From time to time people will ask me where I am from. I smile and say "I grew up in Belt, MT". Some people, if they are from Montana, will know of Belt, often due to the brewery that makes Beltian White beer. Most often, however, this response is followed by a blank stare, and I have to add "It is a small town outside Great Falls, in central Montana". Oftentimes, people will then ask me why we lived in Belt, and I get to proudly explain that my family has ranched there for generations. Some people will go on to ask (sometimes skeptically) "Wow, what was it like to grow up on a ranch". The answer to this question would take hours to explain, so after I tell them that no, we did not ride our horses to school and yes we do have cell phones and running water, I generally just summarize and say it was absolutely wonderful. Growing up on a ranch is like no other. Here is a bit longer summary of what it means to grow up on a ranch.
1.) It means you best friends have four legs.
I would anxiously wait for the final bell to ring at school where I would then get on the bus which after a long ride on the dirt road dropped me and my neighbors off at our mailboxes (about 4 miles from my house). At this point, my neighbors (who depending on the year may or may not have actually had a drivers license) would drop me off at my house where my four-legged, best friend was waiting. I would eagerly ditch my school clothes and take off with my dog, Libby, to go explore every coulee and creek on the ranch. The threat of wild animals of various sorts never scared me, because I fully trusted in Libby's ability to protect me on our adventures.
2.) It means you learn how to protect yourself...and others
I remember several specific events during calving season that taught me this lesson. After a mamma cow calves, we tag the calf and give them medication. At times, the mamma cow is not too thrilled with this idea and tries to defend her baby. When I was about ten, my dad was bent over on the ground tagging one calf when the mamma cow began to get angry. My dad gave me the stick (our weapon of defense for such instances) and told me to swing right at her nose if she
charged. I stood there holding the stick much like you would a baseball bat and my dad added the helpful advice "make sure you don't swing too early, you have to wait until she gets really close". Luckily, she did not charge, but I have remembered that tip ever since!
3.) It means you never have a set bedtime
Days on the ranch are never 8-5 hours. As a kid growing up on the ranch, I was expected to finish the day's work just like everyone else. One day, we set off on an "easy cattle drive". After everything that could possibly go wrong did, it was nearing midnight and we were about a half mile away from home (which when you are moving a herd of cattle is much farther than it sounds). I remember thinking getting into the warm house, slipping into bed, and having my mom tuck me goodnight sounded like the best thing in the world.
4.) It means all your secret hide outs are brush forts, timber forts, and barn forts.
My cousins, sister, and I spent endless hours during the summer (well, and winter too) playing in our forts located in various places around the ranch. Our most prized fort was in the timber. We would pack our lunches and hike up to the timber, taking our dogs with us to protect us (see #1). Sometimes we would bring squirt guns as an extra security measure and spend all day building our fort out of rocks, sticks, bark, twine, and other such resources.
5.) You know the meaning "work now so you can play later"
In general, work on the ranch has always been one of my favorite things to do. However, we looked forward to vacation at the lake all summer long. We would rent a cabin on the lake at the end of July, but this meant we had to get done with haying BEFORE we could go to the lake. Haying is often about a month long process that involves a lot of hard work, long days, heat, chaff everywhere, more heat, and more chaff. I even like haying, but after several weeks of it, jumping into a cool lake is the best reward for all of that hard work. We knew that if we did not finish haying in time to go to the lake, we were not going to be able to go. This motivated us to work as long and hard as we needed to in order to get the job done!
6.) It means you learn how to hide your fear.
As a kid on the ranch, you are expected to take on responsibility and step up to whatever is required of you. Growing up, I continually faced situations that left me with a nervous pit in my stomach. I always knew saying "no" to something you were asked/expected to do was not really an option. When asked to do something, you nod your head with confidence and step up to the challenge. What are situations that exemplify this? Such examples include, but are not limited to, riding a spirited horse (that you may or may not stay on throughout the day), driving haying equipment on a high speed highway, pulling trailers filled with thousands of pounds of cattle, horses, or hay, being in charge of moving cattle from one pasture to another, backing a trailer up to the loading shoot with several people watching, and bailing hay on a VERY steep side hill.
7.) It means you figure out how to not get lost.
I have always been directionally challenged. When you live on a ranch, you have to be able to figure out where you are/where you need to be going. I began taking salt and mineral to our cattle in their summer pastures) at a young age. I knew my short comings with directions, so I would be diligent at memorizing the routes to take for fear of getting lost. I would make up sayings to remember the paths and leave handkerchiefs at certain turns to be sure I could find my way back home. To this day, I can still tell you exactly how many trees are between the fence and the opening in one pasture which you have to take in order to find the hidden logging road.
8.) It means you learn how to work hard....
This is a valuable lesson you learn growing up on the ranch. You learn what hard work really is. There is really no better feeling to walk into the house at night, physically exhausted, but proud of the work you accomplished that day.
9.) You learn to like caffeine
During spring and early summer we begin to move our cattle out to summer pasture. The cattle move much easier and faster when the temperature is cool out. Due to this, when the weather was forecasted to be hot, we would start moving cattle VERY early in the morning to beat the heat. During this time is necessary to get up at about 3:00 in the morning to get yourself ready, catch your horse, saddle your horse, and be ready to go by about 4:00 am when my dad would be starting the cattle drive (whether or not I had breakfast yet). By the second week of this, you learn to like coffee, as it is a necessity to be able to function. During haying season, we often run our equipment late into the night. One such night I watched the sun set in the West and rise in the East without getting out of the tractor. This effort was aided by lots of tea and mountain dew.
10.) And finally....
It means you get to do what you love most with the people you love most. I have been so blessed to grow up working side by side with my grandparents, father, mother, sister, uncles, aunts, and cousins. This lifestyle has always kept our family close, as we work on the land for a living. We truly love the work that God has graciously provided for us to do. There is not a day that goes by that I am not thankful for being a ranch kid.