Western highways have something few other parts of the country can boast. I don't mean mountainous vistas or accessible ski slopes. I mean something most other states have removed from their highways but that we tenaciously cling to: cattle.
Before you get on that proverbial high horse and start snickering, let me explain. You see, I mean, cattle on the highways, not just near them, grazing like a Norman Rockwell picture of ranching life. I mean a herd of 300 or more head heading right down the dotted line in spite of those lifetime-guaranteed deer whistles you mounted to your front bumper.
I mean a cattle drive, major cows and cow people carving a cow swath down the middle of a 55-mph stretch of country road. I mean full-time cow business, ranchers without semi-trucks, steering their livelihood from upper to lower pastures or (depending on the time of year) from the lower to upper ones.
If you've been there, you know what I mean. First there's the pickup truck with a red flag maybe an old pair of flannels on a stick, waving to catch your attention. But even before that, attentive local drivers will know what's happening if they're coming up from the rear end of the event. Drivers in Denver, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City understand the term "brown out" in a slightly different context than we cattle country people. Once these indicators clearly mark the road, there's no avoiding the inevitable. And really, other than people with desperate appointments to keep who aren't smart enough to own a cellular phone, who would want to?
There's no feeling so close to nature as having your car engulfed and buffeted by a stream of live beef. If you keep the windows closed, your children will hang from the glass like fruit bats, eyes wide, wild with the excitement of the in-your-face experience. It's reality without an ounce of virtual. I've seen children on the curb waving as if they were watching a parade, each horse and rider a celebrity, each cow a moving wonder.
The real interest for me has been in watching the drivers' faces as they creep by, for creep they must. Each vehicle becomes just another part of the herd, a techno-cow if you will, joining the slow motion migration. Some expressions behind those windshields are frustrated, spitting inaudible curses against the glass. Others look away nervously, casting cow to cow glances as 1,150 pounds polishes a driver's side door handle.
Once I watched a driver literally shrink out of sight as an excited animal attempted to mount another, less willing mate. I could see the image forming in the driver's head, both animals coming down on her thin metal hood as if it were a cheap motel mattress. Drivers obliged to adapt themselves to a pace of life that registers below the increments of cruise control express a kaleidoscope of emotion.
Another thing a cattle drive brings out, besides the obvious glimpse of time-held traditions in ranching, is our fastidiousness for cleanliness. My native Minnesotan father, after driving his recreational vehicle through his first cattle drive in Colorado, rushed to my house and turned on the garden hose so he could wash the pie from his chrome plate. It's a fact: cows drool. They slobber, they poop, they sweat and moo. They bellow out of their confusion and long for the quiet of a mountain pasture, away from the jerky ways of human beings. And indeed, they should. Cows historically haven't fared well in the contest for the survival of the fastest.
There's a stampede of opinion about how American ranching should keep up with technology; this is where I'll gladly step aside. And not because I don't care. It's just not my spread, not my expertise. But avoid a cattle drive? Not a chance!
Los Angeles continues to stack its freeways and New York digs its subways. If the information highway is going to run right through my living room, moving cattle on-line would seem to be the next logical step.
Thank goodness logic has its limits. (David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News based in Paonia, Colo., www.hcn.org. He lives in Cortez, Colo.)