(Chapter from upcoming travel narrative, sequel to Memories and Musings of a Post-Postmodern Nomadic Mystic Madman)
The Kennedy Ranch was 100,000 acres, neighboring the Flying U where I was employed as a hand for the summer, a spread somewhere around 10,000 acres with another 100,000 acre ranch on the other side, and the scene was as vast and grand as any vision of the proverbial or Hollywood Old West. After breakfast Ralph and I walked through the pitch black to the truck and trailer where we'd tied the horses for the night, saddled our mounts and rode down the wide one-lane dirt road to meet the others gathered to ride out to meet the sunrise and to gather and brand the young of the Kennedy's herd. As the cowboys and cowgirls started down the trail a nearby coyote howled a sweet song to serenade us and to tell of the coming dawn, still only portended by a faint glow over one tiny corner of the broad horizon. The chorus of howls continued as other coyotes answered and their song echoed off the hills and through the valley.
As the glory of the cowboy sunrise approached and we rode lazily down the trail, I contemplated the distance between where I was, astride an old mare riding on a dusty trail with real live Old West cowboys on the vast high plains, and where I was before the summer started, just some Prep School kid in Laramie who'd never had a real girlfriend and who just never quite fit in. Here on the range and ranches of northeast Wyoming I seemed to have a respected, if not revered place. On the Flying U I had learned to drive tractors, to ride a horse proficiently, to do carpentry and mechanics. Here I was where I generally longed to be when I was young, out on the land in some semblance of wilderness, some place I could feel I was free and for real. Even as liberal of an education as I was receiving at the University of Wyoming Prep School, said state of being still felt stifling for a child of the mountains. To be bound to a desk arranged in rows and columns when the sun was shining and the Wyoming wind was beckoning me is tantamount to child abuse for the likes of me and many a wild child. This adventure as a cowboy felt like heaven to a wildman growing up in the institution, if admittedly an institution where hippies and PhDs were our teachers and if in fact raised in a family where the wilderness ethic was strong and ingrained from an early age.
As we approached the herd we were seeking, some portion of the cowboys and cowgirls split off to bring the cows and calves into a tight group. As we started pushin' them doggies towards the corral I was told to ride towards the tail end of the herd and to keep stragglers from straying. It was quite a sense of exhilaration as I would spur my mount to a gallop to retrieve whatever cow or calf or group of same would try to run up a draw or otherwise escape the coming violence of the branding, an experience the mamas of the herd certainly knew well enough from their own time under the hot iron and from their offspring of previous years having been thus tormented. At the time I did not give much thought to the upcoming event, the castration of the males, the brutality of dehorning and the repercussions of antibiotic injections and growth hormones implanted, not to mention the pain exacted as hot searing metal was pressed against the flesh of these young bovine kind. Only years later after I had realized myself a yogi would I contemplate my own part in that play and find my own purifying fire awaiting me on the Hudson River to cleanse myself of that violent karma.
I quickly learned to imitate the calls of the cowboys, “Yip!! Yip Yip!! Common!! Hyup!! Hyup!!” and felt my senses livened by this dance of cowboys and girls and cows as we made our way towards the corral. The sun was well above the horizon by now and we had ridden somewhere near ten miles since we left the ranch house, eagles and hawks and other birds watching from high above with curiosity as a herd of people on horses, dogs and cows and calves traveled on down the trail.
As we arrived at the corral, out on a flat with no other significant structure in sight, the cows and calves were pushed into the pen and the gate closed. After a short rest from the ride, at least one of the women went in along with a cowboy or two to cut the cows out of the herd until only the calves remained in the corral. The swift movements of the cutting horses and the skills of the riders, their movements timed together with a tight synchronicity to meet the maneuvering of the cows endeavoring to stay with their calves, soon emptied the corral of all save the young.
The cutting horses and their riders them left the arena, and the old cowboys with their lassos readied rode into the corral. Pairs of young men, mostly teenagers including myself, would wait outside the gate as the mounted cowboys would whip the loops of their lassos under the hind legs of the hapless calves, tighten the rope around one leg or two, then wrap the loose end of the lasso around the saddle horn (if you ever wondered what those were for . . .), then drag the bawling baby cows out of the corral and to the two cowboys waiting outside the gate. One of the two would then grab the tightened rope and pull one way while the other would grasp onto the critter's tail and pull the other. Once the calf was flat on its side, the cowboy or cowgirl who'd taken the tail would pin the calves shoulders with a knee on either side and bending and binding the upper front leg of the little beasty, and the one who'd grasped the rope now had to secure the hind legs of the bawling babe, which of course were want to kick to regain freedom and to stay the torments to come. The hind legs were held in place by a pose where the cowboy sits on the ground, one foot against the lower ankle of the calf and hands holding the upper leg back, legs spread wider if it was a male calf so his balls could be ripped out of his scrotum after slit open with a sharp pocket knife. Rather a violent asana.
The brand was kept hot by a propane torch, a modern take on the sagebrush campfire which was used of old to heat the iron shaped to a particular combination of letters and shapes to tell of ownership. The smell of burning hair and flesh fills the nostrils as the cowboy or cowgirl brandishing the brand pressed it into the calves side. Another would come along with a blade readied, check the gender and remove the testicles if a male, then another with a hypodermic injector that places either hormones and/or antibiotics under the skin around the neck, then another with a tool with a circular blade with which the horns are dug out to the root, a centimeter or two deep in the calf's skull, while the calf cries out with a gruesome and sorrowful bawl, eyes rolled back and tongue lolling.
After the task at hand was completed, the last calf set free to rejoin its mother, we started the ride back to the ranch. On the way back to the ranch house on either this occasion or on the occasion of a later like gathering of neighboring ranchers to move a herd at the Schuman ranch, I rode up on an old cowpoke who'd dismounted and was hopping around a sagebrush bush and cursin' up a storm. As I approached I realized the silver-haired cowboy was dancin' with a rattlesnake, endeavoring to pin the serpent to the ground with his boot. After I watched him twice or thrice press his worn brown boot into the sagebrush only to jump back with a whoop, finally he stomped down on the neck of the snake and then reached down to retrieve the furious serpent, it's mouth turned 'round and clasped onto the toe of his boot. As he firmly placed his fingers on the back of the rattlesnake's jaw to prevent an inadvertent bite, he held the snake up for the onlookers to see, and then tried several times to get back on his horse, who would have nothing to do with a rider holding a live rattler aboard. Finally the old cowboy decided to kill the snake and keep its rattle as a memento. He told me as we rode on that he had a tank at his place where he kept several rattlers at a time to milk for venom.
After my summer on the Flying U my family moved to Indiana for a year, as my dad was on sabbatical to do research in liquid chromatography at Purdue. I then moved to Oklahoma where I lived with my grandparents, finished high school and attended college, became a preacher then resigned and renounced that, went to grad school in Chicago and then returned to Laramie. After an unsuccessful search for employment in my home town, I found myself on the road and discovered the remnant hippie trails and lifeways still (and to this day) to be found across the land long after the sixties. I began to practice yoga and wandered the country for several years before I ended up living on a Bristol 26 sailboat upon the Hudson River and a tributary thereof. Whilst aboard for this mostly misadventure I would often sit on the settee next to the hatch into the cockpit with one foot propped in the hatchway and posture representing something of a modified asana as I would meditate and contemplate my sometimes sorry situation, as after sailing out from Rondout Creek and onto the broad Hudson I only made it so far south as Beacon before a storm beached my boat. I contemplated the semblance of an asana seemed to be my posture and pose for hours every day and considered it rather like the position one holds while holding down a the back end of a calf for branding. As I sat in sometimes agitated meditation and discomfort on the settee with my right foot extended and propped in the hatchway, I considered that, rather than living the good life of a carefree sailor my time on the Hudson seemed rather more like a tapasia (purifying fire) proffered to allow me burn away karma of days even long since passed. The Sanskrit root of the English word “God,” by the way, is “go” which translates as the English word cow, as in those domesticated bovines which intone the sacred syllable “mooooo . . .”