Rocks From 1,000 Feet

A bucket of rocks was in the way as I climbed into the passenger seat of the light aircraft.

‘Oh, I forgot about those,” the pilot chuckled, looking over from his seat in the cockpit.  “Just put them on the ground outside.   Okay?”

Minutes later we were airborne in the two-seater Piper Cub.  I couldn’t hold back the obvious question any longer.

“What’s with the rocks, George?” I asked, shouting over the roaring single engine as we gained altitude from the rough prairie that had served as an airstrip.

“You’ll see in a minute,” he shouted back.  A smug look decorated his weather beaten face.

George Richards banked the light plane and pointed it west across Lost River Ranch.  He lived near the eastern edge of the vast beef cattle operation.  His brother John lived on the western edge of the ranch they owned together.  John also flew a plane.  Their two homes were 90 miles apart.

It was a hot day in August 1962, and George was showing me why it took dozens of riders and two aircraft to patrol the massive ranch.  He’d explained before takeoff the ranch covered a staggering 283,000 acres.  It was on the western prairies – ranchers call it short grass country – where scarce rainfall left the region bordering on desert.  Each head of cattle needed 100 acres of sparce grassland to support it.

That afternoon the visibility was clear from our 1,000 feet cruising altitude.  Below us, the vast undulating prairie was occasionally interrupted by ravines leading to a wide lower plain.  It was the ice age riverbed of Lost River.  Each ravine looked like a huge wriggling centipede working its way down.  Water would grace the ravines converting them to creeks, only after the infrequent rains, and in spring if there was enough winter snow.  The bottoms of the ravines were covered with scarce green grass punctuated by scrub bush and an occasional grove of trees.

“Are those your cattle?” I asked rhetorically, as we flew over a dozen cattle grazing deep in one ravine.

“Yup,” George replied.  “When it’s time to market some, and at roundup time, John and I go check out those ravines.  We find hundreds of ‘em that way.  The riders can’t see them from the ground.  Often they’re grazing in the shade of bushes in the ravines.

“And that’s where the bucket of rocks comes in,” George said with a wide grin.

‘Ah hah,’ I thought. ‘Here comes the answer I’ve been waiting for.’

“Look in the pocket of your door,” George said pointing to the passenger side door.  “You’ll find a notebook and a bag of rubber bands.  When we spot some cattle, we write down the number and location on that notepad, tear off the page and wrap it around a small rock.  The rubber bands hold the notes on the rocks.  We fly over the riders and drop the notes.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said.

It would be decades before miniaturized electronics made possible consumer-priced two-way radios, then cell phones, and then a staggering array of mobile devices.

I shouldn’t have been all that surprised by George’s communication-by-rock demonstration. The day had begun with an earlier surprise.  And they weren’t the only ones in store for me.

After a massive breakfast of pancakes, multiple eggs, bacon and a small steak, George had invited me to drive  with him to a corral a few miles from the ranch house.  There, a herd of cattle was awaiting transport to market.  The tall lanky rancher wanted to show me how cutting horses did their work.

As we were leaving the house, I instinctively headed toward a dusty, bedraggled  looking pickup parked beside the front verandah.  George directed me to a big shiny Cadillac.  The luxury car was almost new.  After getting in, I asked wouldn’t it be better to take the pickup?  Our destination was across rough open prairie littered with rocks, sagebrush and rodent burrows.

“Naw,” George said.  “After all those drinks last night, my head’s a bit tender this morning. This here Cadillac sure does ride nice and smooth.  And it has air conditioning. Just what we need.  Whadaya think?”

On the way over to the corral, George invited me to return in three weeks for a fly-in barbeque.  Rancher friends from hundreds of miles around would fly in with their families for an old-fashioned country BBQ.  I was flattered.  And my friend George was preparing me for another surprise.

We were perched on the top rail of the corral when George said:

“Why don’t you pick out your steak for the fly-in?”

He explained some of the steers would be slaughtered for the fly-in BBQ.  I should choose one to supply my steak for the event.   A city kid, I couldn’t tell a desirable steer from a rocking horse.

George motioned to a rider in the corral, and pointed to a steer near us. The animal he’d pointed to was in the middle of the herd.  The rider moved his reigns ever so slightly. At the signal, his horse sauntered into the 20 or so cattle. The horse went to work.  It slowly moved through the herd, separating the cattle.  It found and followed the chosen steer.  How the horse knew which one wasn’t clear.  The rider simply sat astride the horse as it began to dodge and jump side to side, a split second ahead of moves by the steer.  Finally, the steer stood, head half down, all by itself.  The rider dropped a rope over the steer’s head and tied it to a corral post.  I’m convinced the horse had a triumphant look in its big brown eyes.

I though it was all over.  We went back to the ranch house for lunch with George’s wife, pre-teen son Garnet and six-year-old daughter Angie.  After lunch, Garnet accompanied us on a walk to a ridge overlooking the valley of the fabled Lost River far below.  George was explaining how the melting of glaciers thousands of years ago had carved out the wide valley.

We were standing on the edge of the ridge.  Gusts of wind were blowing up the steep bank.  A wind gust blew off George’s wide brimmed western hat.  It flew back behind us.  Garnet scampered after it.  He caught it and plunked it on his own head, and then walked back toward us.  As Garnet neared the ridge, he whipped the hat off.  Grabbing it like a Frisbee, he flung it out over the deep void planning for it to catch the next updraft.  His timing was off.  The expected gust didn’t come on time.  The hat swirled out and down.  Garnet looked at his dad.  George looked back and let out a hearty laugh.  Without a word, Garnet gingerly crawled down the steep slope over rocks and bushes, and through patches of cactus.  He picked the hat off a bush where it had come to rest, and scrambled back up the slope, delivering the hat back to its owner without a word.  George and I laughed. Garnet smiled sheepishly.

Minutes later, George and I were in his plane touring the ranch while he demonstrated his clever communication-by-rock system.

The next morning, again an early one, another surprise awaited.  I was planning an early departure.  George had other plans.

“You know that steer we picked out yesterday?” he asked after another massive breakfast.

I nodded.

“Well come with me,” he said.

I followed him out the back door and across a large yard with natural grass.  No one could accuse it of being a lawn.  We stopped at a door to a hill!  As it turned out, the door led to a root cellar dug down into the ground. The hill was soil heaped over it.  George pulled back the heavily padded door and led me down a ramp into the dark.  He opened a lower door and switched on a light.  We were in the ranch cold room.

There, hanging on hooks from the ceiling were two sides of beef.  Just yesterday, these had been a steer bawling and fighting with the others, all ready for market.

“Pick your steak,” George commanded.

“What?” I replied.

“Pick you steak,” he repeated with a mischievous grin.

His city-raised guest had to confess he had no idea what a steak looked like imbedded in a huge side of beef.

George walked over to the four sides, looking them over carefully.  He selected one and then pulled a felt marker out of his jeans jacket pocket.  His finger came to rest on what I recognized as a rib.  He put my initials on it with the felt marker.  It must have been a good steak, because below mine he put his own initials, then the initials of his wife, daughter and Garnet.

Three weeks later, those sides of beef were pulled with others from pit BBQs, unwrapped and expertly carved.  And there they were – our initials on the edge of the huge steaks when they were carved and dropped on our plates.  They covered the large porcelain disks almost completely.  And that’s how I learned my preference for steaks: medium-rare.

2 thoughts on “Rocks From 1,000 Feet

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