Welcome To My Blog!!!
Blogging is new to me and this is my first attempt at it. I’m not certain that anyone will ever read this, but it’s a way to keep a kind of diary of this experience… perhaps as a lesson for others. If you DO happen across this site, please drop me a line to let me know… at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A bit of my background (for context): I’m 62 years old, which put me in college in college in the early 1970’s when environmental awareness (and conscience) was enjoying one of its periodic surges in popularity. This seems to ebb and flow from time to time…. but we were the hippie “boom-let” who became politically aware with the killing of 4 students on the campus of Kent State University (listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash sing “4 dead in O-HI-O”).
I attended a small, New England liberal arts school (Hobart College in upstate (Geneva) New York) and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology. I entered college intending to be an English/Philosophy and did quite well my first two years until I became disenchanted with the subjectivity of grading these subjects… although I was a frequent beneficiary of this subjectivity because of my talent as a wordsmith and my penchant for verse. After getting a “B” in a class where I had earned (been given?) “A” grades on the first 5 of 6 required papers, I decided to pursue a field of study where the grading was more objective. Anyway, I had grown up with many pets and had always found the life sciences fascinating.
Actually, I was writing the papers the night before they were due, frequently staying up all night to do so… and other students were taking weeks to write theirs and consistently getting B’s and C’s (which didn’t seem fair at all to me). The day the last paper was due I miscalculated the time required to write it and was still collating the pages when I walked into class. The professor watched me doing so and realized how little effort I’d been investing in his class (the gig was up!) so he gave me a “B”… and I became a scientist.
I had no interest in following my fellow BS-Biology majors to medical school. A happy, outdoors fellow from an affluent suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I didn’t want to work with sick (aka “grumpy”) people, and certainly didn’t want to spend my life in a hospital… But I did (do) like animals, and so decided to apply to grad school and become a veterinarian.
At that time was it was far easier to get into medical school than vet school… of which, as I recall, there were only 16 in the nation. Even the University of Wisconsin (“America’s Dairyland”) didn’t have a vet school. Rather, Wisconsin had an agreement with Minnesota to accept a small number (fewer than 20) annually into their vet school. I was an OK student, but certainly not among the top 20 candidates in the state.
So I decided to study “animal husbandry” (ranching) which I thought would satisfy my desire to work with animals and live an active outdoors life…. Anyway, all my hero/role models growing up were cowboys; Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel (Pallidan), Bonanza, Sky King, etc.
My mother (whom I adored) and furniture-store owner/step-father (who I did not) had just built their retirement home in Jamaica where their neighbors had a ranch in Montana and were looking for someone to “ranch-sit” while they played the polo circuit for 6-weeks. I agreed to do it, because I had peaked in my post-college (taxi driver/bar-tender/Disco DJ) jobs in Milwaukee, although I was going to miss living at home, and hanging out with Robert Segel (my oldest friend and neighbor from age 14) and his girlfriend, Janet Simonds.
Still, I figured it was a unique opportunity and it would show me if the rancher’s life was what I really wanted. So came spring I loaded up my 1974 Pontiac LeMans (with a cassette deck in the glove box and 3-speed manual transmission) and headed off for the 800 acre Hanging Tree Ranch near Boyd, Montana [“Big Sky Country”] … (fabled home of the syndicated cowboy cartoon character Rick O’Shay)… 50 miles north of Yosemite National Park and 50 miles south of Billings.
Montana is breathtakingly beautiful and wild… and the Hanging Tree Ranch is in the middle of nowhere. 300 head of cattle, 20+ horses, and a pregnant German Shepherd were my only companions… Not a lot to do for a twenty-something. The owners gave ma a three-day indoctrination and then loaded up 6 polo ponies and drove away… Every morning I had to move irrigation pipe across a soggy hay field and be breakfast for the largest mosquitoes I’d ever seen (even in Wisconsin!), then wait to feed the Shepard dinner. 6 weeks went by uneventfully, except the Shepard had her puppies… which was the highlight of my stay on the Hanging Tree Ranch.
When the owners returned, they had no more use for me,… but said their neighbor up the valley was interested in having a ranch hand. So I moved up the valley to the 3,000 acre Spear O Ranch which had 800+/- head of cattle and an indeterminate number of horses because, on such vast acreage, one could never be certain of who was where. We would wrangle horses in the morning for mounting and working that day, and then ride pastures trying to move the cattle from low winter pastures up to the higher pastures for summer… often finding animals who were not supposed to be there. The family was land-rich/dirt-poor and had one son (a 12 year old who drove the truck and introduced me – to my spitting dismay – to chewing tobacco) and needed help. They fed themselves like they fed their animals… the same meals most days with never an opportunity for a second helping. I slept in the bunk house… which hadn’t been occupied in years and was infested with ladybugs… and, when there was no chore requiring my participation, I walked the 6 miles of fencing with a shovel, tamping bar, and fence pliers turning over and re-burying fence posts which had rotten off their bases then re-using the horseshoe nails to attach the barbed wire. It was a thankless job as, much like painting the golden gate bridge, as soon as you reached the end (which I never did) you started over. But it built up huge muscles, as hard as rock and, combined with the spartan diet, established a level of fitness which, untended, has lasted for most of my adult life.
Though the family was cordial to me, they kept their distance thinking (I suspect) that I must be deranged to want to live the life of a ranch hand in modern america. They paid me room and board plus 5 dollars per week, which I had them pay me in silver dollar coins. I worked 6 days each week, and had Sundays off. It was so lonely that, one Saturday night, I put ten silver dollars in my jeans and drove the 50+ miles into Billings to sit in a bar and find someone to talk to.
Montana only had a population of 500,000 people in the entire vast state and so they had never posted a speed limit on their highways until threatened with losing their Federal Highway allocation if they didn’t post 55 miles per hour. As the lawmakers couldn’t afford to lose this funding, they reluctantly passed legislation providing for a 55 miles per hour speed limit but simultaneously enacted a law that anyone caught exceeding the speed limit was subject to a $5.00 fine payable on the spot to the arresting officer.
So I was driving into Billings at about 100 miles per hour when I passed the policeman stopped along the highway. He stopped me and asked me to get into the back of his squad car, where we spent the next hour chatting (I’m not sure who was more lonely) before I paid him 5 silver dollars. He new the owners of the Hanging Tree Ranch, and of the Spear O Ranch… and he admonished me to slow down because I was approaching Billings although we were at least 35 miles away). Then he “burned rubber” as he took off down the highway…. which ended my only encounter with Montana law.
Winter came, and I came to understand why Montana has the highest incidence of alcoholism in the nation. Other then throw the occasional bale of hay or salt block out to the animals, there is nothing to do… so people drink. I didn’t want this to be my fate, so I loaded up my car and returned to Milwaukee…. to take a job as a bartender where I could talk to people all day and my most strenuous task was washing glassware…. before becoming a disco disk-jockey and heading off to grad school.