By Mary Budd Flitner
Our son’s a busy guy. It goes with the territory, running a ranch.
He stopped at our house this morning and I handed him a cup of coffee, hoping he’d stay awhile. We swapped some news, like when the calves sell and the price of hay, what happened with the colicky horse and family trivia. Just when I had my elbows on the table – ready for real conversation – he looked at the clock, grabbed his hat, gulped the coffee and jumped up.
“Gotta go,” he said. “Gotta meet a guy at 10! Thanks…” And he bolted out the door.
He drove away while I was still talking.
“One more thing,” I called, but he waved his arm and disappeared like a camptender leaving sheep camp.
A friend of mine, Gretel Ehrlich, earned early prestige in film production with a documentary showing the world of sheepherders and sheep camps. The classic scene showed the herder in his baggy, faded clothes, trotting behind the camptender’s rattle-y pickup truck as it left camp.
“Boss, Boss, wait just a minute, one more thing!”
He held something overhead, saying, “Boss, my alarm clock – it ain’t workin’.”
But, the camptender shifted the truck into high gear and kept on going. I haven’t seen the film in years, but I still remember this scene – blue sky, bright sunshine, yellow dust rolling in the road.
Today, there I was. Practically trotting behind the pickup truck waving an alarm clock, trying to think of “one more thing” to say, important enough the camptender wouldn’t hurry away.
“Wait,” I’m thinking. “I want to know about the grandkids, hear about the work, the crew, the profit lines. I want to talk, to listen, to tell you what I’m doing.”
Me and the herder, both too proud to say, “I’m lonesome.”
Tending camp is sheep country vernacular. “Camp” is where the sheepherders live, in wagons set in remote rangelands. Each week or so, someone “tends” camp, checking on the welfare of the sheep, the grass and the herder.
As most know, the camptender brings supplies – groceries, firewood, dog food and maybe old magazines. When it’s necessary to relocate the camp, nearer fresh feed for the sheep, the camptender hooks his pickup truck onto the wagon and pulls it along to the new spot, where he levels the wagon, unloads the necessities and gets the penciled list for “next time.” Then, he heads for home.
Our ranch did run sheep for many years, although we no longer do so. Back in our day, many of the herders who worked for us were solitary fellows; some were drinkers when they got to town, peculiar, sometimes. Fit enough, we hoped, to look after a band of sheep.
All a herder had to do was make sure the sheep found water, try to keep them on good feed to guarantee fat lambs, keep the coyotes out of the sheep and “not let them wander off clear to Holy Hell!” A horse and a couple of dogs were the herder’s only company, except when the camptender showed up.
Stan and I were younger then, with little kids and lots of responsibility. Back then, part of his job was tending sheep camp, and the kids and I often traveled with him just for the outing.
When the camp was clean and the herder was friendly, we’d share rangeland news while he made stovetop coffee for us, handing out gingersnaps to the kids. At other camps, we didn’t stay long. Some of the wagons were really dirty, and some herders had eccentricities such as wearing rubber overshoes all year long in case of lightning, or wearing one pair of Levis over another.
Anyway, we were always in a hurry. I thought the herders were just wasting our time, although it was obvious they wanted attention, company.
Tough guys, the solitary sheepherder type, couldn’t say, “I’m lonesome.” So he’d say, “Can you set my horse’s shoe?” or “What’s this weed? It might be poisonous.”
Could Stan fix the hinge on the door, could he look at the worn-out stirrup, could he sharpen the axe? Did he bring the dried apricots this time? Is there plenty of firewood? The mail? Did he bring enough drinking water and coffee?
“The stove wood, it wouldn’t burn worth a hoot last time. This time it better be dry,” he might say. “Don’t forget to bring jam, next time – strawberry. And prunes. Bring prunes.”
“Come back Tuesday. Sheep might be outta feed; might hafta move camp.”
The tone was urgent, accusing, sometimes. “I thought you was coming yesterday, I waited around – you never came.”
This might be the only conversation, no small talk. Other times, it was a lengthy gab session about grass and weather while Stan grew more and more impatient. When the herder couldn’t prolong the visit any more, he’d give Stan “the list” for next time, and we’d make the getaway.
“Jeez-us,” Stan would say, shifting the old International Scout into high gear, bouncing down the two-track road. “I haven’t got all day. I don’t mind doing what needs done, but I’ve got stuff to do!”
My stage in life has taught me some things about camptending, and maybe in any business, it’s not so different.
“Tend” means nurture, care for, watch over and comfort, not just fix the clock. Tend relates to tenderness, “tend-er” is its provider.
My lifetime was absorbed by tending, as a rancher, a wife, a mom, a friend, a cowhand – tending livestock, land, community, loved ones, young people and old people.
I went to meetings and I served on committees. I tended my neighbor in her grief, I tended shivering baby lambs, stray kittens and old dogs. I brought hay to cows in a storm. I tended my own little cowboys’ broken hearts when they fell off a horse, or lost a glove or failed to gain their father’s approval.
I found satisfaction in this tending. I listened, I cooked, I rode and I worked as needed.
Things change. Today, with my cup of cold coffee, I’m looking out the window at the camp I helped create, and I’m surprised to find myself seeking the old camp to tend – stuff to do – meaningful, important, practical stuff. And I’m surprised to realize I might need a bit of tending to myself, sometimes.
A busy, energetic adult family and numerous grandchildren make up my set of camptenders. They’re loyal and sincere, if not always as attentive as I’d like.
I like it when they stop by; I like to know what’s going on. I like to ride and work cattle, I like to help out when I can – do an errand or some little job.
My friends and I commiserate about knee replacements and arthritis; we sadly acknowledge a neighbor’s frailty. We laugh as our conversations unintentionally drift toward “the way we used to do it,” moving on toward “now-a-days,” rolling our eyes about those topics – criticisms – along with aches and pains and demands. Any camptender dreads visiting that camp, and no wonder.
I hear the “fix my alarm clock” tone in my voice sometimes, signaling the urgency of passing time.
I have a good camp. I don’t need shelter from a storm. I’ve got plenty of dog food, firewood and newspapers. And prunes, I’ve got prunes. The grass outside my window is waving strong in the autumn sun. The cows are fat and the calves are frisky. A camptender will come.
I’ll serve good coffee and make use of precious time, I swear. I’ll try not to ask too many favors, I’ll try to be good company. And then maybe he’ll come again, soon.
Congratulations to each of you, whether you are now tending camp, or being tended or some of both. May you take the job with joy, respect and gratitude. Enjoy it, laugh and treasure what you can.
Thank you for your achievements, and the inspiration you’ve brought to our industry. And I personally say thank you, for letting me join in honoring you today.
This piece was written and presented by Mary Budd Flitner at the Heart of Agriculture Award Luncheon on Aug. 20 at the Wyoming State Fair and revised Sept. 7.