H. Alan Day's Blog

From Out of the Dust

I’m an avid University of Arizona basketball fan and was at a game the other week with my friend Jimmy Patterson. At one point during the game, Jimmy pointed to a fellow walking on the floor. “There’s Bob Baffert,” he said.

               I immediately took interest. I respect any master horseman and Baffert’s success in horse racing is unmatched, if not legendary. I knew Baffert had been raised in Arizona, but I was surprised to see him at a game.

               Afterward, Jimmy and I went to a local burger joint to celebrate our victory. Who should walk in but Bob Baffert and his look-alike, who was presumably his brother. Jimmy, having never met a stranger in his life, got up and went over to talk to them. I’m a bit embarrassed about approaching strangers so stayed at our table. After smiles and talk, Jimmy waved me over. Introductions were made all around.

               “Did you know Bob is one of our fraternity brothers?” Jimmy asked me.  I had no idea that Baffert was an SAE. And, as it turned out, Baffert had no idea that I was from Duncan, Arizona. He volunteered that when he had been a jockey, he had ridden a couple of races in Duncan at the county fair. I was overwhelmed by that factoid. Bob is arguably at the top of his profession and Duncan County fair races are arguably at the bottom of horse racing. You have to admire someone who has risen from the bottom to the top of any profession.

               Later as I ruminated on the surprising connections between Bob Baffert and myself, I realized that I knew someone else who had risen from the dusts of Duncan to the top of her profession. And then it struck me. Maybe we need more folks to pass through Duncan, Arizona, population 200.

Tis’ the Season for a Good Book

My parents were readers and instilled a love of books in my sisters and me. I remember many a happy hour as child sitting next to my mother as she read and reread my favorite books. For years, my coffee table has had a healthy pile of books on it.  Fiction. History. Mystery. Western. Biography. Memoir. You’ll find them there.

Following are some of my all-time favorites. If you’re looking for a good book to give that special someone this holiday season, maybe one of these will fit the bill.

LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry. I could read this novel ten times over and maybe I have. McMurtry develops characters like few other authors can. Who can forget Captain W. F. Call and Augustus McCrae and their epic cattle drive north? Just thinking about them and their comrades makes me want to dig into those pages again.

BLOOD BROTHER by Elliot Arnold.  Another classic, this historical novel tells the story of Cochise, the great Apache chief, and Tom Jeffords, the agent who tried to establish peace between the Indians and the U.S. government. Lots of frontier action in these pages. The movie “Broken Arrow” was based on the book.

C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett mysteries. Box’s series begins with OPEN SEASON published in 2001. But jump in wherever you can. Joe Pickett is a crime-solving, adventure-slinging Wyoming game warden, who keeps me turning the page. Rumor has it the Box is going to be at the Tucson Festival of Books March 14-15, 2020. Mark your calendars!

UNDAUNTED COURAGE: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. I didn’t take many breaks reading this one. Ambrose is a heck of a storyteller and the Lewis and Clark expedition is a heck of a story. Worthy of the category “Required Reading for All.”

EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne.  Being an avid reader of western history, I was surprised at what I didn’t know about the Comanches. Their influence on the West is astounding. Gwynne is a superb writer. His new book, HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC: The Final Year of the Civil War, is on my Christmas list (in case anyone was wondering).

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A Story of Violent Faith by John Krakauer. My wife’s grandmother, Lettie Bingham, grew up in and escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon colony in Chihuahua, Mexico. Krakauer brought me right into her world with this story about two Mormon brothers who receive a commandment from God to kill.

THE EMERALD MILE: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon by Kevin Fedarko. I’ve done some crazy things in my life, but navigating a wooden boat down a flooded and roaring Colorado River from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead’s to break a record is not one of them. Nor would it ever be. But in 1983, it was Kenton Grau’s goal. Kevin Fedarko’s tale of Grau’s journey is riveting.

Happy shopping, Happy reading, Happy Holidays!

Alan

A Call for Cowboy Pilots

               When people start talking about the plight of wild horses, they almost always include helicopter gatherings in their conversation. In this context, the helicopter is considered the tool of the Devil. During gatherings, helicopters terrorize horses by chasing them in an aggressive manner in their attempts to herd them into makeshift corrals. Unfortunately, many of the ranges where wild horses live are rocky and steep making gathers by horseback impossible or, at the very least, impractical. So void of other options, the Bureau of Land Management is left dealing with the Devil.

               During my ranching years, I heard about these gatherings. The stories of cruelty dismayed me and I wondered if the horses could be gathered in any other way. An answer came the day a stranger driving a pickup and hauling a trailer arrived at Lazy B. On that trailer was a helicopter.

               The stranger hopped out. He wore boots and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat with sweat stains and looked every inch a cowboy. He was a friendly sort and asked me if I had any wild cattle that needed to be gathered. “I can gather them easily with my helicopter,” he said.

                I thought for a moment. “There are a bunch of replacement heifers in a pasture that I need to gather,” I said. “But I can get that done on horseback.“ I looked at the chopper glinting in the sun. “Tell you what. I’ll make a deal. I’ll hire you to gather the cattle if I can ride along to see how you work.”

               Fifteen minutes later we were lifting off, headed for the Cottonwood pasture.

               We soon spotted a group of heifers. The corral was on the west end of the pasture, so the pilot approached the group from the east. He descended, but instead of coming in fast and hot, he gently eased the chopper toward the group. Startled, the cattle looked up, turned west, and ran about fifteen steps. They stopped and turned back to look at the strange apparatus buzzing in the air. For a better part of a minute, they eyed the helicopter, which was now hovering in place. Then they started ambling west. They didn’t feel threatened, so weren’t in a hurry and neither was the pilot.  He found another group and repeated the process.

               In less than an hour, we had all the cattle, now in five groups, heading west toward the corral. We were high enough that we could keep our eye on all five at the same time. To keep them moving, the pilot zigzagged back and forth along the rear of the groups. If a group stopped, he turned and went at them but never in a threatening manner.

               Once all five groups were steadily walking, he picked a convenient hilltop and landed. I watched the cows move like some invisible force was behind them saying, “March along, time to get to the corral.” I was amazed. The pilot explained that if he were to charge the cattle and fly over them, they would turn and run back under him in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t take long before they would learn that they could always do this.

               “If they run back under you, you’ll never be able to gather them by helicopter,” said the pilot. “They’ve learned that they can turn and run. The herd is wrecked for the pilot and the pilot after that. “

               After fifteen minutes or so, a few of the groups stopped, so we lifted off and got them moving again. Soon, all the groups combined into one and went into the corral.  The pilot landed outside the corral, and I hopped out and shut the gate.    

               I was flabbergasted. I had just had a real eye-opening demo of the practicality of the helicopter. This was by far the easiest, quickest gather I had ever experienced. Had I done this on horseback, I and six other cowboys would have had to load our horses on trailers, haul the trailers eight miles, unload at the corral, saddle the horses, and ride for an hour to get to the back of the pasture , then turn around and start pushing the cattle toward the corral. If helicopters had been cheaper to purchase and operate, I would have bought one.

               So when fellow horse lovers refer to the helicopter as the tool of the devil, I beg to differ. I say the pilots, not the helicopters, are the devil. The BLM should qualify pilots as a cowboy who knows how to fly a helicopter rather than a helicopter pilot who thinks he can force livestock to do his wishes. My guess is that the horses would be less terrorized going into the corrals and have fewer injuries along the way. My other guess is that the BLM has never considered this option. But it certainly is an option worthy of trying.

What Rastus Knew

Rastus was a Lazy B cowboy who was like family. He couldn’t read or write, but what he knew never ceased to amaze me. When he was eight years old, he ran away from his abusive and dysfunctional home in Pinos Altos, New Mexico. Somehow he  made his way to Lordsburg, about 80 miles away. A kind soul noticed the homeless young boy wandering around town and suggested to Rastus that he might fit in at the big Lazy B ranch. They just might need someone to bring kindling to the cook. What’s more, he’d probably get fed for doing the job. So Rastus went out to the ranch, got hired, and remained there for 75 years.

Rastus learned cowboying from the roots up. He went from being a cook’s helper to being the number one cowboy in the crew. For as long as I remember, he was the go-to guy. He had an encyclopedic mind that observed things most of us wouldn’t notice. He always was aware of how much water was in each tank and how the grass was growing. If a windmill pumped a little less water than it should, he’d say the leathers need to be changed. What’s more, he also knew each cow, and Lazy B had 1500 cows. Often he could identify a cow by looking at her footprints. He knew which calf belonged to which cow and what last year’s calf looked like.

One thing that we all learned is that if Rastus told you something, which would be something to do with the ranch, you could go to the bank with that. It was always correct and accurate. The only time my dad argued with him, Rastus was so incensed someone doubted his word that he quit. His word was his bond. When it turned out Rastus was right, my dad had to go to town and hunt him up and apologize. 

Rastus lived at headquarters and only went to town about once a month. Ever year, we give him a Christmas present, which often was a nice shirt. No one ever saw the shirt again because it stayed folded up for later use. He probably had ten shirts for later use that he never unwrapped. He had a needle and thread, though. He’d wear a shirt or pair of pants until it got so thin it would start to tear. Then he carefully sewed the tears together with tiny stitches. He literally wore his clothes until they came apart. Yet he never looked anything but neat and clean.  

Before my time, Rastus had fallen off a windmill. One leg landed on an anvil and had a real bad break. The doctor had to cut a piece out of it. When it healed back up, it was three inches shorter than the other leg. He had his boot built up, but I never knew him to walk without a limp. If he suffered from backaches, I wasn’t aware of it because he never complained.

So even though Rastus never learned to read, never learned to drive, he was one of the smartest men I ever knew. He was totally loyal to the ranch, and I was proud that he was a part of my extended family.

 

A Double-Dose of Inspiration

You never know when inspiration will appear. Just the other day, two big doses came my way.

               I was having lunch with my buddy Neil. His wife had passed from cancer a few years back, a sad event indeed. Neil recently had remarried, so I was eager to hear his news.  Turns out he married a long time friend. She and her husband were dear friends of Neil and his wife; they even traveled together. Her husband died shortly after Neil’s wife died. One day Neil happened to mention to her that he was taking a trip. She he said, “I’ll go with you,” and the rest is matrimony history.  

               If that doesn’t pluck your heartstrings, there’s more to the story that will. Neil’s new wife had a daughter with two children. The daughter died and the father had long stepped out of the picture.  Some families are small, some are big. Neil’s wife’s family errs on the small side. In fact, she and the other grandmother are the children’s only living relatives. So at age 86, my buddy Neil and his wife are raising a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old. When called on to be saints, some people willingly and without complaining, rise to the occasion. 

                As Neil and I parted ways, a man who had been dining next to our table came up to me.

               “I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re a writer,” he said. He explained that his mother is an avid reader. At age 103, she devours books and has a mind that is as sharp as when she was fifty. His mother happened to be in the restroom, so I waited around to meet her. Pretty soon, her she came with her walker. Her son introduced us.

               “I know your name,” she said. “Didn’t you write a book with your sister?” She proceeded to say that she still owned it and even told her son where it was in the house. “Where can I get your other books?” she asked.

               “I keep some in the back of my car,” I said.

               She wanted them inscribed. I explained that a new book is worth the cover price, but as soon as I scratched it up, it would dip in value. She chuckled and her son handed me a pen.

               It was an honor to send her home with those books. We all face our mortality, but it’s inspiring when you see someone, who has lived longer than most, face it with grace and with the eagerness to learn something new each day.  

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