Saturday, April 25, 2009

High Country, Part II

*If you have not already done so, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I"


Sometime around noon Diggy trotted forward to Tim and bluntly spoke: “Ain’t no way in hell we’re gonna make it by dark at this rate.”

“It’s possible. I still know the way.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.” Tim exhaled a cloud of smoke and turned in the saddle to look at me.

“See that mountain that a’ way?” He tossed his chin east to a single, long, low disruption on the landscape.

“I do.”

“That’s Sleeping Ute Mountain. I sort of figured he looks dead – what with his arms cross over his chest, but what do I know.” He looked forward again and seemed to have forgotten that he even spoke. He dragged hard on his smoke and I was amazed how his horse seemed unconcerned by the ash accumulating in her mane. Only his horse, I suppose.

The mountain did look like an Indian, but the exact nature of his repose (permanent or temporary), was difficult to determine. To our north was our destination, at any rate, and a much more profuse assembly of hills. Compared to the current dry, sub-desert around us, it was green up there. It received no more rain than did this parched section of southeast Utah, but the snow melt running from high on the peaks was ample to support grazing vegetation – however scant. Down here, they used hay all winter, which annually drained every penny of savings and placed the success or total failure of the year in the hands of a volatile meat market. They would never say it, but they prayed a lot. One year of high-priced hay would finish them, as would one particularly harsh winter that killed cattle, or disease in the herd, or a low per-pound market price. What anybody would relish this constant instability was beyond me.

Carl had explained it to me sometime in the past, with limited success. “They don’t do this because they ever get rich. In fact, most just get poorer at varying rates. But it’s just what they do. As hard as it may be, as thankless at it may be, and as ever near as total poverty may be, they still love it. It’s real work to them, and they pride themselves in doing something that most everybody else is afraid to do. God knows I didn’t want to do it, which still bothers my dad. He was expecting that I’d be the last generation. Nope. It was him. They’re dying out, really. Everywhere. Literally and figuratively. The older ones can’t get their kids to take an interest in it, so they sell the farms, cash in, and spend the rest of their days complaining about how nobody wants to work. It’s sort of true. More than that though, nobody wants to work their body to death and barely eke out a living. They’d rather be chubby, lazy, and have a little more luxury. Hell, I’m one of those folks, too.”

It still made little sense. I look around out here and I saw rugged beauty. It was a good place to visit, but not live. Tim, Diggy, and maybe even Carl all saw head of cattle per acre, sustainability, or calculated how many bales per winter. I imagine it detracted from the enjoyment of the landscape. Home is boring to those that live there, but they always miss it when they’re gone. What do these men miss? Long days, long winters, and sunburns? Tending cattle? The view? I hesitated to ask.

As I ruminated about cattle per acre, we drew abreast of a mid-sized river which, at this late in the year, was low but still steady. Tim dismounted and tied back the reins. Diggy did the same, and Carl and I followed suit. The horses wandered over and began to drink deeply. This was the first water we’d encountered since we left. But color was wrong, though. Maybe too much blue. I looked at Carl.

“Are the horses going to drink that? It looks like it has chemicals in it.”

“It DOES have chemicals in it. Sulfur. It’d make a show horse sick – if you could even get them to drink it. But these guys are used to it. Upstream, near the Colorado border, a few volcanic hot springs feed into it. It may still be a little warmer here, but I doubt you’ll notice it. You’ll notice the smell instead.”

He was right; it smelled like bad eggs, looked particularly caustic, and I wondered if it had any negative, cumulative effects on the horses. At any rate, I trusted Tim’s judgment. He knew this place. I also presumed the horses knew better than to drink something that was poisonous to them.

Tim kicked some larger river rocks out of the way and lay down in the pebbles of the bar. For the first time since breakfast, he’d paused his smoking. “There’s no way they can drink enough in a few minutes; we’ll follow this upstream for about an hour and then cut north again. It ain’t that much extra distance, since it runs mostly north anyway. We’ll let ‘em stop and drink whenever they want to, though. We got at least 15 miles still, and there’s no more water for at least 10 of those.

“Tim, it’s gonna be plenty dark by then.”

“Well thank you, Diggy. I hadn’t considered that. You want to lead the way? Actually, since I know you don’t, why not just burn a smoke here and relax. We’ll be fine.”

Diggy made no audible reply and responded with a gesture instead. His message clearly conveyed, he wandered off into the bushes to relieve himself.

A mile up the river we were confronted with the atrocious odor of rotting flesh, though the source remained unidentified. As it intensified we began to grow accustomed to it, though the horses were clearly more sensitive to it than we were. Within five minutes, it was evident: somebody had lost a calf – not even a yearling – a few feet back from the water’s edge. At least three or four coyotes trotted off in different directions when they spotted us. My horse, which had been otherwise behaving beautifully, acted like he would bolt at any moment. Using whatever soothing words came to mind, I reined him tightly, and hoped the total lack of concern from Tim’s horse would rub off on him. It appeared to work. The smell was atrocious.

“Well folks, let’s not do that with ours. We don’t have many that small anyway. Maybe a dozen.”

“Damn shame,” was all Diggy muttered and spat. Moving well beyond the carcass and out of the abysmal odor, we watered the horses one more time and cut north. We had at least ten miles remaining, and it was starting to cool off quickly.

To Be Continued…

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