Mario, a friend I made this weekend, is an artist who came to the MP Ranch to build a tile mosaic into which he incorporated the element of chaos that he saw in life here at the ranch. Interestingly, I’m a big fan of chaos. I love trying to make sense of things that are halfway (seemingly) out of control. It is the engine that propels life forward.
The best example are our brandings. I described their nature to him: that in between the ebb and flow and waves and undulations of chaotic motion and action, there was an order, perhaps even a refined order brought about through the combined effort, focus, and fun of all the people working together as one entity.
Fortuitously, Ranchlands was gathering at the MP on the following Monday to brand all the calves at the ranch. And Mario was super excited to be there and see it.
Sunday afternoon, crews begin arriving from the other ranches. We had been busy preparing for a while. All together with neighbors, the ranch owner and her family, two Australians, and Mario, we’ll have 25 people. That means organizing enough horses, branding gear, drinking water, wood for a fire to heat brands for 400 calves, and a myriad of other things.
The day is hot. Trucks begin arriving mid afternoon, thick clouds of dust rising high behind them as they fly down the county road toward us. People are glad to get out of their trucks. We have cold water and beer on ice waiting and a meal under way. Everything is ready down to the last item on our list. I greet each group as they pull up one by one throughout the afternoon and guide them to the area we have picked out for them to pitch their tent.
We have chairs in the yard where everyone gathers, waiting for the last arrivals. The conversation is lively, people catching up, new people becoming acquainted. Finally Jake and Tate arrive and we serve dinner under the elm tree. In the dark afterwards as we are heading to bed, I announce a 4:00 am breakfast of coffee and burritos, trucks to be rolling across the cattle guard with horses on board at 4:30. We have the branding gear, trailers, water and wood loaded. All that remains are the coolers with ice and medicine and drinks, which we have planned to load in the morning. You can cut the quiet with a knife as people stand listening, thinking about 3:30 am and the day ahead.
Right on time the next morning, we cross the cattle guard into the horse trap, everyone loaded, horses and all, with burritos in hand. There is a faint smudge of light cutting the edge of the horizon to the east. As we move deeper into the ranch, the light grows ever so slowly.
Finally, we arrive at the Jarrott well, where the cattle are in a small trap. We can barely make out the shapes of the trees as we jump the horses out of the trailers and mount them to ride out to the trap where the herd had been gathered the day before. We gather the herd into the holding pen in no time, where we build a fire for the brands, readying the rest of the gear. Ground jobs are assigned, and the first team of horsemen grab their horses, tighten their cinches, loosen their ropes and stand waiting for the signal.
Right as the sun peeps over the juniper trees, the first calf is caught and brought to the fire. Everyone springs to action, the flankers grab the calf and wrestle it it to the ground where others come to brand, vaccinate, earmark, and dehorn. Then another calf is brought in, and another and another until there are three or four being held down at one time, scattered around the fire in a semi-circle. People are walking–half-running–from one calf to another and back to the fire, dodging ropes, calves sometimes getting away almost running over a team holding another calf, horses coming in with more calves, horses going back to get another one, smoke rising, dust, the fire big and bright against the barely lit sky.
People are not saying anything other than what is necessary, intent on the job. The morning grows and the flow of work smooths out as a groove is established. Soon the sun is higher in the sky with a steady stream of calves coming in and returning to the herd. This is when I notice a change. Someone laughing. A comment here and there. Then, “Hey! Great job!” The chatter becomes louder and more incessant but the same speed. The same everything happening at once continues. There is a subtle shift, a new feeling: a jovial atmosphere rising up from the dust and movement and fun of working seamlessly together. Now well into the branding time of year, seasoned hands have come together, working like a perfectly-timed machine.
Then, it’s over. 8:15. It must be a record. A bunch of people arrive just as we are finishing the last ones and laugh when we tell them we are done, thinking we are joking. Neighbors, Molly and family, Mario. Don’t worry, we tell them, there’s another group to do. We begin putting things away, pulling the irons out of the fire to cool, burying the coals, everyone talking at once, loading horses. Then off we go to the Grumble Trap, deeper into the ranch, about 6 miles away, where the next group is waiting.
The day has grown hot as we begin and now that we have more people, the pace is ferocious, with sometimes 6 or 7 calves on the ground at one time. I come within an inch of getting the side of my face skinned off from a calf’s hind leg reaching for me. At one point, I look back at Henry, one of the Aussies, who is holding the back end of the calf I’m on. He smiles wide, panting. White teeth shine through his dark, dirt-caked face. His shirt is wet with sweat. “I’ve never had so much fun, mate,” he says. He’s gleaming. Never having done this before, he and Simon have become an impressive team at handling the calves.
Mario is with us now and during one of the small breaks, I walk up to him. He gives me a knowing smile and I nod. “This is amazing,” he says, slowly shaking his head. We huddle together for a few moments. The scene is like a beehive, people, horses, calves going all directions at the same time; yet, a steady stream of perfectly branded calves are returning to their mothers who are waiting just outside the circle of work. It’s 12:30, and we’re finished – again in record time. We turn the herd out.
The bean tacos with fresh onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, and tortillas heated on the fire coals are our traditional meal and a welcome respite from the day, as is the wide shade of the juniper tree everyone is under. I say to Mario, “How amazing, no? We go from total chaos to so simple,” pointing at the bean taco I’m holding. He looks back at me, turning it over in his mind. He gets it. After lounging, drinking cold beer, talking, and resting for a couple of hours, we load up and head home.
That evening, we have prepared watermelon salad with mint and red onion, a red cabbage and anise coleslaw, hot tortillas, grilled fajita meat with garlic and salt, fresh tomato salsa, and key lime pie. It is how we show our appreciation to our friends and fellow workers, who have come all this way to spend time together and help us brand.
We have spent the afternoon under the long porch huddled tight together with rain falling, eating guacamole, chips and salsa, re-hydrating and having a few beers. Henry played the guitar and has us in tears laughing with impromptu songs. That the rain has come after the morning of branding is amazing and a true gift. It accentuates the feeling we all share of the branding being one of the best ever. The next morning after a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, salsa, and tortillas, trucks roll out the front gate, heading back to their respective ranches. The spring season is behind us, and the summer season is ahead.