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Into the mountains

Written by Saige

It was always an adventure in the mountains, on the E.O. Bischoff Ranch in the Bighorns of northern Wyoming, where for 20 years I spent two weeks each summer riding and moving cows, a break from my job as a biology professor from Boston.  

The trip to the ranch began with a stop at the Diamond J Bar in Lovell – not to drink but to pick up ice for the half dozen or so coolers we packed in on the pickup or trailer – and to pick up beer. The Diamond J was owned by one of the Bischoffs, and there was an outdoor window for drive-ins where we’d stop, and the bartender would hand us buckets of ice, which we’d dump into the coolers.  

One year, I was getting the ice while John Nation, my guide and friend, was off getting the horses loaded in the trailer. While I was parked at the drive-in window of the Diamond J, there was a sudden hailstorm. It lasted about half an hour, and the ground and roads nearby were covered with hail afterwards. I sat out the storm in the cab of the pickup, then drove to meet John at the trailhead.  

We unloaded the horses to ride in. The gear and supplies had been driven in previously. The ride took several hours and took us up a dugway that I had been through several times before, only this time, all along either side of the trail there were huge trees that had been ripped out of the ground and were lying flat, the result of a tornado that we learned had blown through here an hour ago while I was waiting in the cab at the Diamond J. Had I not been delayed by the hailstorm, John and I might have been riding in that very place when the tornado touched down.  

On another trip into the mountains, John and I were hauling a long horse trailer. We were fairly high up, and the pickup truck started smoking under the hood. A radiator hose was broken or leaked, and the radiator was out of water. Fortunately, there was water nearby – a drinking hole for cows about a quarter mile away. John unloaded one of the horses, I mounted. He looked through the hodge-podge of “stuff” always kicking around in the back seat, and sometimes front seat, of the pickup – empty coffee cups, a pliers, a small empty gas can, shoeing equipment, half a box of shoeing nails, an old jacket, another old jacket, two unmatched gloves, a wrench, a ranch rope, empty soda cans, empty beer cans, metal parts to something, a tool box, chinks, a broken rein, more gloves and objects I didn’t recognize, and found a couple of empty plastic jugs which he handed me. We did have several horses in the trailer, so John could have ridden as well, but we only had the two jugs – or he stopped looking. And I was out there to ride, so ride I did. 

Off I went to the drinking hole, dismounted, filled the jugs, then had to figure out how to get back up on my horse while holding two full jugs of water with no caps. It was one of those “I don’t know how to do it, but I have to” situations, and now it’s one of those “I don’t remember how I did it, but I did” memories. After a dozen of these trips, the radiator was filled, we loaded up my horse, drove to the ranch, and there the radiator hose was fixed.  

Over the years, I met many folks in the mountains – members of three generations of the Bischoff family, their friends who would come in to visit or help with the cattle and “strangers” riding four-wheelers through the country, though I was probably more the stranger to them.  

Mostly, I never talked about my job as a biology professor. I was more interested in hearing about their lives, their work and their fun. Once, a fellow asked me what I did, and when I told him my job, he said, “You must be smart.”

I believe that are lots of kinds of “smart.” Folks I met out West can live off the land. I can’t.  They can doctor a cow and shoe a horse. I can’t. I met a guy who ran an oil rig most of his life. It was fascinating talking to him about his work. Folks there can skin a bear, build dams, irrigate the land, grow crops, help birth a foal, fix a tractor, build a cabin or an outhouse and fix fences. I suppose I could handle the outhouse, and I’ve learned how to fix fence but not the rest. There’s the “smart” of getting the most out of the folks who work for you and the “smart” of getting along with people.