There are good reasons why cowboys don't wear running shoes. For one, at Granding time on the Orton ranch, you don't get blood on your socks.
The Orton ranch sprawls across 5,000 acres of sagebrush and grass on the high treeless plains of southeastern Wyoming, 70 miles from Laramie. Through the heart of the ranch flows the Medicine Bow River, rising in the mountains of the Snowy Range to the south.
Ranch manager Jim Jones, who in 1951 graduated second in a class of two from Elk Mountain High School, gathers his new calves together for branding every June. He is helped out by hands around the area, including a cowboy named Howard Smith who I met in nearby Medicine Bow and who I thought was extending me a rare courtesy when he invited me along.
Ha. I might still have joined him even if he had warned me I would be conscripted into wrassling calves. But I would not have worn my permeable yellow-mesh $49.95 Adidas jogging shoes.
While it's not too often that Wyoming's summer visitors stray from the circuit of national parks, mountain trails and fishing streams, it is possible for a traveler, even one in running shoes, to get close to some of the working traditions of the West -- closer, in fact, than you may have bargained for.
Howard Smith picked me up just after first light on a day in late June, and we rattled down a dirt road in his Chevy truck. He came to the Medicine Bow valley 46 years ago and, at 66, he is one of the legendary cowboys in the area. He looks the part: His face is deeply creased under an ever-present cowboy hat; his voice sounds like a rockslide and his leathery hands are well suited for cradling whiskey and the delicate transactions of a barroom brawl.
"They say if you drink from the Medicine Bow River you'll never leave," Smith said by way of explaining his long stay in a corner of the United States not celebrated for amenities. Soon we could see the aspens waving along the Bow River, and cattle everywhere, along the river, standing in it, doing what cattle must. I made a note to avoid sampling the Bow River at any cost, lest I be laid up in the area indefinitely with an intestinal disorder.
Branding work belies the image of the cowboy as rugged individualist. It's a cooperative undertaking in the tradition of a barn raising, and, on the Orton ranch at least, the work divides along sexual lines. Jim Jones and his men handle the cattle and Nell Jones and other ranch wives fix lunch.
The men numbered a dozen, ranging in age from Howard Smith's fellow roper Elmer Irene, who is 71, to calf wrasslers Cameron Lemons, 12, and little Ricky Jones, 9. Lemons and Jones were dressed like the grown men and took after the tall, stoical, chaw-chewing ranch hands. When Ricky was kicked in the head by a calf, he tried to brush it off without tears. A new generation was being shown much more than how to brand a calf.
The morning's first chore was to round up the herd. The cowbodys fanned across the sagebrush on horseback, rousting strays from thickets and draws and driving the herd toward a barbed-wire corral. The bulls lumbered at the front; the calves, 180 total, trotted in the rear. One and all sent up a great din of mooing and bawling and dumb, half-swallowed complaints. The cowboys yipped and cried and waved their arms in distinctive fashions.
Meanwhile, Jones' brother in-law laid logs of split cottonwood into a barrel stove and cranked a bellows, and the vet rubbed a whetstone against the blade of a ruthless tool known as a Newberry knife, or scrotum splitter.
This was no day to be a calf on the Orton ranch.
Swinging lassos, Smith and Irene stalked through the corral on horseback. With a calf on rope, they dragged the animal over to the wrasslers. Some of the calves weigh almost 400 pounds, and tackling them is like trying to bring down a piano. So the wrasslers work in pairs.
The headman grabs the calf by the neck and haunch, jerks it off its feet and drops it on its side. Then he kneels on the calf's neck, holding a foreleg in a hammerlock. The company that makes Ben Gay could not have come up with a better method to strain a back.
Meanwhile the headman's partner is reaching for one of the calf's powerful hindlegs, legs that kick like pistons. The man at the rear braces himself against the upended animal, wedging his boot, or running shoe, against the bottom leg, and gripping the calf's top leg as tightly as possible.
Then the hard part begins, for the wrasslers must subdue calves that are having their most stressful day up until their trip to the slaughterhouse. Workers plunge hypodermics into their flanks. Some heifers have their ears sliced in half with a pocketknife, one more way of distinguishing them if they get mixed up with another herd. The branders press molten irons to the flesh; flame dances up. If the legman shouts, "Bull calf, bull calf," the vet descends with his Newbury knife and another tool called an "emasculator." He swabs the groin with iodine, splits the scrotum, snips the cords, throws the Rocky Mountain oysters into a bucket and dusts the evacuated area with a powder that keeps the flies from laying eggs there.
Sometimes all these operations occur simultaneously. Calves squirm and bawl. Blood issues from the wound. Acrid branding smoke roils up; the air is heavy with the stench of burning hair.
It is enough to swear you off meat for a while.
I was corralled into one of these teams. There was no honorable way out. After a few calves, I began to lose arm strength: a calf wriggled free and kicked a hole in my bluejeans. My morale flagged. The pincers of the Newbury knife came alarmingly close. Rocky Mountain oysters flew past my head. My running shoes soaked up blood like a sponge and the ground we were working on was being heavily fertilized. A review of the French toast I'd had for breakfast seemed imminent.
So it went for six hours, and so it goes on the Orton ranch spring after spring. The calves jumped up after their appointments, now wearing an "S/7" or "2J" on their sides, and trotted off with spattered hindlegs, seeming no worse for wear.
The men, full of fellowship, swung up into their horses and pickup trucks and rode back to the ranch house for a lavish lunch of potato salad, fried chicken, baked beans, cinnamon rolls, cheesecake and fruit. There was a basin of hot water, towels and soap set out, and everyone scrubbed up. There was a tubful of beer and soda on ice--if you were strong enough to haul back a pop top and weren't too busy wringing out your red socks.