Branding day: A throwback to the past
KARVAL, Colo. — The corral is quiet as the sun rises over the east side and it simmers to life with every pickup and trailer, saddled horse standing at the ready, and little boy who peeks out from beneath his trusty lid. For one son, his first year to rope and drag begins this morning and his first loop doesn't come up empty. The weight of expectation rolls off his dusty shirt, and he drags the calf like he had done it a hundred times. His dad is watching and pretending not to, his proud grin covered by the crease in his brim.
She's her daddy's girl but she looks just like her mama did 20 years ago when she, too, threw her weight on one hip, drew cool vaccine into the gun, and nodded to him across the dusty corral. Mama is doing the cooking these days but sometimes misses the days in the middle of the action. She smiles, though, certain that tough girls run in the family.
She leaned on the corral fence and watched her husband dally and drag a calf to the fork. She would typically be shoulder-to-shoulder with the cowboys, but this year she's hanging back and helping cook. Even through the waves of morning sickness, her mother's cobbler recipe still smells as good as she remembers.
It's been 10 years since she earned her promotion to head cook and set down her vaccination gun. She has recipes that have won awards and recipes that won her husband's heart, and she breaks them out and cooks them only on branding days. They would lose their shine and sparkle if they were served anywhere other than here. She knows them by heart but still likes to pull the card out of her old, metal recipe box and see her grandmother's cursive handwriting on the card. The note on the back: "Don't skimp on the butter. These rolls make the meal."
They ran the old cow through one last time knowing this makes 16 springs. She started raising good calves before his boy was out of school and has a good one at her side this year. "Are you going to breed her again this year, Jim?" "I suppose, but, shoot, this cow don't owe me nothing."
He watched the cowboys take the pairs to grass. The crew was the best around and worked 1,100 head in time for an early afternoon lunch. Each hand was placed in the job they do best as part of the crew, and they didn't disappoint. He was like the conductor of a symphony on dirt, complete with ropes and forks and fire. It was a baptism by branding smoke for some, and for the old hands like him, it was a return to Providence.
There are more efficient methods, they're told. It's old fashioned, they said. Perhaps it's true, but at the end of a dusty day in a branding pen, a few truths remain. Outside of the pen, the world may be going on without them. News headlines, technology advances, all things shiny and new and as-seen-on-TV, but here, on this day, the world stands still. It may be 2017 and it may be 1950 here in this place. This is where men teach their sons to be men and caretakers of land and cattle. It is here that crews learn it's not about standing out based on talent but doing your job well for the good of the crew, because there's dignity in work like this. It's here that old men solve all the world's problems and women enjoy sometimes rare female company and the satisfaction of sending away a crew fat and sassy. It may not be new-fangled or fancy but it's tradition and the importance of that runs generations deep.