A Short Stint at the 696 Ranch, Texas

It’s August hot now.  Hot in the high desert of Nevada where I am now living.  Hot just about everywhere in the West and here July was a month of 90+ every day.  Too hot for me to wander outside, I am sorry to say.  Waiting for October and beyond.  All the snow has melted on the Ruby Mountains behind us and I haven’t been up in Lamoille Canyon for months, ever since the tick came home with me after I sat awhile at my favorite place!  They say the ticks are profuse this year and since this one traveled up my jeans and later appeared walking across the bridge of my reading glasses, I decided to wait until weather gets cooler and crowds less.  I miss the beauty of the canyon, though.  Day to day I focus on the sagebrush, a shrub I love dearly, especially when the heat or a soft rain shower frees its scent.  We are surrounded by fires too often and the air is filled with smoke and skies are hazy.

But, last August I was in Texas, on a friend’s ranch about 50 miles west of Fort Worth. While there for six weeks I helped out with some of the lighter chores given that I was only about nine months past my stem cell transplant and still recovering my strength.  The August heat in Texas is tough.  Hot and humid.  Occasional thunderstorms.  My friend has A/C but outside I was usually reduced to a big sweaty human, my t-shirt soaked as early as the morning when I bounded out of bed and started the first minimal chores around 7:30 a.m.  It was ridiculous and I never adjusted, but I kept trying.  I perspired just standing.  It reminded me of the early weeks when I first lived on the Big Island of Hawaii about 26 years ago.  I would sit in a chair and want to cry because the sweat just drizzled off me when I was absolutely still.  Eventually, I adjusted.  But, Texas in August is another kind of hot.

So, I did the best I could, which was probably less than good enough for my friend and his then 85-year old mother who lived there and took care of the ranch year round.  She could work circles around me any day!  And my friend, well, he didn’t sweat!  So, there I was in the barn stall where we were working with a young colt, getting him accustomed to humans (not easy) and the sweat ran down my face, into my eyes, while I just stood there keeping an eye on the mare and blocking the colt’s efforts to escape my friend.  It was pathetic, this body.  Yet, I was learning a lot, despite the heat, and while it made me miserable in different ways, I came to appreciate the Texas landscape in a way I had not during the previous two years of my treatment when I lived in a suburb outside Ft.Worth/Dallas.

My friend gave his mom a longhorn heifer for her birthday and I fell in love with that heifer, despite my initial fear of her horns and bulk.  Loretta is her name and she was a sweetheart.  I also fell in love with the brood mare who had given birth to the small group of horses on the ranch, two mares and the colt.  I loved watching the hierarchy of deference to her that required us to pour morning feed into her buckets first, before the others.  Loretta didn’t get that memo, though, and often tried to eat the horses’ grains and maybe the only one that shooed her off was the older mare.  I loved watching how the brood mare protected her colt, who was then only about four months old. His sibling sisters were two and one year(s) old, respectively.  I didn’t know that horses were so afraid of humans and that it took a lot of gentle, patient, non-threatening effort to even get the colt to accept our touch.

There were also three barn cats, two of which were expert hunters that routinely left rodents on the doorstep, and an old feline that stayed in the barn and kept to the high places of beams.  I learned to love them all.  And then there was the dog, Roper, a smart aleck that could open doors and obey when he wanted to but also was afraid of loud noises. So much so, that he took off for a neighbor’s ranch several miles away every time a loud noise bothered him.  Keeping track of him was sometimes a big pain, not to mention the delight he got from rolling in freshly dumped cow poo. He was my responsibility to train for a crate and we did that every morning before I even had coffee! Perhaps that was my best accomplishment in my friends’ eyes:  I got Roper to do the crate.

My friend’s ranch has lots of grass, for the horses and Loretta.  It also had lots of mesquite that is considered a nuisance plant despite the fact it actually gives back nitrogen to the soil, a useful function.  I saw my first devil’s claw, another nuisance that could catch and wrap around the horses’ ankles.  Mesquite had thorns that caught and tore.  There was the most magnificent old oak tree spreading its incredibly large crown of leafy branches across the front of the house.  It was perhaps one of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen and many small birds flitted around it, the most colorful being a painted bunting.  I was lucky enough one day to pull a tiny blue feather out of the bird bath, most likely from an Eastern Bluebird.  We were also graced with the presence of a pair of nesting roadrunners, very unusual.  We watched them everyday as they went to and fro with nesting materials.  I watched them hunting in the field, the way they pounce on whatever strikes their eating fancy.  They are ever watchful and one day they disappeared, making me wonder if something had invaded their nest and taken their eggs because we never saw chicks.  Snakes can crawl up and eat the eggs/chicks and we learned that the bumper crop of cicadas was already causing copperheads to mass around the bases of tree trunks in the evening hours.

Snakes are a part of Texas, of course, and I was ever alert in the tall grass and just about anywhere I put my feet.  I didn’t have cowboy boots, which would have given me a little more assurance; only my lightweight hiking boots, and it seems I spent a fair amount of time with my eyes on the ground too often.  One evening, after we’d gone out to watch yet another gorgeous sunset (Texas has amazing sunsets), I was walking back to the house and suddenly saw a copperhead gliding rapidly, perpendicular to my open-toed sandals by about eighteen inches.  I was startled but more impressed with how beautiful the snake was and I watched it head for the safety of my friend’s rock garden while he hurriedly tried to find something to kill it.  Secretly, I was rooting for the snake.  Copperheads were around, and my friend’s mother told me some stories about seeing them around the house.  Rattlesnakes were another concern but I guess they’d slithered away from all the human activity, which was not the case when my friend first cleared the land and built his house.  Still, I listened for them and watched.  Like I do out here in Nevada where their camouflage is so perfect I doubt I’d see one, all the more reason to keep an eye out.

Despite the heat, humidity, physical discomfort and actual pain I felt, I came to love the landscape, to want to know more about it.  I think it was about open space, just as it is part of my love here.  People were nice and hardworking, just like the ranching community here.  It’s a different life, this rural life.  Not one I can tackle alone at this point in my life, but one I can appreciate.  People work hard and I now have far more familiarity with cattle and horses, something I like.  My friend’s mom eventually got another longhorn heifer to keep Loretta company.  I keep wondering if Loretta will remember me if ever I get to go back to the 696 Ranch and call for her the way I did when I tried to lead her, carrot and stick style, with a bucket of grain, leading her up to the upper portion of the field where we could watch her more closely.

One more thing:  some things are bigger in Texas.  It seemed the crows were bigger and the grasshoppers were huge!  Didn’t see many hawks, just lots of buzzards that were efficient scavengers of dead things.  In the fall a decision was made to put down the brood mare due to a very painful arthritic condition.  It made me sad.  My friend told me the vultures cleaned her bones within weeks and I guess that’s what I learned about life out in Texas:  appreciating beauty and life, letting it go when necessary, and never letting the heat and sweat get you down.

One thought on “A Short Stint at the 696 Ranch, Texas

  1. Fascinating to read this description with the perspective of the year that has passed. That world was a preparation for the landscape you are in now it seems. Hope all is OK at Ranch 696 this year and I hope they read your insightful description with a perspective from the outside. Great to document so clearly and beautifully so the memory is crystalized.

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