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The Range

The range is a whole other world! A vast eco system that has drawn both man and beast to its bosom. The beauty, the solitude and the calming power of the range has to be experienced to be known or appreciated. Even in our modern age—there are huge expanses of rangeland where man does not live. True, there are men out there, somewhere, riding on that range by horseback living in shacks, cabins, or tents. They are like a few specks of floating material on an ocean. They are only seen now and again, here, then there as they do their important work, invisible to the masses, or hardly even seen by them, because their labors take them far from highways, towns, and cities. This is where cowboys live and love to be. The air is so clean and pure, the noise and congestion of modern life does not exist there. The only intrusion of the modern world into this other world is the occasional sound of an airplane. Aside from that, one can only hear the sounds of nature. The sigh of the wind, the birds, the insects, and of course the cattle. It’s a mind clearing place. I know some people would say it’s a mind-numbing place nothing to do, no place to go, it drives them nuts. There comes a time when cowboys need to come off the range as well and enjoy civilization but it doesn’t take long till the range calls them back to its peace and freedom.

            The smells, or fragrances of the range are so delicious. After a rain storm is one of my favorite times on the range. My dad said that the smell of rain soaked sage brush was his favorite. I don’t know if it is my number one favorite but it is definitely one of my favorite smells in the whole world. It enlivens me, especially if you breathe it deep down in the lungs.  Dad said if you could bottle that fragrance, you’d be a millionaire.

            On a warm breezy day I love the smell of the earth, the grasses and flowers and sage and there is something special about those fragrances if they come from a big area of range land—the smells are magnified somehow, richer, compounded over the distances they travel, especially when no odors of civilization are mixed with them to contaminate their purity.

            Of course, the range has a dangerous side as does all of nature’s creations. The winds and the storms can be frightening as well as damaging. I have a fear of lightning. In Texas, the tornadoes are not infrequent. I’ve never been in one, but some were close and our only protection was our teepee tents, which is nothing in high winds. Flash floods are another danger in range country, at least in some range country. Hail storms can be bad, painful and destructive. Heavy downpours of rain can make the footing very dangerous for horses in places and men as well.   Sliding down a steep hillside or off a trail can have numerous consequences, all of which are most likely less than good. The likelihood of accidents is always increased with rain, hail and snow.

            The range is wild! It’s a wilderness of sorts. It demands preparation, caution, knowhow and experience. But it is also a most astoundingly beautiful, peaceful amazing place. Its treasures, and secrets are numerous also. Cowboys know, that’s why they love the open spaces and all the challenges and rewards that come with the territory. Most people would not want it.  It’s too much for most people. It’s too much space, too much solitude—too much adventure, too much danger- too much work- too much freedom, too much raw untouched beauty, too much exhilaration, too much weariness. It’s always more than you bargained for.  It is…..THE RANGE, unlike any other environment or place.

            The water on the range can vary greatly. Some ranges have little or no water- windmills are the life blood on those ranges.  They draw water from deep wells and pump it up to “tanks” from which the cattle and horses, and cowboys drink. The cowboys, I should say, drink from the end of the water pipe where it dumps into the tank. That water is pure and good.

            Ranges I’ve been on in Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana usually are supplied with creek and spring water- sometimes rivers. In many places hole or dirt tanks are dug to catch the snow melt in the spring, and the rain too- these “tanks” provide enough water for the cattle for much of the spring and part, or even all the summer in places. They get pretty stagnant in the hotter weather and un-clean.

            Large holding tanks are filled by pumps from good water sources such as lakes, rivers, etc., these big tanks are put on high places then the water runs out of them by gravity flow through underground pipes to distant water tanks. This was the set up on one ranch I worked for.

            Almost all cattle ranges are grass ranges, meaning the majority of food for the cattle is grass. Many different varieties of grass provide good nutrition with strong protein content.  BUT…. Not all ranges are grass ranges. I learned this in Nevada. My son Seth and I were riding on a ranch out of Alamo, Nevada helping gather some cows and calves. I became quite perplexed at the very small amounts of grass on this range. The cattle were fat as seals and the calves were very healthy. I had never encountered a situation like this. Where is this grass?  I wondered. I didn’t want to appear as dumb as I felt, but curiosity got the best of me later in the day- after we had covered enough territory to convince me that grass was almost non-existent. I finally broke down, swallowed my pride and asked the Boss, “What the heck do the cows eat out here.”  He matter of factly said, “Brush.”  “Bushes.”  What?  I could hardly believe it. He told me there were several different types of “bushes” on that range that provided excellent nutrition for his cows.  The bushes regenerated new growth every year- perfect. Who would have thought?  I didn’t. I had to be told and shown. Quite a revelation. There was an old Pony Express station out on the range, part of the rock buildings and fences still stood. Just an example of the history that remains of the Old West on many ranges today. Things like that, the public never sees or knows, only the few cowboys that make their camps out there, or that pass through on roundups. In Texas, Red Steagel, a good friend of the CA and an honorary member of it, took us to an out of the way place called “adobe walls”. It was here that Quanah Parker, the last of the Comanche war chiefs lead an attack on the fort and showed us the hill where one chief was killed by a shot from the fort which was about 1000 yards away one of the defenders in the fort had guestimated the range, raised his sights on his old buffalo gun, took windage calculation and fired. The chief was so far away he had no fear of being in the open and was making taunts at the defenders. It was his last taunt. Many of these big cow ranges have these kinds of history as part of their mystique.

            Camp fires at night, the smell of Dutch oven cooking, the melodies of guitar and harmonica and voice, the presence of real chuck wagons and cowboy teepee tents are still realities today on many cow ranges. Big herds of cattle and horses are still there. The whoop and holler of cowboys in the dust of the roundup are still heard, the neigh and whinnies of cowponies and the bawling and calling of the cattle are also familiar sounds existent yet. Long may they live. I’m glad to have been a part of it. Long live THE RANGE.


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