I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Holy Cow, what a difference! When I was in college, I had plans. Big ones that involved corner offices and six-figure salaries, high heels, power suits, cocktail dresses. It was the same road all of us business majors hoped to travel. I attended the University of Nebraska (Go Big Red!) so it wouldn’t surprise a thinking person that at age 21, love hurtled into my life like the meteor that burned through our atmosphere wiping out the dinosaurs. In my little life, love had about the same impact. The man I oh-so naively fell for was a rancher in the Nebraska Sandhills.
I went traipsing off to a place where cattle outnumber people by more than fifty to one and my nearest neighbor lived five miles away as the crow flies. Living so far out I learned all the survival skills, such as how to stock a pantry, cook on the lean, stay warm when the electricity goes out for a week. *hint: body heat is greatly underestimated. I was outdoorsy, but in the cross-country skiing way, not in the round-u- cattle-in-a-blizzard kind of category.
My father-in-law bought me a helluva good cutting horse. Named Big Enough because he wasn’t much larger than a pony. But that horse had a lot more cow savvy than I did. If you pointed him after a critter, you’d be hell-bent to get him stopped. Big Enough made me a good enough hand I got called on to work cattle often.
One blustery afternoon, we were out in the calving lot cutting heavies because there was a big storm coming in. What this meant is that my husband and father-in-law would slowly, ohmygod so slowly, ride through the bunched herd and quietly isolate one pregnant cow after another, checking their back ends to predict who would calve soon by “how loose” they were. When they chose one, they’d push it away from the rest and my job was to meet it, and Big Enough and I would walk it across the pasture, through the gate to a corral close to the house so they could keep an eye on her during the bad weather.
Our job was as fun as watching Jello harden. The culling went on for millennia, until I couldn’t feel my feet in the stirrups, my lips were probably the color of the icy Atlantic, and my fingers couldn’t grip the reins. All I could think about was the warm cinnamon rolls and hot coffee I had in the kitchen. Frozen brain drifting, I was snapped to attention by hollering. I think Big Enough had been dozing because when I kicked him to attention he startled and jumped. I grabbed the saddle horn to keep from pitching onto the hard ground.
My husband—never one for subtly—started screaming unmentionable things at me with the general gist that they’d kicked a cow our way and, because of our inattention, she’d double-backed into the herd. I kicked Big Enough after her and, smart guy that he was, he identified her immediately. He went after her, cutting her from the herd. She was a determined bossy and tried moves a Husker running back would be proud of. But Big Enough had her number and he’d feint and parry until all I could do was clamp my knees into his sides and white-knuckle the saddle horn.
Big Enough succeeded in getting her separated from the herd but she was riled up. You can imagine running a pregnant cow is not good, but by now, Big Enough was focused. The cow took off on a full run across the pen, my father-in-law and my husband were telling me to stop chasing the cow, in between all the cursing, of course. But a mere mortal was powerless against the force called Big Enough. My ski hat blew off, tears streaked from my eyes and froze before they reached my temples. We raced across the frozen pasture, the cow in a panic, Big Enough committed, and only me with enough foresight to notice the approaching three-strand barbed wire fence.
Big Enough only saw the cow, who only wanted to get away from us. I wedged my feet in the stirrups and pulled the reins with all my strength, standing and leaning back. This convoy was heading for disaster and nothing I did made any difference.
Big Enough didn’t slow. The fence loomed. The cow kept running. We were all going to die. I’m sure I ground a layer or two off my teeth.
The cow hit the fence at roughly 200 mph. She tangled in the wire and did a gymnast’s tumble. Still we careened toward her. We’d roll in the barbed wire. Big Enough would shred his flesh, maybe break a leg in the fall and have to be put down. I clenched, preparing for the Rodeo Apocalypse.
Did I mention Big Enough was smart?
He stopped inches from the fence line.
I didn’t. Like a cannonball, I shot out of the saddle, over the fence and landed in a heap on the frozen sand. The cow, tail still raised, turned from me and trotted into the corral. Big Enough stared at me in disappointment that I couldn’t do my job of staying in the saddle. My husband and father-in-law had already returned to sorting cattle.
A few minutes later I enjoyed coffee and rolls in my kitchen and about fifteen years later, I left the Sandhills for good.
I might have taken that well-traveled road after college to a business career. But I’m glad I took the one less traveled. No denying it was bumpy and rough, but along the way I discovered Kate Fox and now, I get to write her stories.
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