The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Monday, October 31, 2005

BACK ABOARD S/V VILISAR IN SAN CARLOS, SONORA, MEXICOMonday, 24 October 2005It’s great to be back aboard Vilisar! She survived the heat and humidity and even a few windy days during the seven weeks we were away at Rancho el Nogal in the high sierras. The bilge was dry, the familiar smells are all still there; except for dust and dirt on the outside and the fact that the wood is drying out more and more, everything is fine.Alex had returned on his motorcycle from Chihuahua, arriving at el Nogal on Thursday evening about dark with a flat tire. A sharp rock was the culprit on the road a few miles short of the river. After a meal with Simon, Dutch and Alex – supplies were very low so it was a very makeshift meal – we polished off half a bottle of tequila together as a farewell party. Alex decided to drive to Yepachic with us in Cindy’s pickup in order to buy some food and drive the vehicle back. Our rancheros were still in Chihuahua.After a leisurely breakfast of frijoles, huevos y tortillas (the latter made specially for us by Simon), we pack our few things into the duffle bags and throw them into the back of the truck along with two rolls of barbed wire that we are supposed to leave near the ranch gate for Simon to repair some nearby fence. We say our goodbyes to Simon and Dutch, Alex jumps in the back and off we go. The rainy season is over but, with the dozer still in the ravine, the road has not been graded. Even the road outside of the ranch is a mess. Thank goodness the 4WD works! We even used the low-range 4WD sometimes. Two jarring and dusty hours later we arrive at Lucy’s Restaurant (2 tables) and Hotel (2 rooms). We have half an hour to spare (mas o menos; a favourite expression in the mountains) before the scheduled arrival of the daily Estella Blanca bus from Chihuahua. We drink coffee while we wait. We also keep an eye on the highway from the restaurant window; we have paid for our coffee and our kit is already outside. There is a large group of about a dozen people hanging about and we suspect they are also waiting for the bus; some will board it, some will be meeting people coming off the bus, and some will have packages to pick up from Chihuahua or load onto the bus for Obregon, eight hours to the south.As the scheduled arrival time approaches, we start getting a little nervous and move outside to the roadside to be ready to flag down the bus. We realise that the crowd has totally dispersed, which makes us even more nervous. We ask a lady walking past us and leading a burro if the bus has already gone by. Passada? We think she says that it has not but her answer is rather lengthy and complicated so we are not exactly sure. After forty-five minutes the bus does finally hail into view over the hill at the other end of the village and eventually swooshes to a halt next to us in a cloud of roadside dust. We throw our duffels into the baggage rack beneath and climb aboard. The bus is quite full but we get separate aisle seats near each other. Next to me sits a very small and slim and dark young man. He is also very quiet and it is some time before we come into a very limited conversation. I thought he might be native, Tarahumara perhaps, as the ones I have seen her in the Tarahumara Mountains are quite small. No, he and his three or four friends on the bus are from the Yucatan Peninsula and have been looking for work in Chihuahua. Not finding any, they are heading to Sonora to stay with family. When we pass through police checkpoints in the mountains, the Federales take them all off the bus and examine their plastic ID cards before letting them get back aboard. These highway checks by Army and police are frequent (I think we had four in all); they have them all the time but at marijuana-harvest time they are intensified. The police do not even bother to look at Kathleen’s U.S. passport and glance only cursorily at my Canadian papers. So far in Mexico nobody has ever asked to see our official Tourist Visa.The road back down to Obregon is of course the same incredibly winding highway that we took up nearly two months ago. It seems to me that the two drivers going down are going rather more slowly than the drivers on the way up but that is subjective. Maybe I am just getting used to roads and driving in the mountains and think everybody should be shooting along like it is the Rally Monte Carlo. Once, on a right-hand curve the driver hits the brakes hard and pulls to the shoulder in time to avoid an eighteen-wheeler crawling up and cutting the curve. The road is plenty wide but we have to back up the hill to allow the lorry to pass; a second lorry waits for us to come down. A few hours later as it is getting near dusk, the same thing occurs again when a white tractor without a trailer forces us off the road on a right-hand curve. The truck keeps going on up the mountain road but we have to back and fill to get out of the soft shoulder. When we have done so, the drivers discover that the stainless steel tire rim on the right side is badly crimped. It will not be particularly safe to be driving on it but it is also clearly not such a hot idea to be changing tires on steep mountain roads in a blind curve. The male passengers have used the opportunity for a pit stop. Eventually half the bus passengers are standing around looking and commenting on the tire. Before the driver loads us all back in, I get to talking to the only other Anglo-looking person. Her name is Leila and she hails from Aarau and Bern in Switzerland. She has been working as a volunteer at an animal shelter in Guadalajara and is using some of her remaining time to tour Mexico. She is flabbergasted to find somebody on a mountain bus in the Sierras speaking Deutsch to her. Soon the three of us are chatting away. Before taking our places again, we agree to look for an hotel together when we get to Obregon, which will obviously be a lot later than we anticipated.After dark, when we have reached the coastal plain and are still and hour and one-half short of Ciudad Obregon, the drivers pull off the road and change the tire on the dusty shoulder. A half hour later we are on the way again at speed. We pull into the Central Depot about 2200 local time. We are an hour behind Chihuahua time and about three hours behind schedule).We ask around and are directed to Hotel Doris. It is extra clean and very cheap even by comparison to Hotel San Juan in Chihuahua. We agree that the three of us could share a room and save some pesos; a large room with WC/shower and two double beds costs us Pesos 210. With the money we save we go to a Chinese restaurant for a warm meal. I ask when we enter if they serve frijoles, tortillas y huevos. When they answered in the negative (the Chinese lady looked at me like I was nuts), we decide to stay.This next morning, Saturday, we are up early due to the time change and catch the two-hour bus to Guaymas at 0800. There is a price war going on and the tickets have been reduced by 50 percent to only Pesos 40. It is strange to have the coastal desert flying past the window and a trite Hollywood romantic comedy playing as a DVD in the bus. Leila, who had originally vaguely considered viewing Obregon, had asked if she could come to Guaymas with us. She wants to see the Pacific at least once. Sure thing. We have become good travelling friends now and enjoy each other’s company. We ask her if she wants to stay with us aboard Vilisar in San Carlos. After catching the local bus to San Carlos, we get a lift out to Vilisar, glad at last to be “home.” I was sad to leave the ranch but now I am glad to be back aboard. I have a large legal document to translate before we can leave; it has to be in by Wednesday night. So we will stay here till I get it sent off. We can definitely use the money. Leila and Kathy are taking it easy on the boat. They have done some laundry and light grocery shopping. Kathy is stowing things ready for putting to sea. The ladies will head into Guaymas today or tomorrow to hit the big supermarket to re-provision us for the Sea of Cortés crossing at the weekend. We want to be in La Paz by 31Oct05 to meet Bob Ferguson coming down by trawler from Seattle. We will likely do the crossing in one shot; even with good winds it should take two or three days to get to La Paz. Time to use our windvane steering and get used to standing watch again. If Leila sails with us as crew, that will make watchkeeping that much less onerous. Unfortunately, we will not have a moon to light up the sea for us.The weather here is just about perfect. The daytime temperatures are in low 80’s ° F (mid 20,s ° C) and it is dewy and cool at night. This does not prevent us from sitting on deck till about 2100. We are glad to have light blankets for sleeping. The bay water is much, much cooler now too. The winter winds have apparently set in and are blowing every day from the west or northwest. The forecast for the weekend puts them back to the SW and SE, unfortunately. That may delay our departure or force us to motor it, which we definitely do not want to do.My shoulder seems to have heeled quite well but I have several very painful ribs. Lying down or standing up or rolling over in bed are very painful and sudden moves or lifting can cause a jab like a knife. Other physical work is for some reason all right. I still take lots of Ibuprofen and recall Dr. Karl Wetklo’s words in Frankfurt when I cracked a rib or two in a fall from a bicycle (actually, I maintain I was thrown), “Well, I can wrap up your ribs tight and it will take six weeks for them heal. Or I can do nothing and it will take a month and one-half.” Grin and bear it.
posted by rjb,2:19 PM
Friday, October 21, 2005
FAREWELL TO RANCHO EL NOGALThursday, 20 October 2005Last night was another full moon and cold. Mist settled over the river valley and did not dissipate until well after sunrise this morning. At present we are only four at the ranch: Simon, Dutch, Kathleen and I. The rancheros are all off in Chihuahua. Maybe Alex will get back today. I get up early to make fresh bread for breakfast and to get the water on for coffee and washing up, aware that it will be the last full day for us here. I am a little sad already.The day warms up. I get a nice big fat German-English translation by email from Frankfurt and with enough time to do it in. Nevertheless, I get started at it right away. It is pretty dry stuff; legal arguments about which manufacturer is stealing another’s brands. Talk about hair-splitting! The only ones making money are the solicitors. And, I hope, the translators!After breakfast Simon gets a little wood-fire going in the small corral. He has five calves to brand. Dutch goes out to help and learn while Kathleen and I hang on the corral fence to watch. First they go into the big corral on foot amongst the milling cattle to get a rope around the calf’s neck (they are too young yet to have horns to rope) and subsequently pull it, protesting, into the small corral. The idea is to get a rope on its two hind legs and another on its two forelegs. To do this the calf has to be flipped on its side and held down. Dutch struggles with the first calf but it behaves as if it is greased and he cannot flip it. Finally, Simon comes over, reaches across the calf’s back, grabs a hank of skin on its belly and flips it in one motion towards him. The two guys get ropes around the legs and tie them off in opposite directions so the calf is stretched full length on the ground and immobilised. Then Simon gets the red-hot iron from the fire, kneels on the calf to keep it from bucking on the ground, and applies the iron to the calf’s right-rear haunch. A puff of smoke goes up and surrounds Simon’s head as he holds the iron to the animal for about fifteen seconds. The calf lets out a huge bawl, its tongue hanging out. Finished, Simon and Dutch slip the ropes off and the calf makes a dash back to it mamma in the next corral and the cowboys get their lassoes and start to cut out the next calf for branding. The first calf makes no more noises so I guess it is either in not too great pain or the bawling has more to do with the first shock and the separation form it mother.Dutch gets more proficient at flipping calves and tying them up rapidly and efficiently. After half an hour the calves are all branded and back in the big corral. Dutch & Simon: 5; Calves: 0.This afternoon, the temperatures are in the high 70’s and the sun bright in the sky, Dutch offers to saddle two horses if Kathleen and I want to take a farewell ride around the ranch. (I am still in too much rib and shoulder pain to lift saddles onto horses.) Kathleen has only ridden once before at the ranch, on Macho Grande when she and Cindy rode out to the warm springs a few weeks ago. I am sure she is not really that keen even today. But she agrees hesitantly and we ride slowly down the steep path to the river and across. She is riding Spot, the appaloosa, and I am riding Gus, Bob’s big bay. Spot knows she has it easy and sashays along while Gus steps out ahead of her. All three outdoor dogs, Greta, Cody and Phil, are along too as are both Chihuahuas. Sparkle, however, is afraid of the water and stays, whining, back on the ranchhouse side of the Tutuaca River. In advanced pregnancy though she is (she should be having her puppies in about ten days time), Moonbeam bravely swims across and runs with the other, much bigger, outdoor dogs. We cross and re-cross the river and she follows each time. By the third and fourth times, however, -we are down past the lower bunkhouse and want to ride along the left bank to see the big Indian caves – she looks like she might just wait till we get back again. Eventually she steps into the water and starts to swim again, her little tail whipping back and forth in the air behind her. She seems to be having the time of her life but I am afraid she will get lost somewhere along the way. This is her first time out on a longer jaunt; the grass is long and the river wide. How will I explain why we lost one dog?There are two or three big caves with smoke-blackened rooves that have clearly been used frequently in the past. Bob says it was by Tarahumaras, Pimas, or Apaches. I can see how they could be made comfortable but only in this mild climate. They are about fifteen feet deep and high and broad so keeping heat inside would be nearly impossible. Being out of the rain and with a cooking fire I can see how the caves would be habitable, however. But we are not talking The Ritz here.After the caves we cross back over to this side, the horses picking their way carefully through the rocks in the two-foot-deep waters and plodding along around the rock-strewn beach on the inside of the river bend. Finally we can go no farther; we are blocked by deeper water in the river and big boulders on both sides of the river. Here, about a mile away and out of sight of the ranchhouse, we could be anywhere in the wilderness of the Sierra Madres, The sun is warm when we dismount and tie the horses in the shade so they can graze. We stretch out in the shade on rocks still warm from the sun. Moonbeam, shivering and damp from her multiple river crossings, crawls up and I tuck her under my shirt for warmth. The other dogs flop down in the sunshine to snooze. The scene is like a western version of a Constable painting. The only sounds in the otherwise infinite silence are the gurgling of the river of the nearby rocks and the occasional blue jay or redheaded woodpecker in the trees above us. The tranquillity is nearly palpable. Leaving will now be that much more difficult for me. We talk about our time at Rancho el Nogal and our future back on Vilisar. Our vague plan is to get back to San Carlos, finish the translation while getting the boat provisioned and re-rigged for the 250-mile trip to La Paz and there to meet my friend Bob Ferguson on the way down from Seattle by trawler. When he left for Canada again we shall head across the Sea of Cortés for Mazatlan and points south, maybe to Costa Rica or even Ecuador.Tomorrow morning, if Alex is back, he will drive us the hour and one-half over the miserable ranch road to Yepachic. At Lucy’s two-table restaurant and two-room hotel, we will catch the bus to Ciudad Obregon, eight hours to the south down winding mountain highway. No doubt we shall have to spend the night in the bus station to catch an early-morning bus to Guaymas and then the local out to San Carlos. The bus trip to Obregon is fabulous but I must remember to take lots of aspirin. I am much, much better from my fall off the horse last week. But my ribs and shoulder still hurt if I move suddenly, cough or sneeze. I am glad for many reasons that we stayed for an extra week, not least amongst them is to have given my injuries time to heal a bit more.Somehow we shall have to cadge a lift out to Vilisar at her mooring in the Bahia San Carlos; we left our two-part dinghy on the foredeck while we were away. Our friend Alex, the Mad Magyar, who’s S/V True Companion is anchored nearby, gave us a lift to shore and then into town in the predawn of September 2, seven weeks to the day before we shall leave here tomorrow. After an hour or so along the riverbank, I gather up the horse again for the ride back. This time I carry Moonbeam cradled on my right arm so she will not have to keep swimming the rivers. She has stopped shivering and watches from her perch with bright eyes. Gus has a spring in his step as he heads for home and I have to keep him on a short rein so he does not leave Spot and Kathleen behind. Spot knows she has an easy go today and stops frequently to eat grass. Kathleen tries reasoning with her, which however, is only mildly successful. Coming back up the hill from the car ford, Kathleen gets a small taste of what it is like to el Nogal’s ranges as we climb over a rocky cliff on a narrow and rock-strewn path.I am observing everything intensely, not wanting to miss anything on my last ride at the ranch. Nearly five o’clock now, the sun’s rays are still warm but much longer. The trees and the grass give off a wonderful, clean smell and a light breeze comes up from the valley. The air is like champagne. Below us, the river is silver; above us the hills are golden and the sky is azure. Tonight, I know, the stars will be fiery bright before the moon comes up before midnight and the air will be cold. The horses plod into the corral area and come to a halt.
posted by rjb,10:54 AM
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
DRIVING THE CATTLE TO YEPACHIC Tuesday, 18 October 2005I ride an old paint, I lead an old DanI’m goin’ to Montan for to throw the hoolihanThey feed in the coolies, they water in the drawTheir tails are matted, their backs are all rawRide around, little doggies, ride around them slowFor the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to goI’ve worked in the town an d I’ve worked on the farmAnd all I got is this muscle in my armGot a blister on my foot and a callus in my handBut I’ll be a cowpuncher as long as I canRide around, little doggies, ride around them slowFor the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to goAround the corral there is apparent confusion. Who exactly is riding and who is driving in the trucks? What mounts are needed? Do we have enough saddles and bridles? After milking the cow, Simon and Dutch head out in different directions to bring in horses and mules. The cows are bawling and milling around.The final “cattle-drive party” includes Simon on Zebra, a dun-coloured mule, Dutch on his now-standard mount Snip (that very same beast that threw me last week), Tanner (10) on her little pony, Ginger, and me on Macho Grande, a big black mule. Macho Grande means big male. But, though he is big, he is very tranquilo. Bob, the ranchero, will also ride with us for a couple of miles on Gus, his big bay horse. The boys are starting to wail because they are going to town in the trucks; they thought they were going to be riding horses or ponies. It’s a huge drama that seems never to end; when we follow the cows later down the ravine, across the river and up the other side, I can still hear Eli keening up at the house. Tanner is riding her pony because it going to the fair in Chihuahua next weekend and the only way to get Ginger there is to take her in the trailer from Yepachic with the cattle.Confusion is added when Cindy, the ranchera, walks behind Zebra, who kicks her in the ribs with his hind leg. Even though I happen to be watching at the very moment it occurs, the mule is so fast that I barely see it. Cindy is livid with anger and starts smacking the mule around the face. Bob tells her to give it a good kick in the belly to let it know who is boss. We all stare.The plan was to start driving the cattle towards the river at 0900. Someone has helpfully saddled Macho Grande for me. Now the horses and mules are tethered to the corral or standing patiently with their reins on the ground like good cattle horses. They shift their body weight from one leg to the other in the warmth of the sun. Except for the ongoing crying from the boys, quiet settles over the corral while we wait to get started. Nobody knows why we are waiting and we wonder if we will be back as advertised by dark tonight. Dutch lights another cigarette while he talks about giving up smoking. Simon as usual is still.Finally, at around 1100, we mount. The pain in my ribs and shoulder is excruciating when I have to pull myself up into the saddle. The corral gate down to the river is opened and the first cattle start to move. When all the sorting and culling is done, we are now driving fourteen head of cattle to Yepachic, four cows and eight calves. Most of the calves are Corrientes roping calves that will go to a dealer in Chihuahua. The cows will go to auction, some of them to be made into hamburger, some for breeding. The beef calves will be bought at auction by feed-lot owners, cattle dealers or other ranchers. In addition to raising cash for el Nogal ranch operations, Bob and Cindy are selectively culling their herds to conform to their ideal mix of cattle. Rancho el Nogal is a leading supplier of roping calves to the U.S. rodeo market.Both Bob and Cindy say that the first mile or two is the worst until the cattle get the idea that they should just follow the road. The older cattle usually will take the path of least resistance; the calves tend to be all over the shop. The job of the cowpunchers is to keep the cattle moving, don’t lose any of them in the underbrush. This is a mountain ranch and the whole way to Yepachic is through very rugged terrain. The roads can be very steep, the hills off the road even steeper. Sometimes the arroyos are hundreds of metres deep. Once a cow gets out of sight you can lose him easily.T. on her pony and I on Macho Grande follow the herd with their three drovers and the three ranch dogs down the steep path to the river. We push into the water, now fairly low since it has not rained for a couple of weeks, and up the road on the other side feeling that we have really started now at last. As we cross the river I can still hear Eli wailing up on the hill. “He’ll get over it,” T. says.Somehow Levi, 4, has talked Bob into taking him with him on Gus but, once across the river, Bob sets Levi down to walk until Bob can come back for him. He trails us crying and whining. I am not sure what to do about Levi, to send him back to wait for Cindy to come along in the white pickup, which is going to Chihuahua for repairs, or to let him follow us. I decide to let him come on.Fortunately for Levi, T’s pony is very slow. I do not like to leave her or Levi following alone a long way behind. If the herd gets too far ahead, I will be faced with constant painful dismounting and remounting to open and close barbed-wire gates (there are four of them between the river and town). This and straining to get the gates actually opened and closed is not something I look forward to. I urge them along.All the more reason to stay closer to the cows. Their forward movement is so far not very rapid although they are covering a lot of ground, zigzagging back and forth like bird dogs trying to flush pheasants. Up ahead I can hear Dutch yipping and hooting at the cows to keep them moving, calling to Cody, the herd dog, to get after some animal that has strayed from the road. I see Bob and Simon up in the brush above the road. We catch up with them at the first gate at the top of the river hill opposite the ranchhouse.At every opportunity the cattle attempt to evade the cowpunchers who are then forced to crash down into a ravine or up a steep hill to get them back on the road. The horses are covered in sweat already and we have not yet done one mile. The cattle, normally of the bovine ilk, are excited now. They are not used to being pressured. One old cow with big curved horns is being taken to market because she is mean and has a bad habit of goring other animals, horses or people. “Stay away from her,” Cindy told me, “if you can.” Hm!We are through the first gate. This is still familiar ranch road to me. The cattle and the cowboys are 100 yards ahead of T, Levi and me. We stop occasionally to stay out of their way and allow the cowboys to get the cattle back on the road. At some point Bob returns and loads Levi up on Gus behind him where the 4-year-old hangs on to the saddle or Bob’s belt. But in the underbrush Bob is at a big disadvantage because he has to be so careful with his passenger when in fact he needs to be aggressive to get at the calves. He rides back to me and asks if I can take Levi behind me on Macho Grande. Levi cheerfully comes aboard, scrambling up like a little monkey, chatting amiably and authoritatively about this and that aspect of cattle ranching, cattle drives, Mexican marijuana growers, snakes, Yepachic, private family matters, and a myriad of other topics in an uninterrupted flow. Ah, to be four years old and still know everything!Macho Grande turns out to be Mucho Lento. This is just fine with me since he is a smooth ride and I cannot leave T and Ginger behind. In fact we have to stop sometimes while Bob, Dutch and Simon bring the cattle back to the road and for Ginger and T to catch up. After a couple of miles, Bob asks Simon if he and Dutch will be all right without him. He needs to go back to the ranch and sort out the brand mark-registration papers and the ear tags and to get the big red Ford diesel, which will be towing the cattle trailer tonight or tomorrow to Chihuahua.Levi switches horses once again and leaves seated behind Bob on Gus. T and I plod on behind the cattle and cowboys. Sometimes, the cattle will stream down the road at quite a good pace. Then suddenly, they will head down the ravine or into the woods. A curve in the road – and there are lots of them in these mountains – is an open invitation to abandon the beaten track for the wilds. Somewhere early on we have lost two calves, one of them a prime roping calf, I think. They have escaped but at least are still on el Nogal property. We are now down to four cows and eight calves.On we go past the site of the dozer crash, climbing a steep hill where the road is badly washed out and down the other side. The road is in really bad shape and I wonder how Bob will get the bigger Ford truck out. The three or four spots where Simon and Dutch have spent a day repairing are still ahead of us. Since I am only tagging along I feel rather like a gentleman rancher, the mule perhaps not the most elegant of steeds but equal to the task of bearing me gently to Yepachic, fifteen miles away.And so it goes. Up. Down. Yipping and yaying. Crashing in the underbrush. The cows on upper or lower pathways rather on than the road. We stop at the next two gates to allow everyone to catch up. T is a long way behind on her short-legged little mini-horse. She says it is a little lonely and boring back there alone. I resolve to stay with her even though it will mean slow going.At one point the cattle take off up the hill and I lose sight of Dutch and Simon in the woods. I decide that T and I might just as well go on ahead. I know the road and there is not much chance of getting lost if we stick to it. Eventually we will wind up in Yepachic. We plod along in the midday sun, the woods around us now quiet. Even at his slow pace Macho Grande is faster than Ginger. So I stop when I get to the top of a hill or in an arroyo where the road crosses a stream and wait for T to catch up. I hear her coming because she is singing, her small silvery voice clear in the silence. She is working through all her nursery rhymes and has made it to “Mary had a little lamb”. Later I hear her singing “The Old Chisholm Trail”. When she catches up she is still cheerful but her bottom is beginning to hurt. Mine too. But I try not to think about it since we have a long way to go.We do not hear either the cattle or the cowboys any more and I think we have got a long way ahead. T thinks they have somehow got past us. Certainly there are signs of cattle and horses on the road; hoof marks and fairly fresh scat. But I cannot believe they could have got ahead of us without us noting it. We reach a stream and decide we will stop for a rest. T. has made two tortillas with peanut butter and honey and she now offers me one. It was supposed to have been for Eli but he is riding in the truck. I have a couple of apples. So we stretch out on the grass, the mule and the pony standing by the trees in the shade. I have tied them each to a tree; a well-trained cow pony won’t run off when they have the reins simply hanging to the ground. But I don’t want to risk being left without a ride this far out in the bush.After twenty minutes we decide to continue along the Yepachic road. We’ll catch up with the cattle, we will get to town before them, or they will catch up with us. At the worst, Bob and Cindy will be coming along this road in their vehicles. We cross a river and climb out the other side over an acre of smooth white rock and on up the steep gravely road. Macho Grande has got the drill now; his normal walking pace is faster than the pony’s and when we reach a convenient spot, he stops and turns to see if Ginger is catching up. I immediately say “whoa” so I can stay nominally in charge. When T gets up to us, Macho Grande turns and walks on while T and I chat for a moment or two before the distance increases. Then I hear her singing again.Since crossing the last river we have started a very long climb over a mountain. I estimate that the road zigzags some 500 metres higher. The ranchhouse is at about 2,000 metres (over 6,000 feet) above sea level. I think we must be at 2,500 metres now and we are in fragrant piny forest rather than oaks and cactus. It is cool and the wind makes a sighing sound through the needles. We have occasional glimpses from near the top out across the valleys to blue mountain peaks.At some point we come out into a broad valley of pastures. At the far end is a ranchhouse off to the left in the valley and on the left, near the road, is a wayside chapel. The dirt road carves gentle S’s across into the woods way up ahead and starts to climb once more. Halfway along the valley we are overtaken first by Cindy and Levi in the white pickup and then by Bob and Eli in the red Ford. “Lose your herd?” Cindy asks with a grin.“Nope! Just checkin’ out this road,” I lie. We both grin.“It’s about three miles ahead to the turnoff to Santiago’s place. I’ll wait for you there so you don’t miss it. I don’t want to spoil your wilderness ride by trailing you in the truck.”“Who’s Santiago?” I ask, thinking she means the elderly retired Pima cowhand who visits the ranch from time to time.“Santiago has a ranch near Yepachic. That’s where we are bringing the cattle to load them.”“Oh!” Good thing she came by. First I’d heard of it. I thought we were heading directly into town. Of course, I guess we would not want actually to drive a herd of cows down the highway. Bob pulls up ten minutes later.“Too bad you missed the turn-off to the short cut. It’s really a lot farther this way.” My heart sinks. Glad T hasn’t heard it.“How much farther?” I ask, suddenly noticing the pain in my bottom more intensely.“Oh, another three miles or so. Continue along this road over this hill and cross the river. Then go on up over the next mountain for about two miles or more. I’ll mark the turnoff. Of course, you could drive the truck and I could ride Macho Grande and lead the pony?”“Oh, no. I’m fine,” I lie again. I am really all right. My arse hurts, is all. “You need to be there to supervise the loading.” Off he goes. T catches up and we plod on for what seems a very steep four hundred miles with T asking whenever Macho Grande allows her to catch up, “How much longer?”“Media hora,” I say each time, which is what Simon always says no matter how far it is yet. T is tired and sore but she is plucky and never gives in to whining or complaining. We sing The Old Chisholm Trail together for a bit but my throat is dry and ti yi yippee kind of sticks in my throat. I’ll be glad when we get there. I think of a cool beer. I thought that, having become separated from the cattle, at least we would not have to ride fifteen miles staring all the while at cow bums. But it is getting a little tedious now. My shoulder is throbbing a bit and I need to take some more pain-killer. My pelvis hurts from sitting so long in the saddle. It is also getting late in the afternoon and I wonder about getting back to el Nogal tonight. T will go in the truck with her parents to Chihuahua. But Simon, Dutch and I will be heading back to the ranch. At least there is a full moon tonight, I think to console myself.I realise once again that being a cowboy requires a huge amount of physical endurance. It’s dangerous work being around big animals all the time. You are outside nearly one-hundred percent of the time. This is likely to give you arthritis and small injuries and make you old before your time. In the old days the cowpunchers were ill-paid rural farm workers who often sustained injuries and endured sickness without medical treatment. They were poor and stayed poor and died young. The romance was all in the cheap novels and movies. There are probably lots of guns around out here. But I have so far not seen one. There is of course some cattle rustling by full moon, which is why the cowboys stay out on the ranges then. Marijuana growing is popular around here but Bob tells me it’s not a high-violence business at this end of the drug chain; the gun fights are in the cities for control of delivery. But unless you are a rancher yourself, you won’t make much money as a cowpuncher even today. A Mexican vaquero gets paid the equivalent of US$ 200 or less plus a log cabin to sleep in or to share with others. No medical bennies, of course, and a seven-day work week of heavy physical work all on a diet of frijoles, maize tortillas and Nescafe. He can’t afford a family and he has no amenities. If he’s lucky the ranchero will finance him a few cows for a herd of his own that he can eventually sell.O it’s bacon and beans ‘most every dayI’d as soon be a-eatin’ prairie hayIt’s rainin’ like hell and it’s getting mighty coldAnd those long-horned sons-o’guns are getting’ hard to holdEventually we come to a log placed partly in the road pointing off to the left along a barbed-wire fence. There is also a rock cairn and, tied to a pine tree, a page out of a kid colouring book with English text. T recognises it as one of theirs and takes it along with her. We push down the narrow path until we come out onto one of those delightful hill or mountain-ringed river valleys. This one is beautiful with lush pastures and, at the far end, whitewashed ranch buildings. We hear cattle lowing and I even hear Dutch’s loud bass voice laughing in the distance. Along the river bank and then across the ford, along the opposite bank for a while and then up the little road to the ranchhouse and we are there. Simon, Dutch, Eli and Levi are eating a snack off the tailgate of a pickup. The cattle are out of sight in a covered corral and awaiting loading in the trailer, which is parked near the river gate. There is a beautiful chestnut horse standing perfectly still, saddled and bridled, in the yard. A man in a white Stetson and cowboy jeans and a really cute little five-year-old Mexican boy with dimples complete the picture. The man, probably the boy’s grandfather is in his late-fifties or early-sixties and fairly drunk. This is Santiago.Rancho el Boscito, some 3,000 hectares in size, belongs to a businessman in Chihuahua. Santiago and his family (two nice-looking but well-protected teenage daughters, 14 and 16) and Santiago’s married sun, Raoul all live there as caretakers. Raoul, 26, has a wife and three children and lives in a separate adobe house across the river. Dutch ogles the girls not very surreptitiously.The cattle arrived at Santiago’s place about 1600, Bob and Cindy about 1700 and T and I about 1800. Someone sticks a can of beer in my hand and unsaddles my mule for me. Thank goodness! The pony and the mule are turned out into a pasture. My saddle is set up on a rail fence and T’s pony saddle goes into the back of the white pickup. The el Nogal boys are roughhousing with Santiago’s grandson.Santiago trains trick horses for rodeo performances. The chestnut in the yard can shake your hand and go up on his hind legs. Maybe it can even surf the net. My Spanish is not good enough to ask. Santiago offers me the horse to ride but I cannot get up without a lot of pain so I decline. Dutch gets aboard and has the horse rearing up on its hind legs several times while he whoops and waves his hat. Altogether like a European version of Roy Rogers! Yippee yi yah!The day closes down and a full moon rises from behind the hill. It is a harvest moon, the first full moon after the autumnal equinox in September. It also our second full moon in the Sierra Tarahumara; we’ve been here over six weeks. It starts getting too chilly and damp to sit outside and we are invited into Santiago’s small house. In the kitchen over a woodstove, Clara, his wife, along with the two daughters, make tortillas from harina de trigo (wheat flour) and heat up beans. There is a block of cheese on the table and we cut off small slices with a kitchen knife that looks more like a Turkish scimitar and wrap them to eat with a hot tortilla. The beans taste good after a day in the open air. Bob emphasises that this is standard, three meals a day fare for cowboys in northern Mexico ranching areas. This is a favourite line of argument from Bob; it is met with wordless scepticism by the English-speakers in the house.As more and more people crowd into the small kitchen - Bob and Cindy and the three children, Santiago his wife, two daughters and grandson, Dutch and then Raoul – the room becomes even smaller. There are only three chairs. Santiago leads Dutch and me over to the hacienda, the house belonging to the owner. It is one long, one-story building with a long covered porch running the length of it on the southwestern side. The house is comprised of a central kitchen, where Santiago sits us down around the formica kitchen table, and two shotgun rooms on either side of the kitchen. They have beds in them. There is sleeping for eight without using the crib or crowding people into the larger single beds. In a pinch you could sleep twelve or fourteen plus a baby and someone on the sofa in the farmhouse kitchen. The furnishings are simple and old and well-used. The walls, inside and out, are whitewashed. There is a refrigerator, a modern propane stove as well as a wood range. There is running spring water, strip lighting (solar panels) and a flush toilet. Too much! (Of course there is no toilet paper. There never is in Mexico! Don’t leave home without it! What do Mexicans do?)Dutch and I sit there trying to make small talk with Santiago. We have no common language, Santiago seems puzzled by the concept of “Canada” and even more so by the notion of “The Netherlands”, I am tired and sore. Are we starting for home soon? Why we are still here? At one point Cindy says to me that it should be a wonderful ride back to el Nogal in the moonlight. I’d like to get started before the painkillers wear off.Eventually Cindy comes in and says that, if we like, we can stay here in the hacienda and ride back to the ranch tomorrow morning. She and her family are going to stay in the hacienda too and will leave way before dawn for Chihuahua. Bob has a 1000 meeting with the Regional Presidente. After a few minutes I say that I either have to start for el Nogal soon or find a bed. “Pick a bed,” Cindy says, and I head immediately into the next room where there are twin beds. I leave my stinking socks and boots outside on the porch, in the dark I throw the rest of my horsy clothing on the floor next to the bed, pull back the covers sink into the over-soft bed and am asleep within a few minutes despite the pain in my shoulder and ribs. The ride back to el NogalAs I was a-walking one morning for pleasureI spied a cowpuncher all riding alongHis hat was throwed back and his spurs was a-junglin’As he approached me me a-singin’ this song.Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little doggiesIt’s your misfortune and none of my ownWhoopee ti yi yo, git along, little doggiesFor you know Wyoming will be your new homeI hear Bob come into the darkened bedroom in the hacienda that Dutch and I are sharing. He first flashes his miner’s lamp on me and then on Dutch to wake him up.“Dutch, can you give me a hand getting the cattle loaded and the green ear tags placed?”“Yupp! Coming!”Dutch gets up and I can see him getting dressed by the light of the full moon outside. It is 0400. I try to go back to sleep but the pain in my shoulder and chest is keeping me awake. I hear the noise of the cattle being moved up the chute from the covered corral into the metal trailer, the hooves banging loudly, one of the animals mooing occasionally. I get up reluctantly and reach for my clothing from the pile on the floor.Boots tied, I slip into my fleece jacket, plonk my straw hat on my head, and head outside. The white pickup is pulled up to the side of cattle trailer and Dutch is at work changing a tire that has gone flat in the night. The metal is cold and the tire is heavy. Everything is wet from the dew and Dutch is shivering in his shirtsleeves since he had not brought a jacket or sweatshirt with him. After all, he thought we’d be returning the same day. Simon helps him lift the heavy tire onto the bolts and they return the old tire to the Ford freight bed and lash it down. During the loading one of the calves got away and Dutch and Simon have had to chase it. Now all the dozen head of cattle are in the trailer, which has two compartments. The idea was to put the calves in one and the cows with their very long horns into the other. But the mean old cow with the threatening horns is in the front with the calves. Bob calls to Dutch o get in with him. I open the forward metal door for them to slip inside with the ear tags and the ear punch and close it quickly before one of the calves can escape. There is a lot of scuffling around inside. Finally, they say they want out and then they move around to the rear door and get in with the horned cows. More scuffling. More grunting and kicking. They come out. Bob wipes some cowshit off his trousers.Meanwhile, Simon has scrounged around and found some kindling and has started a fire to heat up the branding iron. The pony needs to be branded before they move her. T has been up all this time and has helped bring Ginger in from the meadow. T’s feet and legs are freezing and she has a pink fleece children’s blanket wrapped around her upper body. Her teeth are chattering. Bob tells her she has to do the branding but she refuses in case Ginger will hold it against her. It takes quite a while for the iron to get red hot and we stand around the fire trying to keep warm and wishing we had a coffee. Finally, after half an hour the iron is deemed hot enough and the pony is given a so-called “hair brand”, i.e. the hair on her left flank is singed but the skin is not burned.Now comes the job of getting Ginger into the trailer. She is already upset by the branding and is definitely not thrilled about getting in a car with a lot of strange cows. An argument ensues about the wisdom of putting Ginger in the forward compartment with that one cow with the long horns. Finally, Bob and Dutch get the cow herded into the back compartment without having to unload and reload everything. The pony fights going in anyway and a wrestling match ensues with Ginger winding up lying on the floor of the trailer and the calves gaping down at her. The guys jump out, the pony jumps up, and the door is slammed shut. Cindy goes to get the boys up and into the car for the journey. I don’t see Eli but Levi is his usual good-natured and cheerful self even at 0530 in the morning and despite wet socks from the night before.Eventually the white pickup leaves driven by Cindy, and Bob follows somewhat later in the red Ford diesel and towing the cattle trailer. A panic had arisen at the last moment: although they had the brand registration papers for the cattle, they had forgotten to bring them for the pony. Since Cindy speaks good Spanish, she will have to stick close to Bob so she can sweet-talk the pony through the various animal checkpoints between Yepachic and Chihuahua. Quiet now descends over the ranch again. Dutch and I head back to the kitchen of the hacienda. Dutch gets a blanket from the bed and wraps it around himself to try and get warm again. His boots and jeans are soaked from the dew. Simon has spent the night in Yepachic with his family and walked out in the middle of the night. We tell him to come in with us. After a while Santiago shows up. He talks to Simon in Spanish. But Santiago is a Mexican and Mexicans treat Indians like a lower caste. That’s why Simon went to his family last night. There is definite segregation around here even though Yepachic has a large Pima, Apache and Tarahumara population. After a few minutes Simon goes back outside though I not sure if of his own accord or because Santiago has told him to do so. Dutch and I go looking for him but he says he will stay by the fire outside. We decide to join him.There is a woodpile nearby and we build up the fire to get a bit of warmth. Dutch of course is still without a jacket and stays close. When Santiago reappears, I ask him if there is any chance of a coffee. Even though there is a propane range in the hacienda kitchen and even though his own family are at present cooking breakfast over a woodstove at that very moment, he does not invite us in. We should make it over the campfire. He allows us to get a pot from the kitchen and I go with Santiago to his house to get cups and Nescafe. Bob and Cindy brought him a big bottle of instant coffee last night along with other food. But he puts a tiny amount in a separate jar, gives me it along with two cups and then another one when I remind him that we are three. I head back to the fire. We finally manage to make our little cowboy breakfast-coffee. Fortunately, we have sugar to take back to the ranch with us so we can sweeten our drink. Dutch wants a smoke badly but is out until we can get to the tiende later.Daylight breaks and by 0645 it is light. The sun begins to shine over the mountains onto the hills to the west about 0730. We get our horses from the field and Dutch saddles Macho Grande for me but only after Simon has saddled Zebra and has had to fetch my mule from the river bottom whence he has escaped and stands laughing at me.Our first goal is to the little mom-and-pop shop in Yepachic. We are there in twenty minutes, leaving our mounts tied to trees a little way off. We walk behind the scattered houses, skirting their outhouses and pigsties till we arrive at the orange-painted country store. Once inside it is dark. There is a 6-foot by 3-foot standing area as you come in, and counters in front and to the sides. Old-fashioned weigh scales sit atop one counter. Cans and bottles are neatly arranged on the shelves. An ancient lady, perhaps Indian, with glasses on her nose, her hair in a bun and a spotlessly white wool cardigan is the storekeeper. Except for the Indian part, she was for all the world like Mrs. Goggins from Postman Pat. A young woman of about eighteen or twenty comes out of the kitchen in the next room to help.Bob and Cindy have given us some money to get some basics. They will do the major shopping in the city. For now we buy some emergency supplies and pack them either into the saddle bags I have on my mule or hang the plastic shopping bags from our saddle horns. With the bit of money left we buy a box of cookies for our breakfast on the trail. Dutch buys a pack of cigarettes and lights up immediately we are out of the store. He’s quitting.Our route takes us first back to Rancho el Boscito. Just before we reach it, Simon leads us off the road and down a steep path to the Yepachic River so that we pass the rancho at a distance. The river is now down but one can see the debris left when the waters were six or seven feet higher during the rainy season. I wonder how Santiago and his family get across when it is in full flood.With the sun on our backs it is beginning to feel warmer. The little valley narrows as we ride down river to the northwest. We cross it soon and ride for another half mile along the right bank. Eventually the river starts to narrow increasingly and we are forced first to wade through the river and then to climb up above the river. The narrow animal trail rises steadily higher as it parallels the river until we are in a very deep gorge. The river is a little silver ribbon a couple of hundred metres below us. On our side the ravine is very steep but wooded. On the opposite side we look up to sheer stone cliffs towering some four hundred metres high from wooded top to narrow bottom. The animals move sure-footedly long, the little feet of the mules picking their way carefully forward, Dutch’s horse clomping along just ahead of me and scattering loose rocks down into the ravine. Simon leads. He knows these paths well from his lifetime as a vaquero around here.Although Macho Grande’s gait is slow, he is smooth and careful even on the steep ups and downs of the path. I am out of painkillers so am acutely sensitive to any jarring. But I am doing all right. Of course, we are all moving at the speed of Simon’s mule, Zebra. Even Snip with his big legs. A big horse is no advantage in these narrow and steep paths. Macho Grande has no trouble keeping up; mules like to work in groups anyway. But Snip is no ball of fire today either. He looks tired from yesterday and he is covered in dried white sweat and dirt from the trees he has brushed yesterday. That said, and despite the distance still to go, it seems to me that our horses and mules are a little faster today on their way home than they were on the way here yesterday.The route is spectacular and it is worth being born just to be there on this beautiful morning. We are all tired and dirty from yesterday, Dutch and Simon especially. But what a sight! Eventually the river finishes its passage through the gorge and we begin to descend to water level again, the path zigzagging tightly on the way down and the riders being forced to lean way back in their saddles to keep from sliding over the heads of the animals. The animals’ hindquarters nearly touch the ground coming down because it is so steep. Never once on the trip does Macho Grande get too close to a tree or fence that might scrape me. Only once does he slip and that is on bare rock with no footing. He slides forward for a foot or two before he catches himself on some gravel. Even when he has to leap down twelve or eighteen inches there is no jarring.Dutch’s horse, Snip, is missing the two shoes on his forefeet. After heavy cattle days in the hills, the work horses often need to be re-shod every second day. Unfortunately, the ranch was out of No. 1-size horseshoes and Snip’s unshod hooves were only noticed at the last minute before we left yesterday. In the course of the gorge traverse, I also notice that one of Zebra’s hind shoes has been thrown too.We left the tiende about 0915. About 1030 we decide it is time to stop for desayunos (breakfast). Cookies! We leave the horses in the road in front of us with their reins on the ground and collapse on the grass nearby. We eat half of the large box of mixed cookies, reckoning ourselves lucky that they don’t make cookies from frijoles.Another open and grassy field opens up in front of us. Song birds fly singing from the trees up the hill, woodpeckers in profusions scold us from worm-ridden stumps and trees, and occasionally we hear but do not see horses in the woods nearby. Other than that the silence is golden and infinite. The sun begins to feel hot on our backs.At the end of the valley we come to an abandoned rancho near the river. We ford the river and climb to a low shelf that might even be covered by water when the river is up. Simon stops and points out petroglyphs carved into the flat surface. There is a grid pattern with carved horses and other hoof marks clearly carved into the squares. There is also huge spread-feathered looking symbol, a bird of some sort. “Muy viejo,” Simon says. “Muy viejo.”“Apache o Tarahumara?” I ask.“Apache!” he says definitively.We push on. Soon we start climbing back out of the river bed, through a fence gate and over another mountain to another arroyo. It’s the usual steep climb and descent. At no point in this three and one-half hours of riding do we encounter a single other person. We are getting back into home territory and soon we run across the main road from the ranch and begin to follow it. It has rather lost its novelty for me because I am aching and wishing it was now all over. Once we pass the gate to the Rancho el Nogal with still one hour to go, the animals sense that we are in the home stretch and begin to pick up the pace. For a while Dutch is leading and Simon is bringing up the rear. Dutch’s larger beast sets a faster pace for a while but is tired and cannot keep it up. Macho Grande marches right along and even at times trots smartly through the arroyos and part way up the other side. I am of mixed opinion about this: I want to get home but anything but a walk hurts. But I decide to go with the flow. After a while, even the mules run out of steam and we plod the last mile or two back to the river in front of the ranchhouse without any bursts of speed. When the ranchhouse comes into sight, I yodel once or twice to attract Kathleen’s attention. But it is not until we are across and up the hill by the corral that the Chihuahuas start a hullabaloo and Kathleen comes out to greet us. Our three dogs, which have probably covered three times the distance that the horse and mules covered on the way back, head immediately for the water barrel and then flop panting down in the shade next to the smithy. I can hardly climb down from Macho Grande. The mule is thoroughly sweated and tired. He lets Dutch unsaddle and unbridle him and the animals are all turned out into the pasture to graze, rest and recover for a couple of days. It is 1315 and we have ridden back in about three hours. Kathleen warms up the meal she originally prepared for us last night and makes fresh coffee. She tells us about how spooky it was alone at the ranch. The battery-powered lights went out and she stayed here by candlelight with the cats and dogs for company. We tell her about the cattle drive and the trip back. It all seems like a great adventure but I am glad to be off the horse and I swallow a handful of aspirin to subdue the aches and pains. A shower under the water tank spigot and a nap is all I need now.Where the air is so pure and the zephyrs so freeAnd the breezes so balmy and lightThat I would not exchange my dear home on the rangeFor all of the cities so bright
posted by rjb,6:53 PM
Sunday, October 16, 2005
CATTLE DRIVE TODAYSunday, October 16, 2005The morning is brisk but the sky, when the sun finally comes over the hills to the left out of the ranchhouse window, is blue and cloudless. The ranchero family, the guests, and the cowhands (Simon and Dutch) come quietly into the house for a hearty breakfast of beans, fried egg and leftover frittata from last night. And coffee. The kids shiver in the early morning dampness and gravitate to the kitchen where it is warmer. Breakfast over, people disperse to bring in the horses from the small river meadow close to the house. Simon and Ranchero Bob lasso one of the cows driven in last night and held in the corral for the drive today. They want to milk her but she is very resistant. After dropping the rope over her horns, Bob grabs the cow's tail while Simon wraps the lasso around a fence post and between the two of them they tether the cow short. Simon then makes several tries at hobbling the hind legs. Meanwhile the cow is bawling and kicking and struggling to get away. She has never been milked by anything but her calf and is afraid, she is drooling heavily and her huge tongue is hanging out. The other cows and calves stare impassively. Eventually Simon immobilises the cow and starts to milk her into a pan with a handle. Just as he gets it full the cow breaks out of her hobble and kicks the pan out of his hand. The hobbling procedure starts again. Evntually, with much bawling and milking, another pan is filled and Eli carefully takes it to the kitchen.
The cow is of the bovine ilk. One end is moo, the other milk.
Ogden NashI have taken mega doses of Ibuprofen for the last day and a half and, although I cannot move suddenly and cannot lift things with my right arm, as long as someone saddles my horse, I am going to attempt the cattle drive. Kathleen is staying here to mind the ranch; after all, we are the caretakers. That means that Simon and Dutch can go too. The ranchero family will all continue on from Yepachic in two trucks, one towing the cattle trailer, to Chihuahua, the cattle market and the agricultural fair. Simon, Dutch and I will ride back probably leading the spare horses. The whole ride for us will probably last about ten hours. Time to go.
posted by rjb,10:42 AM
Saturday, October 15, 2005
PAIN VERSUS GAIN; DOZER DOLDRUMS; COWBOY’S LIFE NOT ALWAYS WHAT IT SEEMS;Saturday, 15 October 2005 Pain versus GainI am hurting! I don’t think anything is broken. Where my right arm bone connects to the collar bone (“And your collar bone connects to your head bone; Oh, hear the word of the Lord!”), it is extremely sensitive to the touch. From the ribs under my right arm through the shoulder to my neck behind the ear, I have aching bones. The muscles are becoming very stiff. As long as I remain still I only have a dull ache from ear to belly button down the right side. But if I move at all, even to stand up or sit down, to lift my coffee cup, I get an ARGH!-inducing stab of pain. Cindy, our Ranchera, is a professional athlete, rock-climber and mountaineer; she thinks that probably nothing is broken but that it is all going to take quite a while to heal. After falling off a bicycle a few times (correction: thrown), I have some idea about how long this all could take. The problem is getting back to Vilisar and all the physical work involved with operating a traditional sailboat. It only just begins with rowing out to her from the dinghy dock. And what about getting up sail and pulling up the anchor. As the psycho-therapists say, “Well, just put into the third space and let it float around for a while.” Cindy and Bob have both urged us to stay longer, permanently even. But, although we still have some sailing to do in our lives, we might consider staying till mid-week. We want to meet Bob, my friend from Kingston, Ontario, at the end of the month in La Paz. But we could still do that if we left the rancho next week.Bob, the Ranchero, asked me if I would like to ride out to one of the more beautiful corners of Rancho el Nogal with him today. We are having wonderful early autumn weather with very cool nights and bright sunny days. I initially said yes if he would saddle a quiet horse for me. Alazan, the beautiful sorrel or chestnut stallion, is slow and comfortable to ride; Spot the big and tame Appaloosa would be fine too; we would be walking the mounts the whole way anyway given the rough ground. Bob saddles Spot. But I am unable even to get my boots on without help so I decide to take a pass and just stick around here today, taking it easy. The big cattle drive to which I had been so looking forward is to take place tomorrow. We shall be driving some 17 head of cattle about 15 miles down the ranch road to Yepachic where the cattle trailer is parked to take them on to Chihuahua and the cattle market on Tuesday. It would be better for me to ride a quiet horse than ride in the pickup. On the other hand, the least pain would be if I just stayed at the ranch and chewed aspirin. Third-space stuff.Dozer doldrumsThe dozer monster sits at the bottom of the ravine. The ranch road is still in bad shape. To get the cattle to market, Bob has to be able to drive the Ford diesel out from here to Yepachic where the cattle trailer is parked. There are three very bad spots and Simon and Dutch have gone out with picks and shovels to get them ready by this evening.So why isn’t the dozer doing the road-grading? I won’t go into the gory details, but there has been a major knartsch between the Wigginses and the Rancheros. Of course, a lot of it has to do with money and who owes what to whom. In the end the differences could not be resolved and Bill dropped his tools and left with his family. To be fair, he waited until the dozer was down in the ravine and he worked on it so it is now ready to drive again. The family also left the bunkhouse down on the river meadow clean and tidy before they left. Kathleen and I shall miss them and the children had become friends during the several weeks that the family was at the ranch. We wish them all the best. “Maybe we’ll see you again downwind,” as the bluewater voyagers like to say.Someone else will now have to be found to get the dozer out of the ravine via the streambed and to grade the road. Bob however thinks that he can inch the Ford diesel out if the three bad spots have been repaired. Tomorrow the big day. The cattle markets are attractive and, of course, in an asset-intensive operation like a ranch (lots of money tied up in land and livestock), it is important also to have a regular stream of cash coming in to pay for help, buy feeds and equipment, etc. A cowboy’s life not always what it seemsA cowboy’s life is apparently not all, or even mainly, about cattle and horses. Only recently has Dutch been doing more typically cowboy things like riding the ranges and checking fences, counting cattle, checking on their wellbeing. For the next couple of nights while the moon is full and the cattle prone to acting a little loco, he will actually be staying out overnight on the ranges. Dutch has also done a lot of carpentry work around the ranchhouse complex including building a new “Dutch” door for the kitchen, preparing a new pigsty, building fed bins and mangers, etc. And he has spent hours repairing farm machinery. The intention, for example, is to plough some of the river-meadows and sow them with grass seed for winter silage. But so far the ancient Allis Chalmers tractor has resisted all attempts to make her work smoothly. The gas tank has rust in it and this gets all through the engine. Dutch has pulled apart the fuel lines, carburetor, fuel filters, etc. to come to this conclusion. Oh yes, the tractor has a flat tire as well. He hasn’t even looked at the plough and harrow yet. He may have to spend some time on that. Did I mention that Dutch also spent a week near Creel with Cindy, the Ranchera, and Alex and Simon building a car-tire house? Since he's been here he has become the chief “chicken-plucker” as well; when we are to eat one of the henhouse roosters, it is usually Dutch who gets the job - catching, beheading, plucking, gutting, cleaning, and cooking his delicious soup (we tried roasting one of these birds once; let me be the first to tell you: Rancho el Nogal cocks are as tough as leather. Totally inedible!) And of course, a cowboy has to do his own housekeeping: doing his laundry, cleaning his bunkhouse, repairing his boots, mending his shirts and jeans. Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be CowboysCowboys ain’t easy to love & they’re harder to holdThey’d rather give you a song than diamonds or goldLone star belt buckles & old faded Levisand each night begins a new dayIf you don’t understand him & he don’t die younghe’ll probably just ride awayRefrain:Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboysDon’t let ‘em pick guitars & drive them old truckslet ‘em be doctors & lawyers & suchMammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboysThey’ll never stay home & they’re always aloneeven with someone they love.
posted by rjb,2:30 PM
Friday, October 14, 2005
GENTLEMEN NEVER FALL FROM HORSES; THEY ARE THROWN!Friday, 14 October 2005Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime. But after many times of riding different horses on some of the roughest that the ranch has to offer, today I lost an argument with Snip about what direction we were going to be riding. Tanner, 10, has a black pony or mini-horse called Ginger; if you have ever read Black Beauty you will know where the name comes from. Now that Ginger works so well towing the sulky, T. is also training Ginger to the saddle. Next week she will be showing Ginger and her skills at an agricultural fair in Chihuahua. She asks me if I want to ride out with her into the large open meadow behind the corral. Approaching the final days of our stay at Rancho el Nogal, I am looking for opportunity to ride and agree readily.Snip, a black stallion, has the reputation, I later hear, of being rather stubborn. Dutch rode him early on during his stay at the ranch and wound up walking back to the corral. I rode Snip out to the dozer site earlier this week but had no trouble.Snip stands saddled and tied near the corral and I reckon on no problems. But, he is difficult about going through the gate and even tries to buck a few times. Why didn’t I get off then? At nearly every turn he tries to head back to the corral. He clearly thinks he is on a union contract! Only constant kicking and whacks with the end of the lasso keep him moving.The major psychological problem here is that the corral is clearly visible from anywhere in the meadow. If the horse thinks it can head for the barn, it is going to try it whenever it can. Snip is a tough horse and fights me at every step. Eli, 6, has decided to follow his sister out and around the meadow. He is walking barefoot without complaint, as he usually does. But at some point I ask him if he wants to ride behind me on Snip. He thinks this is a good idea; I help him up and point Snip away from the corral.Snip has decided he has had plenty of this and is going home no matter what. We struggle. Snip begins to buck. After three or four good bucks I fly over his right shoulder, landing hard on my right shoulder. The wind is knocked out of me and I feel nothing. Nor can I seem to get any breath. I roll onto my back and see Snip, still bucking, moving away from me with Eli still hanging on to the saddle for dear life. I close my eyes involuntarily and feel the pain ooze into my shoulder and ribs.When I open my eyes, I look up to the blue sky and see two small children and a black pony looking down at me. “Are you all right?” T. asks. “Not really,” I reply. “I hurt.”After a minute or two I suggest she go and fetch Snip who is now eating grass about 100 yards off. T. returns leading Snip.“Maybe you should walk her home,” she says.“There’s no way I am walking back unless I kill that damned beast first!” I say. T. giggles. I struggle to get up and feel less woozy on my feet. Nothing seems to be broken but my shoulder aches. When T. brings Snip back I can see that the horse is ready for more fighting; she has her ears back and her forefeet planted wide apart. I ask T. to hold his bridle while I climb aboard. Pulling myself up with my right arm hurts like the very devil. I am clearly going to be in pain for a few days.We walk slowly back to the corral. The pain is there in my shoulder and upper chest. But Snip’s gait is relatively smooth and I am doing all right. I stop once to let T., Ginger and Eli catch up; Snip is still in a feisty mood, still determined to get back to the corral as quickly as possible. He does not like stopping here and paws at the ground with his right forefoot. Eventually we pull into the corral area. Climbing down is fraught with pain. I notice that the Tanner and Eli have headed out to find Kathleen who is reading while sitting on a log overlooking the river valley at some distance from the ranchhouse complex. I open the corral gate. Agh! Mensch! Scheisse! I tie up Snip and loosen the saddle girth – darn, that hurts! - before walking over to the nearby guesthouse where we sleep to swallow four aspirin and get a head start on the stiffness. Bob and Cindy come along and the kids are all too eager to tell the whole gruesome, not to mention embarrassing story. “Snip is a tough horse to fall off of,” Bob says, trying to be consoling.“Oh, I don’t know. I found it pretty easy,” I say. What he means is that Snip is tall and you fall a long way. Apparently he has fallen - correction: “been thrown” - several times from Snip. The last time he broke his arm.Trying not to show my distress, I head into the ranchhouse to doctor the abrasions on my arm.THE FINALE OF THE BULLDOZER SAGAThursday, 13 October 2005It is evening, nearly dark. I sit in the guest house typing. I am tired. I have been awake since well before dawn, constantly checking if it is yet 0630 so I can get up to put the water on for breakfast coffee. I was in bed shortly after dark last evening and it looks like it might be early again tonight.I have been riding each late afternoon out to the ravine where the dozer has been hanging on the side of the steep slope waiting for the time when the trees between it and the streambed have been cut and a pathway made for the wheeled dozer to race its final journey down. Bill, his son Joe, along with occasional other helpers like Dutch and Alex, have been working every day to build rock berms, chainsaw the moderately sized but very hard oak trees. Bill says himself that he is no spring chicken any more. The physically demanding work is exhausting. He looks gaunt, his eyes sunk into his skull. There is a lot on the line for Bill; he was driving the bulldozer when it slid sideways off the road. Since it was nearly the first thing he did after arriving with his family on the ranch, his shares are not going at an all-time high. The dozer is urgently needed to grade the whole ranch road so that two-wheel vehicles can get in and cattle carriers can get out. The ranch lives from cattle and from educational tourism, i.e. climbers, hikers, university courses in ecological subjects, etc. The heavy rains of last winter and the recent rainy season have played havoc with the ranch road, which of course is why the 60,000-pound, four-wheeled bull-dozer went off the road at a spot which cuts diagonally along the sides of a ravine. The soil there is very soft.As part of the rescue attempt, last week the dozer was allowed to slide downwards into the sixty-foot ravine in two stages, each time at considerable risk of rolling the dozer. The betting odds amongst the gang were definitely indicating that they thought the dozer could roll at any time even after it came to a rest against an oak tree. It certainly looked precarious.Every step of the rescue attempt had been plagued. The ranch ran out of gasoline for the chain saws, for example. This was after many hours were put in by Bill and his son Joe in cleaning them and getting the two machines operational. Then it was discovered that the spark plugs were actually broken. When high water caused the starter motor on the little pickup that the work team (usually just Joe and his father) to fail to start and then to run out of gas after several days, the men were obliged to ford the river on foot and walk the better part of an hour out to the site. Finally, the rains came back and made the ground under the dozer so soft that it was treacherous to even be near it.But today it was going to be dropped into the stream bed so that it could be driven downstream to where the stream crossed and then back onto the road. There were some problems with this too since the stream bed, though more open and level than the ravine sides, was still littered with large boulders and oak trees growing out of the middle. It was hoped that the dozer could barge its way through.Dutch rides out there in the afternoon to help and I go along to take photographs for the blog. We tie the horses in a shady spot in the woods and walk the last one hundred yards. Arriving, Bill tells us that since the vehicle has been at such an angle for so long, the engine will not start. The rains have also loosened the soil so much that the upright oak tree that the dozer was hung up on is now parallel to the ground. But the vehicle has settled somewhat and at a more propitious angle. Without the dozer’s own engine power available to him, Bill has decided to pull the vehicle off its berm using a come-along. (A come-along is a chain rig that increases the leverage of a pull.) If everything works as planned – which nothing has up until now -, the dozer should roll backwards down the steep embankment and come to rest right-side up in the stream bed.It takes some time to rig the heavy come-along. One-inch chain weighs over two pounds per foot of length and the blocks and hooks are heavy as well. The first attempt to use another oak tree as an anchor for the come-along fails because the tree-root systems are so shallow in these soils. As the chain comes under tension, instead of moving the behemoth vehicle, it pulls the tree out by the roots. Bill, Joe and Dutch sweat to move the whole set up to a freshly-cut tree stump directly behind the dozer. The work on the dozer is complicated by the soft footing. The come-along is rigged at last and Dutch and Bill pump the handle to exert pull on the dozer. Once the chain is off the ground, Bill climbs onto the dozer to release the brakes and put the transmission in neutral. The dozer remains somnolent though it seems to quiver as Bill leaps down. To work the come-along, Dutch and Bill now have to stand directly between the tree stump and the dozer with their backs to the dozer. Dutch turns to Joe who is up the hill a bit and says, “You are my eyes now. If it starts to roll warn me in time!” Then he starts pumping. As the chain hooked to the dozer’s trailer-hitch comes under increasing stress, we hear the dozer creaking and vibrating. Occasionally, from under the left rear tire, stones pop out of the built-up berm and roll bouncing down to the bottom of the arroyo. At some point everyone begins to shout that the dozer is starting to move under the pull of gravity. Dutch and Bill take off at a run in the loose gravel along pre-agreed pathways. The giant machine rolls up over the berm, the rear end tilts even further down, and the whole thirty-ton monster crashes backwards down the steep slope into the streambed in a cloud of dust. The whole downhill dash takes about five seconds. Followed by silence. Then a cheer goes up from all present. The dozer is still upright and has landed exactly where Bill had said it would. And nobody is hurt.Scrabbling down the hill, Bill climbs up on the dozer to set the brakes. He tries to start it but the battery does not have enough juice. Bill thinks that, lying for so long at an angle, the battery has lost fluid and probably exposed the plates to air and reduced their efficacy. With the dozer how nearly perfectly level, all the fluids in the machine – oil, hydraulic, battery - should settle back after an overnight stand. Bill plans to start it up the next morning and start to work his way, bulldozing, down the arroyo streambed. We return to the ranchhouse feeling very satisfied.
posted by rjb,7:33 PM
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
A RIDE TO THE DOZER RAVINEMonday, 10 October 2005Rode out on horseback this afternoon to the dozer site in expectation of seeing the final moves into the ravine. After hours of chain-sawing however, Bill, Joe and two Mexican lads – both called Jesus - who had been hired for the occasion, were getting close to moving the machine but were not quite ready to go. Eventually, they ran out of gasoline for the chainsaws and the light began to fail in the ravine. They gathered up their tools and slung them into the truck. Maybe tomorrow will work. This project is really important to the ranch both for the ranching and the tourism aspects.It is fun to ride again. Cindy suggests I saddle Gus, Bob’s horse, and give him some exercise by riding out to the dozer site. She tells me that Bob has raised Gus from a colt, that the horse is soft-mouthed and if I jerk on his reins too much he will get obstreperous. Otherwise, although he will occasionally try to assert himself, he is a wonderful horse. After saddling him, I ride him down the steep embankment below the house to the river, wade across and start up the road on the other side. I am enjoying the warm autumn-afternoon sunshine. Gus constantly tries to break into a fast trot or a canter especially when he sees a hill ahead of him. Since I have not ridden now for a couple of weeks and want to enjoy the tranquillity I keep him reined in and we trot or walk to the spot on the road where the chainsaw noise is coming from. I tie Gus to a tree a little distance away so he won’t be startled by the noises and walk down into the ravine. The work is progressing. The oaks that stand between the dozer and the streambed have to be cut before the dozer can be moved. But they are hard-woods and in awkward positions. Smoke is coming from the saw blade as the men work at the logs. About an hour after I arrive, the sun sinks behind the ridge and the ravine starts to darken. At about the same time the gasoline for the saws runs out. The ride back is just as enjoyable, the late sun golden on the distant yellow flower-covered hills. Gus again storms as every hill. He’s strong and enthusiastic. Cindy tells me that he is basically a cutting horse, trained to cut cattle out of herd and is used to short spurts of speed. Certainly Gus is a bigger horse than Alazan, which I have been riding up until now. Gus alsol has a much harder gait but is much spunkier as well. He likes action! The slightest word or noise from me and he breaks into a trot. At the bottom of the road we wade back into the river. As soon as Gus steps out onto the mudbank on the ranchhouse side, he breaks into an uphill gallop and storms the hill, taking the steep ravine in leaps and bounds, even navigating the tight curves on the goat-path at speed and only slowing down when he reaches the top of the hill. He is blowing a bit when he reaches the top but decides to prance into the corral in front of the other horses at a show-offy trot. He stands quietly with the reins dropped to the ground while I unsaddle him, slip a lasso over his head, unbridle him, give him a handful of choice horse feed, and turn him into the corral.Cindy has done the cooking this afternoon: beef chile and pork chile. Bill, Joe and Alex are tired and hungry from the heavy work in the ravine. Dutch, on his uppers over the last couple of days from drinking bad water, seems to be back in good shape. Before I left for the ravine, Cindy told him to saddle up Snip, the stubborn bay horse that sent Dutch home in ignominy a week or so ago. Then Cindy and Dutch went out into the meadow behind the corral and Cindy gave Dutch a riding lesson on a Western horse. Then Dutch rode off to bring in mules and horses for the cattle drive that we will be attempting this week. Back from the dozer site, Gus put up into the corral, I strip off near the water tank and have a good, though somewhat chilly, shower. The spot is rather exposed, of course. The trick is to pick a time when there is not a dozen people moving back and forth to the ranchhouse.
posted by rjb,11:47 AM
Monday, October 10, 2005
RETURN OF THE TIRE HOUSE GANG; RESTLESS NIGHT; TORRENTIAL RAIN STOP WORK ON DOZER; DUTCH TAKES SICKSunday, 09 October 2005Return of the Planet Earth House GangAlong about late afternoon we hear Bob’s white pickup truck grinding away, still out of sight on the other side of the river. Soon it appears, the open back filled with people. He fords the river and passes the stranded car from Rancho el Pescado on this side. (The three guys that we pulled out of the river two days ago show up on horseback yesterday to load up the huge sacks of beans and corn flour and other food for their ranch. For the moment at least, they are leaving the car locked up tight; that should guarantee mould and mildew build-up inside the vehicle. Later Bob told me that he has more or less given up on pulling Pescado cars out of the drink. Last year he did it at least six times. The Pescado people are anyway not wonderful neighbours: they don’t contribute to keeping the road up as they are legally obliged to do; they borrow things and don’t bring them back; etc. Our ranchero is a little tired of it all.) Eventually the pickup truck pulls into the corral area with much waving and babbling. The little boys, Eli (6 and next week to be 7) and Levi (4), are full of excitement; T (for Tanner, 10) is quieter but apparently glad to be back; Dutch has a million things to tell us about the camp over near Creel where they have just spent nearly a week building a house made of used car tires with the pupils of an American Christian school and the Tarahumara Indians. The camp was 500 metres higher and much colder at night than here; the river water gave everyone diarrhoea; the food was monotonous; Dutch thinks this morning that he is coming down with a virus brought to the site by the Christian students. With so many people showing up at the last moment, evening-meal planning goes out the window. There is already a pot of beans on the stove. However, Fortunately, Bob has brought some fresh provisions with him (most importantly onions and potatoes; can you imagine cooking on a daily basis without onions?), and we go to work to make a frittata, which though it doesn’t hit the table until well after dark (now occurring before 1900 hours) is consumed with great relish. As the meal finishes, the Wiggins Family file out and down to their house on the river meadow, the rest of us sing cowboy songs with the kids for a while in the living room before Bob begins to round up the little boys for bed and the ranchhouse quiets down for the night. A domestic debate then ensues between father and daughter about whether the Chihuahua dogs are to be inside or outside for the night. Unfortunately, I probably provoked this discussion since I announced that I was going on strike as far as cleaning up dog mess in the mornings inside the house is concerned. The dogs are put outside over T’s vehement protests. (This morning Dutch is dragging out the dogs’ travelling cage as a future night-time home for the Chihuahuas; he is also treating all the household animals, dogs and cats, for fleas.)Restless nightFor some reason all the animals are restless in the night. Even the Wiggins report that their Guinea pig keeps everyone awake in the night. How many times do I get up when the dogs all start barking and howling, joined by the Chihuahuas now too. They specifically seem to have taken up barking stations right outside our screen door? Is there a wild animal near the ranch; or are horses and mules coming up from the river meadows? Getting up to check, I see nothing in the pitch dark of a cloudy night. Between periods of barking and howling, the Chihuahuas scratch and whimper at our cabin door, keeping us awake. I hurl epithets at them from under the blanket only because I am too lazy to get up and hurl anything else. Sometime during the night there is a downpour; it must have occurred between barkings because we don’t hear it; this morning the ground is heavily soaked.I am up and in the kitchen by 0630 to set the water boiling for breakfast coffee and tea and to get the beans heated up. Bob has decreed that the daily menu is henceforth to be mashed beans, one egg apiece, a tortilla and a coffee or tea. Bob and Cindy say that this is standard Mexican ranch fare and we should all get used to it. I’m all for authenticity but I suspect this might get old soon. Oh well, I guess with enough salsa anything can taste all right. I shall have to try some experimental things with beans.We are having some complications in our meal planning. The Wiggins Family are used to eating a lot of meat but, following a Biblical injunction, do not eat either pork or any pork by-products (including lard, sausage, etc.). For health reasons they also do not eat any sugar, using honey for sweetening instead. Their dietary rules exclude sausage, bacon, a lot of tinned fruit, vegetables, sauces, etc. They carefully scan the labels for taboo contents. We have bacon and pork sausage but Kathleen and I have not wanted to cook two separate menus each day so we have been living on what is essentially a vegetarian diet. That’s fine. In fact, although we would like to have more meat, that’s the way we live on the boat since we cannot keep meat without refrigeration. But now Bob has returned with some pork roast, which we would all like to eat but the Wiggins Family will not touch. This is as much fairness and diplomatic issues as it a culinary problem. What to do? Torrential rain stops work on dozerToday reminds me of rainy and cool weather in the Austrian Alps. The kind of weather where, after three days of sitting on the edge of your bed in the Pension waiting for grey skies to clear, after three days of reading John Grisham novels, you are either going to go crazy or pack your bags and head for home. In between drizzle and distant thunder, we have had torrential downpours lasting for thirty minutes or more. Bob, the Ranchero, Bill and Joe were all ready to undertake the final chapter of the dozer saga. Bill and Joe actually drove out there to at least have a look. But the rains, they said when the returned, had turned the hillside into a waterfall and the filled the arroyo streambed with rushing dirty water. The earth under the dozer was even more unstable than ever. The project has been postponed again.Dutch takes sickDutch has really caught something while he was away. While the adults sit around this morning with wilderness medical books, Dutch sits slumped, wan and pale, on the sofa. Not only was the water at the planet-earth house this past week not good and gave him severe diarrhoea but this morning he is running a fever as well. The students at the project were also carrying viruses and maybe he has come down with that. Various treatments are discussed and discarded. In the end Dutch goes to bed after taking some homeopathic stuff. This afternoon he doesn’t look much better but he is getting bored lying in his bunk and is up and walking around.
posted by rjb,12:44 PM
Saturday, October 08, 2005
BREAKING A MULE TO THE SADDLE; MARITIME DISASTER; GROUND DRIVINGSaturday, 08 October 2005Under an azure blue sky with huge puffy clouds, Bill and his kids head out before lunch on Friday to bring in a red mule that’s to be broken to the saddle. She normally hangs out with a dun-coloured mule, a big sorrel mare and her recent colt down in the river meadow or in the back pasture and wooded hillsides. Each time the guys drive them down close to the corral the animals bolt for the meadows again. After an hour of chasing them, we finally get them into the corral on the third roundup try. Later, after lunch, I sit on the eight-foot high rail corral fence while Bill starts to work. The idea is to spend enough time in the corral for the animal, first, to get used to you and, second, for the horse or mule to accept you – of course, as a non-threat, but, more importantly, as the boss too. At first all the animals are together. Bill starts to circle the horses and mules around the corral, trying to get them a little tired out. Eventually, however, he allows them to stop and he approaches the mare, first speaking gently to her as he gets close enough to touch her, rub his hands lightly around the face, neck, withers, back and flank, all the while talking to her quietly. The colt stays close but out of range and behind the mare. It’s clear that the mare has been broken before and is just being reminded about what she is supposed to do. Bill easily slips a loose rope halter around her neck and then around her muzzle and leads her around for fifteen minutes. The colt follows as do the two mules, but always keeping the mare between them and Bill. With time the mare and colt are led out and chased back out into the pasture. The two mules are circling around the corral now until they are getting a little sweated and tired. The dun mule is shod so obviously she has been broken before. Their circuit is initially as far away as they can get from Bill in the centre. But, as they get tired the circle gets smaller. The goal is now to separate the two mules, to get the dun out of the corral without letting the red bolt out of the open gate at the same time. This takes another fifteen minutes of so. The dun is getting tired and mildly sweated; she wants a way out and keeps looking longingly at the three closed gates and licking her lips. Terry tells me that that is an important sign that the horse or mule is ready to submit and is looking for an opportunity to please the “boss”. The red mule is untrained and not at all happy about having somebody with his eye on her. She is skittish and trots rapidly around the corral keeping the dun between her and the trainer. Bill is able eventually to separate them but only after they are puffing and sweating. They are ready to concede authority to Bill, Terry tells me, when they start licking their lips. They are soon going to come up to the trainer or let him approach them closely. The dun seems eager to submit now and even seems to be trying to get shot of her red shadow. After more running around, the dun changes direction, abandoning the red mule, someone opens the gate a crack, and the dun mule slip out. The red mule is alone in the corral at last. Bill decides to give her an hour to think things over and calm down and we go to lunch.During our meal Bill and Terry explain their approach to making useful animals out of wild ones. The old “cowboy way”, as they call it, was to tie the horse, somehow throw a saddle onto her, climb aboard and keep riding it until the horse gave up in exhaustion. Often there was a lot brutal handling of the horse, long sharp spurs, whips, beatings, swearing and anger. The beast is in a turmoil of fear. Everyone, both horse and broncobuster, knows that a horse is afraid of anything on its back and, if it cannot use its natural speed to get away from danger, it will try to buck off anything on its back. In this process the horse is brutalised. It becomes either “broken” completely or, more likely, half-broken; it remains semi-wild, suspicious and contentious.Bill and Terry subscribe to a more modern method and they have the practical experience to know that it works. There is an excellent discussion of it in a book called The Complete Training of Horse and Rider in the Art of Classical Horsemanship by Alois Podhaussky; he was the head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. (The film, The Horse-whisperer also deals with this newer type of horse-“breaking” though not in their opinion very well.) The more modern system takes a little longer, usually two or three weeks at the most. The horse is broken first to driving (i.e. pulling a wagon) and therefore to “mouth reining” (my term). Then it is trained to the saddle and “neck reining”.Bill and Terry, as I understand it, are trying to win the horse over rather than conquer it, to co-opt its spirit rather than break it, to make a partner out of it rather than a slave. A horse, by nature a herd animal, is normally predisposed to recognise a leader. Since it will have to submit to a human being rather than another horse, it will of course be suspicious, afraid of being hurt or devoured by this strange animal. It may in fact have been brutalised or hurt in the past and be angry or over frightened now. One doesn’t know this going into the corral. Step one is to make the animal start circling the corral to tire it out and to assert mastery over it. Round and round goes the red mule. She is a high stepper with a long smooth trot. In fact her gait is quite impressive and she is fast. At first she steps high and keeps to the outside of the corral. Bill has a lasso coiled in his left hand. If the mule starts to slow down he waves at her from behind to keep her going (not in her face, which might maker her stop). After a while, the mule begins to breath a little more heavily, sweat begins to break out on her withers, her high stepping disappears and her hooves stay closer to the ground as she runs, and the circle gets smaller as she circles around Bill; she is getting a little tired. She is also getting tired of this game and would like to get it over with. Once or twice she breaks her stride and heads one after the other straight towards the three gates in a vain hope of escaping this guy with the lasso. Bill is not threatening her. But every time she tries to stop at a distance to him, he clucks to her, raises his coiled lasso behind her and makes her go around and around some more. Finally, when it is clear that the mule is almost asking for permission to stop, Bill allows her to stop and says “whoa” to her. Each time she turns to face Bill in the centre of the corral. Bill wants her to come to him or at least allow him to approach her. All the while talking gently to her, he turns his back on her or in any case avoids looking her in the eye. Then he will take a step towards her but obliquely and not straight at her. Most horses will very soon either come forward to the new “boss” or let themselves be approached. If the mule turns away when Bill tries to approach it, which is it always does, Bill immediately clucks to it, raise his lasso in his hand to make the horse do a few more rounds, not letting her stop just any old time she wants but only when Bill himself decides the horse can halt. The red mule proves to be very slow to get the point. Of course, as both Terry and Bill point out, the mule doesn’t know exactly what is expected of it and the animal must first hit on it on its own so it can then be rewarded. “Red” hasn’t got it figured out yet. After several hours of circling, however, it seems to want to do something submissive; we can see her licking her lips. But every time she is allowed to stop and every time Bill tries to approach she turns slowly and walks away and Bill immediately puts her into a trot again. It could be that she thinks Bill actually wants her to keep trotting around the corral, Terry thinks. The mule has not yet figured it out that it can avoid all this running by letting Bill come closer or by approaching Bill itself.After several hours both Terry and Bill say they have seldom experienced an animal that takes so long to give up and give in. The day is getting on. A lively discussion then ensues between the two trainers: Terry is stoutly of the opinion that it would be wrong to give up now; the circles and stopping and starting should go on until the mule submits even if it takes all night. Bill thinks it is possible to stop now and start again in the morning. Since it is his animal to break, he prevails.In the middle of all this, Bill asks someone to take over for a few minutes so he can make a pit stop and I ask if I can try it. To my surprise, Bill agrees and I climb down off the corral and into the ring. He stays with me for a minute or two and both he and then Terry from the sidelines give me tips on how to carry on: just keep the mule moving but don’t try to frighten him into running; be calm; at a point of my choosing allow the mule, which is anyway wanting to stop, to come to a halt; talk to it quietly; don’t look it in the eye; take an oblique step towards it; if it turns away at any time, get it moving again as if it were my idea. I wish I could say that, while Bill was in the outhouse, the red mule accepted me as the new boss and was eating out of my hand. That doesn’t happen but I am starting to get the hang of it. Bill gets back to work and I climb back up on my perch. The decision about whether to carry on without interruption or to wait for another day is in a sense taken out of our hands by the excitement down at the river ford.Maritime disasterAround here the only sounds you hear in the background are the river rushing over its rocky bed and/or the wind in the trees. It is not hard, therefore, to pick up the sound of a vehicle long before you see it in the river flats heading for the ford. With the heavy rains in the last few days, the river, although it is down from its maximum early this morning, is still quite high. We wonder as we see the van come into the open if the driver will attempt a crossing. We are all watching when we see it push into the water. In a moment or so the water is up over the tires and the vehicle comes to a stop in mid-river. We watch as we see figures crawl out of the windows onto the hood of the car. One person tries to leap from the hood to the far shore, not even getting close and landing in the water. He slogs to shore and starts walking up to the ranch. Meanwhile, we all decide we need to go down and pull the van out. A heavy chain and some rope are loaded into the back and we roll-start the red pickup down the hill. This vehicle will not start by itself since the starter also got wet a few days ago when crossing when the water was too high; the pickup made it but the starter is soaked.There are three young guys with the car. Two of them are called Jesus and one is not. Non-Jesus lives I think at Rancho el Pescado; just over the pass into the next arroyo; his father at any case is over at the ranch and there is no other vehicle over there. Jesus 1 is from Phoenix and speaks good English; Jesus 2 is a playful young man but the ranch boy is withdrawn and will not look me in the eye. He may be worried about how his father is going to greet the news that his van was stuck in the river. The van is loaded with large sacks of pinto beans, corn flour and various other comestibles as well as a large heavy-duty tire. They fasten the chain around a bumper strut and we pull them slowly out of the water and up onto the bank. When they open the door, water pours out both sides like waterfalls. It must have been up over the transmission mound inside.They try, but the vehicle will obviously not start; the marcha (the starter) has been soaked and the water is diffusing the battery’s electrical charge. We push them back out of the way so that other vehicles can get through on the road while they debate what they should do. There is obviously a road over to Rancho el Pescado; it runs across the open meadow behind the corral and then up the yoke between two hills to the north. I have ridden it twice with Simon and Bob. Unfortunately, the ranch is out of gasoline until Bob returns from the “outside”. We can’t drive them over to Pescado and we certainly wouldn’t attempt to tow them anyway; the red pickup gets really hot and starts steaming. We offer them a lift as far as our corral; they will have to hoof it after that. They reluctantly close up the car and, empty-handed, climb into the pickup. From the ranchhouse complex they strike off in their wet boots and shoes to slog the steep hill to Pescado. We turn back to the house for supper.Those who till now have thought that nothing much happens on a remote cattle ranch in the Tarahumara Mountains of Northern Mexico will now have to confess that we are kept busy from morning to night with one exciting event after another. Over supper, after our heartbeats have slowed from the excitement, we all wonder how people in suburban America can survive without dying of boredom. It must be that TV is their only diversion. In the old days they made babies. But since they are not making many babies these days, that must be it: work; commute; watch TV.Ground drivingAfter dinner, in the gloaming, Jeannie and Terry harness Ginger, the miniature black horse, and hitch her to her sulky. Ginger is not only pretty, she is very patient and very well trained now. Since she is likely pregnant, the sulky shafts are getting a little tight. But soon Jeannie is trotting her along the ranch road. After a while they come back, we unhitch the buggy and I get the opportunity to “ground drive” her. “Ground drives”, it must be said, has nothing whatsoever to do with baseball or even with pile-driving; it involves walking behind, actual next to, the horse with both reins in one’s hand(s) and guiding the horse. Ginger is beautifully responsive: if you say “walk on” she will start immediately even before you touch the whip gently to her hind quarters; if you say “whoa” and tug very gently on the reins, she will stop on the spot; if you tug her reins a few times and say “back”, she will back up a few steps. Jeannie even has Ginger to where she will almost take a bow on her own. This whole family are experienced horse trainers. Tanner, Bob and Cindy’s ten-year-old daughter, will be driving Ginger in a competition at a fiesta in a week or two. Jeannie has been working with her to get horse and driver ready.As night falls and the stars come out, the Wiggins head off down to their quarters near the river and we reckon we have had another exciting day.
posted by rjb,3:03 PM
Friday, October 07, 2005
NEW LOOK TO THE BOGSITE; JOHNNY IDENTIFIES NEW LIZARD SPECIES; SECOPND THOUGHTS ABOUT RETURNING TO GUAYMAS; LOOKING FOR WATERFriday, 07 October 2005New look to the blogsiteThanks to Gwen who designed the original site and has now worked tirelessly to get the blogsite up to speed. The archived texts are available and recent photographs are also here on the left-hand side. I hope to get more photographs posted in the next few weeks but this will depend upon space.Johnny Wiggins identifies new lizard speciesLet me tell you about Johnny Wiggins. He is the youngest (15) of the Wiggins clan that arrived recently at Rancho el Nogal from the U.S.A. The family includes Bill and Terry, his parents, and Johnny’s older siblings, Joe (19) and Jeannie (17). A really nice family. Bill is a trained electrician and is handy with machinery of all types. And the whole family is involved with horses, including coach and saddle horses. Despite his young years, Joe is an inventor with lots of ideas. I’ll write more about Joe another time.Johnny’s consuming passion, on the other hand, is reptiles. He is a fountain of information about them. Not only are reptiles Johnny’s consuming passion, they are close to being his main topic of conversation. “Lovely day to-day, Johnny!”“Speaking of lovely day, did I tell you about the blue spiny lizard that I caught just this very day?”or“I read on the net today that American bombs are destroying Fallujah.”“Speaking of war in the Middle East, did you know that there are fourteen types of poisonous vipers in Iraq, the largest being 2.5 kilometres long?”You get the picture. He’s a great kid and has obviously got something that interests him. His knowledge of the subject would put a graduate student in biology to shame.Half the time, when he comes into the ranchhouse, Johnny has a lizard in his hand. I was hoping as an experiment to get a flock (herd?) of them inside to help keep the house flies under control. The reptiles did not do too badly. But unfortunately, or not depending upon your point-of-view, the house-lizards have turned into MRE’s (Meals Ready-to-Eat) for the striped cat who, it develops, is quicker at catching lizards than lizards are at catching flies (or escaping cats, obviously). But I digressYesterday Johnny announces that he has discovered what he thinks is a new species of lizard: it's clearly of the Spiny Lizard family, he says. But these ones have very spiny scales on the neck that grow smaller as they run towards the tail (this is the opposite of normal spiny lizards). The points of the spines all have little holes in them; this is also unusual. The juvenile male he actually captured has a green head and neck and a blue patch that fades toward white in the centre. The adult he saw but didn't capture had more blue but Johnny couldn't tell how far back it went; the female he also captured has blue all the way to the tail and split down the centre. I tried looking up the Latin for John but none of the online English-Latin dictionaries would translate Johnny’s name. So I am guessing: I think we should call this "scelopores ioniensis" and he should report it to whomever one reports these things to. (If anyone knows how to translate John’s name into Latin, please email me.)Another day I will interview Johnny about all the poisonous slithery things around here.Second thoughts about returning to GuaymasWe are having second thoughts about leaving the ranch at the end of next week. Temperatures in Guaymas this week have topped 100 ° F every day (CNN weather) and it is wonderfully cool up here. We want to be in La Paz to meet Bob Ferguson, my Canadian friend who is coming down on a motor vessel from Seattle by the end of this month. We thought we might go to San Carlos on 15Oct05, ready Vilisar for sea and sail across to Sta. Rosalia on the Baja-California peninsula and dally down to La Paz to arrive in time to meet Bob.One of the main reasons impelling us to take the crap shoot of leaving Vilisar on a mooring buoy during the hurricane season was the intense heat in the Sea of Cortés in the summer. The water temperature in Bahia San Carlos was 90 ° F when we left and the air temperatures were in excess of that. Only the southerly afternoon breezes made life tolerable. At night, the wind died and it was hot and sticky and uncomfortable. Returning to that is not an attractive option but we don’t want to miss Bob in La Paz. Maybe we will stay on another week here and then sail directly from San Carlos to La Paz without exploring the Baja coast going south.Yesterday was a perfect day. Around 1830, the Wiggins came in for dinner and we sat down to a meal. As night fell, the sky became dark and there was lots of lightning and thunder in the distant. It had already started to splash rain when they headed off to their bunkhouse about half an hour away up the meadows along the river. They had just got under cover when it began to pour. Although the sky cleared during the night and the sun came up into blue skies, the river is very high this morning thanks to the heavy rains upriver. The temperatures in the night were probably down in the fifties and there were thick banks of clouds over the distant mountains before sunrise. They are all burnt off now and the day is warming up. Last night was the first time the dogs did not bark or some animal cause commotion in the breezeway where the feeds are kept.Looking for waterLate yesterday afternoon, having finished their list of projects and come to halt on the dozer waiting for machine parts and gasoline, Bill and family head off with shovels to dig out a potential spring as a water supply for their house. At present they are carrying water back and forth from the ranchhouse reservoirs (actually, plastic tanks supplied from a spring about a half mile away in the hills). The water source is only about 150 yards from their accommodation so would be ideal. At dinner, however, they had to report that the “spring” looks more like simply water rain runoff and would likely dry up after the rainy season. They will continue looking but sources farther away will mean buying more ¾-inch water pipe.There are lots of water sources on the ranch. Bob, the ranchero, told me once that on this 7,000 hectare (17,000 acres) ranch, he has 27 all-weather flowing streams and two rivers, one being the Tutuaca River right in front of the house. Even the Tutuaca tested clean enough to drink though, at present, it is rather murky from the sand and silt being carried down by the heavy runoff. But not all sources are close to where you need the water. By the way, some of the springs are actually warm (not hot) springs. Could for soaking in!
posted by rjb,12:48 PM
Thursday, October 06, 2005
BLOGSITE SPACE LIMITATIONS; ON DOZERS, WATCHDOGS AND OTHER MATTERSThursday, 06 October 2005Blogsite space limitationsI have just heard from our dear friend, Gwen, in Boston who hosts this website that the reason we have no archives and no photos at present is because she does not have enough space. We are working on this and hope to have a reasonable solution soon. Unfortunately, I am pretty ignorant about websites so it could be longer than I expect. Be patient and stay tuned.On dozers, watchdogs and other mattersThings are still quiet here. There are so many people away that the main activities around here are getting the dozer ready to complete its (one hopes) controlled slide into the arroyo and working on the ranchhouse complex’s 12-volt electrical system. With the tranquillity I suddenly become aware of the wonderful scent of the yellow flowers now blanketing every hill. When the breeze comes up from the river valley, it wafts up this sweet perfume. In the quiet then you hear the wind blowing through the live oaks near the house and the buzzing of the bees in the meadows on the slope below us. Makes me want to take up beekeeping and honey-making. It is so quiet and somnolent in the afternoon that, should a vehicle approach either from over the pass from Rancho el Pescado to the north or on the road in from Yepachic on the other side of the river, we can hear the distance growling of 4-wheel-drive and walk out to check. Bill and his son Joe have been working in the ravine to clear a path for the dozer to slide and propping it up so it doesn’t roll over and crush them when they use the chainsaw to cut both the logs underneath on which the machine is resting, albeit precariously and the tree against which the rear trailer-hitch on the dozer is hooked. Since axes and handsaws cannot be used on the final stage (can’t get them in under the machine) and the chainsaws cannot be used until gasoline and new spark plugs arrive from the outside world, work is at a halt for the moment. Bob is expected back tonight but predictions about arrivals from the outside are always tenuous. It might actually be another couple of days before he returns. Meanwhile, Bill and Joe work on the machinery and the electricals where they can.Without Simon, Dutch and Alex gone and no other cowboys around there are no ranch animals around the corral either. Normally somebody is saddling up or returning from distant ranges or bringing in cattle or horses to cull them or handle them. Now, however, the corral is empty, the saddle horses and mules are somewhere out to pasture and we are left with chickens, the nanny goat, the lamb and, of course, a plethora of dogs.The dogs are characters themselves. Except for Cody who is actually a herd dog, the rest are either pets (the two Chihuahuas, Sparkle and Moonface), watch dogs (Greta), or supernumeraries (ancient old Tank, the mastiff, and Phil, the, um, whatever). Any alarms are usually started by Greta. She is the most reliable guard. Immediately she starts, however, the rest also all start barking. The din is terrific if they are near the house. If we are inside the ranchhouse or guest house, we always go out to check if the racket continues for more than ten seconds. Somebody’s coming. If the pack is barking to the north a horseman is likely heading down into the last ravine before climbing up to the corral area. If the dogs are facing east, somebody is coming along the approach road from the ford. Strangers and Pima Indians nearly always stop at a gate and wait for a while for the dogs to calm and to be invited in. Cindy told me that Indians are terrified of dogs and especially of old Tank. The big dogs usually settle down if they see us accept the approaching horsemen or hikers. The Chihuahuas, however, not only have a shrill, unpleasant, yappy-type of bark they are also still very young and have had no obedience training. They just go on and on yapping and running around and getting underfoot. Any conversation with the visitor has to be put off for a while till the dogs cool off. One thing you can say for them, though: they are not afraid of anything bigger than they are. Of course everything is bigger than they are! They self-importantly bark at Cody who likes to sneak into the house if he can do so undetected or Tank who lumbers slowly around in his blind senility. Or they will suddenly take off running and yapping after chickens if, in the dogs’ opinion, the birds are too close to the house. The chickens scrabble indignantly away, squawking and screeching, some flapping up onto the top bar of the corral. The Chihuahuas come prancing back feeling more important than ever. Last week they became very perturbed when a mule found its way into the area just around the ranchhouse to enjoy the sweet grass there. Sparkle and Moonface become apopletic. Off they dash, nipping and yapping at the mule’s rear hooves. Except for the occasional swish at them with a hind hoof, the mule largely ignores them and keeps grazing. At least the noise drives me out to close the little foot-gate into the breezeway where the feedbags are stacked. A few weeks ago that same mule got in there; no doubt he thought it was Christmas, Easter and his birthday all rolled into one until I shooed him out.Sometimes at night the dogs will set up a real hullabaloo, barking and howling endlessly. When I get up to check, the bigger dogs (the Chihuahuas sleep in the ranchhouse) are out in the corral area, just sitting back on their haunches, their heads extended, and howling like wolves. They have heard coyotes calling and are joining in. The Call of the Wild, I guess.I don’t know what else can be found around here that is wild. We hear the coyotes but don’t see them. And there are also javelinas (i.e. either native wild pigs but sometimes feral domestic pigs) and some sort of deer; we have seen does and fawns on occasion. Bill said his family has seen big cougar footprints near the ranchhouse; I wonder if these are really actually Tank’s paw-prints. In any case, what with chickens and pigs to attract the attention of predators (not to mention little yappy dogs), I am glad to have the hounds around. Now if we could only train the Chihuahuas to stop chasing the chickens!If it stays warm this afternoon, I’m heading down to the river for a swim.
posted by rjb,1:54 PM
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE RANCH; BUILDING WITH ADOBEWednesday, 05 October 2005With the ranch’s normal “population” thinned out by “outbounds” (Cindy with kids, Dutch and Alex all gone to Cindy’s “Planet Earth Project”; Bob gone to town on business; Simon on vacation at a fiesta), things remain pretty quiet at Rancho el Nogal. The river was high for a few days after the heavy Hurricane Otis-spawned thunder storms. Despite some cloud, however, no rain last night and today’s internet satellite picture shows no cloud at all around the whole of northern Mexico and southwestern U.S.A. Kathleen and I have been doing small household jobs, preparing meals, and writing.The new ranch family headed by Bill and Terry have fit right in and keep busy all day. Terry and Jeannie have been working with Tanner on her pony & sulky training and, in Tanner’s absence this week, have been working on the harness and sulky as well as training the pony. Progress is good and the pony is really good at obeying voice commands. The big job at present, of course, is to get the bulldozer dug out and back on the road. At present it is hung up precariously on trees, logs and rocks some two-thirds of the way down the 60-foot (roughly 20 metres) steep ravine. Bill and Joe are working on it. The first job is to prop up the dozer using logs so they can get underneath it and dig without the machine rolling over onto them. The props are to be made of logs from nearby trees. A lot of time is wasted because the small pickups are either out of gas, have no batteries, are flat tires, or cannot cross the river at the ford without getting the starter or carburettor wet. This means a lot of hiking back and forth. Then the two chainsaws here refuse to work probably because, in the past, the wrong fuel-to-oil mixture has been used and the spark plugs and ignition system are now totally gummed up. Moreover, we are out of gasoline. Bill spent several hours late yesterday trying to get the chainsaws going. He finally gave up and this morning he and Joe took an axe out with them. Of course, it needed sharpening first.At present we are waiting for Bob to return from town with jerry cans of fresh, clean gasoline along with a backup tank of propane, drums of diesel fuel for the machinery, spark plugs, carburettor cleaner, and some more food and provisions. He was expected back last night. But around noon yesterday a horseman rides up from about three hours away with a written message that Bob and Simon have to be in Guerrera tomorrow (06Sep05). Since Simon has the week off and has disappeared to a fiesta in Maycoba, I think, assuming of course that Bob actually received the message I emailed to him, he will have an interesting time rounding up Simon, who may be letting his hair down quite thoroughly. Ah, life on a remote ranch!Bill is a trained electrician and has passed on lot of his knowledge to his 19-year-old son, Joe. In addition to the heavy dozer work, t he two of them have been working to rewire the solar electrical system. The 12-volt lights inside the ranchhouse are now much, much brighter.Since the typical building material around this part of rural (and often urban as well) Mexico is adobe I have been doing a little research on the subject. There are a lot of sites where you can get information – and thank goodness for internet access at the ranch! This quote comes from is one of the oldest building materials in use. It is basically just dirt that has been moistened with water, sometimes with chopped straw or other fibers added for strength, and then allowed to dry in the desired shape. Commonly adobe is shaped into uniform blocks that can be stacked like bricks to form walls, but it can also be simply piled up over time to create a structure. The best adobe soil will have between 15% and 30% clay in it to bind the material together, with the rest being mostly sand or larger aggregate. Too much clay will shrink and crack excessively; too little will allow fragmentation. Sometimes adobe is stabilized with a small amount of cement or asphalt emulsion added to keep it intact where it will be subject to excessive weather. Adobe blocks can be formed either by pouring it into molds and allowing it to dry or it can be pressed into blocks with a hydraulic or leverage press. Adobe can also be used for floors that have resilience and beauty, colored with a thin slip of clay and polished with natural oil. Adobe buildings that have substantial eaves to protect the walls and foundations to keep the adobe off the ground will require less maintenance than if the walls are left unprotected. Some adobe buildings have been plastered with Portland cement on the outside in an attempt to protect the adobe, but this practice has led to failures when moisture finds a way through a crack in the cement and then can't readily evaporate. When adobe is used as an exterior plaster it is either stabilized or replastered on a regular basis.Adobe is a good thermal mass material, holding heat and cool well. It does not insulate very well, so walls made of adobe need some means of providing insulation to maintain comfort in the building. Sometimes this is accomplished by creating a double wall, with an air space, or some other insulation in between. Another approach is placing insulating materials on the outside. Every building at the ranch but the log cabin where Simon, the hired cowboy lives, and the sheet-metal outhouse are built of adobe. The ranch has been settled for over 100 years but I am not sure how old the hacienda is. The big ranchhouse is much bigger. The newest buildings are the guest house, where Kathleen and I live, and two houses about 30 minutes from here up river. One is a bunkhouse that is currently occupied by the new ranch family, and a house that Bob’s daughter is building.Once one has decided on adobe and found a site with the right mix of clay and sand, the actual process is fairly easy. Working steadily, you can make between 300 and 500 bricks a day, depending upon how experienced you are. Windows, doors, floors and roofing all have to be decided upon. Windows and doors can be as many or few as you wish and either industrially made or fashioned of un-planed planks, as most of them are here at Rancho el Nogal. Around here it is not as cold as farther north but well-fitting doors and windows will keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Having lots of windows on the south side means better solar warming in the winter. There are still some split-shingle rooves on the original hacienda building. But corrugated metal over pine pole rafters seem to be the roofing material of choice here. The newer stuff works quite well, some of the older corrugated iron is pretty rusty and probably in need of replacement. Certainly the high winds in the recent rain squalls were trying to rip the older roofs off.I think it would be great fun to design and build an adobe house on Rancho el Nogal. In quiet moments I am mentally working through some ideas. It would be small to start with and have southern exposure to catch the warm rays and to take advantage of the view across the river valley. The roof might be corrugated iron but would have some sort of insulation. The walls would also be insulated somehow. If the north side was without windows, that would be all right too. The foundation would be stone and the floor would be adobe with a coat of cement and oiled with boiled linseed oil. A lot of things would be built in of adobe, like a window bench, perhaps a bed. We are used to oil lamps on the boat and we are also used to going to bed when it gets dark or reading by flashlight. Eventually one could have solar power; we bought used ones from E-Bay for about 1US$ 180 each last year for the boat. The solar power is necessary so we can operate the computer and the wifi system. Internet access definitely makes Rancho el Nogal seem much, much less remote. The furnishing would be “southwestern”, i.e. Indian blankets, baskets, etc. These are just play ideas. But you never know.
posted by rjb,2:09 PM
Monday, October 03, 2005
HURRICANE OTIS; BURSTING AT THE SEAMS; “THE DOZER”; SOME PICTURES FROM RANCHO EL NOGALSunday, 02 October 2005Mid-afternoon and it’s really starting to rain again. Tropical Storm Otis has been upgraded to a Category 3 Hurricane. Since yesterday we have been feeling its effects. Even though the storm centre is still south of Cabo San Lucas at the southern top of Baja California Sur, the larger pattern of warm air producing clouds and rain is being felt all over northern Mexico. For us in the Tutuaca Mountains it’s humid and warm, it begins to cloud up by late morning or early afternoon and, sometime well before dark, we get an intense tropical squall, which sometimes includes hail and gusty winds. It’s like having the rainy season back again just when we thought it was over and when the grass and meadow flowers were beginning to turn brown. Now every meadow is covered in tall yellow flowers. The metal for the roof over the front half of the ranchhouse is still on order. So now, within a few minutes, rain is dripping from the big stripped-pine rafters and running down the adobe walls. Clearly there is not much that can be done about the drips until a roof is completed over the front half of the house. But a pity about the walls that were painted such a lovely baroque ochre. After several rains earlier in our stay here, the paint has now fallen away to reveal the wet mud walls. Then the mud begins to run down to the floor as well. In the kitchen and dining areas, we put pots and pans around to catch the drips. Vilisar is tied to a mooring buoy San Carlos, Sonora, i.e. closer to the main path of Hurricane Otis. The storm is heading straight up the Sea of Cortés with winds predicted to be 85 mph with gusts of 105 mph. I sent a message to Alex, our neighbour in the anchorage at San Carlos, asking him what he intends to do and if he would please check Vilisar’s mooring lines and, especially, the chafing gear. Back in Washington State a few years ago when we left the boat on a state marine-park buoy, we returned to find that one of the lines had leapt out of the bronze chock during a storm, the chafing gear had slid down, and the rope had chafed through completely, leaving the only back-up line to keep the boat from drifting away or washing up on a reef. Alex wrote back that the marina staff had been around to check everybody’s mooring. We shall see. Certainly there is nothing to do from this distance and I can’t get back before the hurricane comes. And what would I do if I did go back? I could, I suppose, run the boat’s engine to take the pressure off the mooring. But that means staying on Vilisar during the hurricane. Do I really want to be doing that? I guess if I were on the scene and Vilisar were to be washed up on the beach I could prevent the vessel’s being plundered. Well, watch and pray. The brunt of the storm should pass through tomorrow. Rancho el Nogal bursting at the seamsA day or so before I left the ranch with Bob for (as it turned out) a week in Chihuahua, a family of five arrived at the ranch from Florida. Bill and Terry, the parents, along with Joe (19), Jeannie (17) and John (15) have a lot of ranch and farm and especially horse experience. They also know a lot about off-grid electricity including solar and other eco-friendly power generating systems. They are really nice and pitch right in. John is a walking encyclopaedia about reptiles; Jeanie is helping Tanner (10) to prepare her driving miniature pony for the upcoming show in a nearby town. And Joe, the eldest, is quite an expert on solar power and electrical power. He and his Dad are working to rewire the 12-volt system that supplies power to the ranchhouse complex. I am scheming to get Joe to improve the setup in the guest house so we can read in bed at night and charge my laptop there. At present they are eating ranch-style with everybody else here at the ranchhouse. Cooking at present therefore means feeding fifteen mouths at each sitting. After weeks of just a few of us, the pandemonium can be a bit much; screaming kids; several adults in the kitchen trying to be helpful, lots of people talking at once, uncertainty about who is supposed to be cooking and cleaning up. We have however now developed a kitchen rota (which I call the Kitchen Patrol or KP) whereby each family unit takes a whole day: breakfast is ready by 0700, dinner at 1900, and some grazing-type lunch at 1300. The cooks put out a big basin of washing up water and everyone is now expected, encouraged, cajoled, nagged, or ordered to wash up their own dishes in hot soapy water and rinse them under the tap. The cooks are left with cleaning the pots and pans, washing off tables and leaving a clean kitchen for the early-rising KP the next morning. This has taken a little of the confusion and even tension out of so many new people getting along. The amount of comestibles consumed by fifteen people is pretty amazing so we are having to go for giant packages of everything. At present there is no vegetable garden at Rancho el Nogal. Until there is – and I have no idea whether it is already too late to plant one –shopping involves not just soap, toothpaste, cooking oils, butter, and canned goods, it also means picking up fruit and vegetables as well. There are some special dietary requirements in our expanded group but so far we have been able to work around them and everybody gets fed. Bob and Cindy push beans and tortillas pretty heavily, but Norteamericanos don’t really fancy a steady and monotonous diet of beans. At least the KP rota means that you get a couple of days off so the duty doesn’t seem that onerous any more. Bob wants to wait until the weather gets cooler before butchering the mean-tempered bull, one of the pigs or the lamb. For one thing a few cold days will kill the flies, which can be a real nuisance. (As an aside, we don’t really have many mosquitoes here because of the very porous and rocky ground, not to mention the steep and mountainous terrain; there is therefore very little standing water for mosquitoes to breed in.) The colder weather also means that the cool rooms are more effective. (While Bob and I were a week away in Chihuahua, Dutch cleared out both of the storage rooms in the old house and sorted out the tools, equipment, harness, parts, oils, and food storage. I am secretly glad I was not around to have to help! But what a difference it has made.) (An interesting project the new family are talking about, by the way, is installing a hydroelectric generating plant in the Tutuaca River below the house. This could eventually mean real refrigeration. “THE DOZER”“The Dozer” is a 60-tonne monster with four huge rubber tires, a huge diesel engine, and a big dozer blade. Ranchero Bob bought it cheap at auction a few years ago in the U.S.A. and brought it down by truck to Yepachic and drove it in from there. The idea is to use it to keep the ranch road passable. Goodness knows the road needs lots of work.The first job that Bill took on after arriving last week was to get the road in shape. Nothing had been done to it for a year and the past twelve months have seen plenty of heavy rain. About a mile from the ranch while traversing a cut that runs across a hill about sixty feet above an arroyo with a stream, the monster slipped down sideways off the road. The right two balloon tires were still on the road; the left two were off. The whole dozer would have rolled down the roughly twenty-metre slope into the stream bed below had not the machine come up against a road-side tree. We can thank the tree for preventing the dozer from rolling and Bill being catapulted out of the driver’s seat and probably killed or injured. As it was, his heartbeat was probably at an all-time high.Unfortunately, the ground is basically just loose gravel and sand. Since this approach seems to be taking too long, however, it is decided to rig heavy cables to the blade of the dozer, let the rear end swing downhill and then let the whole dozer drop down backwards into the streambed. From there, it is believed, the dozer can be driven downstream and eventually out where the stream meets the road. The risk is high that the big Michigan dozer will roll and cause major damage to the machine. This risk is contemplated and accepted.A lot of hours are spent rigging heavy cables from the dozer-blade up to trees farther up the slope. Since the topsoil is so thin here in the mountains, these scrub trees (live oaks, arbutus, etc.) therefore have no real root systems and are unlikely to resist any real pull. The heavy rain last night has made the ground even more unstable; just standing on the edge of the road you can feel the ground slipping away beneath your feet. Nevertheless, the thinking is that, even if the trees pull out they might actually feather the dozer’s fall and keep the front of the behemoth pointing up the hill.The heavy cables are affixed to the blade. A come-along is attached to a huge boulder underneath the dozer; Dutch and Simon are underneath the machine working the boulder loose. Parallel to this, Ranchero Bob finally cuts away a log that is contributing to holding the machine up. Then finally, Bill and Joe attach separate lines to the steering wheel and the throttle, Bob climbs up near the driver seat to start the engine. He is wearing a mountaineer’s harness and Axel and Dutch are holding the safety line ready to yank him free if the dozer starts to roll. The clutch is engaged in forward, the engine revs up with a throaty roar, along with huge amounts of smoky diesel exhaust from the stack. The wheels, spinning, try ineffectually to push the vehicle uphill but, when the throttle is cut back, the vehicle, now pointing up hill as planned, begins to churn in the loose gravel and sink backwards and then sideways again down the hill coming to rest a couple of yards down the steep slope. As it goes, the cables fastened to the trees up the slope pull out and a big rock or two plunge down onto the road right next to where Bill and others are standing. I hear people shouting warnings. The rocks hit the road, shatter into pieces and keep on over the edge of the road into the ravine followed by a lot of other debris. Nobody hurt and no damage done. The engine stalls and the silence is strong. We run forward to inspect the situation.The fact that the dozer has not rolled can be considered a major achievement. I have been taking odds that it would. But now what? It has not slid that far, in fact. After deliberation, it is decided to try again but this time simply to let the engine try to swing the vehicle so it can fall directly downhill. Bob gets up there again, the engine roars, the remote steering and the throttle are engaged and the wheels churn again. The dozer begins to slide rapidly downhill and only comes to a halt when the rear end catches a bigger tree about two-thirds of the way down. It is still sideways but this time the tires have really bedded into the soft ground and a couple of logs have jammed under the chassis. There is no weight on either the right front or the rear left tires; the whole machine is tipped at a very precarious angle. The risk that it will roll if the tree gives way is great. By this time it is 1430 and Bob decides that it is time to head back to the ranchhouse for lunch and to ponder what to do next. Bob is on an adrenaline high from the danger of crawling onto a dangerously tilting machine. It was interesting to watch. It was a real guy thing. Everyone focussing on the technical problem at hand, playing with big machines, handling heavy hand tools and equipment, dealing with physical danger. The group leaders were talking well to each other. No arguing. Nobody trying to push his weight around. Now they shall have to work to get the bulldozer the final third of the hill down to the stream bed. Stay tuned.
posted by rjb,5:06 PM
Saturday, October 01, 2005
BACK AT RANCHO EL NOGAL FROM CHIHUAHUA; MAKING CONTACT (OR NOT) WITH MENNONITES IN CUAUHTÉMOC; SOME CASUAL OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LIFE IN MEXICO; HURRICANE OTISFriday, 30 September 2005Finally arrived back at Rancho el Nogal about mid-morning today. It was late in the day before we could leave Chihuahua. With four adults and two little girls in the front two rows of seats, I jumped into the back of the open pickup, found some soft things to lie on, and enjoyed the fabulous scenery in the run up to the Tarahumara Mountains and the ranch. As the sun went down and wearing only shorts and a light summer shirt, I began to feel cold. At the first pit stop we dug around to find a sleeping bag and a fleece skiing toque. After that I was comfy and warm and watched the sky fill up with stars, the Milky Way gain in intensity, and an electrical storm show off way down and below our altitude to the south near the Sea of Cortés.Chihuahua lies at an altitude of about 1700 metres; Cuauhtémoc, about 100 Km farther east on Highway #16, is about 400 metres higher and therefore at about the same height as the ranch itself. You are aware that you are steadily climbing from Chihuahua to Cuauhtémoc; there is this wonderful moment when you somehow come out of various valleys and highway cuts suddenly onto a broad open grassy prairie and you realise with a sigh of instinctive that you are, at last, OUT OF THE CITY! Your gaze is immediately drawn to the far distance. Where the four-lane motorway coasts along the side of a hill and you can look far across and down into the valley, everything looks green and lush in the afternoon sun. Typical daytime temperatures around Chihuahua and Cuauhtémoc are in the mid to high seventies (Fahrenheit; approx. mid-20’s Celsius) and the skies are clear with only puffy white clouds hanging around purely for decoration. The wind is quite tolerable even in the open truck, at least as long as the sun is shining. The air is pure and clean. The view is fantastic.Making contact (or not) with Mennonites in Cuauhtémoc Ninety minutes later we arrive in Cuauhtémoc. Bob and Cindy have a little flat that they rent for when they have to be in town. While the other passengers wait at the flat, I take a drive out to “The Mennonites” to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, in ten miles of driving I only find two places selling fruits and veggies; one is really just a small country grocery store; and, the other, depending upon your point of view, is either a large Fruttería or a small supermarket. The former is triste and expensive and the second is just expensive. The larger one did have locally grown apples but the general food store only has Washington State red “Delicious” apples. I reckoned that there would be lots of local apples; that was my first illusion gone.But I did have a chance to see some of the Mennonite territory. The road is as straight as in Manitoba, whence many Mennonites came starting back in the 1920’s when the Manitoba School Act forbade teaching in any language except English (the Act was actually aimed at French Canadians by bigoted Orangemen from Ontario but German schools got caught in the machinery as well). Also, in World War I, conscription had been introduced in Canada for the battlefields of France, the memory of which was still fresh in Mennonite minds. Mennonites are pacifists.At Penner’s Frutteria there are a couple of older gents talking with the young man behind the cash register. The older men are uniformly dressed in bluejeans bib-overalls, white Mexican Stetsons, work boots and long-sleeved shirts. The farm clothing looks as if it has never been worn before so I guess this is their go-to-town clothing. During the day I am to see Mennonite women as well whereby the very elderly amongst them wear dark blue conservative dresses with a Babushka (never a hat) over their heads and the young girls, with one exception, wear modern hip-hugger jeans, blouses exposing their midriffs, and tennis sneakers.I try talking to them all in Hochdeutsch but get only uncomprehending stares in return. The young man speaks only Plattdeutsch (Low German, sometimes referred hereabouts as Plautdeutsch) and Spanish. The older guys speak no Hochdeutsch and hardly any English. Another illusion gone. While I am sitting in the car outside later eating my (very boring Washington) apple, a very blond man in his early twenties sticks his head through the passenger window and asks me where I am from. The car has South Dakota plates on it and is therefore of interest. He has been up to Manitoba to visit family. Every one speaks Plattdeutsch around here as the first language, he tells me, and Spanish or English as the second or third language. Often teenagers are sent up to Canada or the U.S.A. to learn English (and perhaps to find a wife too). Spaced all along this long straight road are farm-implement dealers, metalworking shops, irrigation companies, car dealers, and a myriad of other farming and rural services. Interspersed amongst the industrial buildings are single-family dwellings. And some of them are more in the category of “trophy homes”. I see frequent billboards advertising (in Spanish) high-priced American pickup Ford, Chrysler, or Chevrolet trucks with 8-cylinder engines). Cuauhtémoc must be a very prosperous town indeed since I never see this kind of advertising elsewhere in Mexico.The signs along the road remind me of my own youth in the Niagara Peninsula and my time as a young Canadian-Army officer in Manitoba; both areas have strong Mennonite communities. On the signs are familiar names like Penner, Pendergast, Prendergast, Dyck, Schmidt, Schmitt, Manitoba, Canada, etc. At lunchtime I stop at a steakhouse for lunch. The parking lot is full of expensive vehicles, half of them big pickup trucks, all of them spotlessly clean. Inside the restaurant I note the same high standard of cleanliness and efficiency and the same lack of style and flair as any good restaurant in Manitoba or Nebraska. The flatter the land, the less the flair, perhaps. The hamburger is clean and well-engineered and otherwise unremarkable. There was no apple pie; only pecan. So, what do they do with the apples around here? Half of the clientele appears to be Mexican men, the other half Mennonite couples or families. The waitresses, teenagers, speak only English and Spanish. No Hochdeutsch and no Plattdeutsch. One teenage waitress told me she learned English in Kansas.It is an interesting drive. I stop at the big Frutteria and stock up for the ranch. When I go to the big Soriana supermarket, a leading food retailing chain in Mexico, for some other things later I find that fresh produce is cheaper and better here then at the big fruit store surrounded by farm land. A third illusion gone.Darkness hits us on the road, me in the back of the pickup. Since Bob, the ranchero, has been unable to get the 4-wheel drive repaired in Chihuahua over the past week, we drive only as far as Yepachic, where the unpaved roads into the ranch begin. While Bob and I find accommodation at the two-room-inn called Lucy’s, Simon and the others put up with relatives in the primarily Indian village. THE town is off the electricity grid and the houses are all dark when we arrive about 2100. Raoul, the innkeeper, opens the door to us and shows us to one of the spotlessly clean rooms. It is totally dark outside and very quiet except when a huge 18-wheel juggernaut goes through on the mountain highway, splitting the silence like a lion’s roar. It is still dark when the cocks in the village begin to crow and a lone donkey or mule begins to heehaw, sound directly from Hades.Some casual observations about Mexico after spending a week in ChihuahuaA week in a bustling Mexican provincial city (pop. approx. 1,000,000) permits me the following superficial observations:1. As a rule Mexican women wear their medium or long hair pulled back from the forehead and tied in a bun or ponytail. They do not generally wear permanently-waved hair or bangs and consequently you get a good view of their faces. 2. The women here often tattoo eyebrows; however, this and other facial tattooing (lips, eyelids, etc.) are far more common in Los Angeles than here.3. Mexican women are very fashion conscious. But everybody seems to be wearing only hip-hugger jeans and short, belly-exposing blouses. No matter what the clothing, high-heeled (even extra-high-heeled) shoes are very common. Skirts are not as usual as trousers. At least half and maybe more of the women I saw dressed in this fashion should consider something more flattering.4. In public Mexicans are quiet and well-behaved. You very seldom see anyone smoking in the street. In fact, smoking anywhere is not so common. You certainly do not see people swigging from water bottles, pop bottles or cans and alcohol.5. Chihuahua is the market town and state capital for a large ranching state (Chihuahua is Mexico’s largest state). You really notice this downtown where we stay; there is street after street of cowboy-boot stores (mainly flash alligator or snake skins tinted in wild colours), cowboy-hat stores, saddle and harness shops, farming pharmacies, etc. And you see lots of rural people or recently-rural people, mainly men, in white Stetsons, colourful cowboy boots, wide belts with flashy buckles, and of course blue jeans. Out in the suburbs where the Big Boxes live, you also see cowboys or drugstore cowboys although you see many other types of people too. The city cowboys wear cellphones too.6. There are a lot of sexy lingerie shops, no doubt to balance the plethora of cowboy apparel shops.7. Rural Mexican men, at least, don’t wear underwear under their jeans. Don’t ask me how I know. Poorer cowboys sleep in their clothes.8. A variety of housing materials is used for housing: adobe and plaster for the cheaper and older houses; concrete block and plaster for the next up; and, red brick for the top people with more or less ornamentation added. Rooves are normally slightly canted around here (they do have a rainy season) and consist mainly of corrugated iron sheets fastened to wooden beams. I don’t count the huge trophy houses of bygone eras or the gaudy trophy houses of the newly rich.9. At the mall and along the periphery highway you will find all the same boring retail enterprises you find in the U.S.A., Canada and Europe led of course by Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, KFC, McDonald’s, Cineplex, etc., etc. The interior and the exterior of the main mall are indistinguishable from their brethren in every other country. Meanwhile, the downtown is emptying and crumbling.10. Mexicans around here are polite drivers.Hurricane OtisHurricane Otis, recently upgraded from a Tropical Storm, is headed this weekend toward Baja California with winds of 65 mph and gusts of about 85 mph. I need to contact Alex in Guaymas and ask him what he is doing and would he please check Vilisar’s mooring lines and especially the chaffing gear.
posted by rjb,