A December morning
December 19, 2011
It’s a December morning on the ranch. The pine trees in the front yard are glistening in the filtered light of sunrise, covered with a Christmas card perfect amount of snow hanging from their branches. The nearby river wears a rising cloak of steam between it and the colder air above, making the cottonwoods along the bank glitter in a coat of frozen fog. An eagle flies through the mist, master of the sub-zero air, gazing down at a doe and her two fawns pawing aside snow, nibbling the grass underneath. The bare branches of every tree and the barbed-wire fence encircling the pasture are encrusted in ice, glistening like ropes of jewels in the growing light.
The fuzzy, winter-haired horses start wandering towards the feed-bunks, each exhaled breath a ghostly-white cloud drifting from their warm noses. The cows mill around in a group by the gate, waiting for the feed tractor to arrive with the morning hay. Their black backs are dusted lightly with white, as if sprinkled with powdered sugar, from last night’s snow. In the crystal clear air, every hoof-step makes the snow squeak … another reaffirming sign that it’s indeed a cold December morning.
This is just the type of country morning your “cowboy” described to you before you got married. He convinced you that, “Life on the ranch will be filled with interesting, rewarding work. Horses to ride and gentle beef cattle to herd … just like your favorite Western movie. There will be some tough times too, but working together, we’ll have every evening’s sunset to share together.”
What your cowboy most likely failed to mention are WINTER chores on the ranch. It’s a season that brings along its own set of adventures. If there is anything I’ve learned as a ranch wife, it is that no matter how beautiful and “western movie/Christmas card perfect” it looks outdoors, it takes true fortitude to dress for below zero temps and a yard covered with snow. For myself, I truly know that winter has arrived when it takes me over five minutes to get “geared up” to go outside.
When my husband hollers from the back door, “Could you come watch the gate while I drive the feed tractor through to feed cows,” its out to the muck room I go, donning chore jacket and knitted hat. I am glad my cuddl-dud long underwear are on underneath my jeans, along with my knee-high wool socks. Coveralls come next, stained with various colorful spots donated over the many seasons of use. Bright purple, was bangs vaccination of heifers, the dark brown – pulling a calf and the gray-green … well, a steer can whip a tail full of manure three feet with sheer accuracy when held, unhappy, in a branding chute. My feet are stuffed into tall muck-boots, so heavy I bet athletes could use them as leg-muscle exercisers. Next I put on my warm mitten-gloves, the kind that have the flip-top mitten over the glove part. That way you can twine tie shut a gate without taking your gloves off. If the wind is blowing, I include a muffler, wrapped over hat and jacket hood, so only my eyes are peeping out. Ok… I’m ready. (I don’t remember ever seeing Maureen O’Hara help John Wayne, wearing 27 pounds of winter gear).
Over the years, I’ve noticed that most of the cowboys I know can do chores, in the dead of winter, wearing just the same jeans they wear when its 90 degrees outside. Oh, they will bundle up in a wool shirt, vest, jacket, neck rag, scotch hat, and even sometimes coveralls (if it’s really cold) … but seldom long underwear. Makes me wonder if they are just nuts or think that jeans keep you completely oblivious to the air temperature. Maybe they just don’t want to waddle like the famous Abominable Snowman across the corrals like I do in my winter gear. I remember one frigid night the vet had to drive out and help us pull a breech calf. After we were done, I noticed him grinning at my multi-layered outfit.
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“At least I’m warm.” I mumbled through my muffler. It was then that I remembered the old pin I had on my coveralls. It reads, “Underneath my clothes, I’m completely naked.” I had pinned in there years ago as a funny reminder to my cowboy.
Yes, it can be a long winter season sometimes out on a ranch … but when I do chance to look out across the pasture and see everything blanketed in sparkling crystal-like snow and hear my horse nicker a hello with a mouthful of hay, I recall my cowboy’s promise. A December morning, holding open the gate, in 27 pounds of fabric, isn’t really too far off from paradise after all. I think it may even be better then my favorite Western movie … specially when I sit at the kitchen table, thawing my hands out around a hot cup of peppermint schnapps and cocoa, watching my best friend, dressed in his summer jeans, admit that it just might be time to think about digging out those long-lost pair of long underwear stuck in the back of his closet drawer.