PRYOR, Mont. — These are grown men talking:
“HO, CATTLE! . . . yo, cattle, yo, cattle! . . . EEEEE YUTYUTYUT! . . . move, you no-goods . . . AGGAGAGAGAGA! . . . HO, CATTLE! YO, CATTLE!”
This is not normal conversation. Then again, we are talking to cows. Not we, exactly, because I am on a horse with my mouth open in utter disbelief. But the other people here at the Schively Ranch are instructing the cows to
— in cowboy talk — git.
We are bringing in the herd. Or. As I said. They are bringing in the herd, and I am plopping along — actually, my horse is plopping, if you want to know the truth — wondering how I got here. I am not the type to bring in a herd. I might take a herd out for doughnuts. But moving it over the plains of southwestern Montana, on an Indian reservation, with mountains and valleys and streams, well, my approach would be to call Bekins and ask for its biggest truck.
“HO, CATTLE! YO, CATTLE . . . EEETEETEETEET!”
Now, before I explain how I wound up on this ranch, doing things such as branding calves and stepping in cowpies — “We’ll teach you ridin’, ropin’ and wranglin’,” the owner told me, to which I said, with great excitement, “Huh?”
— I should confess my shameful history with horses.
As a city kid, I didn’t spend much time around equine creatures. Now and then, my folks would drag me to a horse farm to try to learn to ride. Inevitably, the owner took one look at my knees, which were shaking like Ricky Ricardo’s castanets, and fetched a horse named Pokey. They were always named Pokey! Every horse I got! How is that possible? And the owner would grin and say, “Pokey here’s a nice horse. Yes, son. You and Pokey will get along jus’ fine.”
Then he’d lean in and whisper something in the horse’s ear, which, looking back, I believe was, “Wake up, Pokey.”
Here’s my point: I still had trouble! I would kick Pokey to make him move, but Pokey would just lift his tail and make a disgusting noise. Then the
owner rode past and clicked his tongue and instantly Pokey started going at a pace that a cowboy would call “napping” and I would call “Formula One.”
So coming to a ranch where nearly everything is done on, with or around a horse — which is still better than behind a horse, let me tell you — was a real stretch for me. But stretching was what this week was all about. I was on a mission, My Excellent Adventures, five fantasies to be completed before the return of my boss, who approved the idea, but not the budget.
“Face your fear,” I told myself. “Face the smell. . . .”
“Face the horse,” the ranchers told me, “and step into the stirrup.”
Unfortunately, the stirrup was chest-high. I tried to explain that if could step into that, I could dunk a basketball, and I wouldn’t need this job.
“Aw, here,” they said, hoisting me up and flopping me over the saddle. The horse made a noise. I think it was snoring.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Pecos,” a cowboy said.
Hmm. I felt better. Until I realized Pecos is Spanish for Pokey.
Did you know the original “City Slickers” was to be filmed right here, on the Schively Ranch? That’s right. The Bassitts, a delightful family that owns the place, had the land, the cows, the horses and the know-how. Unfortunately, the movie people waited too long and it got cold. The Bassitts had to get their herd to the winter ranch, in Lovell, Wyo. As they say in the cattle biz, when you gotta mooove, you gotta mooove.
This brings us to cows. Cows are big, smelly and make funny noises, like NFL linemen, only cows can count higher.
“HO, CATTLE! YO, CATTLE . . . WHEEUPP, UPP, UPP OOEYYYY!”
They also eat grass, which is why we were here, moving the herd to a new food supply. Moving a herd is no easy task. They make a hell of a mess, kicking up dust as they clump their hooves and make noises like Dick Vitale. Cows tend to follow one another closely, even jumping on each other’s backs to try to get ahead. They remind me of investment bankers.
“Keep ’em in the group,” Matt Bassitt, one of the cowboys, said, circling me on his horse. “Just ride towards ’em. Cattle are generally afraid of a horse.”
Except if I’m on it.
“Go and get that one,” Matt said, pointing to a steer that was wandering off to the side.
“Go get it?”
“Just ride around it, force it back in.”
This meant getting Pecos, my horse, to go where I wanted him to go — as opposed to where he wanted to go. By now, Pecos had called all his cousins named Pokey, and had learned I was a complete horse wimp. So when I kicked his sides, he looked back and rolled his eyes, as if to say, “Yeah, right.”
But he moved, because, what else is there to do in Montana? We trotted around the steer — I think it was a steer, although, for all my experience, it could have been a zebra — and it looked up at me with these big steer eyes. I was supposed to yell something, so I listened to the other wranglers, including one guest — and I’m not kidding here — who actually barked like a dog.
I leaned over. “Move, please,” I whispered.
And he moved! What do you know? He spoke English!
We gotta brand some of them calves.”
Everyone nodded. This was Joe Bassitt speaking, the 67- year-old owner of the ranch, a tight-lipped fellow who commanded such respect that I honestly think we would have nodded had he said, “All right, we’re gonna round up the menfolk and poke ’em with a pitchfork.”
Joe has one of those weathered faces that lets you know he is a man of the land. When he talks, his sons listen, his sons’ sons listen, even the horses listen. Joe is the type to sigh and shake his head at stupidity, and you know he would come to New York City, take one look and throw up.
He has owned the ranch for 30 years, but in the early 1980s, the cattle business got really rough, and the family didn’t know if it could make it. That’s when the idea of taking in guests came about. At first, the locals laughed. Down at the feed shop, they’d shake their heads and say, “Wait a second. You’re gonna get cityfolk to come out here and help you do your ranchin’? And they’re gonna pay you?”
This suggested that cityfolk were even dumber than a barrel of hair, which is what most cowboys think anyhow. You have to admit, it does sound funny. I asked Joe whether he’d pay $700 to follow around a lawyer for a week. “Heck, no,” Joe said.
Then again, ranchers are smarter than lawyers.
They must be, because the guest business took off — especially after
“City Slickers” — and now the Schively and ranches like it are booked months in advance, with groups coming from around the world to spend a week learning the Cowboy Way.
Which I can sum up.
City Way: walk.
Cowboy Way: squish.
City way: aftershave.
Cowboy way: manure.
City way: Yugo.
Cowboy way: Pokey.
City way: labeling machine.
Cowboy way: branding iron.
“Hold ’em down now!” Joe yelled, as he aimed the hot poker at the side of the calf, to brand it in case it got lost. I was holding the back legs and someone else was holding the head, and here came Joe with the sizzling iron
— ssssssss — and he pulled back, leaving a nice, even half-crest, which is part of the Schively brand.
“You’re quite an artist,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “Here. You try.”
The next calf was brought in, and, much as I was not crazy about this idea, I inched forward, shaking the poker nervously. I dabbed the hide like a kid touching a hot oven.
I pulled back. We all stared. I hadn’t really made a crest as much as a, well, it was, kinda, I guess, I have no idea. I do know if this calf ever got lost, it would be returned to Beijing.
“Uh, you better lemme have that,” Joe said, taking the poker.
Answer the following question: 1. Smelling good is . . . a. Very important b. Overrated c. Woman’s work. d. Hah! Jed! Did you hear that?
If you answered b, c or d, ranch life could be for you. There is no way to stay “morning fresh” on the range. As Matt said, “Out here, at the end of the day, you always know where you’ve been.”
Or what you’ve stepped in.
Wait. It’s time for ropin’! This is not the same as roping. Roping is what we did as kids, while jumping and singing silly songs. Ropin’ is what you do to catch a horse, or a cow or a pickup truck.
“It’s all in the wrist, see?”
I looked up. Actually, I looked down. My teacher was a boy who came up to my waist. He had red hair, a plaid shirt and far better roping technique than I could ever hope for.
Kids learn these kind of things on a ranch. They learn to rope, to ride, to clean the stalls, to shovel manure. It may sound trivial to you. Then again. It stacks up pretty well next to destroying the world on a video screen.
“Watch.” The boy, named Tyler — one of Joe’s many well- behaved grandsons
— looped the rope overhead several times, once smacking me in the face. To his credit, he kept the lasso going, then released it at a plastic bull’s head.
Gotcha! He yanked it in.
“Now, you try,” he said. I took the rope, imitated his lasso technique, swung it over my head a few times, and released. Voila! I caught my target. My target was the ground.
“It takes time,” one of the cowboys said. I didn’t mind. I would never rope a real animal anyhow, because I’m sure it would just get ticked off, grab the rope and tie me to a fence.
Let’s do lunch!
Aman works up a hearty appetite on the range. Over meat, beans, cheese and chips, I spoke with Joe and his sons about the business. I asked important questions such as: Where do you keep the soap? Also, I asked, what made a real cowboy?
“Well, a lot of people just throw a rope on their pickup truck and call themselves a cowboy,” Joe said, slowly. (He says everything kind of slowly.)
“But to me, it’s more than that. It’s how you work, how you treat your animals, how you keep your ranch. To me, calling yourself a cowboy is something you have to earn, like an honor. That’s the way I feel about it.”
We all kind of nodded. Nobody said much.
The late afternoon was more chores, more riding, more looking at the mountains and listening to the stream. Life goes at a slower pace at places like the Schively, and the longer you stay, the more your butt hurts. No. The more your breathing slows down. One of the women told me that the first day city guests arrive, they’re up at 6 a.m., looking for something to do, as if they’ve never left the office.
By the fifth day, they’re sitting around, chewing on weeds.
And I believe it. As I rode around, beneath that huge Montana sky, my sneakers firmly in the stirrups, a cowboy hat around my neck — I realized something I was learning from these outdoor adventures: They humble you. They give you perspective. Your problems, instead of papers and reports, are things like gripping a rock, or finding a wave, one thing, one seemingly simple thing, and yet, you are overwhelmed, humbled by nature. You realize how big a world this is, and how small one person’s complaining can be. I believe this is why people live here, on prairies and mountains and beaches. People in cities may think of them as amusing rustics, but the fact is, they enjoy a quality of life that can never be found in rush- hour traffic.
Of course, their laundry bills are astronomical.
The sun was setting. It was time to go. Joe and his wife, Iris, told me to come back anytime, and I believe they meant it, although I felt bad about that branded calf, which will suffer an identity crisis the rest of its life.
Still, I think I got the point of the cowboy/cattle/City Slicker thing. This is the point: There is more than one way to live your life. What a shame if you never get to see that.
The stars were out. The air was cool. As I drove into the Montana night, I felt tired, but good. I rolled down the window and heard the distant sound of laughter.
I think it was Pokey. Saturd