“It’s better to know the country than to be the best cowboy.”
I don’t know who first uttered those words but he or she was sure cow savvy. I remember the first day working on a ranch after I graduated from college when the owner started barking out my instructions for the day. “I want you to close the gate to Green Field and bring in the bulls from Dry Springs.”
First of all, it was the middle of winter and there weren’t any “green fields” anywhere. They were all brown. And secondly, if it was a dry spring how would I know it was a spring? Like the name says, it was “dry.”
Basically, there are four ways that landmarks on a ranch get their name. The first is topographically in which the landscape becomes the landmarks. Some good examples I’ve encountered include Mud Flats, Mirror Lake, Corduroy Road, Rock Pile, Truck Ruts and Devil’s Speedbump, so named because it would slow a rider up trying to go around all the fire ant hills and squirrel holes. Sometimes the ranch takes the name of a geographical landmark, such as Split Butte, Fire Mountain or the Bell Ranch.
If the country is so flat you can see for two days, there are no water features or trees, and the vegetation is so sparse it would starve a jackrabbit, the pioneers then got creative and found other ways to name landmarks. I worked on one ranch where the owner would say stuff like, “We need to do some fence work over by Anaplaz Ann,” or “Take some salt out to Rattlesnake Bite.” He might say, “I saw a cow bogged down in Cow Carcass Creek.” It turned out he had named the features on his ranch after medical maladies in which an animal died and her rotting bones, bleached white by the sun, were the only benchmarks. (At least I hope they were animals!) He just left the skeletons where they fell, all except the skull, that is. Those he sold to an antique dealer in town for city folks to buy and put in their gardens. For many years the sale of those heads often made the difference between profit and loss.
The only ground I’ve ever owned was either under the house in which I lived, or on the bottom of my boots. So I had to lease land to run cows and sheep. I leased one ranch in which there were signs of a previous civilization everywhere and the landmarks were rusting pieces of junk littering the landscape. It seems the previous owner liked to buy stuff but since he had no storage he just piled it in the weeds. He was a hoarder of rusty metal. We were on the place for many years and I’m proud to say I named many of the features, including Dead Jeep Hill, Bedpan Pasture, Mattress Springs and Bicycle Tree. The latter was a Willow Tree that had an old bicycle in the fork of its branches. Some have suggested that the bicycle got there when the seas receded and the bike lodged itself in the branches. Good explanation except I don’t think they had bikes 480 million years ago in the Paleozoic era. And I don’t think global warming has raised the oceans that high yet.
Another way ranchers name landmarks is after famous people or animals. I worked on one ranch in my youth that was 100,000 acres ... if you flattened all the mountains out. Actually it was only a little over 1,000 acres. One landmark on the ranch was Mount Lincoln, so named because if you tilted you head 90 degrees you could see the outline of our 16th President.
Well, some people could.
We buried our dog on a little rise we now call Aussie Hill and my goal in life is to some day have a place on that ranch named after me. For some of us, that’s the only way our names will live on after we’re gone. So I’ve asked my wife to cremate me and scatter my ashes on the ranch so that some day when cowboys gather to have the range boss line them out for that day’s gather, in the early morning fog he’ll say, “Nimrod, you and Jacobs bring in the cows grazing on Lee Pitts.” ❖