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Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Real Life Adventure: The Mt. Carmel Youth Ranch Cattle Drive

 By Victor R. Claveau, MJ

September 14-15, 2012

Cast of Characters:

Cowboys – Professional ranch hands
Ranch Boys – Residents of the Teenage Program (12-17)
Beartooth Men – Residents of the Adult Program (18-26)
Mentors – Advisors to Teenagers

For most of the spring and summer months, a good portion of the ranch’s herd grazes in a 44,000 acre pasture high in the Beartooth Mountains of northwest Wyoming. A summer drought, once again, reduced the forage and the herd had to be brought down to the home ranch about a month early.

I had never been on a cattle drive and looked forward to the experience. Th
e morning sun was just peeking above the eastern mountains as I turned off Highway 120 and drove the three miles to the bunkhouse.

The ranch boys were excited to begin the day. After Morning Prayer and a hearty breakfast, we all loaded into the ranch’s bus for the 28-mile drive to the trailhead. A few of the ranch boys read books, posing as if this was just another day. However, one could almost feel the excitement in the air, as they knew they were in for an experience they would never forget.

We drove south to the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and turned west to gain the high country. The highway is also part of the Nez Perce (Nimíipuu or Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail. The trail bisects Yellowstone National Park, and then follows the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone out of Wyoming into Montana.The 1877, the Nez Perce Indians fled their homelands in order to relocate in Canada. U.S. Army Generals Howard, Sturgis, and Miles and a contingent of cavalry troops pursued them.

I wondered how many of the ranch boys had ever heard of the Nez Perce, and the story of what was one of the most sorrowful events in Western U.S. history. During an ordeal that lasted from June to October of 1877, Chiefs Joseph, Looking Glass, White Bird, Ollokot, Lean Elk, and others led nearly 750 Nez Perce men, women, and children and about 1,500 horses over 1,170 miles through the mountains, in order to reach the relative safety of Canada. This epic fighting retreat by the Nez Perce became known as the Nez Perce War.

Finally, after a devastating five-day battle during freezing weather conditions with no food or blankets, with the major war leaders dead, Chief Joseph formally surrendered to General Miles on October 5, 1877 in the Bear Paw Mountains of the Montana Territory, less than 40 miles south of the Canadian border. The battle is remembered by the words attributed to Chief Joseph at his formal surrender:
Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
Chief Joseph has been portrayed in poems, books, television episodes, and feature films. Notable among the latter is I Will Fight No More Forever, a 1975 historical drama starring Sam Elliott, James Whitmore, and Ned Romero as Chief Joseph.

As we continued to climb, we entered the “open range land” high in the mountains, we spied a dead cow on the side of the highway along with the mangled SUV that had killed her. Cattle have the right-of-way on open rangeland, and it was obvious the out of state driver had been traveling too fast for area conditions.

We exited the bus just above the 8,600 ft. level to begin driving the cattle 19 miles down the mountain, and then north to the overnight pasture. Mike Apanashk and Daniel Kaiser, a couple of experienced cowboys, had been in the high country for the past week, scouring the landscape for cattle that seemed to be hiding in every gully or behind every rolling hill. In spite of all their efforts, more than 120 head were still missing. After the drive and a couple of days rest, these cowboys will make a quick return to the high country as the first snows usually begin in October and the cattle cannot be left to face the harsh winter months looming ahead.

While sitting on the ground with his boots off, massaging his sore feet, (I quickly got up-wind, as he had not bathed for four days) Mike gave us a quick brief about how we were to manage the cattle on the drive. There were about 25 of us - Cowboys, Mentors, Beartooth men, and Ranch boys, with about a dozen on horseback; all under the watchful eye of the ranch’s Executive Director, Tom George. Sherri Kreitzmann, the ranch’s Mental Health & Addiction Therapist and her husband Kyle pitched in for the day. The men and boys would alternate riding and walking. Although I did get to ride and herd the cattle for a short time, I had the luxury of driving the truck pulling the stock trailer. My primary responsibility was to follow behind the herd and pick up the late-born calves or older cows that would not be able to manage the entire journey on their own.

As we were passing the accident site on the way down the mountain a U.S. Forrest Service Ranger stopped me and, in a not-so pleasant voice, asked, “Are you part of this outfit.” When I answered, “yes”, ordered me to “Get that d--- dead cow out of here or I’ll have it removed and send you the bill.” It took a half dozen men twenty minutes to get the 1,500 pound bloodied and bloated carcass on the trailer. While unpleasant, the task was all in the day’s works for these rugged cowboys.

My only experience on a trail drive has been vicarious. I had recently watched the 1958 movie Cowboy, starring Jack Lemmon as a tenderfoot Chicago hotel clerk who loans money to visiting tough, no-nonsense trail boss Glenn Ford, in exchange for a partnership and his taking part in the next 3,000-mile cattle drive. In one of the early scenes, after weeks on the trail, Ford is soaking in the hotel bathtub, shooting cockroaches off the walls, with his trusty Colt 45. He cannot understand why Lemmon or anyone else would want to go on a cattle drive. He describes horses and cows in the most derogatory of terms. At one point, he says, “Cows have a brain the size of a walnut and are the most stupid slab-sided animals on the face of the earth” (actually, a cow’s brain is the size of a baseball, and on average weighs 458 grams or a little over 1 pound). I mentioned this scene to Mike and he said, “Sure, cows are dumb, but they certainly have made a fool out of me a number of times.”

After a few hours, we grouped the herd, stopped for lunch, and prayed the Angelus. The “chuck wagon” was the back of a truck loaded with giant Subway sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks, trucked in from Cody, (pop. 9,500, named after legend Buffalo Bill Cody) about 20 miles away.

We made it back down the mountain and began to drive the herd north along Highway 120. Each time we came to a bridge, we stopped traffic while the herd crossed. The herd invariably left evidence of their passing and I remember thinking that if we were in California, we would, most likely, been required to have a giant pooper-scooper follow behind, diligently cleaning up the mess.

Many curious drivers stopped to photograph the drive. Invariably, the ranch boys would smile and tip their hats, playing their cowboy roles to the hilt, especially if the onlookers were young, pretty girls.

About 6 p.m., we took another chow break. The crew devoured pulled-pork on hamburger buns with BBQ sauce, more chips, and soft drinks, from the ranch kitchen.

We had been pushing the herd for more than 11 hours, averaging approximately 1-3/4 miles per hour when we finally arrived at the overnight pasture, next to the Clarks Fork River, where we would secure the herd for the night. Most of the ranch boys had walked behind the herd, for nine to ten miles, fighting the dust and tired cattle all the way.

I expected that it would be a quiet group of exhausted ranch boys on the nine-mile bus ride back to the home ranch. Instead, I heard animated conversation about their varied experiences. They spoke of the merits or lack thereof for each horse they rode. Of course, they spoke of the pretty girls that smiled at them from the highway. One of the ranch boys said, “My left particular really hurts from all the riding.” I said, “Your what hurts?” He replied, “My left particular. You know, pointing to the afflicted area. I’ve been trying to clean up my language.” The entire group burst into laughter. This was one of those times when you would have to have been there to appreciate his comment and his discomfort. As I left the boys for the evening, I heard them begging for an extra hour or two of sleep, after their 16-hour workday.

The boys did get to sleep in a bit longer than usual, as they were not needed until the afternoon of day two of the drive. During the night, the herd had unexpectedly spread far and wide. As a result, the cowboys spent much of the morning rounding them up again. Shortly after noon, the boys arrived and we began moving the herd over the final nine-mile leg of the journey.

Some of the more tired calves would try to hide in the thick brush along the trail. A few just could go no further and had to be loaded on to the stock trailer. Regrettably, we lost one heifer calf from exhaustion because we did not find her soon enough to get her on the stock trailer, and we lost a cow who broke her leg and had to be put down.

The rest of the trail drive was relatively uneventful. The herd slowly meandered north. The ranch boys walked many of last nine miles, again eating dust, and were tired and relieved when the last of the herd entered the gate to the lush green pasture awaiting them. 

For the cattle, the end of the drive must have seemed like heaven. For the cowboys, it was just another day on the ranch. For the Beartooth men, ranch boys and me it was the end of an adventure we will always remember.

I spoke to the ranch boys a couple of days after the drive and their only “complaint” was that the drive did not last long enough. They “cowboyed up”, got the job done and had every reason to be proud of themselves. Each of them had their own stories to tell and will have much to write home about.

Mt. Carmel Youth Ranch

The Mt. Carmel Youth Ranch Catholic Residential Therapeutic Boarding School Program is a non-profit organization that is operated on a family owned ranch by devout Catholics. At Mt Carmel Youth Ranch we utilizes authentic “cowboy” experiences as a means to heal the troubled and wounded youth with a truly Christian love that will exist within them. We hope that our family environment will help build the moral conscience of the boys and enable them to allow the light of Christ to thrive within them, as both a source of strength and of illumination in an age of such frightening confusion and deprivation. We believe that the ranch activities that are included in our troubled teen program will educate the mind, strengthen the body, and elevate the spirit of your child.

Business/ Admissions Office, toll free 1-866-971-3322.

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