Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cattle Branding

This cattle branding had been on my schedule for a long time. I've got the cowboy boots, I've got the country music, but I haven't really seen how the ranching life works, and here was my chance, if only for a couple hours. I knew the basics: the cattle have to be branded, and in order for that to happen we have to hold them down. While they're down, might as well vaccinate and castrate them, too. Some friends of friends were having their annual branding last weekend, so us tourists decided to come along.

This is, not surprisingly, not the most pleasant process. When we first walked up, it was a rather hellish scene: calves kicking as fighting as they were dragged out of the corral by their hind legs; others moaning, pinned to the ground, while the hot iron was pressed to their ribs; and above it all the smell of burning hair. It was a shock, and for a second I thought not only could I not help out all, I probably couldn't eat beef anymore.

For all the brutality of that first glance, branding is a pretty uncontroversial practice. In fact, it's necessary for the kind of beef that most "enlightened" eaters would approve, because it gives permanent legal proof of ownership for free-range cattle. The life of an unbranded cow, free from this one day of pain, would be much worse. Though some of this cattle, once it is auctioned off, may also end up in places I'd rather not think about.

All of these rationalizations didn't really occur to me in the moment. I just stood and watched for a while and adjusted to the cacophony and violence until it seemed okay--these are ranchers, and these are cattle. I watched a few of my friends pin calves, and then eventually, nervously, helped to pin one myself.

Once we had branded all of the calves in the first corral, we moved on to a second corral with another couple hundred calves. (The cowboys, meanwhile, herded the third and final set--the biggest calves--back into the original corral. All told, we branded over 700 calves). One calf down, I felt more willing to step up to the edge of the corral and claim some calves to wrestle. I decided I preferred holding the back to the front, as there is some kind of established technique: press your foot down on the bottom leg, above the joint; pull the top leg straight back towards you; and--pardon the language, but this is how I was instructed, and it just doesn't sound accurate described any other way--stick your foot in the calf's ass so that it can't shit all over you. As the possessor of a sullied cowboy boot, I can tell you that this last step is important. If you are holding the head, meanwhile, you just do whatever you can to keep it down. I tended to just jam a knee right in their jugalar, because as Matt suggested, if you cut off their circulation for a little bit, they tend to be a bit more sedate. After a couple calves you learn not to worry about hurting the animal--what you're doing is going to be the least of their worries on this day.

I had been out late in Valentine the night before, and by the time we returned to the original corral and started branding the biggest of the calves, I was fairly exhausted and so, besides a few contributions, I reverted to spectator mode. Desensitized to the violence, it becomes clear that the branding is, more than anything, a social affair. Whole families--mother, father, and two toddlers--combined forces to take down their own calves; friends and families all came together to pitch in a finish a hard day's work. In exchange, once the job was done, we returned to the ranch house, scrubbed the dirt, manure, and blood off our hands, and enjoyed a massive supper. Ranch life, at least when you are not working, seems pretty pleasant (I rode horse for the first time, further legitimizing my claims to being a cowboy--right?).

Later that night, I headed back to Valentine. Wearing boots stained with blood and shit, I enjoyed a hamburger, knowing a little better where it came from.

Photos stolen from Suzannah (some are slightly graphic):

Cowboys roping cattle in the corral.

A calf being dragged to its fate, while two kids run in to pin it down.

Russ and Dan demonstrating how to hold a cow while it is being castrated. The cows didn't struggle much while being castrated. It was the branding where they really showed they were in pain.

Castration from a less pleasant angle. The oysters were saved and put on top of the branding fire, and eaten once cooked. I didn't eat any.


Many kids, one cow.

Cowboys relaxing with just a few calves left to brand.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Growing Up

If I had moved here when I was a kid, it would not have taken me a full eight months to discover that there is a creek fifty meters behind my house.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Last weekend a few of us returned to the wilderness area in Badlands National Park for a more extended backpacking excursion (last time we were "backpacking" about a quarter mile off the road, and drove up to Wall to eat dinner at a restaurant). Our plans originally included crossing the twenty-miles of wilderness from point-to-point, somehow navigating our way to car that would be left at the other side. But I think we all woke up and realized we were pretty big novices. We also recruited Ryan, a former park ranger, who gave us some helpful pointers.

We headed out in the early afternoon into the rolling hillside. While we were hoping to camp in the actual Badlands, in the backcountry the park is more prairie wilderness and less Bad. But still beautiful. After about two and a half miles, we found a suitable camp site and pitched the tent. Then, releaved of our packs, we were able to wander a little freer.

Free of packs.

Matt in what, judging by the matted-down grass, must have been a pretty quick moving stream bed a few days earlier.

After wandering for a bit, we headed back to the campsite for a little dinner and to watch the sunset.

The campsite. We were on the very edge of a hill that overlooked Sage Creek, and in the other direction you could see the Badlands on the horizon. It was basically the best campsite, ever.

View of the Creek from the campsite, and, in the distance, the Badlands. This one looks a lot better when you blow it up.

Relaxing before dinner (PB&Js and beef jerky--no fires allowed).

Down it goes. During this whole time, a small herd of bison began to collect to drink from the creek just to the left of these photos, getting closer and closer to us (but still too far away to make a good photo, unfortunately). The young ones were running around and rolling in the dirt.

Before the sun set, I headed down the hill to check out Sage Creek and the valley below us.

Looking up the hill.

The creek. You can still see the campsite on top of the hill.

More views of the creek. You can see some pretty clear bison trails on the left.

One of the challenges in our quest to backpack clear across the wilderness is the fact that there is no potable water in the park. This picture shows how much silt is in the creek.

Bison bones.

Back on top of the hill, an airplane flies across the sky just after the sun is gone. Even being a three miles walk from a dirt road in the park, twenty miles from anything that would be considered a town by South Dakota standards (and seventy miles from anything that would be considered a town by my old standards--i.e. Rapid City), I still didn't feel isolated. The landscape is just so open that being out here didn't feel that different from being in my own backyard.

Monday, April 09, 2007


How strange it is to begin your day amidst a Philadelphia rush hour, the sun rising over hundreds of speeding cars--and then later, just as the sun sets, to crest a South Dakota hillside and return quietly the sleepy, rundown buildings of Wanblee.

It's been a little while since I've updated, mostly because what used to be adventures are now same-old, no longer worth reporting. But Golden demanded an update, and my trip "home" to Haverford this weekend allows me to oblige. This has been a trip a long time coming; I had looked at various dates to fly back and see all the boys, but I kept putting it off until it was too late and the fares had gone up. But with two days off for Easter, I committed myself and bought my non-refundable tickets early.

I took off Thursday to drive to Denver, saving myself $400 in airfare. But almost dying along the way. For the previous three weeks it had hardly dipped below 40 degrees out here, but I woke up bright and early Thursday morning to temperatures of 20 degrees and a half an inch of snow on the ground. I hit the road hoping that the weather would clear as I headed south, and at first the snow wasn't too bad. My first bad luck came just as I entered Nebraska; at Merriman, there is a slight jog in the highway, and while I made the first turn, I missed the second. I became suspicious thirty miles later when I arrived in Gordon noticing that the road was no longer marked as the highway I was supposed to be on. I consulted a map at a gas station, determined the quickest way to get back on track (only 60 miles out of the way...). Of course, for this whole time I could only defrost a small patch on my windshield, and so I had to crane my neck just to see the road, and after a couple hundred miles on snow-covered back country roads, my tires began to get noticeably slick. But I plugged on, not wanting to take a later flight. As I approached Lake McConaughy, I was happy to know that after some 200 miles I was almost to my first interstate, where I assumed driving would be much less hazardous. And then I felt the car fishtail to the left, drifting off into the other, thankfully empty lane. My attempt to recover failed, and I spun back the other way, almost ending up perpendicular to the road. And then I slammed on the brakes as I slipped over the side of the road and into a ditch. Luckily I came to a stop before slamming into the campground fence. Somehow, never once did I feel panicked.

I popped the car in reverse, hoping for the best but knowing that in all the snow and mud nothing was gonna happen. After repeating this exercise a few times, I started to think. I've heard many, many stories of my friends going off the road in snow, and they all seemed to have been rescued by helpful cowboys in pickup trucks, so I figured that was my best bet. But when one pickup went by without so much as a second glance, I pulled out my phone and called up AAA. Just as I was explaining my predicament to the dispatcher, I saw an old, old baby blue pick up slowing down on the other side of the road, and then pulling around to my side. Here was my helpful cowboy: a skinny, weather-beaten guy much older than his truck. During the entire operation of hooking up the chain to the back of my car and guiding me out of the ditch, he said a total of three sentences: "Pretty slick out here"; "Put it in reverse and I'll pull you out"; and "You're welcome." And he probably never would've said that last one if I hadn't been able to squeeze in a handshake and thank you before he wordlessly returned to his truck and pulled away.

Safely back on the road, and driving very carefully, I was dismayed to find the conditions even worse. I could hardly see the highway through the snow as I pulled into Ogallala and made my way onto the interstate. At this point I called my dad, wondering if I would have to deal with the weather all the way into Denver. Luckily, it turned out I didn't: about five minutes after I got off the phone the skies suddenly cleared up. Arriving into Colorado was like pulling into paradise, and within forty miles the sun was shining and it was fifty degrees out. And the rest of the drive was blessedly uneventful.

Arriving at Haverford, I did my best to pretend I was still a college student: watching TV in the track suite Thursday night, work in the periodical room, lunch at the track table, running with the guys in the afternoon (Although when I tried, half-jokingly, to hang with a few guys as they did a fartlek workout, it became clear to me that some things just do not come back that easily). On Friday night I was treated to what was perhaps the greatest team race in Haverford track history, as a full five Goats all ran national qualifiers in the same 10k race--something that, as far as anyone knows, may not have ever been duplicated by any team in any event. On Saturday I was treated to a long, cold, satisfying day watching more races at Penn, dinner at Bella, and then a rousing, Saturday evening good time. Sunday went quickly and quietly, the way Sundays do: a run, lunch, a nap. That night, though, eight of us drove out to Wayne to eat at the diner, and as we all sat around cracking jokes and busting balls, I realized life couldn't get much better than it does here: even when you're doing nothing at all, you're doing it with the greatest of friends. But I've always been nostalgic.

So it wasn't easy to fly out on Monday morning. Haverford is a place heavy with memories: I can round any corner on any street and remember hundreds of runs, hundreds of little moments, one-off conversations with friends, feelings of joy, triumph, stress, despair.

But as I started my car, parked in a dirt lot somewhere ten miles outside of Denver, and pulled back out onto the highways of the (Mid-)Western* plains--still four hundred miles from my house--, I felt a little sense of homecoming. Maybe it was the country music blasting from my car--of a quality much higher than the country radio I had subjected my friends to back in Philadelphia all weekend. Maybe it was the sight of those rolling, green brown hills, the watertowers, the wind mills, the pickup trucks, and the cattle--all these symbols that I have tried, ridiculously, to adopt as my own. But most likely what felt right about coming back West, despite leaving so many friends behind, was returning to new friends. Only eighty miles outside of Denver, driving through land that was still entirely unfamiliar to me, I passed a familiar car--and there, in the driver's seat, was Kim, a coincidence that doesn't seem so wild once you've gotten to know how large but how small it is out here. So we drove the next three hundred miles from the interstates of Colorado, along the backroads of Nebraska, and up into the familiar old gas station of Martin, South Dakota, as a two-car caravan--just about the only cars on the road.

As I headed north, the route became increasingly familiar. I had only driven I-76 once before, on my way down, but nowhere along the rolling, dead green sameness of the prairies feels that foreign once you've lived here long enough. But as I made it into Nebraska, I hit roads and towns I have passed through three or four times, and then, in South Dakota, places where I knew the contours of every hill, where I could anticipate the particular delapidation of each individual house. A place now as familiar as those suburban highways where I began the day--my new home.

I think of "Home," though, as--to borrow a phrase from The Great Gatsby that heavily informed my thesis--as a "warm center of the world." These prairies have no center. Physically, they ramble on in their sameness; emotionally, there is no one spot to which I return for warmth--only a house that is a convenient spot for sleeping. It's telling that I have rarely spent a weekend's night in my own bed: I'm always in search of new, exciting adventures; and I'm also horribly dependent on the companionship I find scattered across the state. For all the Western absurdities that I have adopted--the cowboy boots, the country music, the rodeo shirts--I'm too obviously still suburban at heart. I love my friends here, and our adventures in the vast and open landscape, but it's a landscape that overwhelms me, too. When I sit in my room and do work at night, I no longer here a roommate's music bleeding through a dorm wall. Sometimes I hear the wind; usually I hear nothing at all. Nothingness and solitude offer their own rewards, for sure, but they don't offere the easy comfort I'm used to. I guess I'm still learning how to find my warm center within myself.

*There is a standing debate amongst my East Coast friends as to whether South Dakota constitutes the West or the Midwest. According to Sherman, it is "cartographically" Midwestern, but that we like to think we are Western. I say the Missouri River is the geographic dividing line, and that I live in a land of ranches, cowboys, and Indians that is unmistakably Western. Does this place look like Ohio to you?