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I sit on the front deck of the elderly log ranch house in a comfortable old rocker until I'm bored nearly to death. My laptop lies on the end table near my left elbow and I'm fed up with that, as well. In four weeks, the first load of summer guests will arrive and we're not nearly ready.
Six months ago my favorite uncle died and left me six million dollars, an investment banking business in New York City, and a wonderfully remote forty thousand acre ranch in Idaho. I love the money and the banking business, but am uncertain about the ranch. Now that I'm here, I just want to sit around, inhale the air, and stare at the snow capped mountains. I've decided during the past few days that I can write a book entitled 'What I Don't Know About Ranching', but nobody will want to read it. There are simply too many things I don't understand about ranching, and it makes my ordinarily bright mind feel feeble. A half hour ago, I decided I need a ranch foreman in a hurry, but have no idea where to find or even look for one.
The idea of running a ranch is totally foreign to me. I grew up in north Chicago, and until this very trip have never traveled west of the Mississippi River at any elevation lower than twenty thousand feet. Idaho seems like a foreign country that lies somewhere beyond the horizon. The ranch is eighty miles from a grocery store and just as many miles from anything entertaining. I want to be back in Chicago enjoying the nightlife, while someone else figures out all this stuff and then reports to me.
One thing Uncle Charley and I agree on is that this place needs to be a Guest Ranch. That's the only way it has half a chance of supportingitself. If it doesn't support itself, then it is little more than beautiful scenery and a headache. We raise cattle, but with the price of beef the way it is, we will simply be giving away the grass they eat and all the labor associated with caring for them.
With the guest ranch plan in mind, I drove here two weeks ago to supervise getting the place in shape for the new venture. I'm not certain I haven't lost some brain cells in the process. The only thing I've accomplished is to make a new friend in Mandy Hastings. She's ten years my senior, has children on their own somewhere in the world, and she has a prince of a man in Ernie, her husband.
The only real accomplishment during my weeks of servitude is that before I left Chicago, I set up an advertising campaign through an old classmate who knows about such things. Her company is small enough to be efficient and not as expensive as some of the bigger outfits. I gave her only one idea: we need to set up a booth in a couple of the hunting and fishing tradeshows to get us on the map and identify our competition. I am desperate for more workers, but few people are willing to live eighty miles from a movie theater. I need to learn where to hire people, and in a hurry.
Chuck had authored the original guest ranch idea before he died, and he had begun the initial planning and construction phases. The former bunkhouse had been converted into guest quarters and another larger structure was built of turned logs for a kitchen and dinning area combination. A small group of family oriented quarters had been tacked onto the end of the main ranch building. Further to the west a bunkhouse structure entirely away from the guests, would provide worker housing.
A much smaller structure had been erected near the swimming pool. The new addition housed a wash-a-teria and additional storage space. Twenty individual A-frame structures had been built for family living. They came complete with cooking facilities for those who desired that sort of thing. Of course, if you want to cook you first have to drive eighty miles to get something to fix. Either that or you need to be notified ahead of time in order to bring groceries with you.
Perhaps we should put in one of those expensive gas stations with high priced food items to pad our profit margin. I entertain that idea and place a bullet at the beginning of the paragraph so it has more of a chance of enactment than an idea in plain English. We have converted the end of the building nearest the swimming pool into a snack bar. The storage area is for those things required to maintain seventy-six guest rooms. According to the architect, the kitchen and dining hall will feed a hundred fifty people at one setting, if that many showed up.
There is a regular crew of twelve families who have worked the ranch forever. Among those workers in residence, age is becoming a factor I didn't want to consider. We need an infusion of new blood or the impending crisis appears bleak. Of course, I don't want to lay anyone off because of age, but I need some younger people desperately. They are a requirement to take over the intense manual labor the ranch requires. What immediately comes to mind is the incredible number of migrants flooding across the southern U.S. border? Some of those people should be familiar with farming and ranching. If they are illegal, we could get them into a program to earn a Green Card and become citizens. Surely, something like that would be an inducement to anyone wanting a permanent job that doesn't involve stoop labor, pumping septic tanks, or hanging onto the backside of a garbage truck.
Uncle Chuck dearly loved this place and stayed here year-round, a fact that eventually killed him. It was winter and he suffered a major heart attack at a time when weather prevented Flight for Life from bringing him out. Along with his coronary, the weather had turned abysmal and remained so for more than a week. The road to civilization had become blocked by four feet of snow, so the only help available was a helicopter or the snow cat. The cat was out for a transmission and without communications the staff had no way of ordering one to come to the ranch. When the helicopter was finally able to land at the ranch, Charley was dead. The ranch hands had stored his body in an unheated outbuilding for preservation until help arrived.
I pick up my laptop and stroll inside to sit at Charley's old roll top desk. I've discovered I think best while I'm in the presence of the old desk. Its many cubbyholes are stuffed with ancient information steeped in the history of the place.
The only contact with the outside world at the height of winter is an ancient HAM radio that sometimes works, and now my new wireless computer hook up. Travel by snow cat or a snowmobile is the only way out of here when the place in the dead of winter. Clearing forty miles of gravel road with a plow after the first major snowstorm is not an option. At the time of Uncle Charley's demise, the snow cat was out of commission and he couldn't travel sitting upright on the back of a snowmobile.
The only source of electrical power available to us year round is either a pair of twin diesel generators or the wind generator and its battery bank. The wind generator has proven only marginally successful. The reason for that is to use the wind generator for any length of time requires the wind to be blowing. Come to think of it, it's blown most of the time since I've been here.
The battery storage banks have been a source of unreliability; this is a problem I need to solve immediately. We either need none, more, or newer and I don't have enough electrical knowledge to solve the riddle. Reconstructing the wind generator system will be a summer job for someone who knows something about electricity, which I never will. There is also the dilemma of getting an electrician to drive eighty miles one way to tell us what to do. Following his outrageous estimate and my attempt to get the price down, he will undoubtedly tell me how far to shove the project up my you know what and depart in a huff.
We have a small filling station with underground tanks of diesel and regular grade gas. We are so far into the backcountry, any visitor has to have a vehicle with a range of 160 miles or be able to buy gas here for the return trip to civilization. We are so far from humanity, that fact in itself is a selling point. We have television only at the main house and there are no phones available, so anyone coming here needs to enjoy solitude. What we do have is an overabundance of mountains, tall pines, and trout streams. If the guests like those things, they'll love it here.
Of the twelve family men and three teenagers in residence, all are involved with the ranching and farming end of the operation. The man who is the current temporary straw boss doesn't want to be a foremen, he would rather be driving a tractor or astride a horse. In his case, the Peter Principle has caught up with him. He has been promoted to his level of incompetence and is unconcerned with advancing further.
The female sides of the families are functioning as cooks and domestic help. They will feed the guests and maintain the living quarters, but there simply aren't enough of them to be practical. All workers are members of families where both parents work. In those families, several kids are on the payroll and several more are coming of age so that they can be put to work. They will provide additional willing hands to help with things where we are undermanned or other things not yet discovered.
The ranch had been Chuck's favorite toy, overcoming even his love of his Maine stationed sailboat. In his youth, he was a very successful Wall Street investment banker who had made his fortune early and retired at fifty. During his initial retirement he had been invited to Big Horn Ranch for a two-week vacation. When the owner died suddenly in a horse accident, Chuck Malloy bought the ranch at a bargain basement price for his own amusement.
Uncle Chuck looked like the original model for the Marlboro man, tall and lean with the rugged features of an outdoorsman. As soon as he took over the ranch, he began turning the place into a vacation attraction. His plan came together slowly, because he was in no hurry to finish fiddling with his ultimate plaything. His forty thousand acres of range and timberland backed up against the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. The wilderness area adds another 2,366,757 square miles of the most beautiful land God ever created.
Copyright © 2005 Sheri L. McGathy