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The Vaughn Ranch Down Solitude Road

As a child, on the few occasions my family would travel up to Kentucky to visit the grandparents, distant relatives would joke that I was a tenderfoot, a city-slicker. Which really wasn’t true, as even the biggest cities tend to have neighborhoods where the living is every bit as hard as the most rustic environment. My granddad always happily helped me with finding things to do. I’d pull weeds in his giant veggie garden, silently creeped the heck out by the 6-ft sunflowers with heads bigger than mine slowly turning with the day’s sun. I’d rake mounds of dead leaves out of the woods surrounding their farm or drag dead fallen branches up out of the woods; all work he himself did as the first ranger to retire from Bernheim National Forest, where he would also famously have to camp out with the sheriff back in the 1950s to get into multiple shootouts with poachers. He himself personally laid most of the trails on the grounds of Bernheim, in his decades as a forest ranger. He kept his own property immaculate, with attention given to keeping the plantlife healthy and free of fire hazards, and inventive landscapes of trails for future generations of his children and his children’s children to have adventures and misadventures. One summer, despite visiting from out of state four-eyed, skin and bones me gradually shoveled a full two tons of gravel to expand their parking spaces for the big holiday family gatherings. And I loved that work. My granddad saw that in me before anyone else ever did, even myself, because he was the same way. Dozens of cousins in my generation just on that side of the family tree, not counting the second cousins, the offspring of my first cousins, or third or even fourth cousins, as large as that tree is. And I was the one and only relative my granddad wrote letters to, causing much drama when my stack of mail from him was eventually discovered by aunts who were supremely jealous that their children whether living in the state or not failed to win as much attention from the otherwise quiet, hard-working and stoic old fella.

The letters were mostly about how to cope with depression though.

Fast-forward a whole lot of years, and odd-jobs gave me the additional experiences of post-hole digging hundreds of yards of fence-line, of building chicken coups and legally burning off what is likely a lifetime total of hundreds of tons of unrecyclable waste. By necessity did recycling exist on farms across the country long, long before hipsters and yuppies adopted the practice as a holier than thou hobby. When a purpose finds itself depleted it gets repurposed. When resources are scarce jobs still need to get done, and by no means can farms run on autopilot. I’ve gotten muddy chasing off foxes and snakes enough to see that even free-range chickens are a vital part of that circle of life, Eco-friendly-branding or not. From the wake-up call before sunrise faithfully every day of the year, to their natural droppings and peckings controlling the spread of weeds, to the nutrition of their eggs, their meat. One malnourished mutt from a neighboring farm is all it takes to undo that whole aspect of the circle.

In my months living within the FSPAN community, a federally-recognized wildlife preserve in St. Francis, KY, I spent hundreds of hours in the woods. I pulled and burned off vines of poison ivy that were so many dozens of feet long as to literally strangle trees into collapsing. On two separate occasions I happened across the immediate aftermath of illegal hunters, collecting their trail of busted beer bottles to a freshly-shot deer, freshly shot not for meat but for sadism and left behind to bleed out on the forest floor. Both occasions I had to burn off the remains, as the season was off, meaning their inevitably slowed rot would poison the wildlife while empowering the more harmful of the insect population. This is managing resources, helping to maintain a balance. I have physically had to sleep in urban alleyways and multilevel parking garages at certain points in my life, yet I also know these experiences. I have overtaxed myself in the muck and mire of the country world far more than have the drivers of all the shiny 4×4 pickup trucks parked outside the over-abundance of tiny churches in the region. I just never look the part, no matter the role I’m tasked with.

The apex of these experiences encompassed my months later working on the Vaughn ranch, which oversaw the lives of roughly 750 heads of cattle fated to be served as Angus. The property was a few hundred acres in size, a mix of fields and dense forest divided into four quadrants with the cattle separated by age groupings. Old Man Vaughn was past the age of retirement, and had survived several dangerous surgical procedures in the preceding years, but he had grown up on this ranch started by his own grandfather, and was old school enough to still be tinkering about up to his dying day. The problem was in the changeover to this generation. His wife was a retired school teacher, who was still handling the bookkeeping for the ranch herself. But their son was a fuckup, gone off to an out of state school only to quickly dropout, with the Vaughns never hearing from him unless he needed money, and never seeing him for a visit unless he needed even more help. His younger sister had also gone off to school, majoring with some sort of communications degree in hopes of a different life, but I think being in an urban environment honestly scared her, so that after graduation she threw herself into the realizations of what she would need to do to continue the family legacy, as a blanket to hide under from the rest of the big bad scary world outside. She did have some big ideas for the place, including building a greenhouse. The family used non-GMO feed already, and most surprising, were one and all vegan. It was largely a peaceful setting, but they needed help, an extra set of hands for a season to knockout some of their bigger projects while their household restructured itself for the future.

I was given a small house to live in, bill-free in exchange for the gruesome work schedule. It was a cute, ancient little house, but battling mice was a never-ending chore no matter how exhausted I might be. This house was on an edge of the largest quadrant, with the fencing ending at one side of my house and continuing from the other. On Sundays, the only free days, I’d get up at 5am to help load the 5-gallon buckets full of dried corn and grains, to then fill the dozen or so troughs around the ranch for the heifers to get their breakfast. This was done each and every morning, but on Sundays, after the task was done the rest of the day was all mine. My routine was to then walk the perimeter of my quadrant, starting on the fence to one side of my house and returning to the other 3 hours later. The fence would dance and skirt and do some really weird things through the woods, up and down small cliffs and crossing streams, etc. Storms would carry trash here and there, which I would collect, but storms would also down stretches of the fence quite often, which I would repair on the spot unless it was some fallen tree which would require afternoon commitments during the workweek. Deer are notorious for underestimating the height of fence lines, causing additional damages. Sometimes hunters would sneak across, leaving more trash and shotgun shells to be gathered and properly disposed of. Sometimes locals would sneak past the backside of the fence to plant some Mary Jane, enough to honestly keep me stoned every day. Walking this perimeter was always a journey of hiking and climbing, and exploring was really the emphasis for doing all of this, wasting hours every Sunday crawling around in the wild to remind myself every weekend what this world truly is. Quite often, dozens of the cattle would follow me for large parts of the trek, partly out of curiosity but partly because they liked a little adventure as well.

Every evening I’d sit on my porch to smoke, hearing uncountable wails of coyotes echo from one side of the valley to the other, like hundreds of infants crying. Which sounds eerie as fuck, and it was eerie as fuck, especially with the surrounding fields filled with thousands of fireflies, but the song still was always so mesmerizing and achingly beautiful.

But the real cast of characters were the cows themselves.

The first to really announce itself to me was in cow years, the equivalent of a young teen, and a problem, agro teen at that. He would tend to hang out by himself directly behind my house. I learned that his mother had died in labor. Usually when such a thing happened in a place like this, the other moms would just adopt the orphan, but for whatever reasons this poor kid was the rarity abandoned and disowned by his own. We had some pretty cool conversations, and when not working too late we’d have our suppers together. The Vaughns had been worried he would starve himself to death, but I found he just liked to be left alone. Or at least he preferred my company to theirs. Not every soul requires a herd.

On another quadrant were where the young adults and old mothers were housed, and among this number was a young female with very striking black and white designs across her face. She somehow gave me the mental impression of a Chicana gang-banger. I recall one day when we were relocating primordial tractors from one field to another. A bunch of the young ones gathered to snoop and gossip as they do, so I manned the gates to let the trucks through but not the cows. This girl hopped out though, and was bucking from back legs to front like a bronco, dancing a hippity-hoppity circle around me over and over. Old Man Vaughn, seeing the situation from across the field came speeding over, because while young this cow easily weighed three times as much as me. But she was only showing off. I knew that and when she had tired herself out I opened the gate for her and walked through with her casually walking right behind me back to where she belonged as if nothing had happened. From then on, those in her group accepted me as a local, a non-alien, non-threat. We would nod to each other the way neighbors do.

On a different occasion in that quadrant, I had to assist Old Man Vaughn and his daughter in burying a mother whose calf had died in labor, with her uterus left extended badly enough that she had to be put down to end the unbelievable pain. We chained the corpse to a digger and drove to the backside of that muddy field. As I was easing the chains to let the body down, watching Old Man Vaughn commence with using the tractor to pull up a half ton of muddied dirt for the burial, I turned around hearing loads of clopping just behind me. And what I saw was a blinding, once in a lifetime portrait of a scene. The hundreds of cattle in that quadrant had quietly followed us along, close enough to witness but not too close to interfere, lined shoulder to shoulder to observe with their fullest attention the burying of their friend, their family, their neighbor. The sun was directly above them, so that I saw this long silhouette of hundreds of cattle pressed in close together, heads down as they leaned on each other for emotional support. They were grieving. They were crying. They were so full of obvious morose, dripping with it, that it was the most human thing I have ever seen, even contrasted with seeing actual humans in my life somewhere or other. It was one of the saddest things I ever witnessed. Except when indulging polite company, I completely lost my taste for meat starting that day. I cry just remembering their expressions. Although only 5 or 6 years have since passed, I realize that most of those cows are now gone as well.

As valuable as they are to me, all of these memories will go with me.