Monday, October 14, 2013

Packin' Salt

October 7, 2013 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Many years ago when I worked for the Barkley Cattle Company I learned how to pack salt the hard way. Come to think of it, I learned everything the hard way on that ranch.

Bill Barkley assigned me a job to pack salt to a place called Tule Canyon. His directions were vague to say the least. Actually I would have been better off following a blind man’s directions.

"The salt grounds," Barkley said, "are near a small seep south of the ranch house just through the gate up there in the saddle. The pads and cross bucks are in the barn." Bill was always a man of few words around his cowhands.
Tom Kollenborn on a pack trip in the Superstitions.
My first question was, "Bill what do I put the salt in to pack it?" His reply was simple and to the point. "Swing the salt blocks with a rope." I didn’t want to sound ignorant so I didn’t ask anymore questions about how to pack salt. He then said, "See you in a week." Unfortunately, this was another of those experiences I would never forget.

First, you must understand the U Ranch and the Barkley Cattle Company were in their twilight years when I accepted employment. The forest service was constantly reducing the number of units that Barkley could have on his grazing allotment. A new management plan had been just introduced to the West called "multi-use." This was at a time when I knew very little about the forest service or grazing allotments. All I knew was Bill Barkley owned a large cattle ranch and he had just assigned me a job to carry out for him. I didn’t know the different between patented land, state lease land, national forest land or Taylor graze land when it came to ranching.

Before sending me off on my latest adventure as a "genuine" cowboy, Bill told me how important salt was to his cattle. When Bill was done with his lecture about salt and cattle I was certain I was on a mission of mercy. My effort to pack two hundred pounds of salt blocks over Tule Summit and down to Tule Seep would be a monumental task for the preservation of the herd. I was proud he had chosen me for such an important responsibility. If he had only known my ability or inability as a cowboy or packing, he probably would never had assigned me this chore. You might say I was getting on-the-job training to be a cowboy.

I was up the next morning before dawn preparing for my trip. After breakfast I returned to the barn. I stood there and looked at the blocks of salt and the packsaddles thinking of just how this job was going to be accomplished. First thing was putting the pads and packsaddles on the horses that were going to carry the salt. After trial and error for several minutes I finally got the packsaddles on the horses and they were secure. I stood there and continued to study this "swing the blocks" thing. Ah, finally I figured it out. I would slip the rope through the holes in the blocks of salt and swing them from the packsaddles. Wasn’t that what Bill said, "swing the salt blocks with a rope?"

When I finally got the last horse packed with its swinging salt blocks I was ready to ride for Tule Summit. Well, I thought I was.

Once on the trail, I found out the horses didn’t care for free swinging blocks of salt hanging from their backs. I could soon see it was going to be a long day on the salt block trail to Tule Seep. The first hours were spent unpacking and packing the salt blocks back on the horses. Nothing appeared to work! It was one disaster after another. Occasionally a salt block would fall off near a steep embankment and roll for almost a hundred yards before coming to a stop. On one occasion the salt block exploded like a stick of dynamite when it hit a large rock. The pieces of salt where scattered over a large area. Oh well, Barkley’s cows could lick the salt here and there.

Finally the undesirable occurred. I dropped one of the blocks of salt on my big toe. I limped around the rest of the day believing I had broken my big toe. While hopping around on one foot I backed into a cholla and that didn’t improve my day. For moment I couldn’t figure out which pain smarted the most. At least it took my mind off packing salt for a few minutes.

Actually I was afraid to look at my toe, so I focused on trying the pull the cholla out of my hip. My last attempt at packing the salt appeared to work even though the pain in my big toe was smarting and I still had not pulled all the cholla spines from my flesh. I finally cradled the salt in a rope net giving the salt support rather than allowing the salt to swing freely. Packing and unpacking two hundred pounds of salt blocks, actually one hundred and fifty pounds of salt by now, will work any man into the ground. Even a young man like myself in those days.

I finally climbed back into the saddle, sore toed, sore tailed and rode on. I finally rode down a canyon into the small valley flat where Barkley had directed me to dump half of the salt blocks. I carried the rest of the salt blocks another mile down canyon and dumped them near another seep where several head of cows and calves were standing around as if they were waiting for my salt delivery.

My return trip to the ranch could have been uneventful, but it wasn’t. I was leading one packhorse and tailing the other. When I arrived at the divide gate, I stepped off my horse and opened the gate, then pulled the two packhorses through the gate. Just as I climbed into the saddle something spooked my horse. I wasn’t seated and the horse threw a wild-eyed fit. The packhorses bolted and ran for home as I crashed to the ground, landing on a small Teddy Bear cholla near the gate. The only thing I can be thankful for the cholla was a small one, but my leg, hip and arm thought it was an extremely large cactus. The pain was excruciating as I began to pull the dozen or so cholla balls from my body. I don’t really want to explain my methodology of extraction at this time. I finally got most of them out and then began my two miles walk back to the ranch.
There were times along the trail I really didn’t believe I would make it back to the ranch house. Finally, about sundown, I was limping into the corral at the ranch. I unsaddled the runaway horses, my horse, who by the way, was waiting for me. Then I fed them. I then continued my painful walk to the bunkhouse.

I was a mess. I probably still had hundreds spines in my flesh. Actually I sorta looked like a porcupine. I picked spines out of my body until almost midnight and finally fell asleep from fatigue. After that ride, picking cactus spines out of my hide became more or less a routine part of the job. Believe me, anyone who has ever worked cattle on the desert and didn’t get into cactus spines hasn’t worked cattle on the Sonoran desert.
The next morning I was a slow moving "genuine" cowboy. I looked like some poor soul that had been shot with a load of No. 8 birdshot from a double-barrel shotgun. Oh yes, I did ask myself, "Why do I want to be a cowboy?"

Maybe Bill Barkley was right when he said, "You’ll probably make a pretty fair hand if you live through the summer."

There were times when I didn’t think I would survive that first summer in hell on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch.