On the Ranch

September 18, 2002

Today, for the first time this season, it is snowing, and a rafter of turkeys (two hens and five poults) moves through the yard in front of the lodge. The fat, determined flakes mingle with the fog, making it nearly impossible to see the strange dawdling creatures as they waddle like drunken ducks through the turbid air.

Earlier today, before the fog dropped, I sat on the veranda and watched the snow sweep across the vega toward us, stretching like a white veil across the vast plain. Inch by inch, it swallowed our world, and now it has hidden all things from view—turkeys, vega, Vermejo Peak, brilliant yellow aspens.

J is tying flies in the lodge. He screwed his vise onto the dining table and is working on a blue damsel. His baseball hat sits on the chair beside him and he’s drinking a glass of something over ice. Whiskey. Scotch. Some fine, expensive liquor left behind by a guest at the end of fishing season two weeks ago. During this guest-less break between fishing and hunting seasons, the lodge is ours. This morning I lit a fire in the grand stone fireplace, our first of the season, and I’ve kept it going all day. The lodge is warm and glowy. It smells of ponderosa pine.

My impending separation from J at the end of this season waddles about like one of the turkeys in the yard, refusing to follow its mates into the woods, refusing to take refuge from the storm. I only wish the snow and fog could hide me, too, that I could roll down the mountainside, wrapping myself in it like a soft cloak that would protect me from the inevitable fall.

* * * * * *

September 19, 2002

This morning we woke to four inches of snow. The mountainside is padded and thick, and it is quiet. Even the bull elk, that are now in rut and should be bugling with lust, are silent, bedded down in the trees until the sky clears. Snow is a good sign. The drought threatens to steal the life out of every creek and root, and three of the five wells that provide potable water to the main lodge down the mountain have gone dry. The reservoir on the other side of the vega has shrunk. Its shores, which normally stretch nearly a mile across, are close. I can almost cast a stone from one side to the other.

Last night, J tried to lure our resident bushy-tailed woodrat (a.k.a. packrat) to the window in the dining room. He smeared a bit of peanut butter on the outside of the frame and topped it with a small square of tin foil, trusting in the packrat’s attraction to all things shiny. We stayed up late with the lights off hoping to catch a glimpse of the one animal that has eluded both of us this year. I gave up at midnight. Buoyed by booze, J persevered until 2:00. When we woke this morning, we discovered that instead he lured a bear that cracked the windowpane and chewed through a good portion of the wooden frame.

There are a lot of things to love about this ranch—588,000 acres of pristine wilderness—but most days J and I love the animals best. Bears. Bobcats. Bald eagles. Elk. Packrats. Rattlesnakes. Bison.

J is jealous I have seen a weasel. I am jealous he has seen a mountain lion.

If we had another season, we might be able to balance this out, but we don’t. I want a different kind of love, the kind that comes with marriage and children. J does not. He could go on like this forever.

* * * * * *

September 20, 2002

The sky cleared overnight, and with the hot sun once again overhead, the snow is melting. The mountainsides are dark and wet, and by evening the elk will venture out of the woods and spread themselves like concertgoers on the vega.

I am in my little office, working on my novel. J is outside on the porch sanding a walking stick he is making for me from an aspen trunk. “It will double as a weapon,” he tells me. Bear, my dog, has a tendency to incur the wrath of other dogs. She prefers people. J is afraid that when she and I walk alone back in Massachusetts, dogs will come after her and I will not be able to fight them off. J wants to protect me. He is doing many small things like this to insure my safety when we are not together anymore. We are friends. Good friends. Separating would be easier if we were not. When he calls me out of my office into the sunshine, I let my eyes adjust to the light, then stand and admire my stick/weapon. The stick is perfectly straight, pale yellow, and smooth. I stamp it on the ground to test its sturdiness.

Last night, a bear chewed up one of the Adirondack chairs on the veranda. Probably the same bear that ate through the window frame. He also smashed a few garbage cans and left deep claw marks in the garbage room door. We slept through it all. Even Bear.

* * * * * *

September 21, 2002

Today J and I give Bear a bath in the fish-house sink. As always, she is uncooperative and sullen. She doesn’t like baths. But I’ve since brushed her, fed her dozens of sugar snap peas, and made amends. Oddly, she’s become quite the dog’s dog this season, and in her tenth year of life and in the middle of a drought, she has finally overcome her fear of water. When we’re out hiking and the New Mexico sun slices like a blade into her black fur, she leaps right into the nearest lake or creek. She even drinks from toilets now. J is proud.

The ranch owner’s son and his very pregnant wife are here to hunt elk. They stay in the big house at the main lodge twenty-five miles down the mountain. It’s archery season. The son killed his bull a few days ago. Today the very pregnant wife wounded one and her guides are out looking for it. J and I listen to their conversations on the ranch radio as they follow the blood trail over the peaks and into the valleys, seeking to put this poor, pained creature out of its misery.

The mice are beginning to take over the lodge as they do every year when the temperature drops. Last night we killed four in the kitchen. The traps under the refrigerators snapped their wee necks. J hates the traps, but if we didn’t use them, thousands of mice would storm the lodge. They would make tea, eat cookies, and bar the doors. They multiply fast.

For dinner, J makes cornbread and a pot of chili. I sit on a stool by the counter and read while he cooks. As he stirs, measures, and chops, he narrates his process, calling out ingredients and cooking times. He says, “Don’t stir too much. You’ll break the meat too fine,” but he means, “What will you eat when I am no longer with you?” He is afraid I’ll try to survive on Honeynut Cheerios and milk, or giant bowls of grapes. This might be true. I don’t like to cook. Whenever he strong-arms me into chopping carrots for salads or tomatoes for salsa, I start out strong but quickly get distracted by the calliope hummingbird outside the window or a scene from my novel that I have to get on the page while it’s lively in my head. “Your knife-work is horrible,” he chides me, taking the knife from me. “I know,” I say. “Watch,” he says. He is patient.

* * * * * *

September 22, 2002

Today J and I hike four or five miles to look for elk antlers. The aspen leaves are crisp and bright against the hot blue sky. We hike straight up hill to 11,000 or 12,000 feet and then head west. We are winded. In a long, flat meadow, J finds two antlers, sizable 6-pointers, but both already bleached by years in the sun. Near the edge of the meadow, I find a third. It is an admirable 7-pointer. Fresh, too. Not more than a year or two old and still a rich, milky brown. As always, I whoop and holler. I hoist the antler over my head and run to show J. He warns me for the millionth time not to run with an elk antler. “Many a hunter has impaled himself on a tine,” he says. I slow to a walk and think about the first antler I ever found…the first time I successfully distinguished the distinctive curve of an elk horn from a fallen branch. Five years ago, I think. Five whole years. I whooped and hollered then, too.

When we return to the lodge, we discover our bear has passed through again. He smashed another garbage can, tore up the rosemary in the herb garden, chewed one of our hummingbird feeders, and left a giant pile of poop in the driveway. Just in case, J puts the shotgun on his shoulder as we circle the lodge to look for him. No bear. We walk to the edge of Crazy Woman Creek, which is now no more than a trickle. No bear. “We may need a trap,” J says.

Tonight the full moon rises like a bright, glowing head above Vermejo Peak. It is the Harvest Moon. At midnight, J and I drive around the upper peaks and watch the elk in the moonlight. The sky is clear and the moon is bright. We cast shadows on the ground.

* * * * * *

September 23, 2002

This morning at 7:30 the coyotes call so loudly I think someone is playing music outside. I get out of bed, open the door, and look for visitors. No one. I lean on the porch railing and listen. The coyote music gets louder. They must be after something just over the hill. The air is crisp, and long fingers of fog reach towards the blue sky like prayers.

I call MP on the ranch radio and ask him to haul a bear trap up to the lodge. “We have a determined bear,” I say. “Too determined?” MP asks. “Yes,” I say. “10/4,” he says. Two hours later, J and I stock the trap with old melon and a few slabs of steak. “Steak?” MP asks. “He’s hungry,” J says. He hates to trap bears. After we set the trap, we sit on the veranda and wait. Twenty minutes later, the bear trundles out of the woods and crawls right into the trap. He is thin and mangy. Pissed off, too. The door slams shut behind him and his deep-throated growl makes the whole contraption quake and shudder. “Damn drought,” MP says as he hooks the trap to his truck and hauls the bear off to another part of the ranch.

Today, we head out for another hike. I pack cheese sandwiches and apples.

By the time we get back to the lodge, the big bull has drawn his harem onto the vega and his hundred or so cows are crowded around him like lustful groupies. He is my favorite bull. Strong, seductive, and sure of himself. A second, smaller bull with a smaller harem bugles at him from the tree-line at the base of the mountain. He stretches his neck long and lets out a low, vibrating, fluted whistle that expands as he holds it. The big bull bugles back. It goes on like this for hours. Back and forth, back and forth, each trying to prove his worth and entice the opposing bull’s cows to his side….kind of like a complicated, grown-up game of Red Rover. By sunset the bulls have drawn close to one another, and when it is almost dark, they begin to fight. The clash of their antlers reverberates in the valley. As we expected, the smaller bull gives in and moves into the woods again, nursing his wounds. At least half of his cows defect.

* * * * * *

September 24, 2002

In a few days, our first hunters will arrive, and for the next four weeks, J and I will rise at 3:45 a.m. to begin work. J will make breakfast. I will make coffee. He will make omelets. I will set the table. When the hunters stumble in at 4:45 to eat, we will smile, wish them luck, and listen to stories about “the big one that got away last year.” The hunting guides will clomp around in their muddy boots. Every morning I will start the fire and keep it going throughout the day. When I leave here, it is the task I will miss the most.

Each week, J and I will look at each other less and less, except when the other isn’t looking. Then we’ll look more. I’ll try to memorize the kind Texas timbre of his voice.

When the hunters are late for dinner, we will argue about how many antlers and bones I should take back to Massachusetts with me. I have collected a huge stockpile. I want to take them all. “What will you do with these? Your apartment will be too small for all of this,” J says. “You don’t have to worry about it,” I say. In the end, I take them all, even the full-length coyote spine that I carefully wrap in one of the soft white guest towels.

When all the hunters have come and gone, we will close the lodge for the season. B will come up from the main lodge to shut down the water. F will come up to close down the generator. Each night it will snow a little bit and many more mice will move in.

* * * * * *

October 25, 2002

Before we drive down the mountain for the last time, J and I hike from the lodge to the horse pasture. As we come over a ridge, seven bald eagles rise up from a coyote carcass and break into flight. Seven. The flap of their wings amplifies the silence between J and I.

Before I close the door to our room in the lodge for the last time, I take a look around and notice that a spider in the corner of our bathroom has sucked the life from over twenty-two ants. Their dried-up carcasses lie in a dark pile. A few scattered victims lay close by, belly up, legs in the air. One rugged ant, bigger than the others, valiantly carries a dead friend across the tile. The spider watches from the corner.

I shut the door and climb in the truck.