Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Branding Day

You drive up out of the valley, past the lake and onto the rolling flats at the base of the foothills. That's where George has lived and ranched most of his 87 years. He's famous for his legendary champion Palominos, and for leading pack trips into the Pasayten Wilderness Area before it was the Pasayten Wilderness Area. And he still runs some cattle.

Every May when the weather has finally broken for good he calls together a few men of unique skills for branding.Down around his house past the garden and toward the branding shed is the corral. He still loves his Palominos, all of whom are descendants of his horses of long ago. They saddle up early, George leading the way, and ride out into those hills and coulees and draws and timber and brush to round up the herd. (I hope maybe he'll let me go along for the roundup next year; guess I better learn to ride.)
Here's George taking a break. He was concerned that I was taking a picture of him sitting down. Be assured, he still works the place essentially on his own, and prefers to do it on horseback.
But here's a picture of him on his feet, every inch the cowboy.
He was carrying this rattle in his shirt pocket. The day before, he had gone down to mow the area around the branding cage and had started to tip it by pushing on it. He just had shoulder surgery a few weeks ago, and he found it tough going. So he moved to the other side and pulled it over. There, right where he would have stepped, was a coiled rattler. Whether you agree with it or not, the old timers here will not let a rattlesnake off their land alive.
Here's Jerry, the brander. The stove is propane, more efficient than the wood fire of the old days. His father made it, and passed it and the craft on to Jerry. My guess is that his grandfather and great grandfather were also skilled with a branding iron.
That rectangular compartment on top was designed to hold a little oil so you could fry up a mess of Mountain Oysters while you worked. So far Jerry hasn't done that. I once knew a man who wouldn't touch fried chicken because it's all they would eat when he was a kid on the farm during the Depression years. Maybe Jerry feels that way about Mountain Oysters.
Here's the branding cage at work. It stands up and opens, the calf is driven in, it's closed and tipped on its side for the various operations to be performed.
There's the branding...


And there's an ear notch and an ear tag.
If you're a heifer, you're done. But if the cowboy at the hind end of the cage called out "Bull!" when you were driven in for your turn, you've got another ordeal to endure. This year Neal did the honors. Last year, and for many, many years, I'm sure, it was George.
The tools of the trade, and a genuine Mountain Oyster. Very fresh.
But when it's all over you can go back to your mama who has been bawling for you the whole time.
Meanwhile, nobody wants to be next.
All this may seem cruel, but it's a fact of life in many parts of western trout country. Twice, as I was busy with my camera, someone sidled over to me and asked if I was with PETA. Fortunately for me, they were smiling when they said it.
Well, I'm not with PETA. I don't think this is any more cruel than hooking a trout. And fishing with a hook and line, even if you kill your catch for food, is still a sport, not a necessity. Cattle ranching is a livelihood and a way of life. The ritual of branding that goes along with it is living history, and an essential part of a legitimate culture that deserves respect as much as any other culture.
I feel privileged to be welcomed in. I only regret that I wasn't able to stay this year for the big cowboy feed they put on when the work is over. The womenfolk stay in the house and cook while the men are working.
But maybe I better not go there.

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