Sometimes it pays to eavesdrop

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Yes, there I was sitting across from four men dressed in cowboy attire in a local restaurant in Cheyenne, WY on my second day in town.  Anybody that knows me well will probably guess what happened next, however this story ended up with a life of its own.

So, of course I am curious as to whether they were ranchers or not, and I was trying really hard to eavesdrop on their conversation without much success.  One guy, I think, realized what I was doing so I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.  Finally a lady, that appeared to be the cook, came out and spoke to one of the guys and I heard the words “well we’re through calving” and it was all I needed to take the next step.

I waited until she left, found a business card, and stepped across the aisle and said “excuse me, are you guys ranchers?”.  Well they all started laughing and one guy said “no I’m a plumber”, to which I replied, “come on now don’t be messin’ with me” in my most southern drawl.  “I’m visiting here from North Carolina and I’m a photographer.  I would love the opportunity to come out and photograph the daily life of a rancher”.  Not wanting to put him on the spot, I handed him my business card and told him he didn’t have to let me know right away, but once he thought about it and could call me if he liked.  They were still joking around a bit and one of the fellows, Don Berry looked at me and said “What are you doing Saturday?”.  “Nothing,” I said, “absolutely nothing”.

“Well, have you ever been to a branding? We’re going to be branding calves and you’re welcome to come out and photograph that”.

My heart rate skyrocketed and I know the smile on my face looked like “The Joker”.  I asked for his phone number and he looked at me and said “I don’t have a phone, but you can call Huckleberry over there, he’s got one”.  ‘Huckleberry’ was the young man of the bunch and they all had a good laugh at his expense, Tom Wilson, (who had caught me eavesdropping), handed me his business card and told me I could call him.  Don proceeded to give me directions like I was from Cheyenne, but Tom, seeing my confusion, told me he would meet me on the Interstate and I could follow him to the ranch.

I could hardly wait to tell my husband, David,  and when I did, he looked at me and said “Well you’ve been here all of two days and you’ve already met four cowboys and you’re going off to a ranch with them to brand cows, yep that’s my wife”.

I met Tom on the interstate and off we went.  I was not prepared for the adventure I was about to become a part of.  After miles of fields and cows, we turned into the ranch and there were about 10 trucks with horse trailers.  As we parked I was thinking, “Who are all these people?”  I got out of my Jeep (oh so glad I have a Jeep) there were about 20 cowboys on horses getting ready.  There were a couple who really caught my eye as a photographer.  One in particular looked like he was straight out of a western movie and happened to be Tom’s brother Dan.  The other one had on some really interesting boots and a great handle bar mustache, Dave Troastale.

Tom started to explain what was going to happen and where I should be because they were going to drive the cows and calves from the pastures into a holding corral then separate the cows from the calves.

I was a little nervous and excited.  I called David right away and told him “I’m in the middle of about 20 cowboys” to which he replied “I know you are one happy girl”.

So all the cowboys are gathered together and Don is telling him where the cows are and how they are going to drive them in.  Soon I heard the cows bellowing and saw them come over a hill with all the guys surrounding them, bringing them in.  They were very efficient in getting them in the corral and separating the cows from the calves.  I felt like I was in the middle of some western movie.  There is no way I can adequately explain the sights, sounds, smells and action that was going on.  To say I was unprepared for all that happened next would be a gross understatement.

The calves were roped, branded, inoculated, and castrated, all in one swift operation.  I was a bit overwhelmed when it all started because there was so much going on.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have been around farm animals, raised a few pigs, rode horses, and churned butter, so I am not a novice to farm life.  However, this was very different.  I was amazed how all the other ranchers came together to help each other during the branding season.  All in all there were about 50 people who came together for this branding operation.

I wondered why branding was necessary in this day and time but found out that when there are several hundred thousand acres of land with several thousand cattle,  cattle theft  is still happening.  I was told that thieves will come in with tractor trailers and portable corrals and load up cattle and be gone.  Now that was a shocker. Brands are registered and well thought out as it is not uncommon for people who steal cattle to make slight changes to the brand so they can resell them.

This day was a photographer’s delight except that the sun was really bright, I knew I was going to get some harsh shadows but I was just excited to be there and be right in the middle of all that action.  Don Berry and Tom Wilson came over a couple of times and asked how I was doing and answered questions.  I might mention here that Tom (Black hat, buckskin horse in the photos) does not have a ranch of his own but helps with the branding of other ranchers’ herds. He told me he has helped with 25 brandings this season.  Can you imagine giving up 25 of your week-ends to help others?  What an awesome man.

There was a break in the action when all the women came with fresh baked goodies and drinks.  Don’s wife, Patty, came over and introduced herself to me and asked how I was doing, and if I needed anything.  The camaraderie among all these ranchers and their wives is something to behold.  I stood there thinking, this is the way life’s supposed to be…helping each other and genuine friendship.  I also realized that ranch life can’t be easy.  There are the winters where the cows and calves have to be looked after, moving them from winter to summer pastures by horses that can take days, calving season, mending fences, gathering hay and the list goes on.  These are large working ranches unlike anything back home in NC.  It’s really hard to wrap your head around the amount of land and vast spaces of these prairies.  What a huge responsibility to be a rancher and all that it entails.  This lifestyle probably doesn’t recognize week-ends and holidays like we are use to because they are responsible for thousands of cattle and hundreds of thousands of acres of land that must be tended daily.

They asked me to stay and join them for dinner but I didn’t want to impose on their hospitality too much so I declined.  They were roasting a pig for the first time.  I chucked to myself thinking, well that’s an every week-end occurrence at home, being from one of the most highly regarded BBQ states in the nation.  I regret not staying to be a part of those festivities.  Sometimes I just want to kick myself because I’m sure that I missed out on a lot more photos of these incredible people and the rancher way of life.

I want to thank Don & Patty Berry, Tom & Rhonda Wilson, and all those great cowboys and their wives for allowing me to be a part of one of the most special times of my life.  You guys are the best.  Can I come back next year???

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