I detasseled corn for four summers growing up in Nebraska. As a thirteen-year-old kid, I walked miles of cornrows, pulling tassels I saw that had been missed by the machine puller. No matter the conditions: mud, rain, horrible humidity, scorching heat, we walked the fields from sunrise until late afternoon. The pay was good for kids my age, and the more rows we did, the more money we could make. I was miserable during so many of those days but what kept me from quitting was the relationships I made with the kids working alongside me in the field. The work became bearable. Then it even became a little fun. Soon a sense of pride developed: working hard, pushing oneself, and walking through it all with others who felt the same way. I’ve begun to feel the same pride for the Chico Basin Ranch, a kind of pride I didn’t expect.
My hands are tanned on top, and calloused underneath. The skin between my middle and ring finger is peeling from where I hold the reigns for my horse. There’s dust in my nose and dirt under my fingernails. My hair is light from the sun and my body is strong. Stronger than when I got here two and a half months ago.
Everything here has been new to me. I’ve learned how to ride a horse, how to sort and move cattle in pastures and in corrals. I am working really hard at learning how to navigate 87,000 acres of pasture. For a directionally challenged me, navigation is a challenge, especially when I envision myself getting lost alone, with a dead phone and without water. My first few weeks reached high ninety to one hundred degrees and the ranch was also in a drought. No rainfall for months. My lips were beet red and cracked from the sun. Every ride my first month left my throat dry as a bone and constantly wishing for my water bottle to have just a little more, just a few more drops.
I’ve spent full days with fencing pliers and never-ending barbed wire fence. There have been days where my butt hasn’t left the saddle in over twelve hours and days where I am completely out of patience and confidence with my horse, and discouraged on a cattle move that isn’t going as expected. There are days that when I finally jump down from my horse, I feel like I might not walk straight again. There are definitely days where my body is spent and I want to lay on the floor and not get up again. There were days, especially in my first month, that I didn’t know what the heck I just signed myself up for and how I would make it through 6 months.
I’m the photo intern at the Chico. I came to the ranch to document it and its people living the way of the west. I was so curious; I wanted to learn and understand. And I have begun to learn about cowboys and cowgirls by doing what cowboys and cowgirls do.
Along with that new sense of pride for the Chico, I’ve begun to appreciate rising early with the sun, the smell of horses, and the cool breeze on a morning trot out to move cattle. I appreciate the silence and togetherness felt when we ride out for a day of unpredictability working with animals.
I’m learning that patience is required when working with animals. Patience, raw skill, finesse, and experience in understanding the horses and cattle. Sometimes, the cattle cannot be rushed so we must move slowly on our horses to move them or they will scatter and get stressed. Sometimes, speed and focus are more important when a young steer decides to run from the herd. The tempo of each cattle move and sort always vary.
I’ve learned that the cowboys and cowgirls are veterans at entering a situation of uncertainty. They do it every single day. No fear. You cannot predict how cattle will always respond to you and what you want them to do. You cannot predict if your horse will trip or decide to buck you off if they’re spooked. You cannot predict if the cattle will work in your favor or if they’ll scatter and undo hours of work you and your team just went through to get them to a certain spot. Every day the decision is made to “do” and leave anxiety and fear behind.
I am impressed by every person who works at the Chico. The cowboys and cowgirls understand water systems between the tanks and how to fix a leak. They know how electricity runs on the fence lines and how to find a short. They know how to fix their motorbikes when something goes wrong. On top of that, they are constantly monitoring the herds of cattle, doctoring them and diagnosing the health of the land as well. I am surrounded by people who know they are capable and are determined to finish the job.
There is so much satisfaction in accomplishing a task on the ranch. I feel capable to use my own hands, my body, and my brain to problem solve. I’m used to asking for help. Working at the Chico has made me realize that I have never seen myself as physically capable because I am slender and have skinny arms. I am used to other people offering to help me lift something that is heavy or being told what I should and shouldn’t be able to do and believing it. If I think I cannot do something, usually I wouldn’t try. Out here, trying is necessary and I have been shocked at what I am actually capable of doing after trying and then trying harder, and then trying my absolute hardest. I can’t do everything and my body obviously still has limits. But I have done more than I ever believed I could.
I think back to my 2017. Days and late nights spent staring at a screen, editing this video and that gallery. I was alone in my media process and overworking myself. I worked hard and I took opportunities, but I was not happy and I did not care about what I was doing. I would go to sleep with a list of all the things I needed to still do, legs restless and mind rapidly spinning.
I am forced to slow down out here. I can’t jump from one thing to the next, and I cannot be in a hurry. The world tells us to hustle, that chaos and a busy schedule are good and productive. Here, there is room for silence, stillness, peace and freedom to just be. I am learning to not feel guilty to rest. When my head hits the pillow after a long day of riding on the prairie, I am happy to go to sleep. My mind is at ease and my body is calm. I am content with resting, for the first time in a long time.
By Avery Sass, Ranchlands photo intern. See more of Avery’s photos from our ranches on our Instagram and her personal account.