Saturday, May 2, 2009

Permanent Retreats

After I finished talking, he was quiet for a few minutes, which made me uncomfortable. Eventually, he snubbed his cigarette into the ash tray and looked at me.

“I know you said nobody comes here to talk, and I’ve never done it either, but there’s a reason for it.”

“What is it?”

“There’s not a damn thing to say. People don’t come here to talk. Son, I been coming to this post since I got back from Vietnam in ’72. Not once have I heard a guy actually talk about anything. They come here to NOT talk.”

This was my first visit to a veteran service organization (VSO) local post bar since abruptly writing them off some time ago (“I Won’t Go Back”). I had concluded that they weren’t places of healing or recovery, but escapes. But Dave put it more eloquently than I have managed thus far.

“It’s like Vietnam, really. We went out, we did patrols, we ran missions, we got ambushed and lost a few boys. Then, we'd come back to base. We'd tool up again, get resupplied, sleep a bit, and get back out there. The bases were our safeties.”

“I don’t understand.”

“This place here is like a base” he continued. “We’re supposed to come here when we need to retreat or when the fight gets overwhelming, to get ammo, encouragement, and stuff like that. But nobody comes here to get set up or to get back in the fight anymore. They just come here to hide.

“It’s frustrating that we came home everybody hated us, they attacked us, spit on us, and treated us like shit. It’s like we put one battle behind us, but then we had to battle for acceptance to even fit in again in our OWN country. But most guys didn’t even try. They just retreated to a post or something and never went back into the fight.”

He was right. It’s easy to come here and dodge subjects, to sit around and complain about how nobody understands, to unite in collective woundedness without ever addressing it, and never fight again. But the battle is outside the door, in public. If veterans want to be understood in their own country, they need to fight for it, as unfortunate as it may be, not retreat and accept semi-isolation or defeat.

Total readjustment to civilian life means being able to talk or write about one’s experiences overseas with strangers, with civilians, and with people who don’t particularly understand what a combat veteran endured. These posts, as much as it troubles me to admit it, inhibit that process. They give veterans a way to avoid the fight. They arrest recovery altogether.

As he paused to sip his beer, I asked him about it: “Why don’t people fight for it if it’s so important?”

“Because this is easier. I guess we got tired. Hell, I know I did. We weren’t expecting to come home from war and have to wage another just to fit in. It’s simpler to say they’ll never understand us and not do anything about it. It’s easy to be a victim here; nobody expects anything from us. It’s like we’re not Americans; we’re veterans. But I know that’s not right. This is something we DID, not who we are. It’s sure how we’re identified, though, and this whole culture encourages it. Yeah, it changes us forever and really screws up some of us, but most of the guys here never move beyond it. Being a veteran was easy, especially coming out of Vietnam. They almost EXPECTED us to be basket cases. We weren’t, really, but they allowed us to be.” He lit another cigarette.

“So why do you come here, then?” I inquired.

“Because I gave up, too.” He changed the subject and started talking about the weather.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Suppose I'm Not Crazy

As promised, here is the latest update on my sleep condition and my dealings with the VA in regards to that and also my “behavioral health” issue.

*There are actually two posts today, so please don't miss "Health Advisory" below.

Early this week, I received a phone call from the local VA satellite office informing me that my sleep study has identified no “significant sleep abnormalities.” While this is good news, in that I suppose it indicates I have no serious physiological problem, it does leave me some aghast at how poorly most people apparently sleep. But I, apparently, “slept peacefully with mild snoring.” I was unaware I snored, so I do wonder if this was the consequence of having sensors superglued to my head and accoutrements taped over my nose and mouth. In fact, it’s amazing that anybody at all gets normal sleep readings when wired to so many sensors. I was also pleased to learn that I “didn’t forget to breathe.”

The next phase of this ongoing diagnosis (or at least analysis to determine if there was anything at all TO diagnose) was a meeting with a behavioral health specialist within the VA system. I was under the impression that this was a standard procedure for anybody who had made the admission that they are indeed depressed about being tired and unable to sleep, but I was told during my appointment that it was my general practitioner’s attempt to make sure we’d covered all our bases.

At any rate, he was a nice chap, and not a psychologist, as I had expected, but actually a psychiatrist. Naturally cordial yet soft-spoken, he began by asking me what my expectations were from our meeting. After explaining that since I felt no particular need for medication for any of my symptoms or difficulties, that I was unsure. For, at my highest of highs, I am not abnormal or uncontrollable, and at my lowest of lows I remain uninterested in offing myself, I was not a threat to either myself or others. Life, after all, naturally propels us into a series of highs and lows and, so long as their extremes pose no physical threat to oneself or any others, they are simply the expected responses to the typical vacillations of life. Medication, I told him, was unnecessary, and I also wished to do nothing that jeopardized my alertness, numbed my senses, or forbade me write with the clarity (feel free to laugh) that I possess at present.

I also told the psychiatrist that since his purpose within the VA system was mostly to determine pharmacological interventions for patients in need of such things, my visiting him in the future would be a waste of his time. Bad idea.

“I prefer that you allow me to determine what is a waste of my time or not” he replied, quite firmly.


At any rate, these weighty questions out of the way, I talked his ear off for an hour about what I’m up to, plant photography (he also has an interest in such things), writing, and expectations for future travel. To my great delight, he patiently listened. As my one-hour yakking session ended, he asked how he could best help me in the future. Digging into my pocket, I handed him a business card.

“Well, you could read the stuff I’ve posted and tell others about it, if you’d like.” Speechless, he took my card. I am unsure if his silence was the consequence of my having just shamelessly marketed to a VA psychiatrist, or because it was just so unusual a response. Others, I presume, ask to meet again with somebody who doesn’t mind listening to them talk. He elected not to schedule me for any further visits, instead writing “PRN” on the paperwork, which translates basically to “as needed.” I, not feeling like I need such a thing (either medication or to have some poor guy endure me running my mouth for an hour), have no plans to schedule any further visits.

To make a long story short, this whole affair has yielded very little in the way of medical diagnosis. On one hand, this is good, since it indicates there are no major medical problems which are in grave need of addressing. On the other, however, it leaves me as clueless as I was before as to how to alleviate the symptoms I have been feeling (tired all the time, cranky, unintelligible, etc). My best solution, therefore, is to devote my efforts to wrenching myself into more routine sleep/wake habits. This I have already begun working on in the following ways: First, during the day, stay awake and avoid taking excessive naps. Second, sleep at fairly normal hours when it is dark (not 3AM to 10AM or whatever else I’ve been doing lately). Third, during waking hours, expend some energy on a regular basis, eat meals at similarly regular intervals, and show all signs of actually being alert and awake, not run down and miserable. In theory, after a period of readjustment, my circadian rhythms will grow accustomed to the new, normal routine, and I will sleep more soundly, wake more rested, and not spend most days in a miserable funk. This is the theory. We’ll see how it works in practice.

And so, I have been seen by doctors, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses and sleep study technicians, and to my relief walked away with no diagnosis of either a sleep disorder, OR PTSD. While such things may, in fact, exist (I am reluctant to say, since I truly don’t know), at least they aren’t sufficiently pervasive and troublesome to require ongoing medical treatment, drug intervention, and therefore excessive worry on my part. It is relieving, frankly, to know that no major problem exists. I am now left to summon the immense self-discipline necessary to change what portion of this I can through routine, normal circadian rhythms, diet and exercise. Some days, obviously, will be poor ones, but some days will also be better. The greatest struggle is not being an awful grump, not blowing up on people, and not retreating from the public to avoid embarrassing altercations. My family, unfortunately, are the ones who will see me at my worst. They will need lots of prayer. For me, however, it’s just one day at a time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Health Advisory

With disease information hitting all media venues at a cyclic rate and terror spreading about the possibility of an all-out H1N1 pandemic, I think it is high time that I, as a classically-educated biologist, skilled military tactician and logistician, and creative survivalist step in with some suggested measures of my own. Supposed experts are coming out of the woodwork with such eloquent admonitions as, “wash your hands,” so what’s one more voice; especially one from a guy who’s read a lot of graphic novels and books about zombie attacks? I’d say it’s all good advice. But first, there are two caveats. Foremost, this is a joke (albeit inappropriate and tasteless). Second, I’ll just go ahead and apologize up front. Sorry.

Since H1N1 is a considered a highly-contagious viral airborne pathogen, concerned persons worldwide are advised to purchase and don surgical facemasks to greatly reduce the potential of inhaling airborne salivary contaminants sneezed out by others. For about ten days, Michael Jackson won’t be the oddball. In fact, we will all be cool like him. Additionally, burkas may now be recognized for their medical advantages. No longer is it an issue of accommodating religious or cultural sensitivities, but health beliefs, too. If one is a hypochondriac in the throes of absolute panic about health, a space suit may also be worn. Should be it be desired, a tin foil hat will keep H1N1 from reading your brain waves. If you are a hypochondriac that no longer even leaves the house, continue to stack newspapers in your foyer, eat your macaroni and cheese, and still wear the tin foil hat. It will keep the virus from knowing you’re afraid of it.

Like all the other self-described experts, I, too, will sing the praises of repeated, obsessive hand-washing. Not only does this support the soap industry and indirectly the hand lotion industry, but also the manufacturers of rubbing alcohol. Should one believe it necessary, alcohol baths are a superb way to ensure total body sanitation. Please be careful, however, to avoid excessive breathing of the fumes, open flames, and certainly do not smoke while engaging in such a cleansing measure. Cigarettes, after all, were packed by the deviant swine in the tobacco industry, and may be contaminated.

Viruses, in general, are intolerant of ultraviolet light, so a more holistic option for reducing the likelihood of infection is nudity in total desert isolation. If you are prone to malignant carcinomas, be mindful of time spent nude with direct exposure to sunlight. The sun may kill all but the hardiest of pathogens (known loosely as extremophiles), but does promote cancer, sunburns, and dehydration. Drink lots of water, preferably from bottles untouched by pigs.

While much attention has been given to the orsine (pig) source of H1N1, let us also not forget that it also bears a strong genetic resemblance to avian (bird) flu, as well as human influenza strains. While Egypt has undertaken the drastic measure of killing all the pigs within their borders, we may do our part by also killing all the birds. They may not be carriers, but at least it will make us feel better. Due to the social and moral backlash of dispatching the human carriers, desert isolation and the adoption of nudism may be the best manner to avoid human contact.

In terms of supplies, there are several other items that should be purchased in addition to surgical masks. At the top of the list are GM and Chrysler automobiles. Thus far, there are no confirmed cases in any locations where these vehicles are being manufactured, so we may be assured that we are driving new cars known to be free of H1N1 contamination. Additionally, we will be doing our patriotic duty of “buying American” and supporting two failing enterprises that are in grave need of a public rally to their cause. GM is working closely with federal TARP representatives to study the economic potential of certifying their vehicles pathogen-free. Results are expected by 2015.

While the threat of pandemic conditions still very much lingers, it would also be wise to invest in the construction of bomb shelters. While there is no threat of bombs at present, this will prevent right-wing extremists from being hauled away to FEMA concentrations camps that are being built throughout the country. No complex locking mechanisms are necessary on these bomb shelters. A simple sign (and it can be hand written) stating, “gone to live in a FEMA trailer in Texas” will suffice. The FEMA agents will turn their attentions elsewhere and depart your property.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) asks that we all spay our pets. They also advise that we should also avoid all intimate relations with members of the bovine and avian species. The Moral Majority is considering extending this health advisory to humans, too, since they are currently the predominant catalyst for H1N1 infection, and because H1N1 is best reserved for marriage between a consenting man and woman.

While it may have been at one time permissible to use firearms to defend one’s property and family from surgical mask theft and marauding tin foil recyclers, Dr. Phil has recently issued a report that, “this is not okay.” He has suggests that we instead consider writing letters to trespassers that explain how we feel about their presence on our properties. Since these messages may be written in diseased paper, immediately douse the letters in rubbing alcohol and burn them to prevent infecting an intruder. Unwelcome guests are also frequently deterred by FEMA signs, though it would be helpful if these were created professionally, not spray painted on plywood.

It is also advisable to purchase alcoholic beverages in large quantities. While staples (bread, milk, etc) may seem a better investment, they are comprised of wheat, barley, or harvested from cows – all of which reside on farms. These farms may have pigs, too. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination, the normally unacceptable empty calories found in beer are permissible. The ethanol itself in the beverages will sterilize whatever farm-grown components may be found within (barley, etc). When the pandemic reaches a crescendo that is difficult or impossible to tolerate, the memory of it can be easily reduced by the consumption of these alcoholic beverages, thereby also alleviating the likelihood of latent post-traumatic stress disorder. The whole experience will no longer be something you don’t wish to discuss or think about; it will be something you simply don’t remember. Please be sure to buy American-brewed alcohol.

Although they are manufactured in Brazil which, like Mexico, is to our south (and therefore suspect), the purchase of a few, high-quality Tramontina machetes will expedite the process of chopping wood for funeral byres, collecting kindling for sterilization fires, and eventually reducing hand-made, plywood FEMA signs to manageable fuel. To drastically reduce the possibility of purchasing a contaminated machete, immediately douse them in rubbing alcohol and burn them upon their arrival.

A final measure to preventing both the infection and spread of H1N1 is maritime refuge. Providing all ship passengers are screened and found to be healthy, a vacation at sea may be a suitable means by which to avoid all contact with infected persons. Yet even this is not without its risks. First, some vessels are not constructed for oceanic travel. Those that are not rated for such use should be avidly avoided. Second, be certain your vessel has ample supplies of alcohol, tin foil, and machetes to sustain a long stay away from infected lands. Ports are notorious for their disease transmission rates, and should be avoided at all costs. Finally, there are pirates in some waters which may attempt to hijack your ship for ransom or simply to take your machetes. But chances are, they will be unlikely to harass you if your ship is displaying a FEMA flag.

Lastly, if you already infected, please do not spitefully attempt to infect others as well. Simply write a letter about how angry it makes you feel, burn it as a health precaution, and visit a local doctor for some medication. Be prepared, however, to explain why you are wearing a burka, a tin foil hat, and carrying a machete and a lighter. Medical staff will also probably forward you to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who strongly advise that you never wear fur, and are collaborating with FEMA to construct nudist concentration camps in the desert to begin rehabilitation programs of UV exposure, public isolation, and mild immolation/sterilization techniques. Study results are due by 2020.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Red Truck

While driving this weekend, preoccupied with delivering one passenger swiftly and retreating for a nap after more than five, wearying hours on the road, I was pleasantly surprised with what I observed on a random roadside on the way to one of my destinations. There, in the perimeter of the front yard of what looked like an abandoned house, lay the truck I wrote about in “Spring, Come She Will.” On the way back through, I stopped for a photograph with my cell phone camera. It far exceeded my expectations.

It immediately reminded me of a writing that though only recently posted, seemed a distant memory. Hope fades quickly when confronted with stagnation. But in an instant, I was simultaneously sent back and propelled forward to a place I have dearly missed of late. A place where ambition hasn’t expired beneath the weight of infinite resignation. Where hope is still alive, and freedom isn’t schedule and financial flexibility, but the audacity to pursue great dreams.

All at once I was on the road again, but this time in a real, rough-idling Ford F100, and one no longer merely a figment of my imagination. While I possess neither the $17,000 for a 1952 Ford pickup nor the similarly large figure no doubt necessary to fuel it and replace obscure parts, something once dwelling solely in fantasy drew a monumental step closer to reality. Such a truck, such an inefficient but undeniably memorable means of transportation truly exists. Hope, therefore, still exists.

As does the whitewashed church with the choir in their long gowns whose singing pushes effortlessly though the weak, clapboard walls and echoes down the country road. The laughter of their children, running beneath the live oaks as their grandparents sit in lawn chairs and discuss their gardens and how this year will be a particularly good one for the tomatoes and peppers if the rain keeps up like it has been. And as a thick fog sets in, and the humidity rises in a way that always precedes a late spring thunderstorm, I will wish them and their gardens the very best and drive westward. As I drive late into the evening, the open windows occasionally blow in rain droplets and put an appealing chill in the air. Johnny Cash will warm the cab, though. "Love," he insists, "is a burnin’ thing."

To the west, through endless miles of fence rows and more miles of sparser vegetation, leaner cattle and drier air, there is an old farmer whom I haven’t yet met, who patiently waits for poverty to overtake his operation and land him and his wife in a small flat on the outskirts of a city they’ve spent their whole lives avoiding. Their children, long grown and tired of the stories about “the good old days,” never visit much anymore. But it’s all new to me, and I’ll listen to their tales and enjoy the cakes his wife makes, and strive to retell as best I can the memories of an aging, disappearing generation. We owe them that much; an era of men and women whose now-arthritic fingers sustained this nation through her darkest hour, yet whose children have forgotten to be thankful. We would be wise to preserve their legacy of self-sacrifice, of stubbornness and resolve. They ensured half a century of our abundance.

There are deserts to cross in blistering heat and blinding sunlight, where military scientists birthed the greatest of our fears and the mightiest of our comforts in a single test event. There are sunsets amid the dunes, and cacti silhouetted against a sky alive with late-evening color. There is beauty in minimalism, and newfound appreciation of such small blessings as a few, life-giving drops of rain. Whole civilizations rose here and fell in obscurity, leaving us to marvel at their tenacity, their odd creativity, and a few despondent ruins unscathed by a millennium of unforgiving heat. Hank Williams, Sr. enables the long, light drives into the distant Rockies.

There is a rocky surf to see again, and coastlines with tall grasses and elephant seals, and enthusiastic surfers in wetsuits out every Saturday morning at 7AM to catch the tide at its best. Some are still hung over, which makes our conversations all the more endearing.

There are other people still to meet. Park rangers that graduated at the tops of their classes in college, exhausted with all the hustle and emptiness of careerism and the pursuit of money, who are content to tend the trails and survive on interesting conversations with a handful of through-hikers. There are the downtrodden, or at least the downcast, who are amazed when you linger a few unnecessary minutes at the checkout counter and actually listen to their stories. Nobody was curious about them before, but it is a gift they will long remember.

There’s still the pretty girl, too; the one from my dreams with the long hair and the dark eyes. There is no search for her, but a contented journey until she’s found. She’s out there somewhere. And there are other places; scores of diners with greasy food and smudged silverware, and crowds of colorful, early morning characters discussing the oddest of subjects over the strongest of coffee; and they will be cordial. They will welcome strangers, because there’s a beautiful red truck in the parking lot, not a pretentious luxury car.

For, more than a conversation piece and a flash of antiquity to draw the eye, the red truck conveys a bold and heartfelt message: “I’m not in a hurry, here. I’m not driving somewhere; I’m journeying. This vehicle isn’t fast, or efficient, nor even reliable, but I still like it. I always welcome good cause to stop. And so long as there’s room for your bags, and if you don’t mind driving an old three-speed, 100 horsepower clunker with foot-operated windshield wipers, and stopping at every gas station and probably occasionally pushing, there’s certainly room for you. In fact, without you, this journey is in vain.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

High Country, Part V

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

By dawn, after more than three hours of chasing cattle, screaming, and disorientation, the vast majority of the herd was restored to a single group along the riverside. While Carl and I continued to keep them in check, Diggy and Tim (who, curiously, I had not seen smoke in hours), searched for the few they knew to be missing. How they even counted what we had was beyond me.

Before he and Diggy had trotted off, he explained briefly what had sparked the nighttime stampede.

“Some cow was grazing just downstream of the herd with two of her calves. I knew about them, so I let ‘em be. On my next pass through that area, though, a couple of coyotes had one of the calves pinned against the bank and were getting ready to close in. I just fired into the air, since I couldn’t hardly see to shoot straight.”

“Spooked the whole herd” was all Diggy had to say about it.

“Well, either that or stand the chance of losing one. It was a gamble.”

“How many we missing?”

“Maybe a dozen, probably less.”

“How do you know when you have them all?” I dared ask.

“When we think we got ‘em all, spread ‘em a bit and start counting. Diggy already got a rough count.”

“Will they wander far?”

“Not unless they’re chased, and the coyotes are long gone. We’ll probably catch ‘em grazing upriver somewhere.”

An hour later they returned with seven, and with difficulty we spread the herd along the riverbank, all four of us riding their length and counting.

“I got 240” I announced.

“Same here,” replied Tim. “Carl?”

“242” he shrugged. “They keep moving.”

Diggy trotted up last. “We got ‘em all.”

“You sure?”

“No… Shit. Count again, I guess.”

Rather than try to count such a large group, we walked the horses into the herd, partitioned off mostly a quarter each, and counted our respective groups. Twice. To my pleasure, I arrived at the same number each time. Adding the figures a moment later, Diggy was indeed correct. We had them all. No calf was in a panic for a missing cow, no cow was frantic for a calf, and there were only a few steers in the first place, which made them easy to count.

“Well, we’ve successfully pissed away half the morning, worn out the horses, and deprived me of my beauty sleep.” Diggy spat out the last words in a way that suggested he was dead serious.

Tim lit his first cigarette, drawing for a seeming eternity before responding. “You’re ugly anyway, friend.” An exhalation of smoke oddly muffled his words. “Let’s get moving. Carl, you start in the back. Diggy’s too grumpy for now.”

We had a lot of ground to cover still, and already felt exhausted. My horse splashed through the blue water on the herd’s left as we started driving. It would be a long, long day.


To maximize on daylight, we drove them hard, switching out the rear with greater frequency. Even Tim, who felt reasonably confident Diggy knew how to aim south and ride, took a few turns in the back. I could hear him wracked with coughs between the dust and the smoking, but he yelled ferociously, and his horse seemed remarkably energetic despite her early exercise.

There were no halts throughout the day, no pauses to eat, and the only opportunity we had to even relieve ourselves was to trot a short distance from the herd, dismount, and hope the herd didn’t stray far in our absence. Arriving by dark wasn’t exactly the goal, but in the absence of a water source anywhere between the river behind us and the ranch to the south, stopping for another night wasn’t a viable option. Not only would the cattle need watering, but the horses would even more than them. The cows were walking all day, but the horses were actually working.

The threat of rain also posed a problem. After a long, rainless summer, more than a few minutes of showers would quickly transform the loose dust to mud, drastically increasing the likelihood of injury both to the cattle and to the horses (and therefore us). A serious rain would fill the washes and necessitate a change in route, too, which depending on the quantity of rainfall could be merely problematic or truly devastating. Silt buildups in the washes, possessing the consistency of quicksand, could swallow hoofed animals easily. Making haste was the only option.

Sometime mid afternoon, Diggy went silent in the rear, which was unusual. Turning back to check on him, I observed him trot into the herd, toss a rope and haul up a small calf into the saddle, and lash its feet effortlessly. Thus bound, it struggled little as he cradled it, though his horse didn’t welcome the extra weight. When I switched with him shortly after, I asked what was wrong with it.

“I’ve been watching it for awhile. Either it got trampled earlier, or it’s just lame. Either way, it’s slowing down everything. I’ll just carry it.”

“What do I do if I see one like that?”

“You won’t. I was watching the little ones pretty close. This here’s the only one havin’ problems.”

I was relieved. I hadn’t even a rope, and no knowledge of what to do with it if I did.

By early evening, driving the herd was becoming a significant challenge. They, too, felt the drain of an early awakening, the investment of energy running in panic, and now nearly a full day of walking. It wasn’t just the calves, either, but the entire herd. They were fat, lumbering, and increasingly uncooperative. Whomever was driving had to intensify yelling even further. We would all be hoarse by our arrival. And thoroughly disgruntled.

As the sun set and the clouds moved in from the east, they were illuminated magnificently well after the sun had dropped out of sight below the horizon. A dazzling array of orange and pink glowed in the western edge and to the east a deepening purple. Despite its beauty, it still signified trouble. We were racing the weather, the hour, exhaustion, an uncooperative herd, and all on horses that had been too long on their feet. They were slowing, too, and the wind was picking up, pulling cool air hard to the east into what presumably would be a storm. I tried not to think about lightning. We, high in the saddles, were the tallest objects out here besides the occasional rock outcropping or cactus. We were incredibly vulnerable. In the shadows of dusk, the thunder began rumbling in the distance and the breeze stiffened noticeably.

Without warning or explanation, the herd stopped directly in front of me. Immediately I doubled my screaming, mixing in more epithets. In a moment, however, I observed in the distant half light that they had nowhere to go. Tim’s horse was empty, and he was unlatching a gate. We had arrived, dry, with all our numbers, and not a moment too soon. A heavy drizzle was preceding the coming storm. God it was cold…

Riding back towards me, Carl wore an enormous grin.

“Damn fine timing on the rain” he croaked. “My ass is killing me. And I’m hungry, too. And hoarse.”

We all were. With only marginal coaxing, the herd swelled through the gate and began a racket around the water trough. The mud was already churning the holding pen into a disaster. If they wanted out of it, they’d have to go into the barn. Diggy deposited the lame calf in the pen, identified the mother, and we moved them into a separate partition to keep the calf protected from any further injury.

“She should be fine. Got so used to riding in the saddle that she actually fell asleep for a time. Y’all hungry? I half starved. I wanna steak.”

As Diggy went inside to start supper, Tim showed me how to rub down the horses, who didn’t much care what we did, so long as they were permitted to eat and drink uninterrupted.

“The thing you gotta do is make sure they don’t get chilled from the sweat or cool off quickly. You gotta cool them slowly, wipe ‘em down, walk ‘em around a bit and then rub ‘em again. Always check their legs for heat. This cold, wet weather ain’t much fun for them neither.”

Over steaks, green beans and potatoes, Tim mulled through the morning’s events.

“In hindsight, I should have just chased off those damn things. Firing might be okay if the herd’s awake, but not when they’re laying down. They panic, and they just see the others running. I guess that was my fault.”

Diggy had his own thoughts. “Shit, I still think we did okay with it. We didn’t lose none, and ‘cept for the lame calf, they’re all fine. Hell, even fasto here and the writer did well. What was your name again?”


“Yeah, that’s it. Ben. You wanna learn to rope sometime? I think you got potential. In fact, you learn roping, you could work out here. We could use another for our drives. God knows Tim’s ranch could, too.”

“Yeah, we’d hire you – you’re an ace on the horse out there. You sure you never done this before?”

“Never. I only rode a few times as a kid.”

“Well, you did great. Hell, everybody did. ‘Cept for Carl near killing his horse by being a big ‘un.”

“Hey, least I wasn’t giving my horse cancer with second hand smoke!”

“No just a swayback. Anyway, we did good. If you gents are free in the spring, wanna move ‘em north with me?”

We all agreed to it. Carl would take a long weekend. Diggy would ride over from the neighboring ranch, and I’d be the only suburbanite in Phoenix practicing lassoing in his back yard all winter. But I had a purpose. There were techniques that needed learning, skills that needed refining, and in the spring there would be cattle that would need moving. I wanted to be ready. I could get used to this life, I thought. It was savory.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 27, 2009

High Country, Part IV

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

In preparation for their relocation, the cattle had already been herded from the hillsides and staged in holding pens near the farmhouse. Thus spared this laborious task, there was little to do in the morning but open the gates and start moving, which we did soon after sunrise. The din was already annoying, and were it not for the aptitude of my horse being superior to my own, a few clever animals would have quickly slipped away from the herd and slowed us appreciably.

Forgetting what Carl had said about wide, indirect movements, I had spurred my ride directly towards the cattle that seemed hellbent on wandering far from the remainder of the herd. I imagine a dumber horse would have obeyed me, but mine appropriately swung wide, cutting off their escape, and let his size simply intimidate the recalcitrant back into the herd. As intelligent as he may have been, I anticipated a long day. In the rear, Diggy was already hollering epithets much louder than the cattle ruckus. For such a quiet man, he had the eloquence of one well acquainted with elaborate obscenities. Maybe that’s what cattle did to you.

With Diggy in the rear, Carl to the far side of me on the left, I on the right, and Tim in the lead, we pushed the herd into the river and stopped them there deliberately. This was their last chance to drink until probably the end of the day. They’d need every last drop. While our trip up had been a long but manageable day, the return, complicated with exactly 243 head of cattle (to be precise), would be painstaking and roughly half the speed we’d traveled yesterday. Our target for the night was the sulfurous river, which stood approximately between here and our southern destination. It wasn’t a preference, it was a necessity. There was no other water.

While the ride north had been a constant intake of gorgeous scenery and untouched landscape, preoccupation with cattle caused me to miss the vast majority of it now. The reminder, unfortunately, was trampled beneath the undulating herd. It was demanding (at least for me) because I was unaccustomed to watching animals wander and habitually responding with a tug to the reins to intervene. My horse, again proving he was smarter than me, simply took what was often an erroneous order, ignored the wrong direction, and did what he knew needed to be done. I found myself thinking of him more as a border collie than a horse. I did at least make an effort to improve, since I knew my lack of skill was causing him to trot more than necessary. An hour into the morning’s ride, steam was rising from his shoulders and hips. He’d need the water more than the cattle.

As we continued, I watched the others. Tim always rode a good 100 meters in front of the herd while Carl held fairly close to the rear left. I mimicked on my side, quickly realizing that it allowed the side riders to see the lead and effectively steer the herd in Tim’s direction. They weren’t being led, either. Cows don’t follow horse-mounted riders. Instead, Diggy’s endless hollering was actually driving them forward. He drove and we steered in Tim’s direction. Though it would bring choking dust and parched throats, I found myself looking forward to the trees and other vegetation diminishing. It was hard to not lose cattle in the short brush, and no doubt any that were lost would be blamed on me. After galloping hard to redirect a couple steers that were lured by greenery, I backed off the herd a bit. I felt sorry for my horse. All the same, he seemed to be enjoying this. He wasn’t a show animal; his scars, the brand on his haunch, and the unkempt mane all served as reminders that he was a work horse.

Mid-morning, Carl dropped to the rear and Diggy took up the far side in his place. Sure enough, just as suddenly as Diggy had gone silent, I heard Carl unleash a wave of yelling and rants unsuited for repeating. I guess that’s what you do when you ride in the rear. You yell at the cattle and keep them moving. I suspected that by noon I’d have my turn at it. Tim was the only one that knew this route intimately, so his position as lead remained unchanging. We would be doing the herding. He was just guiding. Overhead, buzzards circled, as if presuming something here would soon die. I didn’t like it.

Preoccupied as we were, time flew quickly, so Carl’s sudden appearance behind me was startling.

“Alright, bud. I’m all yelled out. And I smell like shit. Your turn. Just keep them moving, got it?”

“I think so.”

“Then get out of here.”

Turning abruptly, I trotted to the rear and found myself at a loss for words. Curse at them? Yell at them? Wave a stick? What do you say to cattle? When they started to lag after only a moment, the words came quickly. None of them were nice. At was undoubtedly comical to watch a man who had never herded cattle try to speak in complete sentences and use proper grammar. After one failed attempt with that, out came whooping, hollering, short phrases laced with profanity, and all uttered with an accent I was unaware I had. This was the consequence of watching too many westerns, I suppose. I tried to sound like Diggy, who I doubt watched many westerns since he more or less lived one. At least I was copying the real thing, not a spaghetti western.

As best I can describe it, running the rear involves pacing close to the herd and keeping them moving at something other than a stroll. Those closest to the back pushed forward, and so it went all the way to the front, and all amid the racket of bovine discontent, the stench of endless defecation, and the flies and dust. Had I been smarter, I would have brought a bandana to put over my face, but then I’d have to yell even louder to be heard through the muffle of fabric. As is, I just swallowed a lot of dust. Despite the reek, I was still hungry.

To my great relief, not an hour after Diggy replaced me in the rear, we arrived at the sulfurous river. Confident that the cattle would head for the water and not wander off (there was also little in the way of vegetation nearby to distract them), the four of us gathered a short distance upstream of the herd and let the horses drink their fill. Only Tim’s looked in the least bit refreshed. Carl’s looked the worst, no doubt because of the extra weight.

Tim spoke first. “I’d say we have about an hour before we can’t see much. Diggy, you cooking?”

“Always. Might be an awfully small fire out here though. Ain’t much in the way of wood here. Just brush on the bank.”

Tim lit another cigarette from the butt burning low in his hands. Coughing, he continued. “We’ll figure it out. These cattle aren’t going to go far. They’ll drink too much, get out of the river, and that’s the last we’re going to get out of them today. I figure two hour shifts tonight, just one of us on at a time. I’ll take the first one and the last one though, regardless of how the cards fall. I know you guys ate dust all day.”

“Do we do this on foot or horseback?” I asked, which drew a laugh from Carl.

“You wanna get run over by cows?” he asked, smiling. “You’re mounted. Always. And armed. These things are trained for saddle shooting.”

Tim piped up. “Yeah, BUT, make sure they see the rifle first, and make sure you obviously cock it if you’re about to fire. If you just shoot, they’ll throw you faster than hell. Only thing we got to worry about out here is coyotes anyway. And they’re usually pretty skittish.”

An hour later, after Tim grabbed a plate of beans, bacon and cornbread and returned to the herd, we sat around the small fire. It was going to be cold that night, sufficiently so that we’d all done what we could to gather enough wood to keep the fire all night. Tim, plate in one hand and reins in the other, was attempting to move some of the smaller calves into the center of the herd, many of whom were already laying down and terribly disinterested in moving. He met with only marginal success.

Diggy, was remarkably agreeable after a day chewing dust. Turning to me, he cheerfully asked, “so, you learn anything today?”

I explained that I had, though I still didn’t know the first thing about roping, which bothered me.

“I could teach you, but there ain’t no use in it out here. You could practice all night and still not be good at it in the morning. It takes a long time, and you gotta stick with it, too. You did alright, though, from what I saw. You sure you never done this before?”

I assured him I had not. My only experience with herding had been that day, or whatever I’d read in books or watched in westerns. I was a writer, not a cowboy.

“That’s a dumb word for it, anyway. Sounds like we’re supposed to be wearing chaps and huge hats and gunslinging. We don’t anymore. I just tell people I’m in the cattle industry and they figure it out quick. They don’t see no fancy suit, so they know I actually do work.”

“Hey now,” Carl defended, “I HAVE to wear a suit. And I still do work, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t work like this. This wears you out awful young. How old you think I am?”

“Forty?” Carl ventured a guess.

“Man, I’m thirty. It’s the sun and the long hours. “

I was astonished. Not only was he grizzled, but walked slightly hunched and limped when he got out of the saddle. With his beard, he looked more like a mountaineer.

“Why do you do it then?”

“Cause I love it. I’ll be moving to our northern farm in a couple of years. They just work the cattle in the summers up there, which ain’t bad, and in the winter, they fix a few fences and relax.”

“How is that different from here?”

“Well, we work these guys all winter, keep them fed and warm, birth ‘em in the spring, then divide ‘em either for the market or for the farm up north. We do the work, really. Up there, they just graze ‘em.”

Carl heaved himself up and hobbled towards his horse. Diggy started chortling quietly to himself.

“Something wrong, Carl?”

“Yeah, my ass hurts.”

“So does your horse’s, I’d say.” He laughed at his own joke and started gathering dishes.

At ten, I began my first shift on watch, gingerly mounting (I was sore, too), and took the lever-action 30-06 from Diggy.

“If you got any questions, just wake us up. I’d rather get woke up than lose cattle in the dark; got it?”

For two hours I sat in the saddle, listened to coyotes howl in the distance, and paced from one end of the herd to the other, stopping briefly to stoke the fire a couple times. It was cold, but beautiful. Miles from any well-lit city, the sky was spectacularly clear, revealing constellations usually too dim to make out. Even the Milky Way belt was visible. Several times, large meteors cut across the sky. Thankfully, the cattle didn’t move an inch. Waking Carl, I gave him the update that there was no update and turned in again, rolling as tightly as I could in the single wool blanket we’d all carried tied behind our saddles. The fire offered only minimal warmth.

As I was jolted awake by the sharp report of a rifle, as Diggy sat bolt upright muttering, “shit” Carl, next to him, was already on his feet. As he untangled himself from his blanket he turned to me.

“Get on your horse NOW. The cattle are gonna move for sure.” I could already hear them stirring behind us.

I barely had both feet in the saddle when a steer thundered by, swerved to avoid the fire, and galloped into the river.

Diggy had somehow almost ridden out of earshot already, but he called back, “spread out and go upriver a ways. That’s where they’re moving.” He disappeared into the darkness yelling at his horse.

Either the coyotes had attempted to grab a calf, or Tim had spotted something else that threatened the herd. Between the crack of a rifle and the approach of a predator, the cattle were startled, confused, and running blindly away from the noise and commotion. Yet none of that mattered right now. They were moving towards us. As I galloped upriver I couldn’t help but think, “this sure is a shitty way to learn about stampedes.” I had to get in front of the stragglers. Swing wide…

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 26, 2009

High Country, Part III

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


By the time our shadows fell long on the scrub vegetation, I had returned to warming my hands under the horse blanket. So long as I kept them there it was fine, but removing them only made it more painful. The horse’s back and blanket were still wet with perspiration, and being cold and damp wasn’t an experience I much enjoyed. If I was smarter, I would have used my pockets.

In front, Tim still smoked, which in the cooler air lingered long and low behind us. Diggy was characteristically silent, but his agitation with the hour was evident by his sullen hunch in the saddle. I expected he’d fuss at Tim before too long.

Carl, though no stranger to riding backcountry, was growing weary of it. Years of riding a desk instead had taken its toll with both his toleration for the discomfort of a western saddle and a number of extra pounds that only ground him more forcefully into the saddle itself. Oddly, I was more sympathetic for his horse than for him. He fidgeted frequently, which visibly annoyed his ride. He and I had ridden in the rear as he recalled techniques for moving cattle that he hadn’t considered in well over a decade.

“The secret to herding cattle is wide, indirect movements. If a calf strays out somewhat to the right, slowly start walking to the far right. That way he doesn’t feel like he’s being chased. Usually, he’ll just move back to his mother and you just keep at it. Basically, you just walk the perimeter; that’s all. It’s the guy in back that has it the worst. He just eats dust, can’t hardly see, his horse gets pissy, and it stinks back there. If he’s not inhaling dust, he’s breathing manure or flies. The way I always did it was that the back guy rotates out more quickly than anybody.”

“What about stampedes? What do I do then?”

“This isn’t the movies, man. Yeah, I haven’t done this in a good fifteen years, but I never remember a stampede. Something has to spook them badly, and since you’re already on the perimeter, you just move out of the way. The only way you’ll get hurt, and that’s just a maybe, is if you’re in a chute between some sort of obstacles and the horse spooks and throws you. But again, these guys are trained fairly well. Nah, the worst thing about a stampede is the aftermath – trying to find all the strays and get them back together. If that happens, you have to rope a lot of the stupid ones.”

“Carl, I’ve never roped anything before. I’ll probably end up making a fool of myself.”

He laughed. “Yes. Which is why in the unlikely event that this happens, we’ll leave you with the remnants of the herd and go get them ourselves. Hell man, I haven’t done it in years, either. I’ll probably volunteer to take the furthest strays so nobody sees me screw it up. If you don’t practice the skill, you lose it. I can type up a fantastic home sale contract these days, but roping? I doubt I still can. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Diggy turned around in front of us with a scowl. “The more y’all talk about it, the dumber you both sound.”

“Perhaps,” retorted Carl. “I grew up doing this.” Diggy muttered again. I was uncertain if he was always this sour, or if our presence was what particularly bothered him – and the quickly diminishing light.

It was cause for some concern, actually. Not so much because of the temperatures, but because of the reduced visibility. We had started out with no landmarks at all around us (save for the slowly approaching peaks now directly in front of us). Tim, presumably knowing the route, had simply struck out confidently. The shortcut he had planned, as well as the river, so I trusted he knew his location. But the notion of stumbling on horseback through rocks, bushes and now an increasing number of small trees was unappealing. The only sunlight remaining was touching the mountains to the north. After riding towards them all day, I presumed our destination was proximal to them. However, asking Tim would probably invite a reprimand for not trusting him. I elected to remain quiet. Carl seemed unconcerned – just fidgety in his saddle. Diggy was always grumpy, so it was hard to say. Tim, mostly silent, just kept leading and smoking. Maybe he enjoyed keeping us in the dark – literally.

Smelling wood smoke was the first indication that the four of us were not alone in wilderness. It was faint, but pleasant, and I wondered if there was food being cooked over it. Our destination ranch? A cabin? A cook fire for other riders? Before I had much time to consider it, we were ejected from the scrub, rocks and trees of wilderness into an enormous pasture (mostly dirt this time of year), and the rolling foothills of the mountains in the background. At the base of the hills there was light, too, albeit faint in the near-darkness. I heard cattle now, too.

At the end of the field lay a river, slow moving, and beyond it: short fields and the beginnings of hills. Also on the far side was a small ranch house, which seemed almost an adulteration to the landscape after a day without any sign of civilization. Drawing nearer, the interior was well-lit, smoke rolled gently from the chimney, and a profusion of barns, pickup trucks, and farm equipment littered the fields. Either this was our destination or we were blatantly trespassing. I assumed the former.
A dog barked and irritated the horses, commencing a litany of soothing remarks and reassuring pats from all of us. After riding all day through washes, basins and loose rocks, I had no desire to be bucked because a dog was underfoot. Tim dismounted and we all followed suit. I suppose his smoke-immune horse still had her limits. Handing her reins to Diggy, he strode off to subdue the barking. This was definitely our destination.

Five minutes later he returned. “They got supper on the table if you’re hungry. Roast chicken, gravy, and greens. Carl, don’t eat all of it, okay?”

“Thanks. Waddya think I am? A pig?”

“You really want me to answer that? Look at your horse. She’s a swayback now.”

Diggy spoke more eloquently than I’d heard all day. “Y’all can keep fightin’ like girls, but I’m gonna eat. Tim, here’s your horse.” He led his own off briskly.

Amid the pleasant aroma of dewed grass and cows and sweaty horses, I smelled food. Walking to the stable, we quickly pulled saddles, drew water, put out feed, and went inside for our own. Tomorrow would be an even longer day.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved