LittleField Notes: Tales from the Bozeman Trail Part 2
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
How to Stay Home
Before I continue with more tales from the Bozeman Trail, which feel decadent and trivial at the moment, I am compelled by urgency to say a few words about the current state of the world, which seems to have gotten a whole lot smaller these last few weeks. As I write these words spring is in early bloom. We have had a week of unusual brilliant March sunshine allowing me a grand opportunity for spring field work: that great pleasure of working horses in earnest and with purpose after the long dark winter. Despite the sunshine, a grey cloud hangs over the farm: the specter of the burgeoning corona virus pandemic, the first US case of which was found here in Washington state not far from the farm. The news has become more grim by the hour. The world has changed more rapidly in the last two weeks than in all my life, and by the time you read this, the state of affairs will likely be on far shakier ground yet.
I am anxious and concerned at the rapidity with which the situation is developing. Yet my head is aswim with notions of, “I told you so.” We told you so, those of us who have devoted our lives to husbandry and good farming. We told you that it was a mistake to move people off the land and concentrate them in ever greater numbers in urban areas where disease can spread like wild fire; we told you that independence and thrift and the capacity to grow food for local communities are skills necessary and fundamental to the security of a nation; we told you that something of this ilk was ripe for the happening, that not if, but when it does happen, we will be woefully unprepared; we warned you about the folly of trusting leaders whose sole concern is to kiss the royal ring of the pollsters and shareholders of short-term profit writ politique. It is the first time in human history that a pandemic has raged on every continent without regard to wealth or social status in the era of modern urbanization. There is no playbook for this. A society that has completely lost its agrarian foothold is indeed fragile, boasting a population more concentrated and less independent than at any time in history, a prescription for a pandemic.
I gratefully wake each day knowing that I do not have to go to town, do not need Amazon to drive groceries to me, that I am not facing days and weeks, if not months of tedious boredom confined to a sixth story apartment surrounded by shuttered schools and restaurants – unable to go out, unable to work, unable to live the life I’m accustomed to. Instead my days haven’t changed that much, except that they are filled with more intention and purpose than ever. This business of living off the land has never felt more urgent, more real, less theoretical.
How to describe what I feel right now? Enormously grateful for my rich life of family and farm to be sure, yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say too, that I feel scared, pinched, nervous, like in a nightmare between waking and sleeping, except the waking part — where you realize with relief that it was all a dream — never comes. Despite the nagging worry and fear, I feel strangely content about not going out, not driving around doing things, buying stuff and fulfilling social obligations. I have an odd sense of peace à cause de the simple fact that I’m staying home, on the farm. No one is asking me to do something I would rather not do, or go someplace I would rather not go, or to buy something I really don’t need. I have no need to make my excuses, no need to feel conflicted, weighing this option or that, whether to go or stay; no need to fudge facts, or feign business or illness in order to stay home. I’m simply staying put, doing my work, planting my seeds, cutting my wood. And so should we all.
Tales From The Bozeman Trail Part 2
They say nostalgia kills. But I don’t for a moment believe it. Nostalgia is story, remembrance, the past cloaked in a warm fuzzy warmth, and what is ours to keep if not our story? And is it a problem if we color our story rose and dwell there from time to time? The truth is, most stories from most days for most people are mostly forgettable. Mine included. We all have a few though, that stick, that are tarred and feathered with the stuff of adventure, heroism, tom-foolery, tragedy, sadness, loss, heartbreak. And these few are worth savoring from time to time. These tales from one summer of my youth are true, insomuch as any tale can be “true” 30 years on. They took place in another time and involved a young man who was much like me, though that young man is no longer young and has been changed by the passage of time. He is still recognizable perhaps, but worn now, like a stone on the strand of the sea, smoother and less rough around the edges, yet ever diminishing until nothing will remain but sand.
How to Come Full-Circle
Turns out, in order that the Bozeman Trail Wagon Train might give its first “wagons ho” there was an awful lot of work to do before the arrival of the first guests in two weeks time. There were wagons to finish restoring, rented saddle horses to haul up from Idaho, a hitching rail to build, harness to fix and overland routes to establish, most of which would cross through private ranch lands. Despite what seemed to me to be an overwhelming array of work to accomplish, the crew was flying high on their idealized vision of the summer-to-come: a string of wagons crossing the prairie, dust rising up behind; red tailed hawks circling above; evenings and the crackle of the campfire, bottle of rye making its rounds, the yodel of a Jimmie Rodgers song in tune with the coyote’s howl; mornings with cowboy coffee washing down bacon, eggs and grits, all against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful western country one could lay eyes on. I was as eager as anyone to be out on the trail, but as I wandered slowly through the back yard looking at the state of things, I couldn’t help but scratch my head and wonder, it sure didn’t look like a wagon train yet.
As I sipped a hot cup of strong black coffee and listened to the excited chatter in the living room that first morning my eyes traversed the room taking in the details. My gaze fell upon an unusually large, brown, interesting looking magazine on the desk in the corner. I strolled over and picked it up. It was none other than the Small Farmer’s Journal. I thumbed through it and was astounded. Here were pages filled with people farming with horses! It was a snap-shot into a world that I did not know existed. How could I know then that the adventure I was about to commence would come full-circle and find its way back into those same pages some 30 years on. Owing to my youth and the general busyness of those days, I don’t believe I actually read much of that issue, but just the knowledge that it existed changed my life forever.
How to Build a Hitching Rail
The route the historic Bozeman trail took in the 1860’s today crosses through mostly private lands. As such, the business of finding a route and procuring consent from landowners was no small task. Fortunately this was left mostly to Jim, and I didn’t concern myself too much with it. He set me right away to building a hitching rail which, lacking a barn, was necessary if we were to have a place to harness teams. The horses all had to be fitted for harness, driven, tuned up, and safety checked before the arrival of any guests. After lunch and in high spirits I started in on my first real work, digging post holes for the hitching rail. Jim wanted each hole 3 feet deep and I was working like a good Kentucky mule trying to prove my worth, when I sensed that I was being watched. I plunged the post hole diggers into the deepening hole, rested my weight on the handles and looked over my shoulder. Bill Collins was watching me, pipe hanging from between his teeth, twinkle in his eye. The fire in his pipe had gone out, but he didn’t seem to have noticed.
“I like the way you are working,” he said, “I’m just gonna have a set on this here bucket; maybe sprinkle a little advice here and there. ’Course free advice is only worth what you pay for it.” He chuckled a long warm chuckle at his own wit, took a worn matchbook out of his pocket, and relighting the pipe with the last match, drew deeply, and began immediately to cough, a deep trembling richter-scale kind of cough. He didn’t miss a beat though, and speaking hoarsely right on through the coughing said, “The doc says I have a bad heart — and that I should quit smoking — said I had to — or it was going to kill me. But I tell you, that’s just one thing I won’t never do — quit smoking — and I told him so. You know, if you leave them clamshells open and pound up and down while twisting circlewise around that hole it will loosen up more of that dirt and you can pull out a bunch more in one go….yep, that’s it.” The coughing subsided and he paused for a few moments staring intently at the ground, his mind for the moment apparently on something other than post holes. I continued to dig, though stones now began to slow my progress. As I reached for the rock bar, he said almost dreamily, “You ever seen 12 ponies strung out two-by-two, stepping out smartly, pretty as you please, just ahead of the marching band on the Fourth of July?” I said I had not, but that I sure would like to. ”Well the wife, she sold ’em, ever last one.” He went silent again. I lay down on the ground and reached my arm down into the deep hole to pull out the big rock I had just loosened. When I straightened up from the hole I saw that he was staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. Presently his eyes began to moisten. Collecting himself, he looked back at me, cleared his throat and said, “Well then…I think I have some pictures over in the trailer. You’ve earned a break.”
He led me over to his travel trailer parked on the east side of the lot behind the house. We went in and he rummaged around and found a small cardboard box with some photographs from home. He didn’t open the box right away, but instead set it on the table and reached up on the shelf behind him and pulled down a bottle of cheap Canadian whiskey. With a soft pop, he pulled the cork and offered me a sip, which I declined, it being early and having yet one more post hole to dig. He took a deep drought from the bottle, set it on the table next to the box without replacing the cork, and began to tell me about home: his little place down in south-eastern Colorado, his grown kids, his wife, and of course, his beloved ponies. He was really going to work on that bottle when I begged off on account of work to be done. His words were starting to slur when he said I was a good young man and sent me on my way.
I spent the rest of the day setting my posts and working on attaching the log crossbar with iron bands. As afternoon wore its way into evening, and after I had put away my tools for the day, I wandered in the direction of Bill’s trailer to see what he might be about. I hadn’t seen him for the rest of the afternoon and thought maybe Jim had sent him off on some errand. As I walked up to his trailer lost in my own thoughts I was jerked back to reality by the site of a crumpled body lying on the ground next to an overturned bucket. It was Bill, his right arm splayed out to one side, empty bottle a few inches off. He must have been sitting on the bucket when he involuntarily crossed that blurred line between waking and dreaming. I was relieved to see that he was breathing, chest rising and falling. Despite my initial fears and his doctor’s warning, it looked as if he would yet live to see another sunrise.
It was the first time in my life I had seen a grown man drink himself into a drunken coma in the middle of the afternoon. And as I reflect on it now, I don’t believe I’ve seen it since.
How to Rebuild a Wagon Brake
Jim announced a couple of days after my arrival that he was leaving for Idaho to pick up a load of rented saddle horses from a big time horse trader down that way. “I’ve got a little job for you while I’m away,” he said. He led me out into the backyard to an old farm box wagon about halfway rebuilt. “You can help Bill set these rivets in the box sides, and after, go ahead and rebuild the brake. I’ll be back in a few days.” I opened my mouth to ask the first of a dozen or so questions which immediately flooded my mind, but he had already turned away, walking off to attend to some other urgent necessity.
The following morning Bill and I finished planking up the wagon box, him showing me how to rivet wood planks to the iron box straps. It was pleasant work. I enjoyed the learning: how one sets a rivet by supporting one end with a hammer head in an inert fashion while at the same time pounding with the ball peen hammer on the other side, flaring the rivet and sealing the plank against the iron, a different thing altogether than using bolts, nuts and washers. I was taken by the authenticity of the work. It was real old-timey, and I loved it. We finished in a couple of hours and Bill left me to my brake while he and John drove the big Belgians, Dick and Dan down the county road to fetch a load of hay.
I climbed off the wagon box and contemplated the pile of rusted iron and rotten wood that had once served as the brake for the wagon. I had never seen such an apparatus in use, had certainly never rebuilt one, and my tool using skills at that time were, you might say, in a state of development. I stood there completely alone while the rest of the crew was off someplace else, presumably doing something equally important. I was left utterly alone to render this old farm wagon, soon to be full of paying guests, safe and stoppable, or at least – slowable, these brakes being designed to hold back loads on hills, not stop runaway horses.
What could I do but roll up my sleeves and go to work. I sweated, sawed, cussed, cut, drilled, planed, made-the-whole-thing-backwards, cussed-some-more, started over again — this time getting it right — or at least more right; tacked pads made from old tires on oak brake shoes, connected iron to iron, wood to wood, iron to wood, rubber to wood. There wasn’t much to it really, you just took the rub block, brake shoe, bottom brake bar, brake hanger, brake hook, link support, brake bar clip, top brake bar, brake lever, brake ratchet, brake connecting rod and put all the right pieces in exactly the right order with precisely the right adjustment and voilà! …the break worked itself.
I believe I may have felt a bit sorry for myself at some point during this project, out there struggling mostly alone for the better part of three days, with nothing but a few stray comments from passersby, odd words of encouragement or helpful hints occasionally cast down like a bone to a stray dog.
Despite my cussing and anguish and self-doubt during the project, I sure enjoyed the feeling, later in the summer, of sitting high on the wagon seat, easing a team down a hill, pushing the brake lever forward with my foot and feeling the brake engage the back wheels, the load easing off the horses. A tiny private smile of satisfaction would creep across my face as I felt the wagon and team working together just so.
How to Saddle a Horse
When you saddle a horse, fasten the front cinch first and if you have one, the back cinch after. When you unsaddle a horse do the reverse: undo the back cinch first, and then the front. It’s a rule that shall not be violated. The front cinch is the one that does the work, the one that securely cinched around the horse’s belly. The back cinch need not be tightened as much as the front. It’s purpose is to hold the back part of the saddle down should you need to rope a calf or a steer, or drag a small log by taking a dally or two on the saddle horn. The back cinch serves to hold the aft part of the saddle down when pressure is applied on the horn upfront.
Let me now introduce Jane. She was Jim’s girlfriend at the time. My memories of her are not so vivid as some of the others. She was rather plain, with short brown hair. She was neither tall nor short, neither fat nor thin, neither very funny nor very serious. In her quiet way she worked as hard as any of the fellows, and harder than some. Mostly my memories of her are rather vague with the exception of the night her saddle horse rampaged through town.
She owned a beautiful paint quarter horse gelding named Squire. He was a well-built solid animal, and though I only ever saw him work under saddle, I always thought he would look handsome in a fancy spotted harness pulling a buggy.
We were putting the horses through the paces before the guests came, and one evening after supper Jane saddled up Squire and took him for a ride along the Burlington Northern tracks out on the edge of town. It was a beautiful warm evening and when she returned just at dusk Bill met her at the hitching rail. He took young Squire in hand as Jane dismounted and said with a far off look, “Did you ever see such a beautiful evening?” and then louder, “Did you ever SEE such splendor? I suppose I could almost be persuaded to believe that the good Lord hisself had a hand in that sunset. Painted it up with oil on canvas, did he.” He was fairly well drunk as usual, and carried on in this vein while Jane began unsaddling. First she undid the throat-latch, slipped the bridle off and hung it over the horn. She then proceeded to undo the latigo and let the front cinch fall. She was looking across Squire’s withers smiling at Bill in a warm kind of way as he waxed poetic about sunsets and the glory of nature in general, when suddenly, as a horse is want to do, Squire took a step sideways and bumped Bill who, being already unsteady, reached up instinctively and grabbed the saddle horn. Lacking proper moorings, it provided no stability for the teetering Bill. The saddle turned under the belly of the horse and Bill fell to the ground. It was at this moment that Jane realized she had neglected to follow the first rule of unsaddling: back cinch first. Squire was gone, running and bucking like a saddle bronc at the Calgary Stampede, except this was maybe more entertaining because instead of predictably racing around a groomed arena, Squire was charging up and down the streets of Reed Point, Montana. We feebly raced after him, but all we really managed to do was stand and watch as he raced around that little town. He was on a real tear. It felt like all eternity, but it was probably just a couple of minutes before he had completely destroyed the saddle. It flew off and lay in the middle of a side street. Freed of the terrifying, flopping, flogging burden under his belly he trotted right back to the house and stood there heaving like he had just run the Preakness. Fortunately he was unhurt. Her saddle though, was not so lucky. It had taken a real beating, but even that was nothing compared to the damage done to Jane’s pride. She now had to go back into the man’s world of the Bozeman Trail corporate headquarters and face the murmuring, the comments, the open criticisms and the “I told you so’s.”
Back in the house I stood silently to one side and listened. I raised a finger and opened my mouth to speak in her defense, but no words came. I was young and new and held no sway, could boast no authority. I couldn’t push past the swirl and power of the emotion of all those older men in the house that evening. Yes, she had neglected to unfasten the back cinch first and yet, had Bill not steadied his tipsy self on the horn, chances are she would have quickly realized her error and the beautiful evening would have ended the way it started. Instead, what ensued was a small tragedy played out on a small stage in a small town long ago, which, after all these years sure makes a better story than if she had remembered to undo the back cinch first.
End Part 2