It’s mid-November in West Michigan and her sun shield’s engaged. A gray cloak hangs down low over our cities and fields, extinguishing the fiery vibrant fall. Nights come too soon, trees are barren and people mostly take to their homes, where we reacquaint with the sounds of television advertisements, stuffy nosed children playing in basements and the “click-whoosh” of our furnaces igniting. These reminders tell us soon we’ll be grinding it out in boots, hats & overcoats, squinting the blustery air from our eyes as we hustle into the warmth awaiting behind the next icy doorknob, car door or mall entrance. Sure, there are glimpses of hope in the occasional cleansing of white, but for many, this time of year can be a real struggle to remain positive.
My wife knew from the lugubrious stare I gave from our kitchen I was losing the battle and waged a counter assault. Shortly after, a flight confirmation from G.R. to Denver arrived in my inbox. She had called to coordinate a weekend with our friend, Josh – a close part of the remaining community we maintain there. This beautiful gift was tagged with a caveat “come back to us… without the thousand-yard-stare.”
A few weeks later, Josh picked me up from the airport and we drove to his family’s place for the night. After dinner, our buddies came over to sip whiskey around a backyard fire. Everyone knew the details of our adventure but me, and didn’t carry on too far into the night before retiring to their homes.
At morning we loaded the pickup with all the gear Josh had packed. All the ingredients to a proper adventure were there, rifle and rod shaped indents jutting out from the bags and cases. When en route, a few bites into my long-awaited love affair with a green chili-asaigo bagel from Einstein’s, Josh shared the details. “Alex will be meeting us in Evergreen, and the three of us are driving out to the western slope to do a cattle drive… he’s also got a 4th season elk tag he wants to fill before leaving.” With the sun high and Vail pass in our rear view, my mood was ever improving as we neared our destination.
Alex – “Axe” to his friends, has ties to Colorado’s earlier industry – gas, oil and cattle. His involvement grants access to land near Parachute CO. We were introduced by Josh a few years prior for our shared affinity for elk, bird dogs and upland bird hunting. There’s always something new in the works, and I take interest in his stories of hunting, ranching and business ventures. We all met up in Evergreen and Axe jumped in.
The town of Parachute – a city of about 1100, according to its website – is a surviving boom-bust town. Axe explained its primary industry consists of gas & oil. There were three-hundred head of cattle that needed to be sorted and loaded into trailers to be brought down to winter pasture. We’d be working with his ranch manager and some cowboys to get it done in a day.
After stashing gear in our hotel room, we took a few hours searching likely places for elk. We drove between areas, glassing the hillsides and meadows with binoculars. At one point, we eased too far onto a snow covered road, undercut by running melt, and the hellish mud took us in – all the way up to the axles. The lever-system we fashioned from a dead-fall tree, along with the make-shift stick road and some elbow-grease slowly initiated momentum, which Josh over-zealously maintained all the way out, to well past dry ground. No elk were spotted, but spirits remained high for the morning cattle round-up. We ate dinner at Shommy’s restaurant and headed in for the night.
At morning the truck was covered in frost, and the cold air stung our lungs in the pre-lit dawn. While navigating what seemed like miles of rutted switchbacks, we came onto a valley road. It was beautiful, high mesas and rocky mountains, and the amber glow of sunrise spreading out on the valley floor made steam rise from the sparkling grass. Our postcard view was interrupted by a lone heifer running toward our rig. The cow was being protectively harassed by a brave little sheep dog. The approaching rider didn’t much acknowledge us, but gave a quick series of whistles and “whoa’s”, making light work of re-directing the bovine back toward her herd. He gave a smile & nodded while he rode away. “That was Bivens” said Axe.
A mile down the road, the 300 cows were stacked up outside what looked like a maze. There were trucks parked outside of weathered barns & outbuildings with steel roofs. We parked and received a customary rude crotch-sniff-greeting by two other sheep dogs. One of the cowboys strutted towards us to introduce himself. I picked up on dentures, a custom band on his vaquero hat, worn chaps, and his deeply weathered face. His getup could’ve won any costume contest back home. Spurs chinked as he halted in the gravel. The tourniquet grip was almost telepathic, like when Jake Sully first bonded with his dire horse in James Cameron’s fictitious realm of Pandora – his handshake validated his life story. This cowboy was the quintessential embodiment of the Marlboro Man. He was the guy our dads & uncles pretended to be their 1950’s neighborhood lots, dreaming of nights spent under star-filled skies, eating beans from a can, around a fire, risking life and limb to bring cattle across the plains. When he pushed his cracked leather hand into his canvas jacket, out came a lighter and the colorful, cellophane wrapped soft-pack of Reds. In a fluid, one-armed motion, he slid a lone cigarette from the package and lightly caught it in his lips, where it bounced until he finished his salutation. He lit it, then stole a long draw and let the warm plume of sweet tobacco surround us, as if to offer his final stamp of authenticity.
Standing on the ramp to assess the entire layout from up close made more sense. From the cows staged outside was a funnel consisting of steel gates which all narrowed towards the ramp to the dock, where we’d be loading animals into the trucks.
Our job was to keep cows moving in manageable numbers for the cowboys loading them. We were to ensure only the cows bearing the brands of Axe & Biven’s were being loaded, turning any others away, back to the main pasture. Really this meant getting behind groups of 5 to 7, walking towards them while clapping and looking big to push them towards the chute. For three hours we did this, slipping and sliding in the mud, our courage and satisfaction growing with each wave. As I recall, it was only 40 cows to each trailer, so between truck loads, we warmed our hands over an open fire like gauchos, with gauchos. During one of these times I made a point to savor the moment, standing there with my phone taking photos like a tourist, trying to capture the essence and doing no justice to the grandeur. Everything seemed to get prettier from the ground up. Boots, stained with miry rust-colored clay and cow manure were captivating in a way, and laid foundation to the landscape of grasses and sage. We men, with the cows, horses, and our outbuildings stood upon it. Our perimeter was a strong fortress consisting of breathtaking mesas & mountain peaks. Above all this was open ocean of blue sky, and not a cloud in it. It’s nucleus was the sun, emitting its soothing radiance, warming our faces giving perfect light to purify the palette of colors. Here we stood, in paradise, slapping heifers and sharing laughs with a few of the last remaining cowboys.
The adventure wasn’t over yet, but we needed warm socks and rest. Upon saying farewell to our real-life action-heroes, we headed back to our hotel to warm up and re-charge for the elk hunt.
It was with rejuvenated perspective that I returned home from that adventure. The glass was finally back to half-full. It was a team effort, but with help from my wife and friends, I wore a lasting smile from the satisfaction gained by a little random fun in the sunshine. Here’s to getting outside.