Peggy Godfrey's long, strange trip

  • Peggy Godfrey combines sheep ranching with other work she loves

    Dustin Solberg
  • Peggy Godfrey cradles a lamb on her Moffat, Colo., ranch

    Dustin Solberg photo
  • FILLING IN: Peggy Godfrey feeds a lamb

    Dustin Solberg photo
  • Lisa Jones

    Greta Jones photo

MOFFAT, Colo. - Peggy Godfrey is driving her 1988 Oldsmobile across the San Luis Valley. She is staring straight ahead. I am sitting in the passenger seat, watching the speedometer needle sweep past 60, past 70 and hover just shy of 75. On a dirt road. At night. It's good this valley is as flat as a ballroom with roads that could have been drawn with a ruler. It's good there is no snow on the valley floor, even though it's early March. The jagged wall of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rises up behind us, its snowy summits glowing under the nearly full moon. Ahead is the ranch where Peggy will deliver calves tonight. Her tires spurt gravel as she pulls into the Sutherland Ranch and jumps out. It's 9:59 p.m.

This is cutting it a little close for Peggy, who is responsible for the calves from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Without supervision, they can run into trouble. She has a visceral fear of causing unnecessary pain to animals. We immediately check up on the 250 cows - most of whom are going to give birth in the next few weeks. We walk the cowpie-studded corral among a couple of dozen nervous heifers (first-time, 2-year-old mothers). Then we drive the Jeep into a big, dusty field to check on the older, more experienced mothers. Peggy steers with one hand and holds a spotlight out of the window with the other. She sticks her head through the window into the swirling dust to get a better look at the cows, who stand still as monuments.

"These cows are easy," she yells over the engine. "I can drive through "em easy. I could probably drive over "em and they wouldn't mind."

Our first round is uneventful. Back in the trailer that will serve as our headquarters until 5 a.m., she relaxes. She rubs her face tiredly and falls fast asleep for the next hour and 32 minutes.

At midnight, we go out again. One of the heifers has given birth to what appears to be a wet, dark raincoat with a white face. The mother noses at the calf in a wondering kind of way. Peggy approves. Heifers can walk away from their calves, or step on them, or just stare at them, bellowing in panic. They are the reason people like Peggy work nights during calving season in ranches everywhere. "You never know what they'll do," she says, rolling her eyes like a junior high school substitute teacher. "They're like teenage mothers."

After watching for a few minutes, Peggy picks up the limp, wet newborn by one hind and one foreleg and deposits him in a wheelbarrow. She wheels him out of the corral and into the stable where he can sleep on a straw bed safe from the wind. The confused mother doesn't follow, but noses the ground the calf had been lying on, wheeling around and bellowing. Peggy jogs back to the heifer and chases her around the corral a few times. Finally, she sprints straight at the young cow, yelling. The heifer combusts with panic, jumping into the stable where, to her astonishment, she finds her calf.

Our night is only half done. We go back to the trailer and take nap number two, from which I rise so groggy I actually walk into the wall before joining Peggy, who goes from comatose to fully awake without any visible transition whatsoever. One more check, one more nap, a final check at dawn, and we drive home. My bones ache with exhaustion. Peggy has a houseguest, a childhood friend who greets us in the kitchen with a very large photo album on the table next to her. Horrified, I grope my silent way into a chair while Peggy whips together waffles, sausage and eggs. I crawl into a bed to sleep. Peggy stays up and chats until noon.

Peggy Godfrey was not the little girl her doctor father and Southern belle mother expected. Growing up in the 1950s in the little town of Homer, La., Peggy would agree to play with dolls only if her playmate would also agree to take a bike ride through the rolling pine and oak forests outside town. She wrote poems about animals. She bought her first horse in sixth grade with money she made selling magazine subscriptions. In high school, she gave in to her mother and slept in hair curlers. But her bouffant would come apart when she went riding. "And the sunburned nose," she adds, "we never got around that. It just peeled and peeled and peeled." Later, at Baylor University in Texas, Peggy studied biology and chemistry. This worried her parents, who told her that God actually wanted her to be a schoolteacher. Peggy replied: "If that's what God wants, have God tell me that."

It could be a funny story, but Peggy doesn't laugh when she tells it. There's enough Southern gentility in her that this still stands as the rudest thing she's ever said to her parents. Her mother went quiet with disappointment early on. Peggy's youth wasn't a time of glorious rebellion, it was a time of pain and self-doubt.

After college, she moved to Taos, N.M., with her first husband, a dentist. There, she raised a half-acre of vegetables and two sons. Her father-in-law had just bought a Spanish land grant and two truckloads of dairy calves. After a couple of severe snowstorms, the calves started dying. Peggy's biology background kicked in, and she helped tend the ailing herd. "We pretty much got into ranching together," she says.

Soon she was running her own herd and a hay-baling business. Fifteen years later, in 1988, she moved with her second husband north to Moffat, Colo. - a scatter of dusty ranch houses at the intersection of two long, straight roads in the San Luis Valley. Here she ran sheep and cattle of her own. She also hired out as a cowhand at the nearby Double Bar V Ranch, riding deep into the mountains in the summer and pitching hay from a pickup to cattle in three feet of snow in subzero temperatures in the winter. A few years later, she divorced again.

She is lithe and wiry, with weathered skin, cropped blond hair and direct blue eyes that reflect sadness, happiness, anger and laughter in rapid succession. I ask her about marriage, and she gets serious. "Some people see someone they like and admire, and when they've got them they want to possess or squelch them," she says. But she's emerged from her upbringing and her marriages a free woman. This is what she does: She works the night calving shift for the Sutherlands. She is a renowned cowboy poet who published the first of her three books in 1993 and performs regularly at everything from range management conferences to the "Talking Gourds' festival in Telluride. She sells cowboy hats that you cannot crush even if you sit on them through an entire meal. She is the Moffat school's substitute school bus driver. She is a Christian who talks spirituality and works with students who drive over now and then from the Naropa University in Boulder. She frequently drives to nearby Crestone - which has several monasteries (Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic) and a proliferation of new Santa Fe-style homes - to be a volunteer subject for the students at the massage school there. She runs 13 cattle and 35 sheep of her own, which she markets to local people who want locally grown beef, free of pesticides and hormones.

Her latest project is the "Ewe Mow-Em Lawn Service - Not a B-a-a-a-a-d Deal." Peggy started it last summer, when more coyotes than usual were eyeing her lambs. A couple of years before, Colorado's increasingly urban electorate voted to loosen coyote control regulations.

Then she got a call from friends whose yards in Moffat were overgrown with grass and weeds. She brought a group of ewes and lambs to town and enclosed them in a portable wire fence she moved several times a day. They ate the bluegrass. They ate bromegrass and kochia weed and lamb's quarters. They ate salt grass and fallen cottonwood leaves. They ate the white top (a tall, noxious weed). They ate the greasewood (a thorny bush). She routed the moveable corral carefully to ration their intake of sweet clover and alfalfa, which they fall on like drug addicts and which can blow up their stomachs with gas.

Without the old foliage shading out the new shoots, the grass returned lush and green. The sheep and the results of their work functioned as an advertisement.

"People would say, 'Could you bring them over to my place next?' " she says. "They wanted me to graze the vacant lots, too, because they're a fire hazard."

From mid-June until mid-September, her sheep mowed Moffat. Housebound old ladies cheered up watching the sheep chew their way from yard to yard. The sheep's status as minor celebrities gave them much more protection from coyotes and dogs than their portable corral.

"It was kind of neat to have someone do something like that," says Mayor Mike Compton. "I kind of hope she does it again."

Peggy calls the service "one of my coyote behaviors. Ranchers are as good at being coyotes as coyotes are, in our own way. If we realize we have to. It's surviving. And surviving meant taking my sheep to town."

Peggy figures the living she's patched together is probably below poverty level. Her $5-an-hour calving shift at the Sutherlands' is the best-paid job on the ranch. With rock-bottom prices and high operation costs eating away at the bottom line, Virginia Sutherland doesn't take an income out of the ranch's earnings. Her daughter, Lynn, makes about $4.50 an hour.

"We're just maintaining," said Virginia Sutherland, a tall, straight 73-year-old, as she lit up a Cambridge 100 before checking the cows one afternoon. "Just keeping it patched up."

This winter has been unusually warm and dry. The rust-colored Herefords graze in a landscape of primary colors. Yellow grass on the dry fields. Red willows near the irrigation ditches. Blue sky. It's exhilarating. When our next calving shift is over, we cruise home, flushing a couple of ducks out of a ditch as we pass. We turn down the driveway to Peggy's low wooden house, scattering striped ginger cats in front of the Oldsmobile, which does not slow down one bit.

"In my driveway," she says, "if you die, you die."

My God. The kitties. My mind does a little flip and lands in a new position. After two days in the company of this accessible, caring, flat-out nice woman, I have begun to assume we see the world the same way. But we don't. She isn't just my friendly guide into the field of ranching, she actually is a rancher. Her passion, and her environmentalism, are lived out in the process of raising meat for slaughter. "I'm taking my animals to their higher purpose," she says.

I've heard this before from ranchers, usually from men who are in their third or fourth or fifth generation in the cattle business. It's always sounded like something little boys on ranches learn from their parents. But Peggy wasn't raised on a ranch. There were no cats in Peggy's childhood home in Louisiana, but if there had been you can bet her mother would have steered carefully around them. Those quick ginger cats make me think what a long and unusual journey Peggy has made. She left the upper middle class to join a profession that offers wages a McDonald's cashier would sneer at, all the political fashionableness of leaded gasoline, and enough sexism to make her occasionally want to slug the wall. It's hard enough for born-and-bred ranchers to make it in ranching these days. They are, understandably, screaming bloody murder about the impossible beef market while their kids leave the ranch to take paying jobs in town. As far as newcomers go, Ralph Lauren and Ted Turner may be getting into ranching these days, but it's unclear who else is.

Peggy's demographic pilgrimage puts ranching in a new light. The Old West is routinely defended and politicized and romanticized. All of these things are built on a larger truth: It is disappearing. Peggy is slowing that process a bit. She has given up the things most people want in life simply to be outside with animals. Her bottom line is that she loves the work. She melts into whatever economic niches are available, and makes do, and keeps going. By necessity, her version of the Old West includes the New West. I saw her put a whole roomful of dinner guests in stitches at an elegant party in Crestone one evening, then drive across the valley to Moffat and thrust her arm shoulder-deep into a cow to rearrange the calf that was stuck in the birth canal. Peggy's like a coyote herself. There's something flexible and indestructible about her, something I'll bet will keep her on the range long after the angry old-timers and starry-eyed newcomers have gone.

But living on the edge isn't easy. She feels the pinch plenty - from the sexist cowboys she's used as fodder in some acidly funny poems; she's felt it from less-than-perfect husbands. And she lavishes a good bit of anger on "two-bit tincup cowboy-poet types' and "lawn-mower environmentalists' - people whose outdoor experience mostly takes place in their suburban back yards. Her anger comes not from the standard litany of reasons - that they file lawsuits, leave gates open during their forays into the mountains, and fail to understand how economically desperate ranching has become. Her complaint is more damning than that: They don't know how to see.

"People from California come here and condemn my sheep," she says, her face flushing with anger. "They'll stand there and say, 'You can tell that sheep grazed here and have ruined this valley.' And I just look 'em straight in the face and say, 'You know, six to eight inches of annual precipitation has a lot more to do with it than sheep.' " Where she sees feed for cows and sheep and wildlife, all newcomers see is a great house site with a 10- or 1,000-acre yard, depending on how deep their pockets are.

She cultivates the kind of seeing that makes her investigate when a cow suddenly leaves the group. "She may have a calf," says Peggy, "she may be in labor, she may be sick, she may be blind. You don't know. But you look into it." Or the kind of seeing that allows her to point out a family of owls on the corral fence to her fellow cowhands. (-They wouldn't have disturbed those owls for the world," she says.) Or the kind of seeing that made her jump to, when a coyote crossed the road one day after a cow had just given birth. Peggy went and sat with the cow. Within 10 minutes, the cow rolled over on her side and couldn't get up. This is potentially fatal - if Peggy hadn't been there she could have bloated and died. Paradoxically, the coyote had saved the cow.

When someone who can't see gets involved in running a ranch, disaster can result. Last January, a new neighbor offered to look after Peggy's sheep while she was off at a cowboy poetry gathering. "She had that romantic, 'I want to have elk and I want to have horses and I want to be a rancher,' " said Peggy, not knowing how accurately she was describing an awful lot of people I know. "I love animals, so everything's going to work out okay."

Peggy returned from her cowboy gathering a week later to a pile of wool in the middle of her corral, a guard dog puppy off his chain, and a bare, scratched, hamstrung lamb in the corner of the corral.

"His leg was dangling, and his skin was pink," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "There was not one sprout of wool. There were no big teeth mark gashes, but there were scratches. The dog had been pulling wool. Playing. Not trying to kill the sheep. Playing. Doing puppy things ' the little lamb was about three-quarters bare. Two of the ewe lambs were about two-thirds bare. I laid down in the middle of the corral and cried."

The puppy was ruined as a ranch dog. She doesn't keep dogs for any other reason. She caught him, tied him to a post and shot him with her .38. Then she noticed a note stuck to her door.

"There is some wool in the corral," it said. "I couldn't tell where it came from. I wonder if one of the sheep got out. The guard dog was off his chain, running with the horses. I crimped the chain, but I don't think it will hold. You need to get a bigger chain."

She sat down and wrote a poem:

She looks with eyes
That do not see
With eyes that cannot know

She's nice, with good intentions
But my observations show
That she could trip on my dead body
And never look to see
That even though my car's not home
The lump on the ground is me.

After reading me the poem, she brightens. She rubs her hands on her jeans and grabs a corn chip from the bowl on the table. Then she gets up to do the next thing.

Lisa Jones is a freelance writer living in Paonia, Colo.

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