H. Alan Day's Blog

A Cowboy on the Writing Trail

               I came to writing in a very oblique way. I never had dreams of writing a book while I was growing up or during adulthood. But then one day, the phone rang and my sister Sandra, who is pretty plain spoken and gets to the point in a direct fashion, said, “Alan, I think we should write a book together. “ 

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said, “Tell me more. Why would we want to write a book? And what would that book be about?”

               Sandra said that we had been raised in a very unique environment that had taught us both a very strong work ethic. Being raised on the Lazy B cattle ranch, a 200-square-mile chunk of Sonoran desert, taught us to be problem-solvers because out on the ranch nobody was going to solve your problems for you.

               I had never taken any writing classes and certainly had minimal skills in that department, so the book Sandra was suggesting felt about as big as that ranch. I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Sandra was far more skilled than I in terms of writing ability.  She wrote many legal opinions which weren’t graded for literary quality but were read by many lawyers and historians.

               After stumbling and fumbling with an answer and not wanting to look like a fool, I finally said, “Well, how do I go about this? How do I start to write a book?”

               Her answer was Sandra simple. Yellow legal pad and number two pencil.

               “What if the product sounds dumb or doesn’t make sense?”

               “Whatever you have on paper submit it to me and we’ll make it work,” she said.

               I have a feeling that not many would-be authors get that kind of a send off in their writing careers. Having been given an assignment, however, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled it.

               A lot of days I would only get a paragraph or two written, and then after sitting and contemplating it for awhile, I’d tear it up the sheet and throw it away. Other days, I would say to myself, okay big boy, today’s the day for writing. And then I would find fifteen excuses why not to write. Progress was very slow.

               After six months of writing, I had several chapters that seemed a little bit appropriate. I sat down and read everything that I had written. It was so bad that shame consumed me. The thought hit me that even if I could rewrite these pages twice as good, they would still be bad. In a fit of depressed anger, I tossed it all away.         

               I had attempted to write the history of the ranch chronologically beginning in 1880 when our grandfather settled on Lazy B. I decided I needed a whole different format to make it more interesting. Yet I didn’t know what other formats were used by writers. So I gave myself two weeks to come up with another way to write the book. I spent time each day just trying to think up a different way to write the story. Toward the end of my two week self-imposed deadline, I finally had a bright idea.

               I asked myself the question: which author do you most enjoy reading? The answer was Larry McMurtry. I then asked why Larry McMurtry? What is it that draws you to his writing? My answer to that was I admire his character development. I mentally bond with his characters and want to go on their adventures with them.

               As I reached this point in my thinking, the light bulb went on in my dimly lit cranium. Ohmygod. I have on the ranch six characters and each one is worthy of a book, or at least a part in a book. This idea hit me so hard that I could feel the truth of it inside me.

               Two of the six characters were my parents and the other four were cowboys who worked on our ranch, each for more than fifty years. I had huge respect and admiration for all six of these people. I thought golly, if I can just bring them back for readers in the same bigger-than-life mode that I saw them, readers will be very entertained. The heart of the Lazy B was right there in front of me.

               I immediately went to writing a chapter about each of the characters. The writing became easier and the pages started flying off the yellow tablet. Sandra was very accepting of what I had written and incorporated the stories into the Lazy B book. She sold it to Random House in 2002 and it’s still out there, finding its way into the hands of new readers.

Crabbing on the Coast

I had never been to Puget Sound, so when my good friend Dave invited me to visit this past July, I jumped at the chance. Dave’s house is perched on a hill overlooking the water and offers the most magnificent view of the waterway and the Olympic Mountains. His little outboard motorboat is tied in the harbor three hundred feet below, and the crab grounds are about a half a mile out to sea.

Every day after golf, into the boat and out to the crab grounds we went. Skipping over the tiny waves in the small boat, icy saltwater spraying us, was nothing like riding a horse while gathering cattle in the hot, dusty desert. I’ve rafted down the Grand Canyon, lounged on a houseboat in Lake Powell, elbowed others on a “cattle” cruise boat in the Mexican Riviera. Not even those compared to the sensation of whizzing over the waters of Puget Sound.

We pulled up the crab traps never knowing the contents. But Dave’s an expert and we never came up empty. Anywhere from two to eight Dungeness crabs surfaced, along with a few smaller crabs and starfish that were immediately jettisoned to their watery grazing grounds.

We took the crabs straight back to the dock where we cleaned and prepped them for cooking. Within a half hour, they were steaming in a crab cooker.

I was raised on beef, but I have no complaints about crab. The sweet meat is hard to stop eating. We didn’t even dip it in butter. It didn’t need it. Fresh crabmeat, a salad, some white wine, and a Pacific Northwest sunset is as good as it gets. I love Arizona, but I sure don’t mine falling in love with new places and spaces.

 

July 4th & Parades

We never attended a 4th of July parade growing up. At least, I don’t recall attending one in Duncan.

However, Duncan has an All School parade. Past graduating classes from Duncan High School—home of the Duncan Wildcats when I attended—have the opportunity to build a float. Local farmers haul their flatbeds to town with tractors. Classmates hang streamers on those flatbeds and load folding chairs. Then all the classmates take a seat and ride the four blocks through downtown Duncan . 

About five years ago, I rode in the parade. The reunion with old friends was a ton of fun. But that day I also learned something. I learned the definition of “small town.”

Small town (N): When you’re in the parade and waving and waving, but no one is waving back because everyone is the darn parade!

Wishing you a happy 4th of July. Hope you get to wave at somebody.

Alan

A Tour of Downtown Duncan March 2017

Duncan High School

The Hottest Day

In the desert, June is hotter than July or August. When I lived on Lazy B, we always started looking for clouds and rain around July 4th, and we were eager to have some by then after living through the heat of June.

There was one day that I recall being the hottest. We had a new BLM range conservationist, Frank Hayes, who worked out of the Safford office. Young and cocky, Frank didn’t have much experience, but loved the process of understanding grazing, grass, and land and was anxious to make a name for himself as a good range con.

One day Frank called. “Alan, I want you to round up the cattle and move them to High Lonesome Pasture,” he said. “We’ll rest the East Pasture for six months.”

I agreed the pasture needed resting. “But the calves are quite young,” I countered, “and still recovering from the shock of branding. They don’t have much energy right now. And it’s too hot. If we wait until rain starts, it’ll be a better time. “

“No, we have to do it now,” said Frank, flexing his authority.

I knew in theory he was correct; in practicality, however, it was the wrong time to make the move. But you only learn things like that through years of experience out on the range, not in your chair in the BLM office. After unsuccessfully trying to persuade Frank to postpone the move, I said, “Okay, I’ll move the cattle one condition. You need to come out and help.”

Frank agreed.

On the given day, we set out at 3:30 am. We had about eight cowboys including Jay O’Connor, my nephew and Sandra’s youngest son, who was quite interested in the ranch but had a pretty smart mouth. The East Pasture was quite large, so we spread out and started rounding up the cattle. By 11 am, we began the drive toward High Lonesome.

The temperature topped one hundred degrees. No clouds floated above us, no shade spread below us. The cattle plodded along, their pace growing slower and slower until finally they just quit. We could maybe prod a cow to move ten steps, but then she’d stop. We had reached Horseshoe Tank, which was bone dry. At least the cook had arrived in the pick up with our lunch.

We got off our horses and let them stand. They had no interest in moving. There wasn’t a tree in sight. After we guzzled some cold water, the eight of us crawled underneath the pickup. We were too hot to eat. For about an hour, everybody laid in any small scrap of shade they could claim. At least the sun wasn’t beating down on our faces. Had the pickup been parked there all day, the ground would’ve been cool, but it wasn’t. It was hot. We were hot. We just laid there as still as the cows, unable to move or speak.

Finally, Jay turned to Frank and said, “How does this feel, Frank? Do you feel pretty smart now?”

I was mortified. Was Jay repeating what I had said? Probably. At the same time, I was proud of Jay for saying the obvious.

Frank didn’t reply.

After an hour, I rallied the group to finish the last mile and half. We got the cows and calves moving and drove them to High Lonesome. They appreciated the fresh water and fresh feed.

It was one helluva a hot day to teach a lesson. Then again, the lesson couldn’t have been taught without the hot day.

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