. When was the last time you went to the store and saw a row of identical happiness for sale? You can’t buy it, and everyone needs a different brand.

So the last six months? Calving cows, sorting pairs, shipping to spring grass and then summer grass. Fixing fence, miles of fence and more fence. And – shhh, don’t tell, because I don’t want to ruin my cowgirl rep – driving bankout wagon during harvest. Some days I was even good at it, usually on Tuesday afternoons.

I’ll probably be sitting in this fitting room awhile longer, checking out how I look in my new job that feels old in all the best ways. I’ve always hated the fitting room – in the store, in relationships, in books, in vehicles – but this one comes with horses, cows and wide open spaces. It’s a good place to try on.

Ranch Life Realities: It’s not all romance.

  1. I lost THE book. And the binoculars, but magnifying glasses for creepers can be replaced. I LOST the BOOK in the middle of a thousand acres of wheat stubble. Each calf’s color, gender and birth date are recorded in this book. Can you imagine if a hospital lost its birth records?
  2. I about tipped the ranger over. Not once. Not twice. THREE times. In a 60-second time frame. I’ll ride a horse across a canyon rock slide without flinching. Put me in one of these 4-wheelie mabobbers, and I’m a complete pansy. I was perched on the edge, ready to fling myself off if it tipped over. I swallowed my heart 18 times. It’s probably enlarged now.
  3. The ranger incident(s) is clearly why I lost the book and binocs.
  4. Returning to the scene of the crime revealed the lost treasures. I’m putting them in a steel briefcase and handcuffing it to my wrist. I’m also going to write “Actually I did not wear a pocket protector or fanny pack in high school.” in Sharpie on my forehead.
  5. I was holding an orphan calf on my lap while driving into the barn. Trying to navigate with six feet on the gas pedal? I dropped him like he was a year’s worth of recycled newspapers, and he fell under the ranger.
  6. But thanks to those years I never drove race cars, I had all my quick vehicle pedal reflexes saved up. I nearly shot through the windshield, but I didn’t run over the calf. I even had an inch and a half cushion. Plus he was stunned from his ungraceful dismount. Otherwise he might have flailed his way into a pair of broken legs.
  7. Then while I was tagging calves, I found one in Tumbleweed Draw. It’s a sandy descent, slogging through waist-high tumbleweeds. Mama started snorting and tossing her head. She’s bluffing. I moved in closer. She started pawing up dinner plate-sized chunks of dirt. Impressive. I’ll haul her over to rototill my garden. Steepest part of the descent, and she charged up the hill. Mayday! Mayday! This is not a bluff! Launch exit strategy!
  8. I’m sure I looked like an overweight marshmallow in my bibs and heavy coat, backpedaling out of that draw. I worked with an old Mexican cowboy in a corral once. “Oh she’ll stop,” he told me that day. “Just stand there, and hold your ground.” I’ll hold my ground, you betcha. From a place where that cranky old broad can’t eat my face.
  9. I really liked this philosophy from Larry Olberding on tagging calves. “Those ear tags are just something for YOU. They mean nothing to the mother cow. She knows who her kid is.”
  10. All of this happened yesterday, the day I’ve officially been living the dream for a month on an Oregon ranch.
  11. But even when you’re living the dream, you still get dumped out of bed. It’s life’s way of reminding you Madame Reality rules this side of the tracks, not some glitter-dusted wizard out of a Disney movie.
  12. It doesn’t mean the dream isn’t the dream anymore. It just means your dream is putting on some miles.

Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

They don’t make country music like they used to. That racket the new country radio stations are playing? I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t country. I’m not sure most of it is even music.

I’m grumping like an 80-year-old woman with a pipe and a rocking chair, babbling about the old days. But what happened to creative lyrics that told a real story? When did artists let go of the art of making music?

George Jones sang about it in Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

Who’s gonna fill their shoes
Who’s gonna stand that tall
Who’s gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball
Who’s gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you
Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes

And I got to wondering, who’s gonna fill the shoes and boots and lace-ups of the farmers and ranchers? While they may not be knocking on the blue-haired doors of nursing homes just yet, a lot of farmers and ranchers are on the downhill slide of life. Jesse Bussard touches on this topic of aging farmers and ranchers and young people wanting to get started in her Beef Producer blog “Future Ranchers Lack Keys: Land, Livestock and Money”.

Who is gonna fill their shoes? Is it you? If so, post a comment. Even if it’s just a short, “My name is Festus McGou, and I am [or hope to be] a pumpkin farmer.”

I don’t want folks saying they don’t make farmers and ranchers like they used to, because I don’t think that’s true. If your dream is production agriculture, then stand up and say so because there are those who need the camaraderie and others who need to hear their footprints won’t go unfilled.

Unfilled boots in northeast Oregon snow

If Cows Really Were Purple

The idea of a purple cow was made popular by Seth Godin in his book Purple Cow about marketing. As most things garnished with a Seth Godin stamp, the concept is brilliant.

Here’s an excerpt from the Fast Company article that launched the book:

The world is full of boring stuff — brown cows — which is why so few people pay attention. Remarkable marketing [purple cow] is the art of building things worth noticing right into your product or service. Not just slapping on the marketing function as a last-minute add-on, but also understanding from the outset that if your offering itself isn’t remarkable, then it’s invisible — no matter how much you spend on well-crafted advertising.

Of course Seth is talking about figurative purple cows, but what if cows really were purple?

If they were, I wouldn’t have had to be two feet from this calf to see him.
Baby calf bedded down in wheat stubble

And I wouldn’t have any trouble spotting him when I moved a few paces south. (Where the heck did he go? It’s like he pulled an invisible cloak over his head.)
Hidden calf in wheat stubble

When Dreams Look Like Cow Pies and Calving Season

Don’t dream your life; live your dream.

When I was a girl lying in bed waiting for sleep to claim me, I daydreamed. I made up these elaborate mind movies, and they were all about one thing: cattle ranching. Until I was pushing through high school, my biggest dream was to raise cattle. After dabbling in different directions for a few years, that dream returned in full force.

And now my dream is coming true.

Did I just type that? My dream is coming true?

It hardly feels real, but it is. I’m trading in my office space for thousands of acres and hundreds of cows. Leaving the 4-walls lifestyle for the remote corners of an Oregon ranch.

Following a dream is never perfect, and this one is no exception. I’m excited for this nose dive off the cliff of adventure, but it’s cloaked with a bittersweet cape. I love where I live. 100% of the time. These Palouse hills and the mountains of north Idaho, my blue-trimmed little house and my friends – it is my home.

But I’m not waking up each day knowing that when I’m 60 I’ll look back on a life following the trail I wanted to take. When your dream looks like cow pies and calving season, you’ve got to pull on your boots, grab a fist full of mane and take the trail that’s going to lead you over the mountain you want to climb.

Let’s get trottin’.

That Tom Horse

paint horse TomHe was a walkin’ horse, and not of the Tennessee kind,
Barn boards for legs, bony of hip and a bit cranky in the eye.
That Tom horse was no real looker unless you like ’em raw,
But he moved out quicker than most others you’d find.

Throwin’ a leg over was like climbin’ after a cat up a pine tree.
Just as you strangled a fist-full of mane to light in the saddle,
The head of that Tom horse would come ’round to bite your rear.
With luck an’ a quick shinny up, he only got a chunk of your knee.

Gosh that Tom horse could be an ornery cuss, even on the fly.
His pair o’ paint ears would flap straight back on a whim,
And you’d feel a li’l bit a devil inching up his spine.
A hop n’ hoot n’ holler and your stirrups sayin’ good-bye.

You always had to watch him, he wasn’t a horse you trusted.
Never let the reins go slack or let him flat-out gallop.
But sooner or later you’d set a l’il loose in the saddle,
And that Tom horse same as said, “Pard, you’re busted.”

But when he wasn’t tryin’ to plant you in cow pies an’ dirt,
That Tom horse was ropin’ and slidin’, cuttin’ and holdin’.
Crossin’ canyons, duckin’ brush and trackin’ a herd of cows.
He had no quit, not a bit, even when he shoulda pulled up hurt.

For being all outta sorts with fire under his red n’ white hide,
You got to sorta liking that Tom horse in spite of all his faults.
There’s not been another who hunted country quite like him,
And each day astride that big paint was a day for quite a ride.

She’s not a great cow.

Black angus cows at sunsetIf you had an employee who did nothing for a year but drink your coffee, play your computer games and shoot the breeze with coworkers, would you keep that employee on the payroll?

Of course not. You wouldn’t support someone who wasn’t fulfilling his or her role.

So why keep a cow that didn’t get pregnant? It doesn’t matter how correct her conformation is, how solid her genetics are or how great of a cow she is supposed to be.

If she doesn’t have a calf, she’s not a great cow. She’s just an attractive lady with nice parents who is gobbling up your resources.

Putting the Western into Tree-Hugger

Had the crack team at work yesterday. The kiddos had appointments to pick up new shoes, so it was just me and my favorite old man Gus. He is an ace. Attacks the hills, super cowy and goes over and through most anything.

Gus the cowhorse and Doc the border collie

Thank goodness, because I sure made some amateur judgment calls yesterday. The cows were out the night before, so I was riding fence. I was so determined to see as much of it as I could that Gus and I got caught in no man’s land. Trail was faint at the beginning and, kerflump, dead as a skunk at high noon. Windfalls pushed me off the fence, and then we really were Lewis & Clarking it.

I was hugging trees left and right. We got in such a tight spot, Gus near tipped me backward over a windfall. Called it quits shortly after that and pointed our noses down country. A slip and nine slides later, we scrambled down a steep embankment onto a cow trail. I was shaking the branches and dust off us all for hours, and here’s a first, a pine needle had worked its way up under my cowboy hat and I didn’t find it til I took my shower.

Some people define a good horse as one that can come out of the box and put you in the right position in an arena. And those are sure some fine horses, but out here you’re better off to have a pony who puts his head down, goes where no horse has gone before and gets you home.

Stepping Back in Time: An Old-Fashioned Threshing Bee

History fascinates me. When I’m not geeking out over agriculture and photography, I’m a total nerd about things that happened decades and centuries ago.

Each Labor Day, there is an old-fashioned threshing bee held near Colfax, WA. A threshing machine run by a steam engine is set up, and teams of mules and horses cut and haul the grain to be threshed. It was fascinating to watch, and there was a great crowd in attendance. (Here’s a pretty neat animation on how a threshing machine works.

Old-Fashioned Threshing Bee - Harvesting with Mules

The neat thing about history is how much importance it plays in your present life. You are where you are because of what has happened before today. If you don’t know it used to take 15 men, horses and slow progress to harvest a field of wheat or barley, then it’s harder to understand the significance of how farmers are able to harvest grain today.

Old-Fashioned Threshing Bee - Mule Team

I suspect a lot of the people watching this year’s threshing bee had never seen draft horses or mules work. Some of them probably haven’t had a chance to experience modern agriculture. Each piece of information and each experience a person has helps shape their opinions. Events like old-fashioned threshing bees provide a base for understanding agriculture’s history and where it is coming from.

Transferring the grain from one wagon to the other for threshing

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