Tuesday morning, with my departure eminent, it felt as if none of the Jenkins were quite ready for me to leave. Jim won out and snagged me first, taking advantage of my last day to show me the ins and outs of the feed truck - or trucks, really. It was a system: the day-to-day truck-truck to drive us to the feed lot, the massive semi-truck that deposited the food to the cattle, and a third truckish scooping device called a pay loader which collected the food from its various resting places. At first, Jim seemed skeptical of my cattle feeding abilities - I hadn't exactly proven myself the most cautious of ranch hands. So, he requested I sit in the feed truck while he filled it from the pay loader. From the passenger seat of the cabin I could see three digital scales: one inside, and one on each outer side for the pay loader driver to keep track. Each new load would shake the whole truck, and I watched amazed as we went from zero to 7000 lbs. in a matter of minutes. Silly me, I had previously been under the impression that all cattle needed was some hay and grass. (Side note: hay is NOT made of dead grass and if you dare mention this as a possibility you will be laughed out of town for such a "city people" thought). Loading finished, Jim parked the pay loader and climbed back into the drivers' seat. He chose this moment to demystify the contents we were hauling. "Go climb up the side of the truck and look over," says Jim. I do, and he turns on a giant inner egg beater which proceeds to mash the entire 7000 lb mixture up. "Don't stick your hand in there," Jim adds, before explaining the recipe consists of food pellets, dry corn, wet corn and some grain. Mainly, it seemed like the crap my mother tries to get me to eat every time I'm home. Perhaps even less appetizing.
What Jim should have warned me about, rather than being concerned I would be idiotic enough to stick my hand near spinning metal, is the slight panic one might feel when a herd of cattle comes barreling straight towards you for the first time. From the moment the feed truck rounded the corner of the determined pasture, brown and black Angus cattle began mooing urgently and charging along the fence toward us. Once the truck managed to squeeze inside the pasture (Jim opened the gate, lord knows I wasn't setting foot outside the truck at that moment), the herd was even worse. I debated the truest metaphor for the feeling: was I Frodo and this was a horde of angry Orcs? The cattle pushed against the side of the truck, surrounding us. Eventually, Jim flipped a switch and our nutritious mixture began pouring out one side while we continued to slowly drive on. "Do you ever accidentally hit one?" I ask. "Oh, yeah," says Jim. "You gotta be careful or you could break their bones. They're not the smartest." Behind us, cattle line up to munch on the food we'd dropped, and the number pushing past the front of the truck dwindled. They seemed to enjoy it more than I enjoy my mother's quinoa. Less worried about running over one, I stuck my head out the window to get a little closer. "They're actually quite cute," I said, and I wasn't lying. Their fur was shiny and clean, their eyes were big, and they each had a fluffiness I could imagine petting. "Good Moo Moo," I would say as I stroked them. "Let's not think about your eventual end, but rather how lovely things are now."
We made a U-turn and the cattle followed, until eventually the truck was empty and all that remained was a line of cattle butts pressed together in a perfect horse shoe shape. It wouldn't have surprised me if at that very moment, they broke into a can-can or even a two-step. They clearly had skills when it came to synchronized movement and line formation. Once back to the lot, Jim told me we'd have to fill up the truck again for the Sunday morning driver. It was just the polite thing to do. I expected to once again wait in the feed truck, but after giving me a once over Jim seemed to think I could squeeze into the pay loader. "You're probably the first one that's been able to do this." No wonder, I thought as I crawled up after him into the yellow contraption. The single seat machine had no room surrounding it beyond a half foot wide crevice on either side of the chair intended for drivers to store paperwork, lunch, or other such portable items. This was my spot. I turned sideways and for the first time in my life thanked genetics for my skinny boy hips. If I twisted just enough, I could lean/squat out of Jim's way. A coat hook gave me a few bumps on the forehead each time we jerked forward, but this was manageable. Jim opened his binder to display the charts detailing the exact mixture we needed. A few hundred lbs of dry corn, which look like blended kernels; shelled kernels, which look like the stuff you find in the toilet after an evening of corn on the cob, and grain, which looks exactly as you would imagine it to be. Then a few thousand lbs of wet corn, a yellow gelatounis mix that moved like alien goo from any pre-CGI movie and had me laughing hysterically as it dropped back into its pancake puddle with resounding flops and splatters. The food pellets I never saw, as they were fed directly into the truck from a structure straight out of Willy Wonka: it was cylindrical, metal and had a spout that I could imagine Verruca Salt being sucked into. Loaded up, we left the feed truck and hopped back into the truck-truck.
Jim left me at the house, then almost immediately turned back to prep the horses. Normally they're left to their own devices in the winter, but I had specifically requested they be temporarily disrupted from their peaceful break so I could complete my touristy cowgirl checklist. The weather complied, inching up to 40 degrees, and Jim agreed to help us saddle the horses. Clothing was one of the items I had unintentionally skimped on, so Whitney ended up throwing me a pair of boots that were only a few sizes too big (score!). At this point, the Jenkins probably assumed I had a natural waddle with the way I'd been walking around in oversized shoes. We headed down to the stables, where Jim has already pulled four horses aside. Whitney shows me how to properly saddle one, and ensures my stirrups aren't too low (she briefly considers a children's saddle, but luckily I manage on the last notch of the adult size). They've put me on Leland, their easiest horse. Unfortunately for me, the most temperate horse is also the largest in both width and height. Atop Leland, I'm a few inches above Peter on his horse, Diablo, and I'm feeling much like a C class gymnast pulling her stubby legs into a sideways split. I begin to worry that Leland won't recognize any kicking signals since, depending on where my feet land, he may assume he's simply getting a good shoulder pat. Luckily, Leland is a follower at heart, and shuffles along behind the others with no direction from me. This is good, since as Leland has probably guessed, I have no idea where we're going. Jim takes the lead, with Whitney and Peter just a few feet behind him. Leland starts lagging three minutes in, and I anxiously give him a small kick to spur him forward. He trots for approximately 3 seconds before reverting to his plodding pace. Up front, I hear Peter crack a joke about someone being an "old fatty mcgoo." I'm hoping he meant the horse, but since Leland was perpetually ten to twenty horse sized paces behind, I would never know. The Jenkins lead me up a hill named after their neighbor Squirrelly Shirley (the only justification I heard for the nickname was it "sounded right") and their designated campground. They appease my inner city girl by allowing for some pictures with the snow splotched hills behind me. I needed evidence that this was no silly trail ride, but a real, authentic journey for back home. Pictures over, we travel a little further. I give Leland a few more nudges and he dutifully ignores me. To be fair, I'd be irritated if a tiny, confused human was misdirecting me from my back side, so I let it slide. Mid explanation of grass types (there are more than you ever want to know, and they change seasonally) Jim pauses and points. Underneath a tree, a lone steer (my mind jumped to "baby cow" but I was corrected after the fact) stared directly at us. Separated from the herd he looked smaller, and ridiculously out of place. He had paused mid chew, and looked mystified as to what we were doing there. Jim mused that he was likely sick or injured. "It's good to know he's out here though. I'll have the girls bring him in." I stared at the stranded steer and he stared stupidly back at us. This was not to be an animal-human bonding moment. In fact, one of my main takeaways from the ranch is that cattle are pretty dumb. Nix that - very dumb. And out of sheer dumb luck this calve had stranded himself with food and water. With a last minute change of mind, Jim decides the four of us can lead the straggler in. It's obvious I'm the weak link, and so arrangements are made to have Whitney, Peter and Jim do much of the hard work. My job is simple: stay on my horse. It sounds easy enough at first, but after the steer takes us through a half frozen creek/sinking mud pit and a steep incline that needs a good jump from the horses, I realize some pertinent information: Leland is somewhat of a pussy. He refuses to follow Whitney's horse, Ginger, out of the creek, putting up a fight and attempting to turn us around until the third time I yank his reins back toward our intended goal. He complies eventually, whining and shaking his head, and shortly after steers us beneath a low tree - I believe in a vengeful attempt to knock me off. I hang on, though, and we fan out behind the steer. With Peter needing to open a gate far ahead of us I find myself in the tail position, and so attempt to sit up and look like I know what I'm doing in case the steer had any sense of what was trailing behind him. We guide him back toward the feed lot, pressure him through the second to last gate, and close to our Final Destination pen (pun intended). As we ride, enclosed cattle follow the free steer along their own fence. Whether they were excited to see their lost comrade or, again, just being dumb, was unclear. The steer didn't seem to mind his additional followers, but was hesitant to enter through the final passageway. First he slowed, then, checking behind him at us four horseman (literally the forbearers of his future death) he makes a snap decision that a crazed zig-zagged escape attempt is his best bet for escape. Peter and Whitney react instantly, blocking him as he veers far to my right. Leland and I watch as the steer is intercepted twice by expert on-a-dime riding maneuvers. He makes an unexpected turn after the second, and I'm horrified to see the thing running straight at me and Fatty McGoo. The steer didn't concern me, but I was terrified that Leland would jump away from the grunting creature coming at him, and I'd show off my lack of skill by ending face first in the dirt. I yanked Leland's reins backwards, then to left, hard. He responds by taking two hesitant back-left steps, again for which I can't really blame him since my instructions were unclear. Fortunately, the steer hasn't shifted directions at all (dumb, I tell you) and Leland's body provides a key block that looked helpful, but also gets in the way of Whitney's race to cut off the attempted escapee. Either way, I feel successful. And I stayed on, which I hear is an essential step to leveling up on horseback riding! Peter and Whitney quickly tire the steer soon after, and once he's secure in the pen we ride the horses back to the stables. I get a quick run down on how to de-saddle and brush down the horses. While wiping dust and flecks of mud off Leland, I give him a few pats on the butt and whisper, "Thank you, thank you for making me look kind of cool at that last moment there." He flicks one ear back at the sound of my voice as if to say, "Whatever, besh" and I know we've shared a moment