THE HORSES ARE LOOSE
Sundays are usually a relaxed time around the ranch, and this Sunday was no different. Most of the six wranglers had made trips into one of the various towns scattered across Grand County. In this north central part of Colorado any trip to town, regardless of which town, requires a minimum of a 30 minute drive with at least half of that on gravel road. In spite of the drive, Sunday is the wranglers only day off, except for feeding the horses, so most of us headed for WalMart to do some shopping and have lunch at KFC. By six oclock we all had returned for a big ranch-style dinner.
This Sunday had been a typical June day in Colorado high country. The day began with early morning frost and low clouds which burned off by 8 AM. By mid-day the temperature rose into the high 70s or low 80s, and the sun was very hot. Most of the heat comes from direct sun, and when a cloud blocks it, it feels like the temperature drops 15 degrees. By dinner time the heat subsides along with most activity. It was 6 PM and we were all sitting down to eat when Jeff came in the lodge and announced, with moderate excitement in his voice: "The horses are loose."
This pronouncement was not earth shattering, but neither was it trivial. Each night and on Sundays, which is also the horses day off, most of our 50 horses are pastured on a relatively small 25 acre parcel which provides some grazing, supplemented by hay which we haul up to them each evening. When the horses get out, it is usually because a gate was left open or a fence is down. How far the horses go depends on which gate or which fence. We decided to finish our dinner before our unplanned evening roundup.
The wranglers horses are kept down in the corral for quick access and to use in rounding up the other horses at the start of each work day, so after dinner the six of us went up to the barn and saddled up. It was about 7 PM when my horse BJ and I left the barn with the other wranglers and headed toward the upper pasture. The sun was low in the sky and preparing for a spectacular sunset over the snow capped Williams Fork Mountain range six miles to the west. The gate to the upper pasture is high on a hill and offers a panoramic view of the pine and aspen woods which provide a sweeping introduction to the mountains to the west and dot the thousands of acres of sage pasture in the foreground.
Six pairs of eyes quickly searched the pastures and woods for any signs of the horses. There were none. We could see where the horses had escaped. The gate by the beaver pond at the base of the hill was open. The bailing wire that served as a make-shift gate latch had broken. Two beaver were swimming across the pond, and they slapped their tails on the water and submerged as we approached. The pond was full, and the creek that serviced it was overflowing its banks from the heavy Spring rains and snow melt from the higher mountains. We split up and went in separate directions in order to search the 5000 acres of woods and pasture that hopefully contained the 44 escapees.
Sunset is my favorite time to ride. The heat of the afternoon has subsided, and there is hardly a wisp of breeze. All the sounds of nature seem to be amplified. The deer and elk have come out of hiding to graze, the birds seem more vocal, and the occasional cry of an eagle adds a touch of mystery to an otherwise tranquil setting. Thus the urgency of finding the horses was not foremost in my mind as I rode up though the pasture and into an aspen grove.
A "Yahooooo" from the woods to my north re-focused my attention. Shane had found some of the horses and was running them back towards the ranch. BJ and I went over to help, but Shane had only about a dozen horses and already had help from Scott and Pam, so we returned to the area we had been searching. Movement up in some thick pine woods caught my attention and we went to investigate. Our efforts yielded three cow elk who ran out of the woods and across a low meadow, jumping the creek and disappearing into the willows. Nothing else was moving in the area so we rode on.
We followed a cow path along a fence line which separates Averys cattle ranch from our ranch. The path ran treacherously close to the barbed wire fence, and I kept having to lift one leg to avoid getting it caught on the barbs. BJ and I followed the cow path through several woods and up and down several hills, but saw no signs of horses. There were many cattle and a number of calves getting evening meals from their moms. Most of the cattle are not pleased to see anyone on a horse. Memories of being roped, branded, vaccinated, tagged, and castrated are usually enough to start them bellowing and heading for the nearest thicket. However this evening was evidently too peaceful for them to be disturbed, so they let us pass without complaint.
The hillside leading up to the high pastures was covered with wild flowers still vibrant from the wet spring weather. The vivid purples and blues of the lupine and larkspur were interspersed with the white phlox, red skyrocket, and a host of miscellaneous other colors of wild flowers which defied identification. It felt like we were trespassing through someones flower garden. At the top of the hill we passed through a gate that opened on to the high pastures, or "flats" as we call them -- mostly open sage brush pastures with scattered large aspen groves. The array of wild flowers continued across the sage and into the setting sun. What few clouds there were had now taken on various shades of red, purple, and pink as the sun dropped below Williams Peak.
Most of the good grazing grass is in the aspen groves, so it was through them that we continued our search for the horses, although our searching was mostly a pleasure walk as we followed the cow paths through the aspen trees and past one of several stock ponds where a large group of cattle had settled in for the night. It is in the shade of the aspen trees along the small creeks and drainages that the columbine grow, and June is the month when they bloom. They are clearly the most beautiful of the Colorado wild flowers with their delicate splays of whites and pale blues, and the obvious choice for the state flower. I was tempted to risk the $200 fine for picking one.
We emerged from the aspen at the western edge of the high flats which provided a grandstand view of the sunset. Looking down we could see several miles of irrigated meadows across the Williams Fork Valley until it rose again and became the snow-covered peaks of the Williams Fork Range. Streaks of setting sunlight emerging from behind the mountains provided a colorful light show on the clouds and on the mountains to our east. We stood there and watched the completion of the sunset before turning around and heading back toward the ranch. Thoughts of finding the horses had been lost -- diverted by the sights and sounds of nature in one of her finer displays of beauty and serenity.
As we neared the ranch a mule deer and two fawns were grazing by the beaver pond, and beyond them one of the brown bears who frequents our garbage dumpsters was returning from her evening meal. We stopped and watched as she lumbered up the hill, disappearing into the woods she calls home. BJ didnt seem to mind seeing the bear, but neither did she wish to get closer when I urged her forward.
Back at the barn, the other wranglers were swapping stories about their various adventures in hunting the horses. All but one of the horses had been rounded up. I took note that none of their stories mentioned seeing the sunset, the wild flowers, the deer or the elk. I guess my additional 30 years has given me a different sense of what is significant and of value.
The last horse showed up four days later at a morning breakfast cookout on Saddle Mountain about two miles from the ranch. He had a few cuts and scratches, but I was envious, and wished I could have been out there with him.