This July Sunday is hotter than any I have ever felt in Wyoming. It has been dry for weeks. The sun hangs limply in the sky, but for all its limpness, it blazes. The clouds are thin and high. The temperature is over a hundred.
On most Sundays, Simon would be at Mass and I’d be at home. Instead we’re out fixing a windmill. Here at the ranch, we need the windmills to draw water to the surface for cattle to drink. After last winter, several mills aren’t pumping, and the cows are looking for water. Next week there will be more cows. The windmills have to be fixed.
I’m high up on the windmill tower making repairs. Simon is staring up, making sure I’m OK, sending tools up to me or retrieving those I drop. I once dropped the stub-tower pipe and bashed the side of the pickup. Just an inch higher and it would have hit the window, sending glass flying like sleet. I tried to be more careful after that.
For me, growing up, Sunday was both the day of rest and the day of threats. My Catholic father and my Lutheran mother disagreed on the religious upbringing of their children, so instead of attending church they sat silently at home every week, glaring at one another.
Wanting only to escape, I spent most of my Sundays hiding down by the irrigation ditch, climbing the cottonwood trees, wandering up and down the road, and scraping at the dirt in a fallow cotton field. On those Sundays, I received my religious training from nature. Only, as a child, I didn’t know this. I remember trying to express my feelings for nature to my fifth-grade teacher, nervously telling her about the sacredness of rocks and dirt. She said this was “the doctrine of Pantheism,” speaking in the same dismissive tone she used when telling us about the Greek gods and goddesses — a tone that said these were the beliefs of primitive peoples and children.
Here at Four Mile Ranch, unless we’re running machinery, every day is quiet. Sunday is quieter still. It encourages me to listen. The earth seems to revolve more slowly.
At the gas-plant mill this morning, we found about twenty cows around the empty stock tank. I had to shoo them away before I could work. They were thinking only of water. A cow drinks around twenty gallons of water a day, but it varies. I’m trying to design a simple experiment that will monitor water intake for each cow over an entire summer.
How could this experiment be effected? I could measure how much water comes out of the ground at each well, or how many gallons left the stock tank or the pond. I’d need to factor in evaporation. I’d need to measure how much water was carried away on cows’ feet and bodies, how much was drunk by eagles and ravens, coyotes, deer, horses, pronghorns, mountain lions, raccoons, lizards, and frogs. Then there is the rust that begins eating away the metal stock tanks and the water that leaks away. I see it would be impossible — I can’t even name all of the ways water might disappear besides being drunk by cows.
The only accurate device would be one linked to the cow’s swallowing, measuring the amount of water that each cow actually drank. It would have to differentiate water from grass, grass from regurgitated grass, belching and reswallowing from swallowing. This study needs more controls than I can manage.
I’d also like to know exactly how much water we pump each year from the earth. That would be easier to figure out. I’d need only to put a gauge on each windmill’s outlet pipe. Then I’d have to make sure the gauges never broke. The important things to know in relation to how much water we pump are: how much water there is in the lakes and rivers under Four Mile; and how fast the underground water is recharged from rain, snow, and glacial runoff.
If I knew all of these things, I could finally determine if we are using water faster than it’s being replenished. I already know — can feel it by the look of the land, the growth of the grasses, the ways of the animals — that this is the case. But my observations don’t count. If I measured water draw and recharge with meters and kept accurate records, then what I said about the look of the land would stand up in a court of law, or in a science class.
After climbing the ladder to the platform, I attach myself to the windmill by hooking the safety harness around my waist with a spring clip. The clip slams shut with the sound of a huge deadbolt being thrown into place. When I adjust a crescent wrench and put it over a bolt, the bang of metal on metal rings out across the landscape. It’s as if, because there are so few creatures nearby, each sound has to go hunting for ears to fill.
Often the only nonhuman sound is the wind, but on this hot Sunday there is no wind. Sweat drips into my eyes and stings them. My hands are blackened with oil and grease, so I try not to use them to wipe my face. Instead, I swing my head from side to side, scattering drops of sweat into the pond below.
My daughter, Caitlin, has been with us all day. While I work on the tower, Caitlin, now just shy of two years old, tracks lizards and throws handfuls of dust into the air. Now and again she tries to help with the work, but the pipe wrenches are bigger than she is, and she can’t keep her balance in the slick muck around the hole. So she sits on the bumper of the pulling rig and operates one of the hydraulic levers, making a cable go up or down, which in turn lifts sticks and pipe out of the casing.
In the afternoon Caitlin grows very tired. I come down from the mill and make a bed for her in the shade of the truck with a canvas tarp and a small green-and-yellow quilt my Aunt Margie made for me when I was a baby. At one end of the quilt I place Caitlin’s favorite pillow — down-filled and soft, covered by a pale yellow cotton pillowcase, so smooth it seems almost cool.
With a sigh of relief, Caitlin lies down on the ground, and I climb back up the tower. But it isn’t long before I hear her cry out. Then she screams. I look down and see her shaking her head from side to side, wiping her forearm across her face. Both her arms are smeared with blood, as are the pillow and quilt. And as she rocks her head, blood flies away from her.
I race down the tower ladder, trying to imagine what horrible injuries my daughter could have sustained while sleeping in the shade of the pickup on a hot day. I leap past the last few steps and run over to her. When I hold her on my lap, I see she has a nosebleed. It’s a severe nosebleed, but nothing more. I try to help her calm down, though my own heart is beating madly. And I wonder fearfully what I will do if the bleeding doesn’t stop. (The ranch is forty miles from town, and there’s nothing between the two but open land.)
Caitlin is crying hysterically and rubbing her forearms across her blood-covered face. I try to hold her arms and explain to her what’s happening, but succeed only in darkening her hands and arms with grease and adding her blood to my oil-soaked coveralls.
Slowly, we both calm down. The bleeding stops. Simon brings the water jug from the truck and we wipe the blood from Caitlin’s nose and cheeks, from around her mouth, from her arms and legs. There is no way to clean the pillowcase and quilt; the blood has already dried to a flat brick red. Dust settles and coats everything.
After a time, Caitlin lies back down and I go back to work. Every few seconds, though, I look down, making sure that her nose hasn’t begun to bleed again. Simon periodically finds some excuse to go to the truck and walk by her as she sleeps. Her hair is matted with sweat and beads of perspiration cover her upper lip and nose.
I lean out from the tower for a moment, letting the safety harness support my weight, letting it alone keep me from falling. Completely relaxed, I look around. There is so much space. Rather than trying to fill it, I allow it to fill me.
In 1913, Willa Cather described her response to the prairies of Nebraska when her family moved there from Virginia in 1883:
. . . the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything — it was a kind of erasure of personality.
Cather feared being swallowed by the distances between herself and anything else. To a questioning friend, she wrote, “You could not understand. You have not seen those miles of fields. . . . You can’t hide under a windmill.”
Late in the afternoon, my mother-in-law, Dollie, comes out to the windmill. She’s driven from town, bringing a special supper. I come down from the tower and, while we eat, Dollie tells us about a recent visit she had from an old college friend.
Dollie grew up on a nearby farm bordering Clear Creek, but went away to college in Denver. Her roommate there was from New York. The two became good friends, but after college they returned to their Wyoming and New York homes. Though they corresponded, they saw no more of each other until a few weeks ago, when the woman came to visit Dollie here in Wyoming. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years.
Dollie brought her to Four Mile. The plan was to walk around the ranch, then go to the cabin for dinner and to spend the night, returning to Buffalo the next morning. After the walk, Dollie’s friend was visibly agitated. (“I could almost see her tremble,” Dollie said.)
They prepared dinner, opened a bottle of wine, and sat down. It was quiet except for the popping of the wood in the cookstove across the room. Before dinner was over, Dollie’s friend rose from her chair and said, “I have to leave.”
“What’s the matter?” Dollie asked. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, but I have to go back to town. I can’t stand it out here. How can you stand it? We’re forty miles from anywhere. What if something happened? There’s no phone, no radio, no way to contact anyone. What if I fell and broke my arm or cut myself and began to bleed? I could bleed to death before we got to town.”
Seeing the fear in her friend’s face, Dollie made no attempt to dissuade her. They packed up the remains of supper and returned to Buffalo.
I often stand on the deck outside that cabin in the morning. Made of untreated wood that has long since bleached gray and is filled with cracks, the deck is littered with empty cat-food cans. Near the railing, there’s an old electric frying pan filled with water. There are some bits of aluminum siding, torn off the building by the wind. There is a wooden lounge chair my wife’s father made over thirty years ago; it has no cushions and the formerly red paint is almost completely worn off. There are a few rusted metal folding chairs and some toy trucks my nephew Matthew has left behind.
The deck faces east toward the rising sun. Standing there, I look down to the corrals and across the pasture toward the windmill and the dry creek bed. On the other side of the cottonwoods that line the creek bed, the land rises, gradually growing rougher, more eroded. At its highest point are the Lizard Rocks, covered with orange and brown and gray lichens. Past these, the land becomes even rougher as it falls toward Powder River seven miles away. I can see all this from the deck of the cabin, and I always stop and look before I step down to go to work.
At night we sometimes stand on the deck or lie there and look at the stars. One still night, unable to sleep, I lay out with a kerosene lamp and tried to read a Louis L’Amour novel Simon had left in the cabin. In it was a bookmark on which someone had scrawled these words of Laotzu:
The way that can be spoken of Is not the constant way; The name that can be named Is not the constant name.
Finding that in a Louis L’Amour novel, I gave up my reading and looked again at the stars.
On the horizon at night are glowing spots that look like huge stars rising nearby, but are really the lights of surrounding towns. The glow fifty miles to the northeast is Gillette. The one forty miles to the northwest is Buffalo. There’s a glow a hundred miles or so to the south that might be Douglas, or Midwest, or maybe Casper.
The light from these towns dissolves upward into the night sky, no more consequential or disruptive than a single match struck in an electrical storm. Yet there’s something disconcerting about these distant glows. We are so far from town; still, the towns come to us. Their light reminds us that, though we go far away, we are followed.
One night, wanting to escape, my wife and I stepped down from the deck and began walking toward the river in the dark. It took us several hours to get there. We went to a spot where the river makes a large bend near a stand of cottonwoods. Surrounded there by hills and trees, we could see no lights, no towns. If we had been bitten by a rattlesnake, we might have died. If we had cut an artery in a leg, we might have bled to death. There would have been no one to find us.
The fears of Dollie’s friend are based on real possibilities. All the things she worried about could have happened to her. They could happen to any of us out here. It is a small and steady risk we embrace to live this particular life. Something in my present state of safety makes me long for this risk, this possibility that I might go for a walk and never return. If that risk grows too great, I’m sure I will long for safety.
When I have climbed down from the mill for the last time today, I release the brake and wait. In a few minutes, water spills from the pipe. The cows who were waiting when we arrived this morning now return. Only cows come — no bulls. When breeding is finished, bulls must be separated from cows to avoid late pregnancies and then late births.
One day when we were separating bulls from cows, two of the bulls took off in opposite directions. So Simon and I split up, each following one bull. Simon got around in front of his bull, turned him, and had persuaded him to approach the open gate. At the gate, though, the bull turned and charged back the way he’d come and into a cottonwood grove. Bulls know a horse and rider are at a disadvantage in the trees. There are overhanging limbs waiting to slash a rider’s face and arms. There are downed branches waiting to tangle up a horse’s feet.
The bull ran behind a tree and stopped there. Simon’s horse walked slowly toward the tree from the opposite side. When the horse had just about reached the tree, the bull leapt and, whirling around the tree trunk, charged the horse, ramming him head on. The horse planted his hind legs and took the blow — a jarring, thunderous whack — without going down. Then Simon and the horse turned and trotted away.
“When a bull’s in that kind of a mood, it’s better to just leave him alone for a while with his thoughts,” Simon told me.
I was moving the second bull along the fence toward another open gate when he suddenly kicked and rose right over the fence, cracking a post in his flight and almost taking it with him. I galloped to the gate and into the second pasture to pursue the bull, now just a cloud of dust. As I approached, he turned and charged, managing to catch my horse in the flank. When the bull jerked his head up, he flipped the horse over. I was caught under my horse for a minute and badly bruised. Had the bull not been dehorned, the horse might have been killed.
It is Sunday, a long, hot day in summer. We are working to guarantee water for bulls and cows to drink. For horses and humans, too. For every thirsty creature.
Caitlin wakes up as Simon and I are gathering the tools and getting ready to head for the cabin. I pull off my coveralls and sit with my daughter.
“How you feeling, sweetie?” I ask.
We joke a little about her nosebleed, then share an apple and some corn chips. We decide to stay long enough to watch the sun settle down over the Bighorns. The clouds make long horizontal bands, orange at first, then going to rose. The intense light dims, the long shadows dull, and it begins to grow dark. We get in the truck and drive slowly away.