Poets on the range

The McCalls find inspiration in family, the landscape and working the ranch

Photo By David Robert

Additional photographs can be viewed here.

In a voice that sounds like his skin looks—rosy but also parched and weathered by wind and sun—and with eyes to rival the cool majestic blue of distant mountains, Dave McCall, 45, says a person can’t live on the open range and not be a believer.

The range he knows best is about 50 miles south of Wells and a little farther north of Ely, between Cherry Creek and Spruce Mountain. Its elevation is 6,250 feet, higher above sea level than Denver, Colo. It’s hard, once your eyes are open, Dave says, not to see the efforts of a God possessed by beauty and splendor.

“That’s the truth,” Dee McCall, 44, agrees with her husband in an uncharacteristically sober voice; words that flow from Dee’s mouth are typically perky and followed by spills of heady laughter. “A lot of people don’t realize that about cowboys and ranchers. You get out here by yourself, and you’re this little speck, and you think, ‘I am so insignificant, and there has to be a plan to this.’

“There are the things that we have an opportunity of seeing that so many people will never see, things in nature that are just unreal.”

One crystal-clear and glacial night, Dave and Dee were making their way back to a house made toasty by a black wood stove and an old propane oven. They heard a noise they didn’t immediately recognize, similar perhaps to a woman running in high heels. As they got closer, they saw two stud mustangs battling. The sound that had mystified their ears was the clacking of hooves and teeth.

It’s the truth and charm that Dee sees in her cowgirl way of life that makes it the perfect subject for poetry.

The Cowfolk
Dee, part Irish, Scottish, German, Cherokee, Blackfoot and then some, was exposed to cowboy poetry as a girl. It was a form of entertainment around campfires, back porches and cozy living rooms. She began composing as a kid, although it took her years to work up the courage to share.

Today, her muse is her home, her cattle, her land, her family and even her moral issue with those—people who often call themselves environmentalists—who deplore her way of life. Dee has become so good at what she does that she has been invited to participate in cowboy poetry gatherings the West over. She’s read in Arizona, Utah, California, Idaho, and don’t forget Elko.

Salt-and-pepper haired, head reaching very near the same height as Dee’s, Dave is also an enthusiast of poetry. Although he doesn’t write his own, he has memorized some of the old cowboy classics, poems by Bruce Kiskaddon, S. Omar Barker, Curly Fletcher, Henry Herbert Knibbs, Badger Clark, Gail Gardner, and has recited them to his family and to larger gatherings. Places like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko (the mother of all cowboy poetry events), which has been taking place since 1985, and which the McCalls have been attending since 1986.

“I had an old uncle,” Dave says. “He was a cowboy his whole life, and he heard some poetry that he would recite to us. It was kind of funny: Where we had come from, you’d hear the poems, and it was really a man thing. Then you got over here [near Elko], and they made a big deal out of it. And you’re going, ‘Well, I know a few poems.’ “

Dee McCall looks over pages of poetry trying to decide which one she will read aloud, while her husband, Dave, and son, Rusty, discuss stoking the fire.

Photo By David Robert

Dave hasn’t participated in the Elko gathering in a few years. Often, he must tend to the ranch while Dee and their son Rusty go on. (Dave and Dee also have 27-year-old twin daughters, neither of whom lives too far from the McCall homestead.) He also hesitates just a tad to say that he is bashful about reciting before a crowd. Dave has another talent. The McCall house is an exhibit of his woodwork (cabinets, tables and chairs, many branded like their cows with the initials DM) and his metal work (there are lamps and candleholders and a coat rack made predominantly from horseshoes).

When Dee was pregnant with Rusty, she contracted a parasite while aiding a cow that couldn’t calve. Hers were the smallest hands, best for reaching inside the cow.

“An animal parasite got into my blood and didn’t know what to do,” Dee says. “Most things will not cross the placenta. Animal diseases do.” Rusty ended up part blind because of it.

Seventeen-year-old Rusty is blind in his right eye with limited vision in the left. He wears glasses and short russet hair that’s curled up in places on the ends like broken banjo strings.

Rusty took to the cowboy oral tradition like a horse to hay and started performing before audiences at age 4. He started seriously writing poetry three years ago, and he has more than 30 classics memorized. Because of the ranch’s isolation, Rusty boards out for school, staying with a family in Wells Monday through Thursday and coming home on weekends. He plans on going to college for a degree in journalism then heading back to the ranch, being a cowboy, writing for Western magazines and writing poetry.

“My poetry is anything,” Rusty says. “Maybe from a horse’s point of view or a cow’s kind of view, just different stuff. I try to be a little bit different than everybody else. My mom’s poetry is really nice. She really hits the nail on the head.”

The Land
They call their land the DM Ranch, a place where lighting strikes three to five cows stone dead a year. This past summer an unfortunate bull was dealt the jolt to end his life when lighting struck the metal pipe he was dousing in urine and traveled up his penis.

DM is a place where a creek sidles its way through a tree-sparse valley, delivering irrigation to fields of gold-green hay in the warmer months and water to the cows yearlong. The creek is a lifeline of many breadths and bearings that remains 65 to 72 degrees in temperature even when the prairie has a crystalline crust of rime and ice. It’s a warm place to steep a dead tired body in the winter and a cool place in the summer. Mind the leeches, though.

DM is a place where coyotes killed 17 calves in the spring of ‘86 because there were still two to three feet of snow on the ground and nothing to eat. Where asparagus grow down by the stream and so do wild carrots, elderberries and choke cherries. A place where black widows nest in the basement (the four dogs don’t seem to mind), where countless cats (but no mice) make their home in an old barn called the Cat House, where an old gelding, the haughty Charley Horse, receives more hay than the seven other less-smug horses, and where guinea hens coo and cluck like old ladies in a fashion parlor.

There’s the history that Dee has learned thanks to the artifacts (pestles, mortars, arrowheads, animal shoes, baskets, a rifle barrel, etc.) she’s discovered all over the land—archaeologists came out once. Or the history she has learned by talking to folks and investigating records and documents of old. It’s a countryside with a past that Dee can recite like entries in the land’s diary.

Dear Diary: Today a Western Shoshone tribe inhabited the slopes on the eastern curve of my valley. They collected pinion nuts from my trees and cached them in my cool soil. They procured some of my smoother sun-round rocks to grind the nuts they didn’t bury into flour.

Dave McCall says a person can’t live on the range and not be a believer—a believer in wearing gloves when handling barbed wire, that is.

Photo By David Robert

Dear Diary: Men who called themselves Mormons scoped out my territory on the orders of a man named Brigham Young. They talked about a place they could settle with their wives. They planted several trees near my creek. Blackwood willows.

Dear Diary: Today wagons stopped at the base of my eastern mountains. The people in the wagons took supplies from the juniper wood storage sheds that were built into the side of my hill by earlier pioneers.

Dear Diary: Today another structure was built upon me. Manure and hay were used for mortar. Someone said the year was 1885. There are now several cabins. The men brought animals that look like the wild mustangs, only denser and with heads that are more like boulders. They are called cows, and they eat my grass, and the men eat the cows. It seems as though man and cow plan to stay.

These are just a few fragments of the memoirs of the ranch. Dee could talk for hours about the place, which she and her husband inherited from Dee’s parents. They’ve been living on it for 21 years. The family originally came from the Redding and Red Bluff areas of northern California.

They currently raise about 180 head of cattle upon more than 100,000 acres that they lease from the Bureau of Land Management. Drought during the past five years has reduced the number of cattle. In good years, there are closer to 350.

The McCall ranch is strictly a cow-calf operation. Their cows go to feed lots where they wait until they are sold to other ranchers and families. The ratio of bulls to cows is one to 15, more bulls than are on most ranches because there is so much wide-open space. The bulls have a long way to walk from one cow-in-heat to the next. When calf season comes, newborns come in droves.

“You could have 25 to 30 in one day,” Dave says. “Everywhere you look someone is having a cow.”

The Poetry
Dave often wakes before 3, finding his way into the kitchen, where he can bang cupboards and pots and get the coffee going. The BLM guy assumes it’s all right to call so long as it’s after 5. The whole family is usually up and tending to chores by 6, even when the wind is whipping and hissing along the outside walls of the house and the door seams are solid with ice.

Feeding the cows. And the horses, chickens, cats, dogs and sometimes sheep or pigs. Keeping the snow out of the ditches that are used for routing water to the cows. Mending fences knocked over by heavy wind or snowdrifts. Rounding up cows that are in the wrong pasture. These are the McCalls’ winter chores. The workload is only more arduous in the summer.

Lunch is sometimes slapdash sandwiches and sometimes something warmer, like bean and bacon chili soup, pasta salad thick with red onions, cornbread that crumbles the moment you touch it.

“When there’s not a lot of people around, you can eat all the beans you want,” Dave says, making Rusty snicker. After lunch more chores are tended to.

Rusty McCall often writes poetry from a perspective that many other cowboy poets overlook, which is the viewpoint of a horse or a cow.

Photo By David Robert

Finishing things up as quickly as possible in the cold weather, the McCall clan hunkers down in the house for the evening and tends to conversation and intellect rather than grueling physical work.

They write and share poetry.

“My poetry focuses on everything from old-time things to everyday life,” Dee says. “A lot of it is the woman’s perspective of being out here versus the man’s. … You come up on a cow, and she’s lost her calf. She’s a good mother, and she’ll fight you, and she will stay by that dead calf and not let it go. A guy will say, ‘Oh, that old gal, she’s a good mother, but come on, come on.’ Where the woman will have a little empathy. You know she doesn’t want to leave it, and you hate [taking it away].” Dee moves her body like it’s weighted, emphasizing the emotional weight of dealing with these situations.

She begins reciting “Guiding Widow.” She still has her leather boots on, crusted around the stitching with mud. That heavy voice she used when she talked about God and the glory of the land is back. The waning light accentuates her chiseled cheekbones and creates extreme shadows on her sleek face. Propane lamps bounce their light off her burgundy-brunette hair. She’s the picture of the archetypal cowgirl mother.

Two feet of snow sitting on the ground
Chains nowhere to be found
School waits 25 miles away.
The boy and I are alone again, today.

We load the blocks, then the hay
I silently curse the winter day
Decide that home is where he’ll stay.
The boy and I are alone again, today.

The following three stanzas end with the same refrain. Worried about Dave’s safe return from guiding hunters through winter mountains, in the final stanza Dee writes about finally hearing her man coming home:

At last I hear the horses neigh
Through it all you found your way
You knew the direction my heart lay.
The boy and I were alone again, today.

“I knew I was going to get home,” Dave says. “I wasn’t worried.”

In the near-80-degree house, Dave takes his turn. His cheeks are flushed, closer in color to the vivid red of his silk wild rag scarf tied around his neck for warmth. His voice that usually sounds like it’s recovering from laryngitis becomes grounded when he recites the poem “Hangover,” written by a poet whose name he doesn’t remember, about the pleasures and the pain of overindulging in alcohol on the range. Dee and Rusty smile and laugh.

Rusty brings his poem “The Last Gather” to the table, fresh off the generator-run printer that resides in the pink spare bedroom with the antique vanity table. This is also the location of more than a hundred pieces of paper covered in Dee’s poems. Rusty’s poem starts:

Some of Dee McCall’s poetry questions when the rancher will be a species endangered enough to warrant protection.

Photo By David Robert

It’s gonna be a long, sad day,
They had to sell the ranch,
And sell the horses today.

That Appy over there sure could buck,
You’d better know how to hang on,
Or just be friends with Lady Luck.

“I think poetry helps with misconceptions people have about ranching,” Dee says. “Some people think we are money-hungry people who are trying to rape the land. My family has ranched for five generations. If you’re really a rancher, the land is a sacred thing. It’s something you develop a really close relationship with.”

“We’re not going to damage the range. That’s damaging ourself.” Dave says.

“Our path out here is to leave things better than when we came. Nature. Land. Family,” Dee adds.

As the character Jim Burden says in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Dee agrees that it’s places like the DM Ranch out of which the earth and poets are made.

“At my dad’s funeral, the pastor said that my dad told him ranching is something that’s in the blood,” Dee says. “It’s a damn disease. You’re not going to get rid of it.”

Her dad’s exhortation is echoed in the lines of Dee’s poem “The Blood Strain.”

Living in the remotest places
An isolation found sublime
Cattle and horses the basis
Freedom of soul defined.

Ceaseless wind in the face
Sun curing skin to leather
Eyes probing infinite space
Riding in capricious weather.

Calling deep within the heart
The cry of past generations
In the procured child will start
He’s chosen without hesitations.

Love of earth and its stock
Almost a genetic strain
Entering without a knock

The cowboy line remains.

Additional photographs can be viewed here.