Riding the Trail with a Caterpillar Cowboy...or
Upholstered Escargot !

Kurt Erickson

Set the scene with the lonesome call of a French Harp, a double-reed harmonica, sweeping pastures rising up into Redwood topped high stretching hills. A leather vested, climate creased cowboy rides up, wheels his horse to a stop and glides off in one easy motion.

Looking the audience dead in the eye with all the care and sincerity of Lorne Green explaining Alpo, "Glad you could make it up! Cookies' got some real good grub gettin' ready for us in a bit. Be all set by the time I give ya a look this part of the ranch and tell ya a little bit about an operation like ours. Chow won't be at 'The Big House', we're still runnin' the yearlings up to summer grazin'. Here in Northern California, when the valley creeks go dry, we go up.

We're here in Sonoma County, Coastal Northern California...Ya know where that is doncha?...The one that's just a notch above Marin. There's wide open space districts...Elbow room. Free range for our stock. We run over fifty million head.

Yep...Caterpillars! Dust, slim water, rustlers, prayin' mantis'... it's a hard scrabble, skinned knuckle, barb wire in the eye way to make a livin'...But a hell of a way to live a life, and the only road Ah know.

Ridin' string on a couple million head o'caterpillars, you can't let your mind waver not a bit. They can get spooked by the least little thing...then by god you got yourself a durn tough calamity...A Caterpillar Stampede!

It's not a pretty sight. Not a bit. Something you never forget. Ground looks like a ragin' velvet ocean. Horses scared most clear outta their hides. Eyes wide, ringed white. Lost a cousin in a Caterpillar Stampede back in '82. Had to break the news to his wife. Couldn't barely look her and the kids in the eyes, hurt me so seein' how he went.

Back in Montana some years past, lightening spooked the main herd of the ol' Bar-B-Q spread. Lost four of our men. Worked most all night tryin' t' turn that fuzzy swellin' tide into the Cardboard Ranchs' Box Canyon. Must've run fifteen, twenty, prob'bly twenty-five feet. Never forget the sights when lightening silhoetted those frightened, bawlin' big woolies. Sorta like those Charlie Russel paintin's. He knew... He was there... You can't fake the fear any reasonable man has in a Caterpillar Stampede...

But when things are goin' smooth, it's just this side of heaven singin' th' herd t' sleep with those ol' Caterpillar trail-drive songs... 'Comma Ti-ki-yi yea, get along little scruffies, there's plenty 'o sweet leaves when we crawl on home... Comma ti-yi yea, get along little fuzzies, there's no blue jays just blue skys and room for you all...' Grubby the Camp Cook is complainin' and fixxin' that wonderfully nostalgic, inedible Chuck-Wagon Chow. Why did he always get killed three-quarters through the drive when a Stampede over-turned The Chuckwagon?

At the end of the trail, well, not like when you'd bought the farm... , at the railhead, we'd meet up with drovers and wrangers from other outfits and have ourselves a little Rodeo Not with rhinestones flashin' or swillin' Ol' Bootheel Puddle Beer or nothin'. We didn't have any Cowgirls so we had to put on our imagination hats like we'd done through the whole drive.

I remember for buckin' Caterpillars, there weren't a better one than ol' D-10. All the boys have been thrown by him one time or another but they all keep their respect. He just does what has to be done. Course every couple years you get a rouge. A Killer Caterpillar. Buck a man off, then stompim' t' death with all those tens an' tens of little sucker feet... All the boys would take off their big hats for a few minutes, Parson would lead us in a meaningful song of faith, then we'd get on to Caterpillar Bull-doggin'.

In Spring, the mommas would hardly let us near the young'uns. Took the best horse you got to cut the little guy out for brandin'. Smells of singed fuzz... sorta like chicken,... coffee, irons in the fire... Untie twenty or so wigglin' little legs an' the cute baby wooly's skee-daddlin' back to mommy. They was just 'fraid of the crispin' sound...didn't hurt much of hardly nothin'. No sirree Bob.

Now...The West has changed. It's not the independent Rancher anymore but Corporations runnin' the Big Caterpillar Operations. In a way I miss The Caterpilllar Barons. Wear nothin' but silver. Buckles, guns, tack an' women. Kill a little farmer tryin' to stake a claim for his wife, blind daughter and lame son, then build a new Church for the Valley. No...not too many young folks these days go to sleep at night dreamin' of ridin' string for some god-awful, cantankerous Montana Caterpillar King.

Singin' low under the stars, settlin' down the frisky ones. Ain't nothin' in the world like a full moon over a sleepin' herd of suede creepers. Sure sights I'm goin' t' tell my grandkids... if I ever get a wife.

Market's never been better though. All those folks out here in California are buyin' everything we can drive to the Railhead. See, Summer of '85, there was the lettuce blight and wiped out most nearly two-thirds of the snail herds. They can't take tough times like free rangin' Caterpillars. Like as make your heart get plumb torn out by the roots see those shell-haulers soft-side up, grown men cryin'... In Chicago, the Futures market went nuts. Caterpillar positions shot up sky high. In Nouveau Cusine circles they ended up callin' "Big Wooly", "Upholstered Escargot". Plunk that little sucker in some melted butter, lemon and garlic, ketchup and sumbitch you got finger food for the hot-shot set

I guess I broke most every bone crackable bein' a Caterpillar Cowboy, but it's a life I wouldn't trade for nothin'. Pickin' up a stray youngster caught in a clump of grass, throwin' it over my saddle and ridin' back ten maybe twelve feet to the herd and an anxious mom.

Have you ever helped a wailin' almost to be momma, tugging away, boots braced then, 'whoop'!... There's another wet wooly. Tryin' to stand up, lickin' you in the face thinkin' you're momma...Sort of things a guy thinks about when it's quiet on the range.

Well...Harmonica's startin' to play so I'd better get to ridin' off into the sunset. I imagine I'm just a venerable, respected...you might say mythic figure of the American West.


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