The carcass lay across a slab of rock at about the level of mv knees. I estimated its undressed weight to have been around 700 pounds: substantial for a two-year-old elk. I had managed to position it so that when I drew the guts out they fell clear of the slab onto the rocks below. The rocks, already unstable, were now slippery with blood, gastric juices, and the bile-colored contents of the maw. Moving carefully to avoid breaking an ankle, I sawed through the pelvic bone to spread the hindquarters, then drew back the near fore and hind legs and tied them off to a couple of uphill rocks. In this warm weather I wished to ventilate the carcass while using the rib cage and hide for shade. The spike had been in fine condition, with a shiny thick coat that was good to touch and half an inch of fat on the brisket. When I had him fixed the way I wanted him I picked up the organs and the stomach contents and threw them farther downhill to draw the flies. Then I wiped the blade of my knife and saw on mv pants leg, and scabbarded them. My rifle, the magazine stripped of shells, lay against a log on a patch of grass 15 feet from the edge of the rock slide. I shouldered it, and looked back at the elk. He had his eyes open still, but I didn’t care about him as an animal anymore. He was just a huge piece of dead meat needing to be cut up, loaded, hauled off the mountain, and back to town for butchering.
It was warm in town all the next day, and I thought of the meat. The morning after I rose at five, brought the horses from the ranch, and picked up Larry Reed, who had offered to help with the carcass in exchange for a share of it. A cover of gray cloud had moved in overnight, and heavier clouds edged in paler gray and white like ocean waves were breaking over the mountains to the north. It started to rain, and almost at once the clay road commenced to be slick, “Do you have chains?” Larry asked. “Yes. But I think that it will clear now. There’s no wind driving those clouds and the sky is clear everywhere except above the mountains.” As we went into the switchbacks going down to Fontenelle crossing I was aware of the trailer fishtailing slightly, and downshifted to compound low. “I hope we don’t have to take this thing off the hill in a blizzard.” “Well.” Larry shrugged. “If we do, we do.” A strong wind blew through Fontenelle gap, but the sky above Indian Ridge was lightening and the clouds evaporated into blue as they came sailing off the mountains. We saddled quickly. I rolled the panniers and tied them behind the saddle and put the sandwiches and two poly bottles into the saddle bags. Finally I gave Larry the mare and stepped up to the gelding who, spooky from wind and the weather change, sidestepped me on my first attempt to mount him.
The farther in we rode above West Bear Trap Creek and the higher we climbed the more the sky cleared, until it felt almost like a day in summer when we reached the base of Indian Ridge at a quarter before noon. We turned aside from the talus fall and rode on uphill among young pines before dismounting and leading the rest of the way. The carcass after two days was undisturbed, but an odor of decay lingered above the front quarter, which was still warm. I had neglected to remove all of the trachea, and once we had that out the meat smelled wholly fresh and clean. In spite of the warm weather, its coldness stiffened our fingers as we skinned out the haunches, shoulders, and barrel, and cut flesh in great slabs and rounds from the white bones. Larry’s Green River knife, for which he said he had paid eight dollars, cut much better than my own knife; when I admired it, he offered to give me his other one when we got back to town. We had the animal boned by two o’clock, and the mare loaded in 15 minutes. The carcass resembled the old man’s great fish after the sharks had been after it, but we had beat the bears to the meat and it was safely secured now in the panniers. “Lunch?” I inquired. We were both covered in blood, hair, and tissue almost to the shoulders. “Why don’t we go down as far as the creek,” Larry suggested, “and wash up?”
Two days later a cold front moved in bringing snow and high winds. When the weather cleared Mary Thoman phoned, wanting me to help gather the last of Dick and Susie Thoman’s cows for trucking to their winter pasturage north of La Barge. I was at the ranch a little past eight the next morning and we caught the horses we needed out of the corral and saddled them in the shadowy barn and loaded them into the trailer hitched to the flatbed truck. Dick and Susie had gone ahead with most of the family in the semi, and we had with us the elder daughter Dixie, Mickey Thoman, and a schoolteacher come from Green River with her saddle and blanket. Mary had packed a good lunch and we were in almost a holiday mood as we started up the ranch road to the highway, looking to make the most of the closest thing ranchers know to a holiday. We drove south to the Farson Cutoff and the highway bridge across the Green River where we split up, Mickey and Linda, the teacher, riding downstream on the west side of the river and Mary, Dixie, and I crossing the bridge on horseback to pick up some cows that Mary had spotted the day before from her airplane. The day was windless and mild, the sun present but remote as if sealed behind a pane of smoked glass. We kicked the cattle out of the bottom and set them moving south on the bluff above the river in the direction of Big Island, unfastening layers of clothing as we rode. We had not ridden far before Dick Thoman’s blue truck appeared out of a prairie swale, laboring doggedly across the sagebrush in our direction. Mary galloped away to speak with him, and on her return explained that Dick now proposed to truck the cows rather than drive them to Big Island. We turned the herd, pushed it back over the bluff, and followed it down through the steep soft clay to the bottom and across a succession of gulleys to the fence, where we dismounted and tied up to sage bushes to eat our lunch, while the cows bedded gratefully at a discreet distance of 50 yards. We ate ham and cheese sandwiches and drank fruit drinks, and were concerned with dividing a Twinkle in three pieces when the flatbed truck and trailer arrived at the bridge. We mounted quickly, roused the cows from their nap, and drove them across the highway into the riverine cottonwoods, where Mickey and Linda had made an improvised corral with an arrangement of hinged panels placed between the rig and the fenceline. After some effort we drove the cattle into the corral, then beat them with sticks of rotten Cottonwood until they crowded into the trailer. As we were loading the panels after them, Dick showed up with the semi, and an electric cattle prod. “Those aren’t my cows,” he explained. “What?” Mary asked him. “They aren’t our cows.” “What do you mean, not your cows?” The animals’ new winter coats had partially obscured the brands, which in any case we had not thought to check. “Well,” Mary said, “I guess we’re fired.” Susie thought the cows belonged to Zucotniks, and Mickey and Linda agreed to truck them back to the Thoman ranch and put them in a separate corral. Whoever’s cows they were, we had saved him the effort of gathering them.
I rode with Dick in his 1979 Kenworth, the engine smooth and quiet after more than a million miles, and his eight-year-old son Ben down the Green River to a simple-truss bridge and a corral close by its western end. On the short trip there, Ben described catching a two-and-a-half pound brown trout in the river below Fontenelle Dam, and Dick and I discussed our feelings regarding Bill Clinton. Behind the bluff on the opposite bank of the river straight plumes of steam and smoke rose from the Rhône-Poulene trona plant near Big Island. Dick made a wide turn with the semi and backed it against the loading chute by which his tall gray horse, unsaddled, stood tied.
We climbed down from the cab and Ben piled after us, on his wav to saddle the elderly pony his parents had bought him the previous fall. While Man and I readied our horses Ben, with his small brother mounted behind him on the croup, galloped up and down in the road spraying stones, his face very white and earnest above the potbellied pony’s graying patient one, until his mother, having bitted her feisty bay, took the little boy from him and set him behind her own saddle where she already held the younger daughter against the pommel. We divided into two groups, Mary, Dixie, and I riding cross country toward a distant line of trees marking the irrigation ditches where Dick had seen three bulls two days before, and Susie with the two children and Ben on the pony keeping to the river bottom in search of the herd. It was now three o’clock in the afternoon: a hard breeze had arisen and an overcast moved in, gray sky above gray desert. We refastened our clothes and rode for the most part in silence, Dixie maintaining the grave self-composed dignity appropriate to 13 years old as we squinted against the wind for bulls. After riding for three-quarters of an hour we spied a ruined headgate and reached the first of the ditches. Wide, smooth, and grassy in the bottoms, they made good windbreaks for cattle, but no cattle sheltered there this afternoon. Upstream the Green, swollen by fall rains, flowed toward us in dark rippling bends, through leafless cottonwood breaks and the empty yellow meadows. We turned the horses and followed it back downstream, Mary and Dixie riding together while I diverged in the direction of the river bank, looking for cows and fighting the horse who, separated from the others, whinnied, sidestepped, spun, and finally commenced to buck before I got him in control again. I picked up seven head of stragglers in the willows and together we drove these past an abandoned ranch at which the horse, going at a lope, shied and made a final and nearly successful attempt at unloading me, back to the corral where Susie and Ben held the gathered herd in the road, waiting for us.
When we had driven all the cattle into the corral, Mary and Dick began cutting out the cows and loading the calves into the upper compartments of the stock trailer while Dixie held back the cows with a stick, Ben ran at the calves waving his arms and shouting, and Bill Thoman looked on from under the brim of his sweatstained Stetson. The gray twilight thickened with dust, cattle bawled and milled, dogs jumped, and the aluminum trailer rattled and banged, swaying on its springs, as one rufous back after another clambered up the chute and vanished inside. When the calves refused to move forward in their berth. Susie Thoman ran at the trailer, climbed hand over hand up the side of the metal cage, and began prodding the animals through the spaces between the slats. It was while she was doing this that I recalled an environmentalist member of a range conservation committee telling Mary that she and the other members of the Thoman family needed to get themselves retrained for some environmental- Iv more acceptable line of work than ranching.
Ranch life is not just admirable, it is enviable. And it is envied, but usually not for the right reasons. In the West, the environmentalist movement in general, and the range reform program in particular, arc mainly an expression of landless activists’ jealousy and resentment of landowners, though they themselves would not know what to do with landed property if they had it, beyond putting in a swimming pool and posting NO TRESPASSING signs. In environmentalism, environmentalists have discovered a means to exercise political and administrative control over something to which they can never hope to gain the legitimate rights of ownership. Urban in culture and outlook, though not always resident in cities, they are aggressively scornful of the virtues, satisfactions, and pleasures of agriculture and pastoralism—alienated completely from the grounded life and culture of the American West. The greatest irony of environmentalism is in its claim to be the sworn enemy of modern commercial technoindustrialism and humanity’s Faustian ambition to transcend nature, since the typical environmentalist is not someone who regularly engages nature on a practical or utilitarian basis, but rather on an aesthetic or recreational—which is to say, a superficial—one. He is not a rancher, nor is he a hunter: if he is anything more than an armchair outdoorsman, he is probably just a backpacker and a photographer. So far from accepting the traditionalist ideal of man-in-nature, and the idea of human culture as a product of man in his honest, active, and fruitful relationship with nature, he aims at the abstract Enlightenment ideal of man-outside-of-nature—which gives him more in common with the bank presidents, utilities executives. Chamber of Commerce members, resort developers, and Republican politicians he hates and opposes than with the Indians, Bushmen, Eskimos, and other hunter-gatherers he praises and defends.