Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Ranch Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!! I am so thankful for the abundance from God's hand--family, friends, a great job and the ability to work. Enjoy your holiday and all its traditions!

(This article was originally published in 1983 in Arizona Highways.)

Nine times out of 10 Thanksgivings in northern Arizona will come nosing ahead of a storm like an old lead cow going to water.

A solid front of gray will move across the high plains driven by a northwest wind whipping and slashing at the drags. It will be a full-blown storm front, shivering with snow and sleet, a storm that does what it sets out to do - puts an end to autumn. Every year is a gamble to see how long the cattle can put on weight before that first storm hits and the feed loses its strength. Fifty years ago, northern Arizona ranchers rounded up cattle in October and sold them around the middle of November. Some still do.

When fall roundup is over and the cattle are shipped, there's more work to be done. Holes in the fences and watergaps are fixed, the shoes are jerked off the horses. Mother cows go off to their favorite canyons and cedar breaks to wait out the winter. The saddle horses, turned out on the open range, will have to make their own living until they're needed again unless they decide to come in for a handout. Then, if a person listens, the coyotes will tell him a storm is on the way. A strain of urgency, a high-pitched ululation breaks with dawn. Thanksgiving Day is near. In the old days a cowboy often let Thanksgiving get by him, as the work didn't stop for holidays. Even faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had little time for celebration. On Thursday, Nov. 29, 1894, Lucy Hannah White Flake wrote in her journal: "This is thanksgiving day [sic]. The wind is blowing. There was no school this afternoon so we washed. The men folks are all working on the reservoy."

Later on, when the country developed and roads improved, ranch neighbors often came together to celebrate Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner on an Arizona ranch is likely to have scents and seasonings never dreamt of by the Pilgrims, but cattle people have just as much to be thankful for, maybe more. A ranch family is thankful if they all made it through branding and fall roundup and lived to tell about it. They are thankful for the rain that filled their dirt tanks and made winter feed. They are thankful for the calves and steer yearlings that paid the bills. They are thankful, too, for friends and neighbors who helped with the work. Most of all, they thank God for partnering with them another year.

Women raised on ranches are likely to serve recipes they inherited from mothers and grandmothers. With every bite of cornbread stuffing, carrot pudding, homemade noodles or mincemeat pie, memories ebb and flow - back to the smell of cedar wood firing up a cookstove on a frosty morning. Doing chores before school. Bacon, coffee, sourdough biscuits. The whang of a windmill pumping water into a steel storage tank. The ring of spurs and clomp of boots on a wooden porch. Cold mornings and fresh horses.

Memories waft from the kitchen. The summer garden greens up again with each bite of bottled peas or green beans. The orchard comes to life in peach preserves spread thick on homemade yeast rolls. It may be slim pickings part of the year, but at Thanksgiving there's plenty for all. Somehow, the ones who made it possible are always there at Thanksgiving time.

And if a winter storm is biting at the heels of dark clouds, listen. You can almost hear the pounding of a herd of range cattle and the far off cries of men bringing in the roundup. Coming home. Coming home.

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