The dude ranch has a couple of hundred horses, four of them mustangs and all of them geldings. With their testicles removed, the horses are gentler and less skittish. That way city folk are less likely to break their collarbones and litigate. Everyone is happy.
As for wilder terrestrial varmints, I’ve now seen several, even though it’s winter and many of the most interesting ones are under rocks, fast asleep.
While out running one day, a coyote crossed the road a few metres ahead of me. I later saw a small lizard sunning itself on a rock. And then a scrap of dark fur scrambled across my path as I was hiking in Saguaro National Park.
Javelinas at the cookout
At the Cowboy Cookout one evening, the cowboy music conjured several javelinas from the surrounding darkness. I suppose they had been waiting for the city dudes to be seated with their grub, before materializing to lurk beneath the serving tables, snuffling for scraps of cornbread, shreds of pulled pork and brisket. A ranch employee came over and shooed them away, but the javelinas were back seconds later, nose to the dirt, eyes alert.
They’re about one-third the size of a wild boar but narrow on the x-axis. Two-dimensional wraiths, paper silhouettes sliding soundlessly between a forest of table legs. If a javelina turns to stare at you with its tiny black eyes, it’s reduced to a bold vertical pen stroke. And when it moves, it’s in an odd start-and-stop manner. A few quick steps, stop. Some more quick steps, stop. Like a housefly.
Alas I saw no Gila monsters on my hikes, even though I was smack dab in the middle of Gila monster country. These are the biggest and heaviest lizards in the U.S. They’re also venomous, as their orange and black mottling suggests. If you were to meet one, it would be like running into a fat-bellied salami, but with legs. And don’t you fret about that venom part, a pamphlet reassured me. Gila monsters are exceedingly slow moving. But the pamphlet also noted that Gila monsters dine mostly on birds, rabbits and mice. So I’ll take the “slow-moving” part with a grain of salt. I know for a fact that I can’t catch a bird with my teeth.
The animal within
When you’re the son of a butcher man, as I am, you’re raised to have a casually utilitarian view of our fellow creatures. You eat ‘em, nose to tail. Nothing wasted.
But as an urban elite living in these times, I don’t know what to think or feel about animals anymore. A noisy group is currently lobbying Ottawa for a ban on the export of horses to Japan, where horse flesh is delicious. A friend emailed to ask if I’ve eaten snake in Arizona — if that’s even a thing. Meanwhile the twice-weekly Cowboy Cookout, at the dude ranch, is a grand and jangling festival of meat and more meat. There’s always a fish option, which I reckon to be a recent innovation. But let’s not kid ourselves. That’s meat, too.
* * *
I must have been ten or twelve years old, when I first took the long drive with my father to a slaughterhouse. It was summer, school was out, and there was only so much you could do to amuse a young boy, I suppose. Might as well show him the business. I made several more trips over the next few summers, and saw things I probably should never have seen. The images and scenes have stayed with me ever since, and I’ve never managed to put them into words. Nor will I do that now.
Of course, farming people, the folks who live with and raise animals, entertain few illusions about what it’s all about. I have fond memories of my loving aunt in Greece. A happy quivering little goat perched in an olive tree. Later, God bless us, a sumptuous Sunday roast prepared in a traditional tapsí, surrounded with potatoes and fragrant with oregano and lemon.
My father didn’t think twice about taking me to the abattoir. For this had been his childhood, too. Maybe less mechanized, a little more shrink-wrapped, but fundamentally the same. The facts of life and death laid bare.
But what my father failed to grasp is that we live in a more complicated time and place. So when I entered the house of horrors, it was like taking a twelve-year-old boy into a strip club.
The kid has never seen ladies without their clothes on. So you buy the kid a beer and a lap dance. Order up shots.
“Hey, have some more peanuts, kid.”
You push the kid onstage for his first slow dance. He’s sandwiched real hard between Luscious Lola and Desiree, who are grinding their hips against the kid. The kid doesn’t know what to think. A number of other naked ladies are also present, writhing on poles. All around, men are making loud suggestions.
You take the kid to the strip club again. After a time, it becomes easier for the kid and you. Then you expect the kid to grow up and have a regular relationship with women.
That sums up me and meat.
Also, peanuts will never again taste the same.