On the wall of our cow camp bunkhouse in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming hangs a little board on which somebody scratched the words: "If you're lucky enough to be in the mountains, you're lucky enough."
This week, I'm lucky enough to be among the West's ranchers whose fall calendar includes gathering cattle from high summer pastures and trailing them home to lower country. Our cattle have spent these recent months climbing to the tops of cool, breezy ridges, grazing on sunny slopes and lying in grassy parks -- vacationing, you might say -- as they fatten themselves and their calves for the winter ahead.
Like people, some of the cows are ready to come home and some aren't. Some are where they're supposed to be, and others have wandered off to explore or mingle with the neighbors' cattle. I imagine that they've formed social clubs and companionships, trading baby-sitting responsibilities and seeking out favorite places to eat.
But our need to gather these cows holds some urgency because of all the variables involved: where we'll find the cattle, how long the grass will last, whether we'll avoid the hunters, when the weather will change, who's available to help and what the cattle market is like. Nowadays, most cowboy crews are family and friends -- a pared-down version of the old roundups -- and too often we don't appreciate the chance to do this work in beautiful landscapes with great companions. We hurry so that we can get to the next job, because we know there's always another one waiting after that.
I love this time of year, though, and the work that goes with it. A week of all-day horseback riding in Wyoming's glorious autumn humbles me and fills me with appreciation for this outdoors life. At the same time that I become aware of the enormity of the world, I'm also grateful for my part of it, no matter how insignificant my role is.
This week, I can ride a horse across canyon rims against a sky so blue it hurts my eyes. My horse tramps through yellow crispy leaves, like piles of golden coins scattered by a careless king. Aspen trees blaze pink, orange, yellow; sagebrush branches blend in pewter-gray. The cattle's use of the land this summer has marked trails in the deepest, richest brown, braiding down the hillsides like veins. Cattle look fat and lazy, complacent in the glades they've enjoyed all summer long.
I like the camaraderie as neighbors come together to help. Part-time and full-time cowboys from the grazing associations and ranches pull together to gather cattle that have had all summer to scatter. Ranchers themselves have been scattered -- from home ranch to badlands, later to high pastures, far corners of forest boundaries and open range. Through hectic spring and hot summer, neighborhood feuds have flared because of straying cattle, broken fences and disputes over sparse irrigation water. But under the warm autumn sun, over a shared cup of coffee from a thermos, all the troubles and petty squabbles dissipate.
As I ride along through the fall work, I'm a little blue as I remember old friends now gone from these familiar places. Our family ranch is one of a few remaining islands of private ranchland now surrounded by resorts, subdivisions and recreational forest lands. I yearn for the people who could read brands, who made their living from land and cattle, who knew the geography of the country and appreciated the year of hard work that brought this fall reward. I miss the friends who shared the jokes, the comedies and adventures of cattle and horses. I miss my little-kid cowboys who grew up to take other jobs and live in far-off other places. I wish for time to re-tell the old stories, to laugh, to listen.
In this beauty though, I can't stay blue for long. There are always new friends to meet, new places to ride, new stories to listen to. It's supposed to snow tomorrow, and we'll be rummaging for scotch-plaid caps and overshoes and slickers. The early storm's misery won't obscure the glory of that first snow –--pure, white, wet.
We know it will turn the trails to black mud, slick and treacherous, but the cattle, confused by this sudden transformation of their world, will finally trundle out of the timber and down the slopes with my dog bounding after them.
How can I complain? There's work to do, and after all, I'm lucky enough.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches and writes in Greybull, Wyoming.