THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

RIDING THE WHITE HORSE HOME: A Western Family Album by Teresa Jordan

(Pantheon Books, NY, 1993)

Riding the White Horse Home: A Western Family Album, published in 1993, is part memoir and part family history and it succeeds on both levels. It is an impressionistic account and not a straight chronological narrative, but the pieces all fall into place by the time the reader arrives at the last page. And when that happens, the reader will not only have learned a great deal about four generations of an interesting family, but also much about the joys and frustrations, hardships and rewards, of life on a western ranch.

Teresa Jordan was born and raised on her family ranch located along Chugwater Creek in the Chugwater Valley near the community of Iron Mountain in southeastern Wyoming.  The ranch was established by her great-grandfather in 1887 and she and her brother represented the fourth generation to live there.  In 1978, after the death of her grandfather, her father sold the ranch.  Only she, in her early twenties at the time, and her great-aunt Marie seemed to have been saddened by the sale.

Her father said he sold the ranch because the estate taxes, which were much higher at the time than now, were too great to overcome.  There was also the fact that her brother wasn't interested in operating the ranch.  He had left it at an early age and had no desire to return.

Reading between the lines, however, it is easy to believe that at age sixty, and after several accidents that had resulted in severe injuries, her father was ready to cash in while he was still able.

Southeastern Wyoming isn't a very hospitable environment in which to live and nobody knows that better than those who live there. 

Jordan writes that "[at] an altitude of over six thousand feet, Iron Mountain is a great country for wind.  In the winter, it blows for weeks on end with hardly a dip below twenty or thirty miles an hour.  Gusts of fifty and sixty miles an hour are common....Somebody who asks if the wind ever quits is likely to be told that it does, long enough to change directions."  It is a place where "people tolerate the wind but do not get used to it."

(I was once traveling through the Texas Panhandle and the wind was blowing at a sustained rate of about forty mph with gusts as high as sixty.  I stopped at a fast food restaurant west of Amarillo to get off the road for awhile and to have a cup of coffee.  As I walked across the parking lot I took my cap off to keep it from being blown into Oklahoma.  It was all I could do to open the door and after entering the wind sucked the door closed and almost broke my arm.

I knew the Panhandle had a reputation for wind and had experienced it before, but to make conversation I said to the waitress, "Does the wind here always blow like this?"  "Nossir," she said, "Sometimes it blows hard.")


In a chapter titled "Newtime: A Calving Diary" Jordan vividly describes what life is like on a cattle ranch during calving season.  Her family was no longer in the ranching business but she wanted to experience what it was like during that critical season.  So she called her oldest friend who owned the ranch that had bordered the one where she was raised and asked him if she could join him and his family for the calving season.  He said yes, but also wondered why she would want to come at that time since "[i]t's so hectic around here.  Everyone is exhausted and bad-tempered."

She wanted to because "[c]alving is the crux point of the year and it is something I have never experienced.  By the time I was old enough to be useful, I left for boarding school.  I was never home in the spring.  I have seen calves born.  I have assisted in a few births.  But I have never been there for a season, for the grueling week after week of incessant emergency and response."

And that is what she wanted to experience?

There are 800 cows due to drop calves all over the ranch.  It is spring, but it is spring in Wyoming, which means that it is often a season in name only and constant surveillance and frequent intervention are required to ensure that cow and calf survive.

In her diary, Jordan often comments on the weather during this crucial period:

March 29: The windchill dipped below zero this morning...

April 4: A front came in today with high winds.  Windchill, I heard on the news, reached 12 below.

April 15: Gusts measured 63 mph at the Air Force Base, and it seemed windier here.
April 20: [W]e had about five inches of snow...Near evening it started snowing again...By the time we got everything in, we had about three inches of snow on the ground....

The weather finally breaks and the sun comes out, but the glare off the snow is blinding and a dozen cows have sunburnt bags and because of the pain will not allow their calves to nurse.  The cows have to be put in chutes and be milked by hand.  They are range cows and they don't willingly submit to the process.

Sunday night the temperature dropped to 5 degrees.

April 28: The weather has finally turned.  Yesterday was sunny and 50 degrees. 

Fall in Wyoming can be harsh, too.  This picture was taken while traveling south just north of Cheyenne on Hwy 25, while fleeing from a pursuing Wyoming October blizzard.
There is irony involved in this great effort to save the calves and it is one that Jordan recognizes:

"In this business of cattle raising, we exert our will.  We take a calf off a poor cow and graft it onto a good one.  We hobble a reticent cow until she lets her calf suck.  We mid-wife these calves into existence, we care for them, sometimes we even risk our lives for them, and they are ultimately slated for slaughter.  In this fact lies the essential irony of our work.  No one forgets that a live calf is money in the bank.  And yet a reverence remains....our connection to them is more than economic.  Day in and day out we confront the messiness of this business of living; if we live with slaughter, we also live with nurture, with seasons and cycles, with birth and with death."

Nobody ever explained it better.

There are many interesting individuals in Jordan's family album.  My personal favorite is her great-aunt Marie.  Despite owning her own ranch she never forgave her nephew for selling the one that her father had established and the one on which she was born.

Jordan writes how the ranching life was different for boys and girls and men and women.  In some ways the life was harder for one gender and in some ways harder for the other.  But Jordan indicates that in the final analysis it was a harder lot in life for women than men.

However, Jordan herself is an exception to the rule and so was Aunt Marie.  Aunt Marie loved her life on the ranch even more than her husband did.  She never had children, but she was a great lover of horses and dogs and mourned the loss of each and every one and her journal indicates that she was subject to grief well after her losses.

I don't want to spoil the significance of the book's title, but I will say this: It is Aunt Marie that rides the white horse home.   

Teresa Jordan

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