With the arrival of morning, it has become apparent how barren this land is. The sun, constantly reflecting off the snow and ice, is blinding, but I am adjusting slowly. Its occupants are mainly cattle. There are more hills than expected, reminiscent of several horror film settings, but our log refuge is comfortingly decorated with a fifteen foot tree and thirty-seven nativity sets. The biblical scenes, made from various materials including wood, glass, and plastic, rest on every shelf, corner table, and respectably sized flat surface beyond the floor. I am initially worried the Christian belief has taken a more paganist path here, and idols are a necessity. (Later, I will be corrected; the collection is merely a hobby of Mrs. Jenkins, and never used for ritualistic purposes).
On my first guided tour through downtown, I count three churches. There is one school the size of a small gym. A quick glance confirms my own LA Fitness would have to remove its yoga studio, bar studio, and quarter track to fit into a similarly sized location. A convenience mart replaces a true grocery store – I learn that most of the Callaway residents head a town over for the rest of their supplies. The hardware store, on the other hand, is impressive. We walk inside and Peter introduces me to the owner, whom he refers to as Pit. Pit is obviously pleased to see Peter, giving him a large, genuine hug. The three of us chat about Chicago and my initial impressions of Callaway, and Pit, who spent more than a few years in cities himself, warns me that it’s quite different from anywhere else, but Callaway has a charm that attracts many types people looking for a different pace - or really, no movement at all.
We stop into the local joint, a diner so familiar to its clients that no one even asks for a menu. I smartly recall my own menu-less restaurant experiences, and ask for the chef’s specialty. The waitress nods and soon enough, a taco salad is placed in front of me. While eating, I try to keep up with the conversation as others outside of our party frequently join and depart from our table as if this is normal. The table here, I note, is useless in its symbolic role as a secluded, private space; here, shouts are delivered across the room as new patrons arrive, and diners frequently leave or add onto their tabs while moving from one side to the other. The human occupants outside of the Jenkins family already know me by name. Each one greets me and soon follows up the identical comment, "You could do better,” after which Peter is given a friendly nudge on the shoulder or forearm squeeze. I’m not used to such familiarity between numbers… is this in place of a formal greeting, or a legitimate warning? One wonders.
In the end, I see no transaction of money and I’m left to wonder if the barter system is still in use. Without paying, we head out and Jim, Haley, and Peter point out their personal coffee cups hanging from the diner wall. Seeing the ten rows of perhaps twenty white cups hanging from their individual hooks, each neatly printed with a single first name, was just one way I begin to grasp the sheer closeness these ranchers maintained, despite the miles of land between them and their nearest neighbors.
Before heading in for the evening, Jim and Peter lead me into one of Jim’s farm trucks to get a bearing of their land. The tour of the ranch reveals over 3,000 Angus and Holsteins, plus a handful of horses. All roam free. I ask the difference between the red and black cattle and receive an answer that is approximately 45 minutes long from Jim about frame size and roaming habits, but I’m too captivated by the brown-eyed faces eyeing us as we drive close by the pens to fully pay attention.
Jim warns me that dead calves aren’t unheard of, and sure enough, we spot one before our tour is done. Jim’s grim as we pass it, not because he’s worried about one city girl’s perception, but because the unusually wet weather has led to muddy pens and sick cattle. He and his team do their best to roll hay out for the cattle to lay on, but it can often seem like a losing battle against the constant treading of hundreds of heavy animal’s feet. Holsteins actually do better in colder weather, Jim explains, when the ground is hard enough to stay dry, keeping the cattle clean.
We park the truck in the main shed, a meet-up location for Jim and his staff. I’m introduced to Dallas, the main ranch hand, and the one responsible for the scrawled misspelled sign reminding workers to, “Turn Lights of at Nite.” Spelling aside, I get the impression that Dallas runs a tight ship with Jim. He greets me warmly enough, but he soon turns the conversation to ranch tasks, using jargon that I can only barely grasp at. Distracted, I resort to petting Bella, Jim’s new puppy. Peter tells me she’s the first dog that’s ever been allowed to sleep in the house.
Three women appear on horseback, looking entirely at ease with the frigid cold, their stomping horses, and the dogs weaving beneath their mounts’ hooves. A quick word from one of the women has the dogs silent and sitting, perfect statues. I’m given a brief hello, while Jim pulls away from his conversation with Dallas to introduce me. I’m told that the women are all graduates in agriculture and farming, share the guest house, and are in charge of herd health. This statement cues them to begin relating to Jim their day’s findings, and once again, I’m lost in a matter of seconds. While they talk, though, I study the beautiful horses and the girls’ boots. They looked exactly as one might picture a stereotypical ranch girl, albeit stronger, muddier, and well spoken. Even after they’d departed, all three of them so naturally stepping into their saddles you’d think it was as easy as hopping out of bed, I wondered if I would have been more attracted to old western films and books had the female characters been more like them, and less like damsels in distress.