My favorite song for the last few years is by Alberta singer-song writer Corb Lund.
Well everything is better with some cows around/ Livin in town sometimes brings me down/ Let me bestow this western blessing that I have found/ May you always have cows around.
I found it fitting to sing this song while hiking the CDT and now here on the Hayduke. I have much gratitude and appreciation toward many of the ranchers I have met. For the ranchers are the people who have gone out of their way to help me while hiking (maybe some water, sometimes a ride, or just a stop along the road to see if we need anything… more than what most other outdoor enthusiasts do).
Cattle are also often the reason there is a trail in the first place, making hiking access easier. The ranchers and stock over generations have made the paths we walk or the roads to access trailheads.
Where there’s cows, there’s water. I have followed many a stock track to a spring (hopefully fenced), river, or cattle tank. I know I benefit, depend on even, the cattle “improvements” while hiking the drier parts of the West.
Often in short conversations with ranchers we can connect to a love of place. And the gritty romance of the herd and cowboys on the trail a la Lonesome Dove is a story I love.
Lastly, from time to time I eat beef, (preferably from grass fed private or conservation managed lands). So I contribute to this cattle and range quandry.
(Off this Marmot ramble and back to the Hayduke…)
Oh the cows and their grazing here on Tarantula Mesa. The hardscrabble things people do to try and put weight on a bovine meant for grassy pastures…
As we stepped out of our pinyon woodland camp back to the route, the landscape seemed off. Something out of place. Then I noticed the sea of juniper and pinyon stumps amid the sagebrush and rabbit brush. The BLM or someone has cleared hundreds of acres of pinyon-juniper woodland. Not recently, but some time in the last 20-50 years. The range looks hammered and cheat grass abounds.
Such was the sight along our route for the first few miles of road walking. It had me composing a general plot for a young reader series in conservation (a la Wombat in the Wild). In this edition the young heroine would help her aunt and uncle see the range for its ecosystem qualities and do a cash flow analysis for changing grazing procceses and going to a direct buyer market with fewer cattle on private land, and find a cost-share grant or something to help BLM to remove the cheatgrass and restore the native plants. Employing more members of the community with living wage restoration jobs. Obviously the plot needs some tweaking.
The grazing around Tarantula Mesa has me singing my favorite song and wanting better conditions for the land, the people, and the cows.
We dropped off the Mesa into a canyon of Chinle formation material. Loose rock. Careful steps down to the floor of Muley Canyon. More signs of cattle, but also wild flowers.
We contoured along the Chinle into an other worldly network of little canyons, hoodoos, and other formations. Weird and wild country. At times the landscape reminded me of Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
It was early afternoon when I saw two dark brown creatures on mesa. They were a fair distance away in the next arm of the canyon. But I had hunch. Camera zoom lens enlisted.
Bison! We were seeing wild bison! From the Henry Mountains heard, one of precious few mostly free roaming herds in North America. Poa sana! They were grazing. That explained the different looking bovine scat in the last miles.
We admired the bison for a bit standing in warm sun. Then remembered how much we wanted more water. With no water in the tanks on Tarantula Mesa (no cows around, no water around), we were getting low and going into ration mode.
The next canyon we dropped into had water. But the orange algae didn’t give us confidence. We took some for emergency purposes and hiked on.
Finding some shade by a juniper, we started chatting. Our noise flushed a mama bison and calf up the canyon (where we’d be walking)! We snacked a bit longer and then made lots of noise to as to avoid a closer encounter. “Hey there, juniper!” a la our favorite conversation about the willows of grizzly country.
Still, so cool! Four bison in one day!
That lifted our spirits for the warm sandy slog out of Muley Canyon and into Swap Canyon.
The water in Swap Canyon was covered in alkaline salts. We opted to nurse our last liters, knowing our cache would be waiting for us in the morning. We hiked down out of Swap Canyon. Just at the boundary to Capitol Reef National Park, there is a side canyon. The side canyon is just out of the park. Good place for tonight, so we found a sandy spot, cleared the cow pies (Gabriel hopes some were bison scat) and settled in.
Eating snacks. Sipping water. As the sky darkened our cowboy camp in the cow sand didn’t look so bad and we had a marvelous view of the stars between the canyon walls.
Day 17: 19 miles; 257.5 miles total. Pinyon pine on edge of Tarantula Mesa to arm of Swap Canyon.
GPS: used four times; people sighted: zero; roads: walked some in the morning.