The country at large was focused on the Super Bowl as the weekend approached, but one little winter household in the ghost town of Dos Cabezas, Arizona, could not have been less interested in sports. We were absorbed by a very different event, an everyday local occurrence out here in open range country but altogether new to us. We’d been told it would happen. We’d looked for it to happen. And at last, they came – the “cows.”
In fact, a couple of them had arrived in our front yard the night before the morning crowd assembled down in the wash. I’d gone out to the car after dark to retrieve a map from the car and heard a rustling nearby when, turning, I was surprised by a very large bovine face not 20 feet from me. Yikes! And there was another one over by the other open gate! Not that closed gates would have changed anything. There are no fences around the yard, only a couple of gates across the part of the yard used for driving in and out. Here in open range country, if you want to keep cattle off your private land, it’s your responsibility to put up the fences to exclude them.
The next day when I investigated in front of the house where the cows had been, it looked like someone – something – had been chewing on the big, fleshy leaves of an old century plant. For the moisture, perhaps? No significant rain had fallen for quite a while. In days following the cows’ visit, we had over 48 hours of rain, a slow, grey, sometimes mizzling, sometimes pounding, long-drawn-out, Michigan-style soaker, but that’s another story, and while ranchers here welcomed the rain, the cows’ visit was more interesting to someone from Michigan, to whom rain is an old, familiar story.
Given my after-dark encounter, it wasn’t a complete surprise to see big animals grazing behind the cabin the next morning. Sarah, though (always on a leash for that first and last sortie of each day, leashless for the adventures in between), was somewhat startled and thoroughly amazed. Sarah barked! Anyone who knows Sarah knows that she almost never barks. She is, however, always alert to changes in her surroundings, and this was a big one, something completely new in her experience. “Never mind,” I told her. “They belong here. You are the interloper!” But, eyes fixed on the big, strange animals nearby, she could hardly attend to her own dog business, so I took her around front, where she finally peed, and then, there at the gate where the cow had been the night before, her eager little black nose worked the ground over to a fare-thee-well. This, she was clearly thinking, is what I call news!
Although they are all called “cows” out here, most of the open range grazers are steers. They come in all breeds, colors, and sizes. Some have horns. Most seem to be very curious, almost as curious as a dog seeing them up close for the first time.
After our exciting expedition up into the nearby Chiricahuas the other day, I’d gotten from the library and read through a little nature memoir, The Chiricahua Mountains, by Weldon F. Heald. One interesting passage I read aloud to David, to fix it in our minds so that neither of us would make a terrible regional faux pas.
It’s embarrassing, if not downright impertinent, to ask a rancher how many head he runs. That’s similar to inquiring about his bank balance. This was inevitably the first question our friends put to us at the Flying H, and we would answer vaguely, “Oh, quite a few.” Then sometimes I parried the query by saying that I wore the biggest Stetson and had the smallest herd of any rancher at Harold Thurber’s annual cattle sale and barbecue.
Without reading this bit of regional etiquette advice, I wouldn’t have thought of the question in that light and might well have asked it. Saved by a book! And when the author explains, I understand the reasoning, too. In my bookstore back in northern Michigan, I’ve parried plenty of impertinently curious questions over the years. Even when merely people ask anxiously if the bookstore is “doing all right,” I’ve got my answer ready: “Over 20 years in business without a trust fund,” I tell them. “It has to pay its own way, or it wouldn’t survive.”
What question might be appropriate to put to a rancher? David wondered about asking how many acres a ranch might contain, but I thought that inquiry would be just as unwelcome. For one thing, it’s similar to asking how many cows, in that it asks, “How wealthy are you?” Besides, most ranchers don’t own more than a small fraction of the land on which they run cattle. The larger part is Bureau of Land Management land, leased by the year-- leases, however, passing down through the generations like land, which explains why ranchers usually feel the land is theirs and resent having to deal annually with the BLM.
With all this new information coming at me, including reading, with David, The Story of Dos Cabezas, by Phyllis de la Garza, and Basin and Range, by John McPhee, is it any wonder I’ve taken up a more familiar book the last few nights for my bedtime reading? But Mma Ramotswe of the Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, too, owned cattle, inherited from her father, far off in Botswana where cattle equal wealth. There is no escaping the “cows,” it seems, and that’s all right by me.