In 1980 I was laboring in southern Idaho for the Bureau of Land Management, doing hot, dusty work that belied the local name for the Snake River bottomlands: the Magic Valley. My job was to look for grass, find how much was there and report to my superiors. Then they could determine whether or not too many cattle were grazing on public land.
continually told me there was more grass out there than when daddy
or granddaddy first settled up and improved on the land. Improved
is slang, not for any improvements the land might appreciate but
for putting up buildings, fences, corrals and water ditches. In
this way wild land is made better as a wild horse is made better by
Some ranchers told me they had
photos to prove their claims, though they were never able to find
any pictures when I was around. If there was more grass now than
previously, then all there could have been in those early days was
rocks, rocks and sagebrush. Normally, all I could find was a small
patch of needlegrass or crested wheatgrass (an exotic, planted
grass from the Russian steppe) growing up through the sage where
the probing bovine muzzles couldn't reach.
routinely recommended cutting grazing permits; the Bureau of Large
Mistakes routinely upped or maintained the number of permissible
grazers. Cutting the number of cow-calf units, I was told, was
equivalent to cutting the rancher's throat.
accomplish my work, I was given a set of aerial photos, USGS
topographical maps (15-foot quads), clipboard, U.S. Government
Skilcraft pencil, data sheets and a four-wheel-drive Ford or
In the 4WD Ford or Chevy truck
I drove around southern Idaho in my quest for grass. At the end of
the day I would return home with sore arms and shoulders from
clutching the steering wheel as I bounced over rocks, ruts and
"roads." Every evening I needed a wedge to unclench my teeth. I
never understood the mentality that classified off-road driving as
Part of my inventory area consisted
of lava buttes dissected by ephemeral streams. To get on top of the
buttes required driving up the stream course to where the road
ended. From there, I would pack my clipboard, pencil and data
sheets, along with lunch and canteen, and start to
The climbing was never difficult, but
it could be dangerous. It was basic bouldering except the lava
blocks were big, most had sharp edges and some were loose. All were
hot from the 100" degree afternoon sun. I wore out gloves and boots
that season - all ripped to shreds.
fallen or slipped I wouldn't have been missed until Friday when I
didn't show up at the office. No one would bother looking for me
until Monday, the next working day, so I tended to be
Climbing can be fun under the
right conditions, but in Idaho I never had the luxury. It's always
hot, and shade is uncommon in the lower elevations of the Magic
Valley. It is called that, I think, because it casts a spell upon
all who live there. It takes a hex to live through the heat of
summer and then suffer the frigid winters.
evening I'd freeze a couple of liter-bottles of water. By 9 a.m.
they were thawed; by 10 they were warm. On particularly warm days I
took long lunches and dozed in the shadow of my truck, waiting for
the sun to drop a little towards the horizon. It was too warm to
read and too hot to get good data. Or care. I'd get home every
evening as the sun was disappearing.
afternoon when I climbed a butte in search of grass, it was
uniquely warm and the climb was correspondingly higher and longer.
Sweat dripped and ran down to the tip of my nose and took off like
a ski jumper to splash on the thirsty ground. The rocks seemed
sharper, blacker and looser the higher I got. And the farther up I
went, the greater became my irritation with the whole process.
Reaching the top of the buttes was always like
climbing over a fence. I swung my leg over the edge and pulled my
body up and over. I ended up lying face down on the rough rock.
There I caught my breath and waited for what little breeze might
come up to cool me off.
I dozed, then felt a
warm, dog-like breath on my ear. Now, who would bring their mutt up
here? Opening my eyes, and turning my face, I was eyeball to
eyeball with a full-grown German shepherd - I thought. It licked,
twice, the sweat from my face, whined, and then walked off a step
I've never been a dog expert. Add to that
a bit of disorientation. It took me a good 20 seconds to realize I
was face to face with a coyote. Up close they do look like
shepherds. You try it sometime. Only from 100 yards do they have
that familiar, peculiar coyote look.
again and loped off. It stopped one more time, turned, and looked
at me. It seemed to shrug its shoulders, then walked off. "Crazy
human," it could have said, "what are you doing up here?"
Peter Stekel is a writer in