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A walk in the cold night air

I really don’t care for this time of year when it gets dark right in the middle of the afternoon.

Call it seasonal affective disorder, winter depression, hibernation or whatever you want. It seems all wrong when the sun goes behind the mountains before 5 p.m.

My ranchito is 35 acres, and it’s split between a flat pasture of about 15 acres, with another “back pasture” that borders an upscale subdivision where residents are mostly ranching “ag status” for their property taxes. The cattle tend to not be overly active grazers and so there’s quite a bit of forage left on the land.

The fence between my property and this subdivision is pretty much destroyed. The ancient cedar posts are rotted and the rusty barbed wire has been stretched and broken countless times by deer, elk and bear over the decades. Despite my attempts at repairs, the fence falls further into decay each year, and at this point it’s going to require considerable time and expense to fix it.

Because of the condition of this fence I’d declared this larger pasture a “wilderness area” in recent years and have not used it much for grazing. However, with hay availability low and prices soaring, I couldn’t ignore the grass, and began to experiment with letting my burros out to graze for short periods of the day. In the evening I’d whistle to call them back in with grain.

There were a few times I forgot to whistle until after dark. Generally I was lucky and the sound of hooves eventually gave way to their visages, trotting or galloping, their eyes bouncing in the flashlight beam. Once, I was already in bed when I remembered they were still out, and I had to get up, get dressed and go out looking for them. That time I found not only was my fenceline in disrepair, so was my adjacent neighbor’s. The burros had actually gone out my back fence, then crossed back onto that vacant 50-acre lot. When I arrived they took off running in the moonlight, back to the gate where I easily caught them and brought them home.

Then one night I whistled repeatedly to no response. I waited until late evening before dressing in goose down, getting out a flashlight, halter and lead rope, and heading out to search for them. It was 17 degrees, and a heavy frost had already coated the brush and grass. It sparkled in the Xenon ray as I wandered around, shining the light here and there, amazed at the dozens of eyes beaming back at me.

Unfortunately they were all eyes of deer and not burros.

Despite my disdain for early sunsets, I am somewhat a creature of the night, a trait shaped in part by years of toil as a nighttime newspaper editor. Somehow, walking around in the dark seemed a refreshing departure from the typical, with frost crystals glittering like diamonds and stars twinkling overhead. A pack of coyotes howled to a chilling crescendo in the not-so-distant distance. Deer bounded closely back and forth, confused by this strange whistling cyborg that had invaded their usually tranquil space. Their musky odor seemed suspended on the night air.

I found one burro, Redbo, on the neighboring property. I haltered and led him as I continued the search. I watched his ears for clues to his buddies’ whereabouts, but Spike, Laredo and Ace were not to be found, and it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I was out there searching for something other than burros. I finally brought Redbo home and went to bed. I had literally been out in the cold night for two hours and had found the experience way better than, say, satellite TV, Facebook and even some books I’ve read lately.

Next morning I drove the subdivision roads and spotted the other three burros carving out their own ag status about a mile as the raven flies from the back fence. However, I was not exactly free to move about the country. School was out for parent-teacher conference day, and for the parent of an autistic child, simple tasks like catching these burros can sometimes be a logistical challenge. This one, for example, involved a 30-mile U-turn to the daycare in Westcliffe.

Once back home, I left on foot through the back fence. The burros had climbed the steep, cactus-studded south-facing hillside, then taken a fairly rugged, snow-covered trail through the timber on the north side. I found them near the place I’d seen them earlier in the morning. When I approached they galloped away at high speed.

I jogged after them until they reached a crossfence and turned along it. I finally gained an angle on the critters, but there was a break in that fence and Spike and Laredo passed through. Luckily, I was able to get between them and Ace, and eventually got the paint burro stopped and haltered.

There was a subdivision road nearby and I had the idea of trying to drive the other two burros ahead of Ace, loose-herding them homeward. This worked. For a while. Then Spike and Laredo took a sharp righthand turn off the road and struck out cross-country at a lope. The clock, it seemed, was running, too.

Clearly outnumbered, outrun and outsmarted, I jogged Ace back home, then went back after Spike and Laredo. But they had disappeared again by the time I returned. I had now run out of time and needed to get to the parent-teacher conference.

The conference followed a previous meeting about Harrison’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that had brought the usual soul-searching about geography, jobs, real estate, special schools . . . money. Tuition at the Temple Grandin School, for example, is $20,000 — multiply that by 10 or 12 years. In the final analysis, we are pretty much where we are, for now.

At the conference we were thrilled to learn Harrison got three A’s on his report card. The D in math, his favorite subject, may seem mystifying to those who don’t understand how it’s often difficult to assess his understanding of anything through conventional assignments and tests.

When I got back from the second U-turn it was nearly dark, and by now there had been a couple friendly phone calls about the free-ranging burros. Mary could now hold down the fort while I went out to retrieve them. I easily found Spike and Laredo grazing alongside the subdivision road about a mile from home. I walked right up to Spike and haltered him. We jogged home in the early evening darkness with Laredo following all the way. I stopped at the front gate and looked at the new stars.

A slight hint of sunset was still hanging on the Western sky, and a fresh breeze was on the air. It was too early for sundown but at least I was outside. In about a month the days would be noticeably longer. The back fence could wait until I get to it.

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9 Responses to “A walk in the cold night air”

  1. clarke poos Says:

    terrific piece Hal…always enjoy your writing very much.

  2. Pari Says:

    Hi Hal,
    Thought you might find the blog I wrote about electric fencing interesting. There was no way we could have built a standard wire fence in this location so we decided to give it a try. After two years we are still really pleased with this fence. No elk damage and no wandering heifers.
    Happy New Year.

  3. Mom Says:

    I enjoyed this article very much. It generates lots of emotions and some peacefulness, also. Picture is great. If you don’t look too close, you can see a cross.

  4. Chas Clifton Says:

    I had not heard about the Temple Grandin School, so I googled it. Expensive indeed.

  5. Elizabeth Alecci Says:

    Hi Hal, I’m Lynn’n mom and love reading your postings. This one was like a chapter that I hoped would have a happy ending. Lynn talked a lot about Laredo; she adored him. Thanks for sharing your beautiful writing and photo graphs. I almost feel guilty for not paying an admission. thanks for giving us such beauty.
    Lia Alecci

  6. George Zack Says:

    Good writing Hal. Hope our paths cross sometime as the sun creeps more to the south. Ideally it would be as I was heading down from Mosquito Pass and you were heading up.

  7. Dave TenEyck Says:

    Hals to do list:

    1. Fix the fence this spring.

  8. melissa jane clarkson Says:

    laughed and cried about this one. Big jake spent the night on North Table Mountain. Also working with the IEP system with school.

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