Note: I have changed the names of the people in this story.
“It’s your turn to flip ‘em.”
“I thought I was on the rope.”
I tried to flip the wide-eyed calf onto the ground, into a position where it could be dragged, but instead tossed it the wrong way so that it was standing up.
The calf started a commotion –each leg heading quickly in a different direction.
Teenagers came in from everywhere to subdue it.
“Sorry,” I panted. “Sorry.”
“Just get back in line.”
I managed this opportunity to screw things up by chatting up Jim and Sean, two friends I met at the Horseshoe Bar, a lovely place that I can highly recommend, in Interior, South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park.
After watching the NBA playoffs for a while, it became clear that some of the folks at the bar rode horses a lot.
I mentioned to them that I had moved a few cows upon occasion and asked if they knew of any good outfits for going on a horseback ride in the area.
The place had such a history of horseback riding, I remarked, and I thought it’d be great to see some of the country that way.
Jim thought about it for all of a second.
“Shit, you oughta come out with us tomorrow. We got an extra horse and everything.”
“Are y’all serious?”
“Hell yeah we are. You oughta come out with us.”
“Alright, if that’s good with y’all, it’s good with me.”
I bought a round for my new friends. We hung and chatted for a while. Sean had only had a few drinks while I had been there, but he was surprisingly drunk already. I suspected he might have pre-gamed while driving over.
I made moves to leave and said I’d see them in the morning.
By way of parting, Sean observed that “if Jim promises you a horse, you’ll get a good fucking horse. Jim’s a great man. A man of his word.”
I woke up in time to catch the sunrise on the spires in the Park and drove over to meet Sean at the appointed spot. I opened the passenger side door of his truck and a few empty beers spilled out, bouncing off the help step before hitting the ground.
Two empty cans sat in the cupholders.
Sean works as a professor during the school year and had just gotten the summer off – he was back home among his people.
First, we went to go visit Sean’s friend Harry. Sean went in and came out. He was followed by Harry, who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to wave.
“It tears me up to see him like – shaking like a fucking leaf,” Sean said as we continued on.
We got to our destination, and at this point I learned we were going to do a cattle branding. I didn’t really know much about branding (and I still don’t) – but I can say that much of this essay wouldn’t be news for a large part of our country.
I stood around for a while, generally feeling awkward in a crowd of folks who knew each other and didn’t know me, waiting on Jim to show up.
Soon enough, whoever was in charge decided that it was time to saddle up and head out.
I headed inside to wait around with some older and younger men.
Jim showed up late with his entire family. He headed out to the field that had everyone else had already ridden out into.
He looked up at me and paused, “Oh, shit. Sorry. I forgot your horse.” (I was surprised by how much everyone cussed in front of their children).
“That’s ok, not a big deal.” Should’ve known better than to trust a drunk cowboy.
I went back inside to listen to stories.
Some of the older guys were telling adventures of fatherhood from a generation ago, or more.
“One time, I wanted to ride out on to round up some cattle. I had the kids with me though, so I ended up dropping them in chicken wire enclosure to keep them safe while I went out.”
“Oh yeah? Well, when my kids were young, they knew that if they pooped their pants that they had to run over by the hose, drop their pants, and be ready to get hosed down.”
“No way we could’ve done anything like that today.”
“No sir, not at all.”
After a while of sitting and listening, I eventually chatted with the woman of the house, Jane. Jane asked me what I was up to and I mentioned that I was headed out to California to work on a ranch for the summer.
“Will you be riding or what?”
“No mam, mostly inside work.”
It turned out that Jane works at a local college in their agricultural sustainability department. I had tried not to mention my interest in predators and valuing them economically, but her questions eventually led me down that path.
She surprised me by agreeing with me, “I mean, look, we’re not trying to exterminate everything down here. We know we are ranching in an operating ecosystem.
What really worries us, is that people from the East and the West are going to come here in search of a new place of solitude.
They’ll drive up the home values and drive us out of town.
We just need to be able to defend ourselves… We do want some predators around here – I like them, my kids like them. We’re not trying to get rid of everything.”
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by how supportive she was of my project and my focus on predator conservation, though I was at the time. The more time I spend in the ranching community, the more I see people who want to raise livestock in greater harmony with the ecosystem.
Around about then, the group on horseback drove the cows into the corrals.
I excused myself to go watch.
Sorting calves from cows is always a bit of a process, but overall it was more seamless than a lot of operations I’d seen.
Most of the day, I’ve just been hanging out quietly on the edge of conversations, keeping a low profile, listening. Now, it was clearly time to work.
I had no idea what to do, but Sean told me to watch and that I’d figure it out.
The branding process seemed relatively straightforward. Horse riders drug calves out on the corrals on their stomachs by their back legs. Two people (one on rope, one on calf) flipped the calves on their backs/sides. The horse riders dragged them out of the way of other calves. Then the two flippers held down the calf for treatment.
Except a million little things matter. Which direction you flip the calf. How you flip it. How you maintain control over and stability of the calf.
Two lines formed leading to the corral fence. One line for ropers, the other for wrestlers.
Depending on the leg that the horse rider lassoes, the rope and wrestler lines may flip flop. I watched for a while, but was still pretty worried that I’d mess it up.
Jim prodded me on, “Go on and get in there! People will help you learn what you’re doing. The trick is to flip the calf over the rope.”
I still didn’t understand what that meant exactly.
I got in line.
Soon, it was my turn. I pulled up and over on the rope, while a teenager yanked the calf’s legs around. A modest success.
A horseback rider dragged the calf out of the way of other calves. I pulled tension on the back leg and wedged my leg underneath the ground side of the calf, which was lying on its side.
Hides were branded, vaccinations shot, testicles removed, horns burned down to a never-growing nothingness. Then we left the calf go. It hopped up and wandered around, eyes still wide. An efficient process.
I marveled at the docility and pain tolerance bred into calves. I certainly wouldn’t have hopped up and wandered around if you’d done all that to me.
On my second try, I messed up the flip – but my much younger partner covered for my mistake.
The third time, when I planned to be in the easier, wrestling line, but ended up in the more difficult calf line, I was supposed to flip the calf onto its side, but I stood it up instead. People reacted quickly and strongly – though no one was mad at me. I felt very much like a rookie.
After causing the commotion, I decided to sit out for a bit.
Guys had been drinking since we got there. Some were starting to sway. I chatted with an elderly woman.
Louise told me, “All the guys around here just see so many things as an excuse to drink beer.” She mentioned that she’s tried to intervene with her own husband about his whiskey. It hasn’t worked.
“Maybe he’ll come to his senses, maybe he won’t,” she says, sadly, with a clear note of despair.
I rejoined the line for a few more times, and managed not to mess up too badly.
We finished eating the fried, recently cut, male calf testicles right out of the pan, then headed in for an actual meal. I hadn’t realized, but should have, that since this was such a big, community affair, that a meal would be involved. It’s clearly a party, and a reason for everyone to take a Friday off of work or school.
After eating, people started to migrate on to the afternoon’s branding, at another family ranch down the road. Sean invited me, but I begged off, because I wanted to spend some time in the Park.
As so often, for time in a park, I followed the instructions of Backpacker Magazine:
There is no trail, just delicate eroding spires, a few hundred bison, and endless hiking possibilities. Start from the dirt turnout 50 yards down Sage Creek Rim Road after turning off SD 240, 8.2 miles from Wall.
I will add only that there seems like there should be more beta, but it is enough.
The canyon down is straightforward and wide to follow. And then, on the valley floor, it truly is a wonderland of out-of-this-world slot canyons.
I was there not too long after a rain, and the wet clay floor of the slot canyons meant that you had to avoid the floor.
The canyons were narrow enough in many spots for 4-limbed wall-to-wall moves.
Some canyons go to the top, some do not.
A lot of seriously awesome exploring.
Part of my reason for visiting the southwest corner of South Dakota was to see the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I had read both Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the reservation and the reoccupation of Wounded Knee, and Ian Frazier’s On the Rez, about life on the reservation.
Both books tell the human story of Pine Ridge – and it is frequently a dark tale, with abuse of alcohol and drugs, car accidents, frustration.
I hoped by visiting, I might see some sort of change going on.
I set up my tent up outside Manderson, just as the light rain outside became a downpour.
I listened to the rain in the tent for a while as I tried to fall asleep. When I woke up, it was still raining.
I had picked the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to visit, and there was not much going on.
As far as I could tell, the only thing to do was to visit Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre by the US government.
Before setting out, I had breakfast with the innkeeper, her family, and some of her German friends.
These were a few of the stories I heard:
A car crash had occurred on Saturday afternoon, while I was still in the Park, head-on, involving a third car. Four people were killed.
High school graduation had happened earlier that some morning. Most graduates were headed to Oglala Lakota College, some to Chadron State. A record setter was heading to Dartmouth, a place dear to me.
One of the people at the table worked at a local store, which had experience a run on light bulbs on pay day. Apparently they are the perfect shape for smoking meth.
This same store clerk had mentioned that a particular man had come into the store. The clerk had asked him “What’s shaking?”
“Me,” he replied.
He was looking for Pine-Sol. Unfortunately for him, the store only sold the non-alcoholic kind. I had heard of Listerine being an alcohol substitute when I worked in the Alaskan Arctic, but Pine-Sol was a new level for me.
Another clerk didn’t know that the customer was looking to get drunk, and started to suggest that they might have some more Pinesol in the back, but she was silenced by her coworker.
After breakfast, I left to visit Wounded Knee. Not much going on – just a sign, and a parking lot. The mass grave was there too, though it was a bit more effort to reach.
It was raining hard, so I waited in the car before exploring till the rain slackened. I was approached by two people, one selling earrings, the other souvenirs. I passed on both.
I got out of the car and was approached again by someone else. When I again said no to souvenirs, he asked if I would contribute a donation instead.
All I could think of was the lightbulbs. Maybe he would use it for other means, but that was all I could think of. It was probably unfair of me.
The cars lurked in the parking lot, waiting for more tourists.
I walked around Wounded Knee, but the building rain and minimal information drove me back to the car.
I decided to move on to White Clay. Just across the border from Pine Ridge it is one of the tiniest towns in Nebraska, but one of the largest beer distributors in the state (no alcohol sales are allowed on the reservation).
I pulled out of the reservation and planned to keep my eyes peeled.
Sooner than I expected, I saw a small handful of old, dilapidated houses with many Indian men hanging out front in of them. I assumed it was a Pine ridge suburb, but it must’ve been White Clay.
One of set of guys on a porch waved to me in unison and seemed excited when I waved back.
Before I knew it, I was through, and as much as I wanted to go back, it felt voyeuristic to return, much as it had to arrive.