I have to admit that growing up on a mixed farm in a sparsely populated, wide-open area wasn't always agreeable to me. There were a lot of parts I tolerated or resigned myself to, and even some parts I enjoyed, but there were extremely few things I actually loved. Yes, I'd always hear about how lucky I was to be raised in the country with the clean, pure air, but some of the time it just went against my grain.
I loved rounding up the milk cows, helping sort the calves from the cows at weaning time, and fetching the sick steer for his treatment, but I dreaded the field work. Give me my pony and let me ride out on my own to check the grass cattle, or even repair some broken fence, but please don't put me in the tractor to go harrow the dust or swath the wheat. Maybe that makes me a poor representative of growing up on a farm, but it is what it is. I couldn't change how I felt.
The highlight of my year came late in fall, after I'd suffered my way through all the swathing, combining, grain-hauling, and baling: Roundup time at the community pasture. In those days, very few farmers had enough good grass for their herds, so some of their cows ended up in the local community pasture. Farmers were allotted a certain number of cattle they could bring. They paid a fee per head, and didn't have to worry about their cattle getting fed or cared for through the summer months. Usually around the end of harvest, when the weather was changing and the grass was almost gone, the time came to round them all up to be sorted and sent to their respective homes for the winter.
This roundup went on for the better part of a week or two, but my parents would only allow me to miss one day of school to take part. To say this was something I really looked forward to would be an understatement. No, I wasn't the best rider, and I didn't have very good equipment and tack, but this was a time when I could mix with the real cowboys and cowgirls of our neighborhood, and work with herds of cattle 20 to 30 times the size of our small herd.
I'd ride my horse to the pasture corrals the evening before, because I didn't really have a way to get him trucked there in the morning, and it was only about 3 miles from our farm. Then, once I made sure he had feed and water for the night, I walked or begged a ride home. That night, I'd be so excited I could scarcely sleep. Early the next morning, I'd jump on my bicycle and ride back out to the corrals before the real cowboys and cowgirls arrived. Those were special mornings. I'd catch my horse and groom and saddle him in the company of those I looked up to and wanted to be like. Often, they gave me pointers on how to better care for my horse, or helped me adjust my tack. Then we'd mount up and head out into the fall prairie. Inexperienced riders like myself were paired with experienced riders, and we'd split off to our assigned area of the pasture.
I'll never forget the feel of the cool autumn winds and the crispness of the air, riding through clouds of my frosty breath. The colors of the leaves on the trees and bushes throughout the river valley were so vivid. It was amazing to be alive.
I had no grand illusions of my own importance to the overall process, but I always tried to do my part, and worked my horse to the best of my ability, bringing my cattle into line and pointed in the proper direction. Of course, I didn't want to look bad in front of those who were counted on to run the roundup.
About noon, we'd stop along the river or a creek to let the horses eat and drink. We'd pull up a tree stump or rock to sit back on, and dig into the sandwiches we'd packed in our saddlebags. Sandwiches never tasted better than on those bright sunny days, listening to the cowboys and cowgirls tell jokes and stories. Then, in no time, we'd be back at it, rounding up the scattered cows and calves, pushing them toward the unseen, distant corrals.
At the end of a long day of riding, saddle-sore and chilled to the bone, we'd all gather in the tiny bunkhouse for a potluck supper. Some of the wives, girlfriends, and mothers would bring a huge feast of piping hot, straight-from-the-oven casseroles, pastas, potatoes, and, of course, platters of beef prepared in a multitude of ways. Everyone would cram onto benches around too-small wooden tables and partake of the mouthwatering meal. I was in heaven, elbow-to-elbow with the real cowboys and cowgirls.
After supper was finished and the plans for the next day of riding had been made, I'd head home and crawl into my bed, feeling pride at being a part of something important involving our entire community. Sure, it was satisfying to complete my chores and work at home on the farm, but community pasture roundup days were always special to me. I'd fall asleep that night exhausted but proud of my small contribution to the day's success, dreaming of doing it all over again next year.