Broken Country: Mountains and Memoryby C. L. Rawlins
The author of the highly praised Sky's Witness returns to the Salt River Range of his youth. "To be found, " C.L. Rawlins writes, "you must be lost, or lose yourself. . . . To be whole, you must know you can be broken." Thus begins his life-altering journey over the mountains. Broken Country is a work of power and understanding, and Rawlins a poet who reminds us that understanding is rarely kind.
The Vietnam War was raging, the draft was a possibility, and Rawlins wanted none of it. His parents were appalled. The summer of '73 looked to be tense on the home front, so Rawlins hired on with a shepherding operation in the Salt River Range, tending to hearth and tent while his buddy Mitch covered the sheep. Claiming some experience, he was in truth an impostor, learning packhorse knots and sourdough baking on the run. At first the story is all about gathering his wits as he tries to manage the tasks at hand. Then he starts to look around. As the camp moves from site to site, he forages for greens to supplement the mutton and peanut butter: speedwell and waterleaf and salsify. He becomes observant, noticing the green porcelain of a lake, the nervous polychrome of a fly's eye, the atmospheric changes that foretell a storm. As the summer deepens, he rolls ideas like wilderness and patriotism, complexity and draft notices around in his mind, shedding his own light on the subjects. A near-death experience pulls him up short; his girlfriend comes, then leavespermanently; he squabbles with Mitch; the backcountry begins to scare him. Things fall apart. But then, in fits and starts, Rawlins regroups. Deep immersion in the landscape helps. So do the writings of the ancient Greeks, his stabs at poetry, the job's steady thrum. When, in a closing private moment, he "lifted [his] arms and began to dance . . . a dance of helplessness, mourning, love, and victory," one senses that Rawlins may well be off his rocker, but he's regained his bearings.
The book covers the period from June 21 to September 17, 1973. Readers will feel honored to have spent these three months with this reluctant shepherd.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Mountains & Memory
By C. L. Rawlins
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 C. L. Rawlins
All rights reserved.
July 21, 1973
We drove them up the mountain in the rain. The ewes bellowed and the lambs cried back in their wavering voices as they moved in a circulating mass, their dirty wool mounded like foam. Around us the grass bowed down and the dark leaves of chokecherry gleamed, and as it rained, the red of the soil deepened. Tiny pools formed and spilled, turning the trail from mud to grease, and our horses slid and struck.
Mitch rode close and flung his arm toward the crest. "Another week, we'll be right on top," he said. "Two months. We won't come back this way."
I could feel the rain's weight, slipping off the brim of my hat down my yellow slicker, onto my denim thighs, cold. We split up, crowding the sheep, cursing them, inciting the dogs. The herd surged east, like a flood returning to its source, and we followed, climbing in long jags through thickets of serviceberry, each horse track a muddy cup for the rain to fill.
* * *
That last night at the ranch I lay awake, staring at a patch of moonlight. The upstairs room had one window and one door, and the four walls belonged to someone else, and the sheets and the musty blankets. All I owned was the dark. The coming day would be hard, and each hour without sleep promised to make it harder, but sleep wouldn't come: I felt like a boulder, heavy and perfectly round, balanced on a bare hill. Given a push, I could roll to any point of the compass, and I would roll for a long way, and for a very long time.
Another year in school had passed, without a proper ending. My family hoped that June would see my graduation, but I was many credits short, with thirty failed hours. In the middle of spring term, I'd spent a day examining another wall, then filled a pack once more and hitched south to the canyons, to find red rocks and quiet sand.
Is there a word for the color of moonlight? On the papered wall of the room, the moon laid its moving pattern over the faded flowers, shadowing the cottonwood leaves that rattled faintly through the open window. My clothes hung from a hook on the door, and my boots gaped by the bed like two open mouths. There were still long hours to wait. "It's not your fault," Cassandra had said the week before as we huddled in a sleeping bag, under the rush of the creek. The question was how to live. She had plans and I hadn't, except for this. She wanted things and I wanted out. Something had snapped, between me and all else.
I had been told too many times how I should feel, too many times what I should do. On television, the old men stood between us and the flag, hiding its stripes with their dark suits and pressed uniforms, their heads a moving blot against the field of stars, with lies falling from their lips. Defense? Did they believe that skinny, black-clad troops, from a poor country across the world's widest sea, would overrun San Francisco on bamboo rafts one rainy night?
This country is ours, earned with our blood. Always that. The blood-marked valleys under these high ranges, the Salt Rivers, the Bear Rivers, and the Wasatch, were my home, if I had one. My great-grandfather once had a ranch in this valley. My father was born not far away. But how could I earn the right to live in this place? By killing someone I'd never seen, in his own land, on the other side of the earth?
I couldn't make sense of that: our deeds never cancel out. The wrong stays close to the right, twisted like strands in a rope.
A peace treaty had been signed in Paris in January, and that same month the military draft had been ended, but I was still on the hook, my case pending. There'd been a siege at Wounded Knee, dissident Indians with rifles hemmed in by FBI agents and federal marshals with machine guns, armored vehicles, and helicopters. The Watergate hearings were underway, and Senator Sam Ervin was digging for President Nixon's tapes, and Nixon had ordered the Secret Service not to testify. There was no end to it. Our soldiers had been called home, but the war would go on inside us. I could see those heavy-bodied old men, chins thrust out. All countries are ours.
I had to find one that wasn't.
* * *
In a high valley on the far western edge of Wyoming, the Preston ranch house stood alone, cornered by lanes of rutted dirt. The house was nearly a cube, and the direction it faced was uncertain. The front door, clean and unused, opened west. On the south, a cottonwood old as the house loomed over a sidewalk cracked by roots, and the south door had a tire-tread mat and bore signs of use. But the real entrance lay on the east, where a streak of muddy prints led up to a boot-marked door. The east door opened on the sprawl of corrals and sheds, and the white barn, and the mountains, which rose up blue and close beyond.
Mitch, my skiing partner, had tended camp the year before for Prestons' regular herder. The herder was named Alfonso Gonzales and was called Pancho. He stayed in a tiny trailer by the barns, going to Thayne or Afton to drink, fight, and hunt a bedmate. He would return in a fine, high glow to sing, curse, challenge, and scandalize the Mormon ranch. Eventually, sometimes with help from Royal or Roger, he would burrow into his quilts.
The trailer had a propane heater, and in late spring 1973, during lambing season, the heater exploded. Pancho was burned on his face, arms, shoulders, and chest. Roger called Mitch, who had been his college roommate. "Pancho's hurt, his trailer blew up. Can you herd instead? Okay? Good deal. Can you get a campjack in Logan?"
"The tall guy? Rawlins? He might work out."
* * *
At first light we started the sheep from the pasture north of the house and drove them up the long fenced lanes that followed section lines as rain swept in on a blue front. Roger rode ahead on a gelded palomino named — rancher's joke — the Black Stallion. I rode a sorrel named Red, and Mitch rode a young black horse called Tony. We stayed behind the sheep, and I could see the rain dripping from Mitch's hat into his black beard, and his teeth flashing as he yelled.
Uncle Warren, crippled by a stroke and near blind, pushed the center, his yells emerging as gargles and coughs. His white horse, Tom, spun and trotted as Warren hung on and let the old gelding work, his bony knees clinging to the ribby flanks.
It rained in pulses all morning, clouds dropping almost to the ground, then lifting to admit the sun. The oatmeal and boiled rhubarb made a fist in my guts. When I yelled at the balky sheep, I also cursed Mitch and Roger, who yelled back, red faced, with equal fervor.
"Goddam, goddam, goddam — booooooorrega! Yiiip-yiii-owwww!"
Twice an hour, a ranch truck would come to a halt as the sheep eddied around it. The hay harvest was rained out, and the drivers, sunburnt men with tension in their jaws, spoke to Roger while eyeing me and Mitch. "New herders? How's Pancho? My damn baler's broke and the part just got in. Clear up tomorrow, they say. So ..."
Mitch didn't resemble the men who drove the pickups. They were broad faced, like Herefords, with the solid presence that came of living where they were born. Mitch was fine boned and lightly knit, with black eyes and a ponytail sprouting under his slouch hat. He looked more like a gypsy fiddler than a livestock hand.
Roger, even with his rimless glasses and a collar awash in blond curls, was at home here too. But Mitch was self-conscious in the way he sat his horse, and held the reins, and yelled at the herd. He watched Roger for cues, furtively, while I watched him openly, not taking chances. Having grandly overstated my knowledge of livestock, I wanted to get into the hills and out of sight.
We nooned at the canyon's mouth: Louise's white-bread sandwiches, canned beans, and boiled rhubarb in a plastic bowl with just one spoon. While one of us ate, the others herded, keeping them out of the green alfalfa, heading them off a field of ripening wheat, and turning them back from the freshly graveled road with its sign: PUT YOUR BRAND ON A HUNK OF LAND!
"Seems like a guy could have a seat," said Roger, apologetic, as I spelled him off, "but they won't settle down. Sooo ..."
Warren trotted by, his brown baseball cap soaked black, sputtering like a percolator at the herd: "Mother up. Mother up. Mother up."
* * *
The sheep struggled and blatted, fighting up the incline through wet brush. The canyon's mouth yawned under us, and above us the mountain disappeared, green and rocky, into cloud. When the rain slackened mosquitos rose, stirred into the air by the horses as we brushed by, boring in on our faces and necks and wrists, seeking our heat and breath.
"Andale! Yow! Stinking devil bastard rotten scum of hell."
Coursing between rock outcrops, milling in the meadows, traversing loose side slopes, the sheep moved in parallel, complaining lines. The lambs, cold and slow, tried to huddle in the shelter of each dripping bush. Here and there, a ewe would cry out and turn to locate her lost one, so the herd traveled like a cyclone, circling for the lambs in its heart, churning the slope with its revolutions.
"Borrega! Booooooorrega! Yiii-yip-yowwww!"
Warren's gelding lunged and dug, with the old man holding to the saddle horn like life itself. The sheepdogs darted, with Ansel, the gray mama, leading as her pup Tiger dashed in on her heels to undo her work, while Roger yelled: "Ansel! Tiger! Damn you! Get back!" Pookie, my dog, a shepherd-collie cross, dodged hooves and whined excitedly and made sporadic dashes.
"Git-git-git, yeeeeeeeeee — owwww!"
My boot soles squeaked in wet stirrups. My thighs were raw in my jeans, and I hated everything in sight: ewes, lambs, dogs, horses, mud, and men. Finally we let the sheep settle around the bases of pines and assort themselves in pairs, ewes bawling even as their lambs began to suck. Two hours after most people in Star Valley sat down to eat, we splashed through runoff braiding down a rough dirt road and fetched up on a foggy bench. There was an unfinished summerhouse, its plywood sides warping in the rain, and our camp was the covered porch. We tied the horses and, too starved to make a fire, we dug in a sack for cans.
Dinner was sardines, soda crackers, and cookies. Warren ate fitfully and then limped around the hill to check on the herd. Roger got up to follow him, reluctant to leave the food. I didn't think the sheep would go anywhere, if they were as tired as I was. I was so exhausted that when I looked at anything, I would stop chewing, so I had to close my eyes and command my jaw to work. Maybe I dozed off. When I opened my eyes again, Mitch was gone.
The west cleared, and a thin curtain of rain gleamed in the slanting light. Roger and Warren rode by and Roger waved. "Tomorrow, early," he yelled, as they went sledding down the access road, their horses' forelegs thrust stiffly out, carrying them out of sight.
A month past the solstice, the dark holds high. Mitch rode up, tied his horse, and dumped his saddle on the planks before rolling out his bag under the locked front door. "Roger and I have to move the sheep up tomorrow. Royal's bringing the rest of the horses up, with all the gear. Think you can get 'em packed?"
"I've got my little book. So, yeah. As long as I know where to go."
"There's a trail. Steep, but not too rough."
The green reach of Star Valley appeared, bright and close, then was gone under a cloud. The sky rolled its blue darkness at us, hiding the sunlit west, and we sat on the porch under the eave and listened to the renewed beat of the rain. The dogs crunched their food, growling softly at each other, then subsiding into groans. And the distances grew between our few words as the rain and the night cut us off from the roads, the ranches, the lights, and from the life I knew.
Across the valley the ridges went from transparent black to the darkest green, then flamed muddy red as the sunrise took them. Bright runs of aspen gleamed, their leaves like tiny mirrors under the shaggy pines that showed a sooty green to the first clear light.
We left our gear piled on the porch and walked through the wet grass to bring our horses in. They flung their heads up, snorted, and then relaxed. Red shifted but stayed put as I draped the rope over his neck, dipping his long head to accept the halter and relaxing as I caught the loop. I worked at the wet picket rope knotted around his foot until the bowline loosened, conscious of his weight balanced above me, feeling his breath as he sniffed the back of my neck.
"We'll ride around the sheep. Roger should be here soon. Then you ride down and wait for Royal with the rest of the horses and the packs. Don't forget the book."
I'd found a book called Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails by a man whose name seemed to have too few syllables: Joe Back. It had an olive green cover with the title in black and a drawing printed in red of a packhorse, picking its way down a steep slope. Inside were diagrams of a forbidding array of saddles, knots, buckles, and ropes, with drawings of horses in steep, rocky country: the horse packer's arcana. I'd been playing with furry scraps of rope for days, throwing hitches over the propane tank at the ranch and looping bowlines around the legs of the workbench as I patched and riveted the ancient packsaddles back together. Some of the leather straps had been broken so regularly that little original leather was left: one britchen strap, which ran around the hindquarters to keep the pack from sliding forward, was composed of seven pieces, variously aged and punctuated by copper rivets.
Mitch and Roger didn't offer me help unless I asked: they acted as if all this was self-evident, like tying my bootlaces. While I was western in birth and heritage, none of the specifics came with the genes. So when Royal had asked me if I knew how to pack horses, I lied. He caught on to me the first morning, when he told me to catch Tony, a black gelding he said was "a little green," and I came back leading a twenty-one-year-old mare named Tubby. There were two black horses in the big pasture, and she was the one I could catch. He'd looked at me hard but hadn't said a word, since aspiring campjacks weren't exactly thronging the ranch gate.
My questions had been met with blank looks, western looks, so I decided that I'd keep them under my newly acquired cowboy hat. Instead, I pored over the book. Joe Back's drawings were obsessively detailed, rendering the grain of the wood in the saddle bars and the twist of fibers in each rope, but they didn't take at first: rope in hand, I immediately forgot what I'd seen.
So I watched Mitch as we led the horses to the porch and put the saddles on. With my extra height and long arms, I managed to get Red's cinch too tight, and he snorted and fidgeted.
"Loosen up that cincha," Mitch said. "Can't slip your hand along his ribs, it's too snug. Pull it up, then lead him a few steps and check it. They blow up." He made a horsey face and puffed his stomach out. So I loosened the cinch, watching how he rolled his yellow slicker and bound it with the saddle strings, and I did that too. Then I led the gelding in a circle, tightened the cinch, led him around again, loosened it, and was starting on a third circuit when Mitch laughed.
"Hah! You'll tucker him out before you get on. Let's check the sheep before they get away from us." We rode into the sun, and I tipped my hat to break the glare. The ewes were spreading up the slope, giving soft moans and grunts as they fed, each followed by a lamb or twins. Yesterday had been hard for them, driven from the ranch along fenced roads, then shoved up the steep foreslope, and they were hungry, sorting the grass and leaves with their lips, nipping the best, taking a step, and nipping again.
We were taking them up to the high meadows that had just melted out of deep snow, where mountain plants ripened fast, throwing up leaves with the urgency of alpine summer, two brief months before the snow. With the sheep on the mountain, hayfields could be irrigated and cut, and the hay stacked for winter. But hay was poor food for sheep compared to the leafy mountain plants. And the lambs would come down from the mountain fat, ready to be sold.
The front line of sheep took the flower tops and tenderest leaves. The second wave took the best of what was left. Each successive rank found less and took the best of that. Stragglers got stems, the toughest leaves, and over-wintered stuff. The larger the band, the harder the range was browsed. The Prestons grazed 750 ewes, small as commercial bands go. Some summer bands numbered 2,500 ewes, each with at least one lamb. Successful birth was the prerequisite for continued life: it wasn't worth keeping a barren ewe around just for the wool clip, and full-grown mutton is not much desired in America.
One night at the ranch table, Warren gave me a lecture on sheep husbandry, much of it unintelligible, but out of respect I nodded as if it were clear. Given the root equation of ranching, a ewe that bears healthy twins is worth more than one with single births, even if she doesn't live as long, so the twins — or one of the pair — are kept in the herd.
The sheep waddled in clots of ten or twenty, working up the slope. We rode around, careful not to push them, and then rode the north flank. Mitch swept his hand in a circle. "Keep 'em loose and don't bunch 'em up. We want 'em to move easy. They like to spread out and climb, and the fast ones break off. If you lose sheep, always look high."
We called the dogs back, but their blood was up and they were hard to restrain. Tiger, the pup, was the worst. Mitch called him "Tikki-Lo," which was easier to yell. It took an hour to circle the sheep, and then Mitch pointed me down the hill.
Excerpted from Broken Country by C. L. Rawlins. Copyright © 1996 C. L. Rawlins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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