Men are not the keepers of herds; herds are the keepers of men.
Henry David Thoreau
My students and I spent time evaluating Mr. Thoreau’s quotation about simplicity. We discussed the literal meaning, too. And I shared my own story about a herd…
Moving cattle from Fort Worth, Texas to Abilene, Kansas in the 19th Century was hard work. Cowboys hustled 2000 mooing steers for hundreds of miles through dusty terrain without a home-cooked meal, a Coors Light, or a flat screen television. Showers were cold. Meals were hot coffee and beans and beans and hot coffee. The cook was no Emeril.
The American cowboy moved these noisy animals with the help of his Quarter horse, an athletic and intelligent steed.
Up steep hills, down ravines, over rocks, and through rivers the steers made their way to slaughter in Omaha, Nebraska, home of Omaha Steaks.
Western fiction depicts cattle drives from Mexico to Tennessee and Oklahoma to Montana. Louis L’ Amour wrote stories like Hondo about the American cowboy shepherding his herd through Sioux and Apache territories, and in Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry guides his readers from Texas to Montana with the Texas Rangers in one long odyssey of meat.
Today, in the 21st Century, trucks and trains deliver cattle to the slaughterhouses. Or so I thought.
Unlike the vast tracts of countryside in Oklahoma and Montana, my territory is the San Francisco Bay Area, home to 3 million frenetic people, texting on their Blackberries and drinking expensive espresso coffee. Instead of the necessary accoutrements for a cattle drive, Wrangler jeans and Justin boots, Bay Area people wear trendy Jag jeans and Cole-Haun boots. Anyone who wears a Stetson and a belt buckle bigger than an iPhone is branded as, well, quirky.
I live up a single lane country road, five miles from the onramp to a major freeway. On one side of the road are steep hillsides and on the other, a ravine.
Mr. Sousa, a cattleman in his 70’s, runs about 300 head of cattle in the regional park by my house. In an agreeable Texas Two-Step between him and the bureaucrats, the government allows Mr. Sousa to pursue his life-long love because the cattle’s grazing on the hills reduces fire danger.
“One warm spring mornin’, five years a’go, I hitched ma Rotten Wheeler Udo, a 120 pound German doggie, to his leash and we ambled down the road about two miles, smellin’ the flowers, admirin’ the new green shoots, and philosophizin’ about the Unexpected. I carried a tin mug of hot cawfee and wore my floppy hat to pertect me from the sun. Life was sure good.
That mornin’ I did not notice the absence of all cattle from the hillside; instead, I wundered how Udo and I would do comin’ back up the road with its 10% grade. It was mighty steep, that road, a workout for sure.
As Udo and I trotted down, I thought I heard the distant sounds of cattle mooin’ and brayin’ and men yellin’ and swearin’. Like a bad dream in which unfamiliar sounds centrifuge into recognizable ones and surreal sights focus into re-al-i-ty, I saw a sight comin’ up the road that stopped me right abrupt. Led by Mr. Sousa and his sidekick, Bud, atop their horses, Bar None and Bar Some, ambled about 100 large Hereford steers about ten across, fillin’ the road solid.”
Has Mr. Sousa secured a permit?
“Well, hellooooo, Cheri. You and that big doggie better hustle home right fast before you get yourselves crushed. These cattle have what I call a forward locomotion that cannot be stopped. We are headed to the high pasture, the one right across from your house.”
The one across from my house? The one two miles up? That one???
Mr. Sousa pulled back on Bar None’s bit. I heard him say, “Slow boy, we got ourselves a little lady up ahead.” But the cows didn’t slow; I could see their wide runny noses, their bulbous eyes. Udo barked in his customary bravado.
Forget my love of the Old West! Forget Bonanza—Adam, Hoss and Little Joe! Forget Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke!
In a power walk that shifted into a dead run, we tried our best to beat the cattle. Either we would be trampled to death, or I would die of a heart attack. I thought of poor little Simba from the Lion King who was almost flattened by a wildebeest stampede in Africa.
Mr. Sousa and Bud rode ahead of their herd of hamburger, occasionally calling out words that only cows understand. Hoo-Yeah, Gee-ton, HoBoy, and Watchit. The dog and I were only 20 feet ahead of this beefy artery, clogging the road for ¼ mile.
After a lung-burning two-mile sprint, I made it back to my gate and dropped to the dirt, heaving and crying. Udo collapsed next to me.
Mr. Sousa kicked Bar None with his spurs.
“Sorry for the trouble Cheri. Next time, we’ll call you ahead of time.”
The next day in my class, I posted a new quotation on the chalkboard.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Henry David Thoreau
“Let’s move on students—from the Herds to the Desperate.”
Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw 2009