Cows and Me
An Autobiographical Journey to Understanding
By Ed Hockett

I wish to speak in favor of cows on SFTR.  My ideas are simple, but I feel compelled to explain completely how these ideas developed.  I attempted to express my message on the Forum, but the twenty minute time limit blew this non-typist away.  So, I apologize to everyone for what I am about to do.

Ms. Phillips has not been reluctant to express her distaste for the cattle grazing on our Ranch.  I am sure that everyone who has had a cow pie deposited on their property and/or suffered damage from the cows (which is probably most, if not all of us) can sympathize with her feelings.  I appreciate that she has had a particularly negative experience with the cows, and I sympathize with her just as I do and have with fellow property owners that have had particularly negative experiences with snow, mud, rain, bears, pack rats, and mountain lions.  I, on the other hand, have had particularly positive experiences with them.  I have never been very forthcoming about what I am about to tell, but now is the time.  I feel I must unburden myself of this lengthy story, so people understand the depth of my feelings on this subject.  Please do not read further until you have supplied yourself substantially with food and drink.  This is going to take a while.

Unlike many of the owners who have owned their property for twelve years, and have had the time to profit from the experience of others before moving on to the Ranch, we bought and moved on to our property rather precipitously in mid-1999.  We had always lived in the country in the Midwest, and my wife was born and raised in Colorado, so we believed we knew enough to deal with the conditions of the Southern Colorado Foothills.  It was somewhat disturbing that our neighbors, the Gieskes and Violantes, were so distant that it was questionable whether we could really call them neighbors.  Still, we had always enjoyed isolation because it was good for our dogs.  The bottom line was we were now in the ideal situation for us, and nothing else mattered.

When we arrived on our property we did not have any more favorable perspective on cows than Ms. Phillips.  Consequently, we were dismayed to find that sometime in the previous couple of days workers had left the gate open to our completely fenced property.  This opportunity had allowed a small band of cows to enter our hallowed property and desanctify it.  Judy's first words upon surveying the situation were, "Ed, get those #### cows off our property!" Although I was raised in Iowa and had many relatives who pursued agriculture, I did not know much more about cows than that they were cows.  Still, I was the only male in this wilderness, so it was my duty to solve the problem.

I crafted a plan where I would sneak around behind them, and then slowly move them toward the gate.  At that point, I would make loud noise, and they would run out the only available opening in the fence fearing for their lives.  My plan worked pretty well until we got to the gate.  When I screamed the cows decided their stay on the property was much more pleasurable than the minor fear I instilled in them.  For this reason, they bypassed the gate proceeding on to greener pastures on the opposite end of the meadow.

That really made me angry! I had a Ph.D.  I wasn't going to be outsmarted by some simple mountain cows.  Thus began a battle of wills.  I proceeded to chase them thinking they would go back in the opposite direction toward the gate.  Instead they elected to go up the side of our hill to the ridge which is the highest point on the property, a vertical rise of 500'.  No problem! I had on my tennies, and I was insulted that they had so little respect for my manhood.  We began a hilarious chase which nearly killed my wife with laughter.  I ran gasping up the hill thrashing through oak brush, as the cows lazily sauntered just ahead of me.  At the corner they turned and moseyed down the ridge line with me in hot pursuit.  At this point, I could not know that I would henceforth encounter 85% of the rattlesnakes I have seen on SFTR on the ground I was now running on.  I was too single-mindedly focused on succeeding at my assigned task.  At the next corner they headed downhill.  I figured they were getting ready to give up, and were heading back to the gate.

Sure enough, they approached the gate, but the memory of my tender meadow grass drove them on.  The difference was this time, as I tore past, I instructed Judy and her sister to hide in the bushes and jump out when the cattle approached next time scaring them out the gate.  After giving these clever instructions I continued on a painful oxygen-deprived second lap despite the bellowing laughter that erupted behind me.  They may have laughed, but when we came around again, and they jumped out from hiding, the cows quickly exited through the gate.  They enjoyed the grass, but nothing was worth dealing with this crazed person who had come to their land.

I followed directly behind the vanquished beasts, and slammed the gate shut.  After securely fastening the lock I turned smugly to my wife and sister-in-law fully prepared to receive the adulation due for such a cunning and impressive effort.  Unfortunately, they were both lying on the ground in obvious pain coughing violently as a result of laughing so hard for so long.  Totally frustrated I ignored them and moved on to the manly task of unloading.

As our days on the Ranch began to turn into weeks, I had the opportunity to view the cows across the fence.  They would gather in large numbers in the extensions of the meadow on either side of our property.  They would hang their heads over the fence, and gaze longingly at the forbidden fruit of our grass and the inviting water of our catch ponds. When Judy was gone weekends to visit her mother in Aurora I kind of liked them being around because it made the isolation less lonely.  At this point, we knew no one on the Ranch.  We had appeared so suddenly we suspected no one even knew we were here.

Our dogs were rather ambivalent about the cows.  On the one hand, they did not appreciate something that big encroaching on their territory.  They were not reticent to voice their displeasure in chorus when one would approach indiscreetly.  Nevertheless, on the other hand, once they were free of the dog yard for a walk, they eagerly awaited a moment of human distraction.  When the opportunity arose they would dart under the fence and quickly gobble down as many tasty cow pies as they could.  True joy occurred on those days when the human distraction was so great that not only could they munch the pies, but they could also pleasurably writhe in the still warm ones.  While the dogs valued these certain bovine aspects, we could not agree especially in light of the scarcity of water for cleaning.  As a result, we remained satisfied with our decision to exclude the cows.

The tide began to turn when we attended our first Ranch Annual meeting.  For the first time we met people from the Ranch.  The elections and business, however, went right over our heads, since we were so new to everything.  There was an informational program, though, on Friday night on weeds.  The speaker was a local state agricultural specialist.  The words I still remember from his presentation are, "Weed infestation is like a slow-moving fire." He did not have to say much more before I came to grasp how bad a problem weeds could be.  Weeds had never crossed my mind when we bought the property.  Since then, I had been so busy getting settled and started at school that I had not evaluated our weed population.  As a result, the question now began to gnaw on me: Do we have a weed problem? I could not answer.  As I reflected, the specialist expounded on the value of spraying, and much to my surprise, the value of grazing to check the growth and spread of weeds.  This information caught my attention, but I did not have time to dwell on it because Carol Rawle volunteered to do a weed walk (May be the first one?) for new owners the next day.  I knew I had to be there.

I arose with the alarm the next day eager to hear Carol's presentation.  Much to my amazement, though, it had snowed overnight.  In September! Would this stop the weed walk? There was no way to know.  As many may remember, we had no phone service just those very few years ago.  I decided the knowledge to be gained was worth the trip down to Gallinas to find out.  Unfortunately, the program was canceled, so the only knowledge I gained was what it was like to drive on our roads in inclement weather.

The snow, then, effectively delayed further thoughts about weeds for a few days.  In that next week, though, I came home from school and prepared to go on my daily walk with my assigned dogs.  Before I set out Judy instructed me to look at the pretty flowers in the meadow.  I did not have to walk far before I found her pretty flowers.  They were 8' tall flowering thistles.  I turned round and round, and to my horror there were thistles every where I could see in the meadow.  The property had been fenced in for two years.  In that time the weeds had not been threatened by grazing cattle.  As a result, the thistles had proliferated without opposition to the point that my property was about to become a major exporter of thistles.  Contrary to Ms. Phillips statements, putting the land to rest does not reduce thistles, it only allows them to increase unhindered at a faster rate.  As I came to comprehend the situation, deep embarrassment came upon me.  I instinctively lashed out at the bases of the closest thistle stalks swinging my walking stick with my best golf swing.  I felled as many as I could in the rapidly vanishing sunlight.  Thus the first blow was struck in the fabled, but never-ending Thistle Wars which I will have to recount at a different time (if I am ever allowed to write again after this).

After expending my energy felling world class sized thistles I trudged home with shame all over me.  I felt that I was personally contributing to the ruination of the Ranch because of my ignorance and neglect.  That night I poured over the literature I had received at the Annual Meeting.  Rather than being a relief, the brochures heightened my concern.  They told me that cutting the thistles down accomplished nothing.  The flowers of the felled stalks would still spread millions of airborne seeds to all parts of the world.  I realized I would have to retrieve flowers from all the thistles I had felled, and try to cut as many others as I could.  Other than cutting flowers, though, it appeared I had lost the battle for the year.  The brochures clearly instructed that when the thistles are flowering it is too late to spray.  They did mention the utility of grazing, but indicated cows would not eat grown thistles.  I could see the situation was desperate, but apparently the best I could do was prevent the year's growth from spreading.

In another couple of weeks I experienced another major insight.  Judy and I naively moved to the Ranch, as all too many property owners do, assuming life and particularly construction would happen as quickly and easily as it did where we came from.  In the short time between our purchase of the land and our moving we thought we had lined up the delivery of a temporary modular home to our property which would serve as our home until our house was constructed (probably by winter?).  The modular structure was much smaller than our current home, but seemed that it would be comfortable enough for a couple of months.  Unfortunately, the day before we were to vacate our home in Illinois to head to the Ranch the modular home company called to tell us they could not deliver the home as promised because heavy late spring snows followed by heavy summer rains had made the roads impossible.  We were homeless! Whatever would we do? Sheer desperation caused us to rapidly rethink and downsize our plans.  If not a modular home, what about a fifth wheel? After a quick education process at local lots and subsequent calls we were suddenly the owners of a fifth wheel which would be delivered to our property.  What a relief! (???)

The fifth wheel did not arrive as quickly as we did, but was on the property within hours after our arrival.  It seemed small, but we thought we could live in it from August until winter when our house (not yet started) would be finished.  About the time the early snow canceled the weed walk our agreements with our building contractor fell apart.  It was suddenly abundantly clear we would be living in the fifth wheel through the winter (may be forever?), and that winter was coming right quickly.  Although I am the son of a carpenter and builder, I failed to learn as I should have from my dearly departed father.  Nevertheless, I proceeded to build skirting, and a storage room around the fifth wheel.  Upon suggestion we purchased several bales of straw to place around the skirting to insulate further.  Since I had not finished the skirting, I had piled the bales to shelter the generator that I started every evening to draw water out of our cistern and serve our electrical needs.

One evening after starting the generator I had moved to the opposite side of the fifth wheel to hold the water hose in place as I drew water from the cistern.  In the meantime, the generator's cord came into contact with the hot part of the generator, and started to spark as the cord melted.  The sparks flew into the bales of straw.  As I stood on the opposite side of the fifth wheel smelling the air, I remember thinking that the neighbors were cooking something good.  Then, I remembered.  We didn't have any neighbors! I rushed back to the other side and saw flames in the bales of straw.  Fortunately (for us all?), the fall humidity was high, the bales were damp, and I had the presence of mind to turn off the generator and realize I was holding a hose with flowing water.  I attacked the fire, and soon extinguished the blaze.  As the adrenaline left me, I collapsed on the bales.  My glance passed from the now charred bales of straw to the surrounding extension of three foot tall dry grass in our undisturbed meadow, to the pinyons and junipers on the fringe of the meadow to the ponderosa forest behind.  The realization crashed down upon me that while I was threatening the Ranch with a slow fire of thistles, I had nearly torched the Ranch with actual fire.  I now perceived that the low humidity that caused us to move to Colorado could be a two-edged sword.  If it had been present on this day, a conflagration would have surely been upon us.  As I reflected on that near reality, Judy looked out the fifth wheel door and asked, "What are you doing?" "Oh...nothing," I responded, but the next day I left our gate open, and cut the fence, so cows could enter and work on my weed and fire fuel problems.  They had just a short time to work, but I was proud of their work.  And yes, cows do eat thistles, even some pretty big ones, if the parts are tender.  They now enter my property annually through several holes in the fence.  They do an excellent jog of mitigating the fire fuels, and have allowed me to reign in my weeds to a manageable level.

Thank you for bearing with me because at this point the events I really want to tell are about to unfold.  My memory continues the week after Thanksgiving on Friday with Chris Schorr chafing because our Principal refused to release us from bus duty.  In addition to being bus duty partners, I had started just that week to ride to school with her.  Each day I would hike out to Exit 2 to meet her, and ride to school in Raton.  She was upset because snow was pelting down upon us.  I looked at the ground, and didn't see much accumulation.  She, however, continued to fume because she thought the conditions could be worse on the Pass.  Once we hit the road, I discovered her many years of crossing the Pass had instructed her well.  The Pass was open, but the going was slow.  One semi had gone off the road and many were stopped and chaining up.  We proceeded slowly, but arrived safely at Exit 2.  Before walking off I made sure we were still on for a ride on Monday.  As I walked into the blowing snow for the weekend, I found visibility and footing difficult.  It was considerably harder walking than I had experienced before.  I was surprised to find that my landmarks did not look the same in the snow.  Still I persisted, and reached home.

As I arrived, I was mildly surprised to see that Judy was not there, yet.  We had rented an office from Francie in the Higbee Realty building.  This was the only way we could have a phone since service on the Ranch did not yet exist.  Judy would go there to perform her work for PAWS WITH A CAUSE, transact our business, and make personal calls.  She would then return about the time I came home.  I would start the generator and we would feed all our dogs and cats.  Her absence was a little unusual, but not exceptional.  Since the snow continued to fall forcefully and was piling up quickly, I decided I better get started with the tasks.  Judy could join me in progress.  I did my tasks, though, and Judy still had still not arrived.  I then proceeded to feed our animals noting all the time that the snow was getting progressively deeper.  Every break in the action I would glance outside to see if Judy had arrived, but nothing.

After feeding, I had to spend considerable time wiping off the dogs because, yes, all ten of our golden retrievers lived in the fifth wheel with us.  I then prepared our dinner.  Before I knew it 7:00 had arrived, but Judy's dinner plate sat untouched.  This was now exceptional, but I tried to convince myself it wasn't.  I started watching TV, but could not concentrate on the programs.  I turned on our outside light, and every so many minutes I would have to go to the door, and look out.  I saw no Judy, but could see the snow was substantially higher every time I looked.  I contemplated running into the darkness and storm in a desperate search for my wife.  All too well, though, I knew from many previous discussions that Judy would not abide me leaving unattended the animals whom we love as children to venture on a foolish quest without a goal.  In this way, the evening passed and bedtime arrived.  I sent the dogs out for a final run, and wiped them down as they returned.  I now acknowledged Judy was not coming home.  I just didn't know why?

Judy and I had been married for almost twenty-five years.  During that time we had rarely been apart. She was my best friend, and I could hardly bear her absence.  At this point, the circular thinking began.  In graduate school I had become familiar with a short story, The Secret Miracle (El Milagro Secreto), written by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.  In the story the main character, Hladik, is sentenced to death by a Nazi military tribunal because his writings indicated he was a Jewish sympathizer.  The military officer in charge of the decision refuses to release any information to Hladik other than he is to die.  The purpose is to make Hladik suffer further by forcing him to imagine the details of his own death.  I found myself in a similar situation.  As the storm howled outside, I envisioned the possible explanations for Judy's absence.  Each outcome was more terrible than the previous one.  They would all end in me realizing how helpless I was to do anything to aid her regardless of the situation.  Soon, however, I would begin all over with the same agonizing thoughts: one cascading into the next.  In these thoughts I fitfully passed the night.

The next morning the dogs awakened me early to go out.  I opened the door to brilliant sunlight from a pure blue sky glistening on the perfectly clean new fallen snow.  Fisher Peak and Raton Mesa visible above my hill were adorned with snow as were all the trees on the hills.  It was one of those beautiful visions that brings us all here.  It was some comfort that the storm had ended.  Unfortunately, I soon sank back into my dark thoughts.  At some point, though, I determined I could only do what was within my capability.  At that time I was unaware of how difficult it is to plow our roads nor did I know of the priorities.  Consequently, I believed the snow plow would be by shortly, and they could help me.  Meanwhile, I would keep myself busy digging out.  Despite the ferocity of the storm on the previous day, it was rather comfortable working outside.  I paused now and again to watch the juncos feeding in the yard.  They gave me comfort that I was not alone.

It turned out that 30" of snow had fallen in just a few hours.  The amount of snow required me to do a lot of work, and I even removed snow I didn't have to, as I anxiously awaited the arrival of the snow plow.  Unfortunately, feeding time came again, but there was no sign nor sound of a plow.  Soon I was alone again wrapped in darkness and dark thoughts.

Sunday arrived with no improvement.  I had my dogs and cats.  There was gasoline to run the generator, and I had water.  Food was getting low because we normally shopped on Saturday, but I was not about to starve.  I just felt that I had to do something.  I considered several times making a forced walk to the Gieske's or the Violante's, but realized the futility of walking those distances in 30" of snow.  I looked at our Aerostar now virtually buried in snow.  It would take me hours to dig out, and then it would not be able to go down the driveway or the road.  As I peered in the window of the Aerostar, I noticed that the bag phone lay within.  I had thought Judy had it with her, and would have been able to call for help in the right situations.  Now those hopes were dashed.

At this point, I recalled I had arranged to meet Chris early the next morning to go to school.  I forgot about the snow plow.  I could not walk to Gieske's or Violante's, but I believed I could get to the Interstate.  It would still be extremely difficult, but it was the only chance I seemed to have.  I knew to do it I would need to break some of the trail today.  I tried digging, but soon gave up.  I then thought about the dogs.  They had pent up energy from being cooped up for two days.  I released them and we walked toward the road.  Walking was a challenge, and the dogs became exhausted by the time we reached the road.  We had made a good path to there, though.  Before turning back I futilely traced the word "Help!" in the snow on the road in case the plow came.  We then struggled back down our hard fought trail.

What I didn't know is that Judy had lingered in the office on Friday afternoon.  She casually watched the snow lightly falling in Trinidad not realizing the conditions on the higher elevated Ranch might be different.  When she arrived on the Ranch driving our Honda Accord she found herself in a full-blown storm.  Still, she trusted in the Honda.  Unfortunately as hard as it tried, it could not make it up the big hill before the intersection of Fisher Peak and Old Mission where Baldwin's spec house is now.  Remembering a ride we had taken the previous week, she believed she could go to Rainbow Springs and get up easier.  She would then approach our house from the opposite direction.  Unfortunately she was mistaken.  The Honda failed to make the Rainbow Springs hill forcing her to back down.  Just above the fishing pond she inadvertently backed off the road, and became stuck.  She sat in the car for two days.  Her only companion was one of our dogs.  She had left that morning without wearing a coat and wearing tennis shoes.  She, too, desperately hoped someone or the plow would pass.  I had left a vest in the car.  She was able to wear that, and she had picked up the mail, so she was able to cover herself in newspaper to retain heat.  She was uncertain how long the gas would last, so she turned on the engine sparingly.  Fortunately, she remembered to keep the exhaust pipe clear, so carbon monoxide fumes did not fill the passenger compartment.  On Sunday she, too, resolved to act.  She cut apart a towel to cover her feet and the dog's.  Together, they then set out walking.

After walking some distance she was able to flag down an off-duty policeman from Raton who was coming to the Ranch to check on his parents.  He in turn left Judy with Al and Connie Tucker while he completed his errands.  Al and Connie fed Judy, and gave her warm beverage that helped her recover.  The policeman returned to take Judy to Trinidad. There he loaned her his credit card because she had left her purse in the car when she started to walk.  Her ordeal was over.

Meanwhile, I only knew I must meet my ride Monday morning.  I set the alarm two hours early to give myself extra time to walk.  I still wondered if I would be able to walk all the way in the deep snow.  After readying the dogs for the day I set out.  The path to the road was now getting better, so I moved down it easier.  I knew, however, that the worst was just about to begin.  When I reached the road I paused to rest for the big push ahead.  Suddenly I heard a noise.  I looked up.  I was astonished to see three large white cows come downhill around the curve.  They slowly ambled by hardly giving me a glance.  I noted that they were clearing a path far better than the one the dogs and I had cleared.  As the third cow in line passed, I simply fell in line following them down the hill.  At the bottom they took a right toward the Interstate.  I happily followed.  They finally stopped in a meadow before the railroad, and I had to continue alone.  Before I did, though, I thanked them for the totally unexpected help they gave me getting me down the hill.  The rest of the way was not easy, but I was able to do it.  I reached the Interstate with plenty of time.  I knew I now had a difficult task ahead.  I planned to call Judy's mother first thing to see if she had heard from Judy over the weekend.  My greatest fear was that that she would respond negatively.  In that case, I would have to explain that her daughter had been missing for three days.

When Chris, the first and last person I had seen in three days, arrived I poured out the anguish I had been experiencing since I last saw her.  She realized my distress, and sped us to school.  There I went directly to the office still fully bundled in my winter walking clothing.  I rapidly but incoherently tried to explain why I needed to use the phone.  They conceded not because they understood, but because they recognized something was terribly wrong.  I nervously dialed my mother-in-law's phone number.  When she answered I could barely speak because my throat was constricted with impending grief.  I eventually squeaked out the question, but before she could answer they told me my wife was calling me on the other line.  I slumped to the floor and placed another phone to my opposite ear.  I was then supplied in stereo the information I was missing.  All this led to a tearful reunion later that day.

This was an unduly long story for anyone who stayed with me this long. I again apologize profusely.  I can not say that cows saved my life or my wife's life.  They simply happened to be there in a dark moment to provide help when I could not find any anywhere else.  To this day I am extremely grateful.  I marvel that they appeared in a time of need.  Each year I wonder even more how it was they were still present that late in the year.  Some will say this was a one time chance experience.  I counter by saying it is just another point on a continually growing list of benefits cows provide.  Just last spring another point was added to the list when Mike Friedrich and I wandered lost in the oak brush searching for a wildfire that threatened the South end of the Ranch.  Had there not been cow paths, we would have had extreme difficulty accessing the scene.

I do not expect people to agree with me, but I hope they can now understand why at the last Annual meeting after briefly enumerating the positive benefits of cows I exclaimed, "I love those babies!" We all come by our knowledge in different ways.  My experiences have been obviously different than Ms. Phillips.  My experiences, though, tell me that we already lost our agricultural status once.  Had it not been for a handful of owners who anteed up their own money to hire an attorney to fight the County, we all would have higher taxes today.  I am not willing to put that to risk again, and simultaneously lose something that has been so beneficial to me.