Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Memories of Chuck

The Button on his Shirt      

   My first few days at the 7D were the beginning of a liberating adventure. I was away from home, alone, with no one I knew closer than over 1,000 miles away. It was a lot like how I felt when I left for college, except with fresher air and horses- so even better.
           I met Chuck and his wife, Kerry, when I pulled up to the main lodge to find out which of the wagons would be my home for the summer. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and I noticed the button on his vest right away. 
       "I'm not drunk, I have Lou-Gehrig's!"
All of the wranglers getting ready for one of our first rides on the trails.

            It was sad to learn about my new boss's condition, but the humor he used to adapt to it told me I would like Chuck a lot more than I already did. Rather than dwell on an over-whelming, scary, and depressing diagnosis, he decided to live his life as he had- full of laughs and spreading those laughs to others. Kerry explained that the people in Cody- a small town where word spreads like wildfire- had begun to get suspicious at Chuck's slurring words when he spoke to friends and neighbors on drives in to town. Most people would get distressed, worrying about the rumors and defending themselves against them. Not Chuck. He just made himself a button and went on his way, working on the ranch, sharing horses with the world, and trying to get people to understand just how beautiful and important the American West and Cowboy heritage is. It made me laugh so hard to imagine him going through Wal-Mart or the bank and turning people's gossip on it's head. He would have rocked my little home town in Texas just like he did in Wyoming, and taught people a thing or two about assuming the worst, when they should instead just find out a little more about their fellow man. That's my first of many memories about Chuck, and the first time I learned what ALS was, and what it meant for his future. It was such an extreme combination of heart-wrenching and heart-warming all at once, I still have to sort it out in the saddle, when I take my horse River on a ride through the hills. It's not Wyoming, but any time in the saddle is a good time, and every time makes me think of him and what he taught me about being a cowboy, a hard worker, and a kinder, more understanding human being.

The team after branding and vaccinating the calves.
          Our summer staff was made up of a lot of people like me- away from home, experiencing something new (especially you, Josh ;) ) and opening our eyes to the beauty around us. With a leader like Chuck, we took on these new challenges with a sense of fun, adventure, and immediate family- even with some squabbles- and honored his desire to create an authentic western experience for each and every guest we worked with.

The Yellow Golf Cart

          If you were at the ranch during the summer of 2009, you saw Chuck's golf cart. Bright yellow with flames on the body and a "custom made" set of aluminum foil pipes on the back for an extra power boost. It was the coolest vehicle to cross the cattle guards in to Sunlight Basin, and probably always will be. 
Chuck behind the wheel.
           My partner Rob saw a picture of the cart I put up, and said:
"The Yellow Golf Cart. That is the first thing I remember about Chuck. Saw him cruisin around in that thing before I even talked to him. I thought, who's this crazy new boss in the yellow golf cart. Turned out to be one of the most inspirational people I've ever met."
Chuck's son taking 'er off road.
       Rob's impression reflects that of a lot of us. The man had a personality as big as the mountains, and reflected it in everything, from his yellow boots to his yellow golf cart. As ALS began to limit his mobility, he adapted and overcame, with a style and attitude only the strongest kind of person could adopt in such circumstances. Instead of letting ALS slow him down, he crafted some pipes, slapped on some flames, and left it in the dust instead.

                                  The Toga of All Togas

        The 7D ranch has a tradition of hosting what they called "Wikiup" once a week for guests. Essentially, this was a sweat lodge that we kept at the edge of the ranch alongside Sunlight Creek. While people finished their dinners and changed for the evening, the ranch cowboys and ranch hands collected large rocks and started the bonfire. The rocks went in to the fire until they were red hot, and then got transferred to the pit inside the dome tarp tent, where someone, usually Chuck, poured ladle after ladle of water on the rocks, creating a 5-star spa experience in the middle of the Absaroka wilderness. 
           Before guests arrived, it was time for the staff to try this contraption out, and there was no other way to do it than a good old fashioned toga party. We all found our best (worst) sheets and, after teaching a couple of the cowboys who skipped that part of being college-aged how to tie one, made our way to the fire pit. On my way down, I heard the already familiar whir of the golf cart motor and turned to find Kerry driving Chuck down the driveway. 
           Now, we all looked great, but Chuck was rocking it. He had found a Budweiser sheet and matching bandanna and made the best outfit any of us could have even dreamed up. I laughed when I saw him, and he pointed squarely at me and said, "Wikiup is about removing toxins from your system. So you'd better bring enough toxins!"
          I took him seriously, went back to my wagon, and grabbed another six-pack from the case of Ziegenbock I had brought all the way from Texas, just to make sure I didn't let him down. 

The removal of toxins is serious business. 

              We all learned that night that Chuck truly was super-human. No one could last longer than him in that tent in the heat, not even the two Texans who were used to drinking their summer air. What a good time.

                                  The Tools of the Cowboy

       Since I "passed through" Lubbock this week, I asked Braden to share his memory of working with Chuck. He had this to say: 

Here is a picture of a pair of oxbow stirrups I traded for from Chuck while I worked for him at the 7D. For those not familiar with cowboy hardware, Oxbow stirrups are a traditional tool of the American Cowboy. They are mainly used for riding horses that have a tendency to buck because you have more of a stable footing to ride out the rank horses. These particular oxbows are metal with a rawhide covering. To me, when I think about Chuck and about comparing him to a particular cowboy tool, the first thing that comes to mind is oxbow stirrups. He was ready for anything, when life gave him bumps he just rode it out. He was the same whether the ride of life was bumpy or smooth but he was prepared for the worst but expected the best especially out of his employees. There is a saying among cowboys, "He's got sand!" If someone says that a guy has sand it means he has try, no quit, gets the job done; it is one of the highest compliments a cowboy can receive along with being handy and Chuck was very handy with horses but most of all he had sand!

Chuck's old Oxbow stirrups, traded to Braden.

            "He's got sand," is the perfect descriptor. It's what made Chuck the kind of man to remember, the kind worth the blood sweat and tears it takes to train for a race like this, to ride out the rankest horse in the herd, or to saddle up again after a rough day in the beautiful office of the 7D. The wranglers at the ranch looked up to Chuck and worked every day to earn his respect. We all hoped he'd have the same cowboy compliments to give to us one day.

                                  The Media Man

            While we worked at the 7D, Chuck was gaining attention from media outlets who were sympathetic of his story. The wranglers got excited by this, not only because we had the chance to look like superstars for the magazine photographers that came to visit the ranch, but also because it gave Chuck a chance to express himself to an audience outside the walls of Sunlight Basin. Ranch & Reata featured Chuck on pages 125-127 of an issue. I was a little sad, because the one picture that was a group photo cut me off right at the edge (darn!), but man, did it ever catch the emotion of what it felt like to just hang out and swap horse stories with him. The smile on his face as we gave Josh hell about falling off his horse in to the freezing waters of Sunlight Creek made the Wednesday morning brunch ride that much more special.

Other places with links about Chuck, either memorials or otherwise, can be found on Facebook, at the Ballard Funeral Home, The MDA, and many other places.

                                  The Pull-back

          Mornings in the corrals were busy, and for most of the summer, they were as busy as possible because we had a full guest count almost every single session. Adding to the stress was the fact that, since it was a family ranch, many of these guests were children, for which I was responsible. It was up to me to grab the kids' horses, saddle them and tie them up outside of the corral gates, so they were safer and easier for small children to get to.
             One morning, I must have been in an extra hurry, because I made a stupid mistake. Ice Man, a dapple grey gelding with an attitude problem that also happened to be great for kids (weird horse) was a pull-back. A pull-back was what we called a horse that couldn't have their lead rope tied to the fence, because if they got startled or upset, they could try to get loose and, if they were tied, would pull on the rope and struggle against it, escalating things in to a landslide of panicked horses that could quickly hurt themselves and anything around them. Well, Ice Man also had a habit of wandering around when you wanted him to just stand still, and since he had to be outside of the corral gates that week, I lost patience and tied his rope.
          Without fail, my hasty decision turned in to a mess. Something spooked Ice and he proceeded to throw a fit, immediately making it impossible to untie his rope. Before I could pull my pocket knife out of my chaps pocket, Chuck had already cut him loose and calmed everything down. No real harm done, but I knew it was a stupid mistake that shouldn't have happened in the first place, so I prepared for a talkin-to that I deserved. Chuck just cut the useless chunk of rope from the fence, walked over to me, rolled his eyes, and bopped me on the head with the rope. He then handed it to me, told me I owed him a new lead rope, and went about his day.
         This was important to me, because rather than laying in to me about something he knew I already knew, he just let me learn from my own mistake myself. He trusted me enough to know that I didn't need words or anger to never make that mistake again. I never did, either.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  The Lawn

         I had never driven a standard transmission vehicle before moving to Wyoming, much less a tractor. I had never mowed a pasture, used a manure spreader, pulled a long trailer, or even really a diesel truck at all. Well, when you work on a ranch with limited staff in the middle of nowhere, there are a lot of things you have to learn to do real quick, and all of the things above had to be taught in about 20 minutes a piece as the tasks came up and they needed someone to do it.
           Chay, who was Chuck's Lead Wrangler, was the one responsible for sitting me behind the seat of a tractor, jiggling the shifter around a bit to say where reverse, neutral, and gears 1-4 were, and then slapped me on the shoulder and told me to drive it from the ranch on around to the barn across the creek. Uhhh, what? No time to argue, I did what I was told, bouncing around on the seat along the rough mountain road, almost getting bucked from the inner-tube seat as I hit ruts and rocks along the way, but I made it. Boy, I was proud of myself, and I knew I was going to really like this job. I had never done these things before because I didn't grow up on a ranch, first of all, but also because they weren't skills my dad thought girls needed. That kind of nonsense had no place on a ranch that needed all hands capable on deck, and there was never any flopping around looking for a guy to do a job when there were a couple of perfectly capable girls there to do it (Thanks again, Elena, for teaching me how to back up a stock trailer!)
Made it back in one piece!

             Now, just because I was new at doing a lot of these things doesn't mean I got away with doing a shoddy job. One afternoon when our ranch hand was just too busy working on a million other things, Chuck needed someone to mow the big lawn between the cabins. He grabbed me and sat me on the zero-turn mower, again only giving me about a five minute lesson before sending me on my way. I thought I had it pretty good, as the wild tall grass gave way to a nice lawn, and after about an hour, I pulled up next to a waiting Chuck and turned off the mower to show him my work. He just looked at me, laughter in his eyes and said, "Well. It looks like Ray Charles mowed this lawn." Surprised, I turned and looked. Now that I was still, I could see a solid, skinny strip of grass I had missed the whole time by mis-guessing how wide the mower deck was. Damn. Chuck just laughed, and told me to fix it, because he knew for a fact Ray was nowhere in the Sunlight Basin. I promise that lawn looked perfect when I finally, actually, got done.

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