Columns

A Cowboy Call
The Philipsburg Mail
Issue 28* Year 118* July 7, 2005

Cowboys don’t say “yeehaw.” They expel a number of noises that wouldn’t be suitable at a board meeting or the supermarket, but in my experience, that isn’t one of them. Some perfect the gentle “ch-ch-ch” sound to coerce the cattle to mosey, while most will artfully insert a few words of a risqué nature, sometimes likening the cows to the female dogs that are chasing them.

Our ranch foreman speaks to cattle as if they have all the sense of a hearing impaired toddler and yells so loud his voice could echo off a blade of grass.

Every year for four days in June, I hear the words “yah” and “bitty” more than “and” or “the.” Yet not only a sense of hearing is redefined on a cattle drive. Just as viewing the road atop a horse is different than viewing it behind horsepower, in a subtle way, each sense must adjust to its new environment.

People pass by and take pictures. Once, we were featured in a London newspaper, showing me perched on my stubborn horse, trying to convince him with my reins and heels that he need not eat every tree.

Although it is correct in our vernacular, cow pies aren’t as inviting as they sound. But with any smell, once your nostrils get accustomed, you wonder how you ever lived without their fragrant aroma. However, a horse hoof or tire can fling a surprise on to your face or worse. When I was ten, I took my shoes and socks off at lunch, and in a moment of forgetfulness I sunk my little feet into a cow pie the size of my head.

I learned there is an upper limit to how dirty one can get, especially while consuming food. Like my clumsiness, the weather is unpredictable and it often rains for a few stretches. With dusters and ponchos, we brave the rain and the moisture allows the cattle to cool down and move easier. One year, when herding was done for the day and we were getting geared up for lunch, the rain started pouring and the hibachi grill wouldn’t light.

Nothing can stand between a cowboy and his burger. In a move that would make a germaphobe blush, without even shoveling it out, we set up lawn chairs in the horse trailer, piled in and cooked our meat in the middle of it. I remember thinking that was one of the best burgers I had ever had, although I realize that not every person has the same taste for cattle drives as I do.

That is obvious when you see the amount of people who stop to take pictures or cuss at cow pies caking their new car. A Nebraskan couple stopped on the highway directly in front of the cattle this year and got out to take pictures. Before too long, the entire herd of cattle stopped before them, confused about what to obey, whips or camera flashes. My dad went up to the pair and assured them rather tactfully that if they moved, the cattle would continue up the road.

“Oh don’t worry,” the lady innocently told a cattle rancher, “We won’t hurt them. We don’t even eat beef.”

Other than the sound of cattle calls, the sight of cowboys, the smell of pies, the touch of dirt, and the taste of beef, the cattle drive affords a timeless quality that allows these four days every year to be exactly the same. On the first day we push hard past Philipsburg. On the second we mosey. On the third we go through a maze of bushes. And on the fourth, we go through the mountains. When we arrive after 45 miles, we eat chicken and salad, nap and talk, telling stories from the cattle drive that are older than me, none of which have every included the word “yeehaw.”

 

 

The Fine Art of the Heyp
The Philipsburg Mail
Issue 32 * Year 118 * August 4, 2005

Every morning, tea in hand, I travel 20 miles to work in Philipsburg, MT. The loud car stereo wakes up dormant brain cells as I head up Montana Highway 1.

I work my way up the road, always glancing at the same three things; the colts lying down in a field, tails whipping steadily from side to side, the town of Maxville and fishing activity at the six-mile marker.

I fall into a slight trance where every mile feels the same from day to day. When I do this, I often forget the epitome of small-town courtesy, the drive-by wave, or as I like to call it, the “heyp.”

The heyp is more casual than a “hello” or a “hey” and capitalizes on the slight Montana accent, where the mouth usually closes after a greeting, making a subtle “p” sound. Although, I’ve explained the nomenclature, the “heyp” is mostly a non-verbal greeting. It is often seen in the wild as a rising of the fingers with the hand still on the steering wheel, not to be mistaken for a wave of the middle finger.

Even in the friendly cities of Missoula or Eugene, Oreg., they do not “heyp.” It is nearly unheard of for a person to greet someone they didn’t know. Walking down the street, people prefer to talk on cell phones, listen to iPods or generally stare at anything inanimate rather than make eye contact.

I have to admit, after moving to the city, I continued this practice and it was a social experiment to see how people react to a gratuitous salutation. They turned around to see whom I was waving to, gave me quizzical looks, raised eyebrows, or assumed I must be hitting on them. After a few month of saying “Hi” to people I didn’t know without any response; I gave “nowhere” a lot more attention.

In the Flint Creek Valley of Montana, where many people live on ranches with a fleet of trucks that I don’t recognize, my daydreaming may come off as rude. I understand the art of the “heyp” but often fail when putting it into practice.

I have not yet mastered the intricacies, as there are a number of degrees to which you can use the custom. For a full heyp, you lift your hand fully off the steering wheel and slightly move it upwards, showing your palm. For a half heyp, the palm stays on the steering wheel while the fingers go up. Then there is a quarter “heyp” with two or three fingers rising slightly off the steering wheel.

None of these actions can be exactly described as a wave because the palm doesn’t move from side to side. That is reserved for parades or getting someone’s full attention.

The great thing about this greeting is that it doesn’t matter if you know the person or not. I have seen true experts at work, where they can pick a car as easy as a face, but still often choose to heyp a complete stranger.

One day I will be like my family members and friends, professionals of the small-town wave, until then, everyone I know, stick with me; I’m not yet an artist.

 

 

The Creak of Home
The Philipsburg Mail
Issue 33 * Year 118 * AUG 11, 2005

A ranch house is no ordinary house. Although it does not exactly talk, but it does groan like a dyspeptic grizzly bear and creak as though it’s stricken with arthritis.

Unlike when I was younger, now I don’t believe these sounds are derived from ghosts. I do think that in some way, the watchful spirits of generations of Johnsons still have a presence here.

The all-purpose explanation for the origin of the noises that emanate from the stairs when we’re not walking on them and the chairs when we’re not sitting in them is the house ghost, Harry.

Harry is an essential byproduct to living in the middle of nowhere, in almost complete darkness, in the company of sounds from the highway, birdcalls and an overactive imagination.

Secrets seem to be nestled next to spider webs in the wooden cracks of each room. I happen to inhabit the darkest and creakiest corner of the house, dubbed Miller’s room.

Mrs. Miller was a woman from Anaconda that came to the house to watch my dad and his sisters when my grandparents were away. She stayed in a unique room, with wooden paneling and large, irregularly shaped windows that looked out over every yard.

Even now, when it should be considered my room, since I have painted the darkness away with a coat of bright turquoise paint, it is still known as Miller’s Room. It would take more than my futile décor to remove her presence.

I have heard many stories about how it was impossible for my dad and his sisters to sneak out. Last night, as I was brushing my teeth, it sounded as if I was vigorously salsa dancing on the wooden floor.

The floors in the house rather resemble a patchwork quilt. The house was originally a small log cabin, made within the first few generations of the ranch. With each new generation came an addition to the structure, and a modern tile design. The house is a museum of tile. With five different patterns on the main floor, we should charge admission.

As we became the next family of Johnsons on the ranch, I said goodbye to my first childhood home. When I saw it for the last time, the house was completely empty–not a stitch of furniture or tole-painted decoration. The only familiar thing was the squeak of the stairs leading to my room. I memorized those creeks long ago, making them sing rapidly while sledding in a sleeping bag and, years later, easing them along when I’d come home after curfew.

I felt protective, realizing that people who toured the house would think the noises were a detractor, rather than the whispers of a house, telling stories that I can take with me to my future homes, wherever they may be.