Kathleen Clary Miller has written 300+ columns and stories for periodicals both local and national, and has authored three books (www.amazon.com/author/millerkathleenclary). She lives in the woods of the Ninemile Valley, thirty miles west of Missoula.
I am devoted to my daily constitutional—a walk of varying lengths up and down the dirt roads that etch the hills of the Ninemile Valley. Frankly, it’s how I stay sane.
“How can you stand the winters?” old friends from California ask.
“Don’t you get lonely out there in the woods?” ask Missoula acquaintances, who live in the relative hustle and bustle of town.
I frequent a more natural society here, and one where conversations aren’t about contentious topics like the Sequester cuts or guns (Well, I might have mentioned guns to a bear I crossed paths with last autumn). When I call out to horses, some by name, they trot on over for a stroke on the muzzle, no need for reassurance beyond that. Dogs hearken to my approach and tear down driveways, cognizant that the pouch fastened around my waist holds a pocket full of pet store promises. Deer leap from brush to dash right in front of me, and I respect antlers and girth when I stand back to allow stray elk to follow in the footsteps of the rest of their herd. Surrounded by such animate creation, whether atop snowdrift or under big sunshine…how could I be lonely? In winter I strap on spikes to formidable boots or fasten snowshoes before heading out the back door. In summer and fall, I am fleeter of foot, sporting lightweight tennis shoes. Spring is that in-between “mud” season but the one wherein, on drier days, I finally get to remove heavy footwear and taste the freedom. On those days, burdensome winter at my back, I feel as if I could fly.
Friday I tromped purposefully as usual, breezing past my neighbor’s corral fences while breathing in the fresh, clear air. Here in Montana, I could tell you the season blindfolded. Today, spring is just around the corner; there is cattle in the air.
Some take offense to the bovine odor. Like with horses, one cannot ignore their distinguishable scent. And as it is with horses, I actually like the aroma. I enjoy hearing the low moan of mama cows as they surround their baby calves to nurse them. Maybe it’s because I am an incurable parent who will nurture anything that moves, but the sight and sound and smell of them bring out the maternal in me.
On this particular Friday, I couldn’t help but notice one of the calves, isolated from the herd, no mother ship in sight. Number 71 (christened on the ear tag) was tucked into a corner and smashed up against the fence, reminding me of when my own daughter used to do this in her crib—spot a sidewall and burrow into it as if it were the womb wall. I slowly approached, a newborn of any species being entirely irresistible. Gingerly, I reached through the barbed wire and allowed the calf to take in the residual scent of lavender lotion on the back of my hand. Unfazed by my presence, the soft eyes gazed into mine. I took the liberty to touch the top of its head, still stiff-coated and spiky-haired ala salon-gel from its recent entrance into the world. I spoke soothingly to wee Number 71, and then moved on.
Saturday I followed my route to see the very same sight. I stopped in my tracks and repeated the prior day’s petting ritual. Now I began to worry: Was the baby ill? Had there been any movement since yesterday? Did its mother abandon it, refusing to nurse? That afternoon, I confessed my fear to my husband.
“I saw that little calf too, when I drove past, and wondered if it was all right,” he said. Now I really was concerned.
Day three, I set out, fully intending to contact my neighbor if I saw the calf in the same spot again. I huffed and puffed and picked up my pace to an aerobic high until I reached the nesting corner. Nothing. A good sign or a bad omen? Each time I pass by the herd, I scan the crowd, squinting in an attempt to read a sea of distant ear tags. These last few days, they are too distant and clear digits elude me. I know this rancher; he is up and moving in darkness. He doesn’t slide closed the barn door until long after sunset. All the livelong day, he tends to the needs of his dependents. I watch the familiar truck barrel up and down our road, delivering hay or watering, driven by a young man, vigilant and energetic. I trust my buddy is at this very moment either reunited with mother’s milk or nestled in the barn, sucking sweet sustenance.
Still, I am not one to forget a friend—not even a brand new one, and one whose only name is a number. Until spring is over and the cattle give passage to summer, I will keep watch for 71.