• Alice Whaley

Tumbleweed Tales

Updated: May 8

Midweek in the Midwest. Great yellow hedges of tumbleweed have stacked up against every fence. Prairie dogs eat the grass, and rattlesnakes eat prairie dogs. Or, they’re supposed to, anyway. Garrett spotted twelve rattlesnakes yesterday, but the prairie dogs still run blithely across the pastures, eating the grass down to dry, grey stubble. Hay-coloured rodents, like a cross between a guinea pig and a meerkat, they scatter when they see the truck coming; little tails wagging out of their holes as they disappear.

“Darn prairie dogs.”

The ‘towns’ where they live are visible a quarter-mile away; just dust, sand, and holes. Some people are fighting for their protection, the rest are gesturing towards their barren fields and hungry cows, and asking how a rodent trumps their livelihood.

We rode past plenty of prairie dog towns this afternoon, bringing two escaped bulls back home. The horses’ ears pricked up as we rounded the top of the hill and descended into the neighbour’s field. Suddenly the air was scented and crackling. We were knee-deep in sagebrush and rust-coloured scrub, crushing sage leaves in our wake. The modest rise and fall of the land was enough to keep us moving slowly. You never know which horizon is going to hide the cows. We found our bulls standing proudly with a harem of five cows each; the only rounded shapes amongst their angular companions. They raised their big heads grumpily as we approached. Then they looked the other way. Like naughty dogs deaf to their names, the bulls seem to think they can’t be herded if they can’t see us. Pistol the cattle dog reminded them who's boss.

Gary went ahead, opening gates in the car, while Donna, Bella, and I moved the bulls all the way across their usual pasture, and into the pens at the yard, far away from their newfound lady-friends. Heavy with lethargy and arrogance, the bulls sauntered slowly, making the long way even longer. Usually it’s not the bulls. One clique of cows has discovered the neighbouring wheat field, and is willing to crash through the electric fence to get there. Herding cows is different from herding horses. I thought my experience herding polo ponies would be more transferable than it is. Cows aren't as sly as horses, but they’re liable to panic, dodging about like oafish cats without rhyme or reason. They’re not elegant runners, the poor dears. Even at top speed they still lollop bumpily. Most of the time they just jog, looking affronted and nervous, and constantly giving the horses side-eye.

Keeping your cow on course is a psychological game. A horse can out-manoeuvre a cow at close range, and outrun a cow over distance. You've just got to put your horse in the right position so that the cow will veer away from you and go where she's supposed to. It's fantastic fun, and my horse Sugar is 'pretty cowy', as the Americans say. Donna tells me that I must always make my horse face my cow when she’s stationary. She’ll meet your gaze and stay pinned in place. Sugar doesn't need to be told. As soon as she clocks which cow we're sorting and moving, her eyes and ears are on it, and she will not let it past her.

After today’s bulls were reluctantly secured, we had to bring in an ‘empty’ cow who is going to auction. ‘Empty’ means she doesn’t have a calf on her. It may be that she lost her calf, or abandoned it, but the most likely is that she never had one in the first place. Our ranch’s purpose is to breed and raise calves until they’re ready to be fattened up at a feed-lot. Donna’s sure she’s never seen her with a calf by her side, so it doesn't make business sense to keep her. Tomorrow she heads to La Junta. I’ve been to that auction house. It’s smaller and quieter than I’d have thought. There’s a horse-shoe of folding wooden seats around a dusty pen, where two youngish men drive the stock around and an auctioneer rambles incomprehensibly in a booth. A little eatery under the seats sells hamburgers. We eat them while we watch sets of calves being sold by weight, $1.25 per pound, and cows being sold by the head. Bulls go for up to $2000. Gary was appalled at the low prices. We came without a trailer and left with two heifers and calves.

And so, the days go rolling by like tumbleweed. Every morning, it seems as if we’ll just feed the cows their cake and be done with it. But, with every passing acre, the square of paper that Gary keeps in his breast pocket fills up with maintenance in biro. Of all the places I’ve been and cultures I’ve seen, these three things are constant: fences break, waterlines leak, and horses need shoeing. It’s the ‘death and taxes’ of the farm world.

I’ve written before about how the wildlife does so much to set one place apart from another: the orange trees in Seville, the caraguatá in Uruguay, and the blue toadflax in Arkansas. Beauty is breathtaking to a newcomer, but the locals never forget the pests. Each culture’s worst bug-bear is manifested in the tack. Spanish bridles have long leather tassels hanging from the browband. This mosquero helps the horse swish flies off its face. Likewise, here in Colorado, calves often chew off horses’ tails, so I’ve seen various fabric extensions braided into stumpy tails to arm these horses against the flies, too. Some Western stirrups – ‘tapaderos’ – look like big leather shoes, fully covering the front half of the foot, to protect against cactus. I reckon ‘tapaderos’ come from Mexico, as ‘tapa de hierro’ means ‘iron cap’ in Spanish.

Do you take a photo of the cactus, or complain about it? All this makes for an infinitesimal shift towards the camouflage of ‘at home-ness’. I was laughed out of the stable yard when I got excited about smelling my first skunk, in Uruguay. This long in the Americas and I’m certainly not excited now. And, coyotes don’t seem so fun and iconic when they’re yowling all night, threatening to eat your calves and foals. In spite of it all, in spite of my attempts to be a gritty Coloradan cowgirl, a particularly picturesque tumbleweed, rolling alone across a dusty road, still hits a special place in my green, cliché-loving soul.

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