Sunrise on the Mesa


Terry Allen photos

SUBLETTE COUNTY — Two hours before a muddy sunrise, I found myself hi-rev driftin’ a sloppy u-turn in a barnyard, peering thru the splattered windshield for the cattle guard exit. I risked a glance into the rearview mirror in case I had to explain myself to a rancher coming out of his house with a shotgun. I did an unexpected crow-hop over the cattle guard, the noise of which was sure to bring the shot, but no lights came on behind me. The road was a dead end; maybe they’re used to this sort of thing.
Back on the main mud, another right turn and a sign loomed out of the black night. Harry Steele Road. Hmmm…seems sorta right.
I’m behind schedule to meet Jonita at the Sommers Ranch so I floor it skillfully down the hill like the Dukes of Hazzard but my truck immediately turns into a toboggan that has other ideas, leaving 6-inch-deep ruts. Uh oh, this doesn’t look familiar at all, way too steep, and too late to do anything about it.
God was about to zap the cussin’ geezer whipping around like a serpent in the muddy darkness of his soul, when Mrs. God laid her hand on his arm and said, “Wait, honey, it’s Terry and it looks like he’s doing his best to get out of trouble.” God gave her a look that promised nothing, and she said softly, “He’s doing it for the Cowboys.”
I retrieve my phone from the jumbled mess around my boots and look at the screen, it’s Jonita.
“Terry, are you on your way?”
I look at the time, 7 minutes to go 7 miles.
I’ve done it before on roads worse than this, and I’m flying when a faded apparition on horseback appears in my headlights. I can see the sagebrush behind him because I can see right thru him. I slam to a stop, grab my camera, and point at him with a smile, and the old Cowboy smiled back.
One minute past the appointed hour, Jonita’s side-by-side jitney lights up.
I park, and with two camera bags, a camera around my neck, one in my pocket, a snack bag and a thermos, we all try to get into her jitney at the same time.
I slam the door, look at her, and she says, “Any trouble findin’ the place?”
“Nah,” I say. “Just the usual.”
For over 100 years the Sommers Ranch has been grazing cattle on the mesa. A handful of Sublette County ranchers apply for BLM permits to graze the Mesa for the allowed three weeks every year. Three weeks ago after spring branding, cattle were moved to the Mesa, where they spent time getting their new calves strong enough for the week’s long drift north into the summer forest-permitted grazing of the Upper Green. Two riders live on the Mesa with the herd to keep them safe, make sure they are watered, and doctor them if needed.
I asked Jonita a question that maybe many of you have wondered as well.
“What should I call the girls and women, ‘Cowgirls?’”
“No,” Jonita said firmly, “We are all Cowboys.”
Well, that’s good enough for me.
We ride up a two-track dirt trail to the top of the Mesa. As the sun ever so slowly hints at rising, we begin to sense the great vastness of the sagebrush and greasewood prairie. Shades of subtle green appear in the emerging dawn and seem to roll like a long and gentle ocean wave that follows the curvature of the earth.
The Wind River Mountain Range is close, so a camera is able to capture grandeur hard to imagine. For three days, about 16 cowboys look for dark dots in the vast emptiness that indicate cows, and encourage them north. I follow their gaze as I look through my lens and I think they are also doing a lot of looking at the beauty of the morning sun as it begins to shine on our towering snow-covered peaks glowing in a pinkish-golden hue. In a few more minutes it will begin to illuminate the white faces of Hereford cows and calves.
There is pride in the rider’s posture and appearance as the cattle are coaxed. Resisting, the cows softly moo their complaints. They seem to say, “We are in paradise. The feed is so good. We like it here. Why should we go?”
With the encouragement of a cowboy whistle and the rushing patter of herd dog footsteps coming thru the sagebrush, each one begins to move forward. The new calves are untrained in the ways of this world, so like toddlers, they sometimes wander off. Cowboy, horse and dog teams are always on the alert and with a whistle, a bark and a sprint, the flow is corrected.
I follow behind them and walk on an endless carpet of seemingly untouched grasses, sculptured with bouquets of multi-colored wildflowers covering the entire mesa, especially along the bluffs. It feels like a holy place. The cowboys, cattle, pronghorn, dogs, plants and birds all seem like holy beings surrounded by an aura of inner peacefulness.
I am reminded that the Native Americans also came to the Mesa for their hunting and gathering in the summer. They gave names to this world. If you are patient, you can find things they crafted with their own hands, photographs of sorts, chiseled out of flint.
I count the riders, the dogs, horses, trucks, trailers and the days it takes to get to the Mesa, and then the days to leave it. I think of lease cost and loss percentages. I don’t see how cows and calves can get fat expending all that traveling energy. The bottom line, I can’t figure out where the profit is.
I ask Jonita, and she gives a little laugh. “Oh, there’s no money in it; we do it because we love it,” she says. “It is a good way to raise a family, and to preserve a tradition and way of life for them, if we can.”
We talk back and forth trying to remember the names of the younger riders we see as we take pictures and notes. They grow up so fast, and the memories we have of some of them are of them as children, but now they ride with the poised skill and confidence of adults. The soft morning sun makes their skin and Western clothing glow like a painting as they move effortlessly across the landscape. I try to capture these moments for them, their parents and their posterity. Someday, maybe in a hundred years, similar young people will hold the photographs of their parents, grandparents and friends in their hands, and also treasure their heritage.
Hope you all enjoyed learning about cattle grazing on the Mesa. Next time you hear from me, I hope to bring you a late summer adventure from even farther up the Upper Green River. If we’re lucky, it might be a story about the time Albert Sommers got chased out of the willows by a grizzly, and Zach and Eddie were faced with an emotional decision.