GAYS MILLS - As fall develops we tend to look back on the season just ending. Usually a lot happens during summer and it’s good to think about summer things as winter approaches. A common assignment for returning students used to be an essay on ‘What I Did Last Summer.’ It was kind of a transitional icebreaker to get kids writing and back in the school groove. Do they still give that assignment? I wonder.
I’ve been thinking back, way back, to the late stage of my youth, many summers ago, when I had a job on an Oregon ranch. The ranch was the ZX, a big cattle operation that ran 10,000 beef cows, and was headquartered at Paisley, Oregon. I actually worked there for three summers during college. I look back fondly on the memories of those summers, when I considered staying on at the ranch after I graduated. The opportunity was there. I often wonder how things would have turned out if I had.
One of the things I liked about this job was that I was outside all day–every day. The haying crew had 15 people on it: five swathers (self-propelled mowers), five balers, and five hay haulers. I was on one of five brand spanking new New Holland swathers. It was our job to cut 10,000 acres of native hay ahead of the baling crew during the summer. Five machines cutting 12-foot wide swaths could really get a lot done in a day. That tangibility, looking back on all the acres cut in a day, was very satisfying.
One drawback, however, to being on the swather crew was the mosquitoes. The hay was grown in a dry lakebed in very deep, productive peat soil. The fields were flooded in the spring and the swamp-like ground produced clouds, clouds I’m telling you, of mosquitoes. My first clue about that was when each swather operator was given a case of OFF insect repellent on our first day–it didn’t last the summer. Some days we wore two pairs of pants and two shirts as armor - not a very comfortable outfit on a hot summer day - and they were all hot. The action of the swather reel would literally send the hungry hoards right up into our faces. The Town of Paisley’s annual celebration is the Mosquito Festival, to give you an idea of how common mosquitoes are there.
I got the chance to be on the baling crew and the hauling crew for a few days. The hay was soon dry enough to bale in the desert air and it was made into small bales. The bales were accumulated into neat stacks by a machine and then hauled to a stack yard for winter feeding. I liked those jobs just as well as the mowing, plus, no mosquitoes, as the fields dried out after the hay was cut.
Meanwhile, the ZX cows and their calves were either ranging on thousands of acres of unfenced BLM (Bureau of Land Management) desert land or up in the mountains in the lush meadows of a place called the Sycan Marsh. A few of us got to go up there to Sycan and help with the branding, while the baling crew got caught up. This was a true western experience, everyone was on a horse except us and our job was to flank the calves down so they could be branded and doctored.
Another memorable part of working on the ZX was the people involved. Several of the haying crew (mostly fellow college students) have remained lifelong friends. The unique and colorful full-time ranch employees and local people we met were like characters in a movie or novel. They were friendly, entertaining, and humorous, and they are with me yet as vivid memories.
What I did those summers was a lot of growing up, experiencing a true western slice of life, and earning enough money to go to school another year.