Lessons from a cattle drive

I was headed to the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming at the recommendation of my friend, DeAnne ( from my post “Charleston-Part Two” ). I stopped for gas in the last tiny town before heading into the back woods and the man next to me in his truck asked me what part of Washington I was from. We got to chatting as we filled our tanks and I told him where I was heading and he said I HAD to make a quick detour to see Big Horn Canyon. Finding these tidbits of advice always worthwhile, I veered off my planned route.

The National Park Service touts Big Horn Canyon as “A landscape of sheer cliffs towering 1,000 feet above a ribbon of blue water. World class fishing and a place where wild horses still run free.” I followed the paved road to the end, seeing the beautiful canyons and red and white cliffs, but not the wild horses or the big horn sheep the park was named after.

A bit discouraged I turned the car around and there before me were two wild horses walking up the road. I was SO EXCITED! I love horses, my daughters were riders and we had ponies and thoroughbreds for them to grow up with, but I have never seen them wild. What a thrill to come across these guys swishing their way up the road.

I followed them for 10 minutes and then passed them and parked and got out and waited for them to approach. They had no fear and if I had a carrot or apple I think they would have come over to say hi. As it was, they walked by about 5 feet away, annoyed with the flies that were biting them, and ignoring me. It was then my turn to follow them and I happily played this little game of tag for 20 minutes. And NO ONE else was around, I had them all to myself!

I finally pulled myself away from Bert and Ernie (I named them) and drove out of the park elated that I had taken such a wonderful side-trip at the suggestion of a passing stranger.

I arrived an hour later to a gravel access road leading to Medicine Wheel, a sacred Native American site whose origin is mysterious, as well as its purpose. Created somewhere around 1200-1700AD it is a spot on the top of a mountain, revered by the native tribes and might have been used for vision quests. “The ceremony of the Vision Quest is one of the most universal and ancient means to find spiritual guidance and purpose. A Vision Quest can provide deep understanding of one’s life purpose,” which I found rather appropriate for me. The walk to the “wheel” was a mile and a half and I found it a good time to prepare for my spiritual visitation.

It was a wind-swept, barren place with killer views or would be on a day when forest fires aren’t filling the skies with smoke. As I approached the limestone rocks on the ground in a circular shape with spokes emanating from the center like that of a wheel, I heard moo’s and saw a large herd of cattle up ahead. I decided to skirt by the wheel and head for the cattle and see what was happening.

I stopped and talked to a few cowboys pulling a horse trailer and they said to just wait and the 300 head of cattle would be passing right by me on their way down the road. I was in the middle of a cattle drive! The cattle bellowed, moaned and made such a loud  racket, and the young ones liked to pose for photos and stare at me. They were darling, much cuter than the 5 cowboys following on horseback with hups whistles and clucks to keep them moving. A few dogs were running around intent on helping in any way they could. I watched them all go by me, feeling part of the herd and listened to their calls and bawling as they wound down the hill. It was a slow process, they weren’t hurried, just meandering their way along the road.

I went to the wheel and made my pilgrimage around it counter-clockwise which I found out later is significant for certain tribes. Pieces of fabric, sticks, or dream catchers were tied onto the surrounding fence and I did my best to glean understanding from all the stones littered on the ground.

In the meantime, the bellowing continued from the cattle in the distance and I looked out and saw them moving along the road far, far away. Then all of a sudden the ones in the front were veering off the road, heading cross-country, the rest of the herd following, and I was mesmerized wondering why they would leave a perfectly nice, graded, level, gravel road and take to the steep, rugged hill that was rocky and difficult. Immediately I was struck by the similarities in my life. Why do I go off course, taking the difficult path when the wide-open easy path sits right in front of me?

Cattle, black specks on the distant road

I saw the cowboys as black dots in the distance circle around to the front to keep the cattle from straying and set them back on the road. The dogs were doing their part too getting the wanderers back on track. I probably watched those black specks and mused on this for 20 minutes, all the while my back was to the Medicine Wheel. I sat on a rock and journaled, pondering why they bellowed, fear of the unknown? Separation anxiety? It all related to my life. I can bellow all I like to my friends, but I need to trust the obvious, easy way. God, the Universe, or whatever you like to call the higher power that works like a Cowboy in the Sky, has set a path for me to follow, it is right there in front of my bellowing snout.

I gazed on the lovely views for another half hour or so until the cattle were long gone. I started the walk back and 15 minutes down the way I could see four horses in the road, without their riders, and a tiny black speck 75 feet straight down off the road in the rocks. The closer I got the more I could see it was a young steer surrounded by four cowboys. I panicked as I felt a deep connection to this black youth that had wandered off and was now lifeless at the bottom of a cliff. Was this my lesson of what can happen when we stray off the path? I hurried up the road, not wanting to see, but needing to see, and determined that my spirit of life would somehow help this little lost steer, and worried sick that maybe I was too late.

When I arrived breathless to the edge and looked down, I saw that there was life in him, but he was wedged in these huge rocks and the 4 cowboys were trying to free him with ropes. It was awful to watch, he was too big and heavy to move and I thought maybe he had broken a leg or something. My stomach was in knots, expecting them to pull out a gun and shoot him in the head any minute. But they kept tugging and pulling and saying things like “if we don’t get him out of here, he’ll be dead by midnight.”

I am extremely soft-hearted and tears were filling the corners of my eyes. My fate was intertwined with this young bovine. I considered him my own, part of my lesson that I had just been writing about, my fault somehow, if he didn’t survive. Eventually they ended up rolling the poor guy over and over like a Jack and Jill down the hill, his straight, stiff legs of no use, trying to get him to less rocky and flatter ground. At one point they lost hold of him and off he rolled pell-mell on the sharp jagged rocks, and I cried out not able to look. I thought for sure he was dead.

Now I realize this is all ridiculous on the surface, the poor steer was probably on his way to market anyway and would be minced into hamburger, but it was oh so important that he survive this for me, today, for now.

While all this was going on I was helping to hold the horses on the road above, finding comfort in their smells and snuffles. Miracle of miracles my young steer actually started showing signs of life! He got up and took a few steps and collapsed again. This went on for at least an hour, the cowboys getting him to inch along toward the road.

The boss rancher came along later with a horse trailer and seemed unconcerned. He said that “He probably had pneumonia, a few of them did and it made them too exhausted to continue.” So they just had to coax, and let him rest, and coax him along some more. All in a day’s work.

This was taking a LONG time and they had only gotten him a third of the way to the road. I regret that I decided to leave at this point. I still had a long drive ahead of me through the mountains and it was coming on 5pm and there was nothing more I could do but lend moral support. But I wish I had waited and touched the dear little steer that went through such trauma. At least I knew he was going to make it, they were not going to shoot him and put him out of his misery like in an old western movie. I think if I saw a gun come out I would have dramatically scrambled down that hill and thrown my body on the barely breathing carcass.

I ascended 9,642 feet to this sacred, Native American site. I was open to receiving wisdom from the spirits that created the wheel, and what did I get, but a huge lesson from their tribal enemies, ranchers! Somehow this seems ridiculous, but I can imagine the spirit of the Medicine Man chuckling at his little joke for my vision quest.

As I continued my drive through the Big Horn Mountains, seeing 2 huge moose along the way, I vowed to follow the easy path that was set before my feet and not go trudging  off cross-country. Seeing where the path is going is not important. I’ll keep my shiny wet nose pointed straight ahead, stopping only to smile at the camera.

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6 thoughts on “Lessons from a cattle drive

  1. Lori- I’m thrilled that your journey & blog will continue! Lucky us that we get to go along with you vicariously as your adventures continue. My daughter asked me today (she’s 7 years old) “Mom, should you have married a cowboy?” This came quite out of the blue and being that I’m married to her father, it is funny, but I expect the unexpected from my kiddos at this point. I’ve been cranking the country tunes lately, but found your post a funny coincidence. God Bless the cowboys! And the cows! 🙂

  2. So strange that I just stumbled across your blog via Freshly Pressed and now find myself on this post – I called the Big Horn Mountains my home for 2011-2012. Thank you for the little peek back at the big skies and ranch life I am growing to miss!

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