The dude abides

Indian Creek Ranch

The author brands his first cow.

The author brands his first cow.

Photo By Erin West

I don’t care what anybody says, summer starts Memorial Day weekend. My fiancée, Sara, and I kicked off the season with a trip out to Indian Creek Ranch, a cattle ranch near Eureka, Nev., owned and operated by her mom, Kim, and stepdad, Lyn.

I’ve been out there a few times before, mostly for holidays like Thanksgiving, when my most important farm duties consisted of watching TV, eating food and, at the most strenuous, peeling potatoes or washing dishes.

But this time, we did real cowboy work. Sara’s stepsister, Erin, and her boyfriend, Ryan, also came up for the weekend from Las Vegas, and the six of us spent a day rounding up the ranch’s Red Angus beef cattle, sorting out the 1-year-olds and administering their medical shots, branding them, and clipping their ears.

It was hard work, but I took to it with a shit-eating grin, like a literal dude at a dude ranch.

Lyn is a boisterous, gregarious guy with a large personality ill-contained indoors but perfectly suited to the open ranch. He did most of work of the initial roundup, herding the cattle while driving a four-wheeler ATV.

“Does that four-wheeler work better than a horse?” I asked him later.

“No, but it’s here!” he replied, without offering up much more of an explanation.

We rounded all the cattle into a pen, then sorted out the 1-year-olds and queued them up in a corral that led to a squeeze chute, a small stockade for safely securing one cow at a time. We let the older cows and younger calves back out to the pasture.

There were 38 1-year-olds. One at a time, we secured them in the squeeze chute. Sara administered their required medical shots. Ryan operated the chute. Lyn clipped their ears and did most of the actual branding. My job was to help hold the cows and to keep their tails out of the way while Lyn branded them. He’d decided to postpone another duty he’d had planned: Castrating the less virile males.

While we worked, Lyn told me about the life and work of Temple Grandin, a doctor of Animal Science, and an autism advocate who is autistic herself. She designed cattle corrals meant to replicate the natural, instinctual movements of cattle. She also designed a “hug machine” for people meant to replicate the calming effect of the cattle squeeze chute.

Lyn let me actually brand a few cattle. The Indian Creek Ranch brand is a stylized arrowhead over two squiggly lines, clearly meant to indicate running water. Arrowhead: Indian, and running water: creek.

“Erin designed the brand,” said Lyn, with pride.

We used an electric branding iron. As it would touch the cow’s hide, it would release a plume of burnt-hair-smelling smoke. It would sometimes require three or four careful applications to get the brand in deep enough.

“You want it to look like that, like leather,” said Lyn.

“OK,” I said. “Well … it’s not like leather,”

“That’s right,” smiled Lyn. “It is leather.”

The cows were definitely unhappy about the brands when first applied; they’d squirm and squeal. But cattle are resilient animals and, back out in the pasture, seemed content with their new body art.

Watching a few cows from a few yards away, the Indian Creek Ranch brand struck me as a simple but elegant design, worthy to adorn any noble posterior. It also occurred to me that mark-making is one of the basic impulses of art, and there are very few mark-making techniques as iconic, or as synonymous with the American West, as branding.

Then, late in the afternoon, I realized that, like any total dude, I’d made a rookie mistake and forgotten to apply sunscreen, and my living-at-night complexion was now vividly branded by the summer sun.