J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 12-27-10 | TheFencePost.com

J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 12-27-10

Here in the San Luis Valley, this time of year is usually dominated by winter weather. But this winter has been downright balmy so far. It has recreators and ranchers united in sending their snow forecasts to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The other night I walked home from a friend’s home after dinner, about 8 o’clock, and it felt like a cool summer night.

Interestingly, a warm, snowless winter tends to remind everyone of brutal winters past, winters when temperatures sometimes didn’t get above freezing for a month, and dipped below zero as quickly as the sun set. In one of the more powerful winters in recent memory, the winters of 1992 and 1993, we had 4-feet of snow on the level from early November through late April, and a high temperature in January of 10 below.

In the winter of 1992-93, I remember how the men came into the shop to report for work at 7 a.m. sharp, wool caps under their hats, their pickups still running in the headquarters yard, and their hands rubbing together as if to make fire. Each man then felt obligated to report the thermometer reading at his home when he got up at 5 a.m. for his first cup of coffee, looking through frost-feathered windows at the chilly darkness.

“I had 28 below.”

“I had 30 below.”

“Shoot, I had 34 below.”

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“First liar doesn’t have a chance,” I usually said, to break the chain of claims before the ninth man in the crew felt obligated to claim 50 below. It was a point of pride and statement of vigor to be living in the coldest spot around. This wasn’t only true on the ranch. I noticed it as a tendency in the community. Everyone wanted to be living in the coldest spot because it conferred an essential ruggedness to the person who survived and thrived – or, in some cases, simply functioned.

Cold winters created challenges. My goal in running the ranch had been to come up with ways to have steady, year-round work rather than the more typical ranch pattern of working the men hard in the summer and then laying them off in the winter. So we had hay and grain to ship, which meant keeping trucks on the road and tractors fit for loading, and we also ran a local repair shop for tractors and machinery. When business was slow, I went to farm sales and bought machinery in need of repair and we fixed it up and sold it in the spring.

Nevertheless, winter was still slower. Instead of going out and putting in another half a day’s work after dinner, everyone had a chance to read that book that had been on the shelf all summer, or tinker if they had a heated shop.

This year’s balmy winter is confusing sometimes because when it’s close to 50 degrees outside, a person feels compelled to go outside and do something, even if there isn’t anything scheduled outside. A person feels guilty staying inside when the sun is shining outside and the wind isn’t howling.

So, I have to admit that, in addition to needing a big snow for the watersheds, I’d like to get snowed in so I can feel justified about staying inside to peacefully contemplate the epidemic of nonsense going in certain places outside.