Sunday, October 31, 2010

True Grit

The Eastern sky was just turning gray as we left the pavement and nearly all signs of civilization at the Arizona border Friday morning. Pulling heavy horse trailers full of livestock, Dan Snyder and I were headed South to his remote ranch on the nethermost reaches of the Arizona Strip. 78 miles of primitive dirt roads separate his summer pastures in the upper forested elevations above the Grand Canyon from the comforts of home in St George. It is a bone-jarring, equipment-eating drive that he makes nearly every weekend, to an inhospitable land from which generations of his family have scratched a living.

From the upper summer pastures of Pins Valley, Dan's grazing allotment runs another 10 miles South or so, as the crow flies, to the lower winter plateaus along the rim of the Grand Canyon below Molly's Nipple. But, we aren't crows, and the terrain turns 10 beautiful air miles into 30 punishing saddle miles. Getting there ain't easy. No one, in my humble opinion, runs their cattle in a more inaccessible corner of what is now the Parashaunt National Monument, than Dan Snyder.

I marvel at Dan and the others like him, who raise their cattle on the edges of the Grand Canyon. Water is the real rub. There isn't any, or so it seems until you realize that these gritty cattlemen can turn a seep on a distant ledge into a drip that flows through miles of plastic pipe to fill a tank for their cattle. Without those tanks and those little trickles of water, vast stretches of the Grand Canyon would be worthless to the tenacious cowboys of the Arizona Strip. Keeping the pipes flowing, and the tanks full is a constant battle. One vandal's bullet could drain a tank and kill an entire herd of cows; and nature lives to plug the piping that carries life's water from spring to tank. Dan often has to follow miles of shallow buried pipe, digging it up at intervals to find the source of blockages that dry his tanks. And patching leaky tanks is a herculean job because sand and mortar have to be hauled in, a little at a time.

They call it the Dan Sills trail, and it defines the grit of the man who moves his herd in and out of his winter range by pushing his cows down this very difficult, single file trail, and then, impossibly, back up each year. But Dan does it, often by himself. I've been there in the spring to help punch them up the hill, and getting the tired lead cow to start moving again way above you, from far below the lazier cows in back is futile. One long stretch of it is so steep, a man needs both feet and both hands just to negotiate the trail. This weekend, we came along to help him get his cows down to the Mud Springs cabin at the bottom of the Dan Sills trail. Later, he'll go back and push them further South to the next water tank on his allotment at the edge of the canyon. Denice Hughs who runs a bigger outfit that adjoins part of Dan's allotment, actually owns 40 private acres along the Dan Sills trail and often threatens his boys that he'll bequeath that 40 acres to them if they marry Dan Sills-women (or daughters-in-law that he doesn't like).

Brother Mike's wife decided that she wanted to go on a cattle drive and talked my wife and her son's girlfriend, Jessica, into going along with us. Three fairly pampered, and pretty girls riding some of the toughest country a person can ride made me a little nervous, but I'm always up for sharing the adventure. So they came, along with young Preston who usually does anyway. No offense, Dan, but that was the best trip down the Dan Sills trail I've seen yet. The sun was brighter, the air crisper, the birdsong prettier, the campfire warmer, and the prickly pear sweeter than I ever remember. In fact, I'll be picking the cactus spines out of my hands, lips, tongue and roof of my mouth for days to come.

Earlier this fall, after spending two days with Dan, repairing the water flow into one of his tanks, I watched him lean over, sweep some of the bigger floaters out of the way, and plunge his face down to his ears into the tepid water. Straining through his teeth and mustache he sucked up a belly full of the brackish water that had long been standing in the metal tank. It wasn't the first time I had seen him drink from his tanks--one day he did the same thing in a tank that had a dead rat floating on the far side from where he drew his drink. Seeing my grimace, he offered this thought in his uniquely gentle way, "Those water bugs swimming about down in there tells me the water isn't poison. If they can live on it, I can." Just call it True Grit.

Thanks Cindy for the great photos!