Maverick No More: An Account of My First Calf Branding

by Julia Stetler

It is a sunny Sunday morning in June when I get on the highway towards the cattle ranch a friend of mine owns. I had stepped on his toes a few more times than I care to count at a dance the night before, and helping him at the calf branding at his ranch today is the least I can offer in an effort to make amends for my two left feet (and his very elegant but, thanks to me, squished ones). I know my friend to be a conscientious and traditional rancher, and this experience promises all of the romance of the American West and cowboy culture that I can imagine. In fact, in my ten years in Wyoming, I have not had the chance to witness, let alone participate, in a calf branding; in some ways, I am a maverick, a stray cow that has not yet been branded by this piece of Wyoming culture. Having grown up in Europe, I cannot pass up this opportunity, especially since I am now also a scholar of the American West.

The drive is hard not to love. Wyoming has been unusually rainy this spring, and the meadows and sagebrush plains are lush and green. An abundance of blue wildflowers dots the vast landscape as far as the eye can see, and the misty blue mountains in the background are still covered with blinding caps of snow. Herds of antelope and deer roam the green expanse and the occasional bird of prey perches on a fence post, only to be startled into flight by the approaching vehicle. Prairie dogs and chipmunks dart across the road, and a few bold birds manage a last-second soar to evade certain windshield death. The sky is a brilliant shade of blue, broken up by small, fluffy clouds, their shadows racing across the prairie. The road winds through gently sloping hills and stretches into the blue and green yonder. Breathing deeply, I release the stress and the constant preoccupation with items on my to-do list of the last weeks, letting them fade away and evaporate in the clear spring air. I turn the radio station from my usual fix at NPR to the country station, something I have not done since country music started preoccupying itself exclusively with half-naked girls and boozing boys. To my great surprise, the song I tune to is an old Alan Jackson classic. Hello, happiness!

After about two hours of driving, I pass through the tiny town of Glendo and make my way up into the “backcountry.” It is one of those roads that seemingly leads nowhere and is traveled almost exclusively by the ranching community that uses it as a lifeline to civilization; in fact, there is so little traffic that you actually wave at every oncoming vehicle. Well, the one oncoming truck that I see, which is occupied by an older man with a cowboy hat and his dog, who is hanging its head out the side window, ears and tongue flopping in the wind. Taking the dog as an example, I open my window, stick out my elbow, and let the wind tousle my hair. Navigating my way along the narrow road this way, I feel more in touch with myself than I have in a very long time.

I glance at the thermometer in my truck, which confirms that it is not overly warm yet, and I get to thinking about my clothing choice this morning. I had thrown on a pair of shorts and a button-up shirt, with a pair of sandals on my feet. On my way out the door it had occurred to me that I may need an old pair of jeans and my cowboy boots, just in case. (I had also packed my toothbrush and some snacks- a severe storm warning is in effect for the region and out here you just never know whether you are going to be able to make it home). So I ponder, I am showing up for a branding in shorts and sandals; I do not know if I will be put to work or not, or what I will be doing, and I definitely want to avoid looking like a fragile city girl reluctant to get her hands dirty.

Making an executive decision, I stop by the side of the road, jump out of my truck onto the gravel, throw a few glances left and right to check for traffic, drop my pants, and switch into my jeans and boots. If I had known that my friend was only a few minutes behind me, I may have waited in order to afford him the viewing of this rare roadside spectacle!  A straw wannabe-cowboy hat, which had taken quite the beating the night before, is still sitting on my dashboard, but I hesitate because I am unfamiliar with how to bend it back into its correct shape. However, since I do not have any sunglasses with me and easily burn, the mis-shapen hat will have to do. I believe I probably made a fool out of myself for the rest of the day in front of the real cowboys, but I was too shy to ask one of them for help.

I pass several ornate entrance gates to the ranches hidden behind the hills, and my historian’s mind is wondering if anybody has ever documented any of these. Taking a few pictures along the way, I am again struck by the beauty of my surroundings, and even more by its effect on me. I am convinced, at this moment, that it has been way too long that I have gotten out of the house by myself (that is, without my two young kids) and that I have the right to enjoy this by myself. This strikes me as a typical mom-thought, but I am determined not to think about my “other life” all day. I stop again at the gate to the 14 Ranch, which is my destination, and take a picture. Then I make my way through the meadow for another mile until I reach the historic ranch.

The entrance gate to the historic 14 Ranch southwest of Glendo, Wyoming.

The entrance gate to the historic 14 Ranch southwest of Glendo, Wyoming.

It is simply breathtaking. The house and outbuildings cluster around a small open area, huge cottonwood trees cast their shade, and the stables, painted red, bear the ranch’s name. The trees are finally bursting with life, and an abundance of birds is flocking to the foliage. When I open my door, this peaceful scene is rudely interrupted by a cacophony of noise coming from the catch pen area just a few yards over. The noise is one of those elements of a branding that can only be experienced by actual participation in the event. I have never before thought about what it would sound like when studying historic images of brandings. (I did imagine a certain smell, though). Being here to witness one demonstrates in a visceral way the engagement of all senses, and it reminds me of the limitations of studying history through documents and photographs. Attracted by the noise and activity, I approach the large catch pen area and peer over the fence. Four ropers on horses are working on cutting the calves out of the mass of cattle and herding them into the fenced area where the branding is going to take place. Of course the moms protest this separation loudly, as do the calves, as would I, were I a cow. The ropers acknowledge my presence with a nod and continue to work the cattle until they have all the calves sorted. Dismounting, they exit the area through the gate right where I am standing, and I introduce myself to a few of them.

There are seven guys and a gal, and I recognize one of the cowboys from a brief work-related visit to the ranch last year, a young man of not even twenty-one who has been working at the ranch for a while. He looks splendid, just as I remember him, and I watch him as he ties up his horse at the fence right next to me. He is wearing dark brown leather chaps over jeans, which are topped by an ornate silver belt buckle. His blue t-shirt reads “Cheyenne Frontier Days,” and it is tucked into his pants, accentuating his athletic body and his muscled chest. His off-white cowboy hat on top of his curly blond hair perfects the image of this cowboy. Now, I realize that I am talking about someone who just barely is not a teenager anymore, but this kid is something else! He greets me with a big smile, and I want to hug him but instead shove my hands into my pockets. We exchange a few friendly words, and I relay the message that he should give his boss a call, which I had been instructed to do by my friend since I beat him out here. I watch him walk away until he disappears around the corner of the shop, wishing I had my sunglasses to hide my gaze. This kid is not just the personification of the storybook cowboy, but polite and sweet to boot!

This young man instantly confirmed all of my romantic notions of cowboys.

This young man instantly confirmed all of my romantic notions of cowboys.

The sound of an approaching vehicle distracts me from my musings, followed by the appearance of my friend Dave, the owner of the ranch and foreman of this operation. My hands are starting to get sweaty because I am really not sure what to expect today. Will he include me in the branding, or just more or less let me watch? What the hell am I doing here? This is so not my world! I know Dave from work-related events, where he is usually dressed immaculately in suit and tie, looking like the businessman that he is. He has an imposing presence, an air of authority that surrounds him, something that commands respect. In my usual work environment at the university, I am comfortable interacting with different people; I usually know what I am doing and am secure in my role. Out here, all that suddenly vanishes, and even though I am not squeamish and not afraid of hard work or of getting dirty, I feel pretty pathetic among these tough and experienced ranchers and cowhands. In short, I am a fish out of water (I wonder if there is a better analogy involving cattle!).

Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a ball cap, Dave greets the ropers and everybody who is standing around, and I am touched to see the way he interacts with his cowboys. He pulls my favorite cowboy into a big hug and pounds him on the back like a father would do to a son, and it is obvious that they have a close relationship with each other. Then he briefs everybody on the chores for the day and introduces me to the group. I usually leave my academic title at work when I drive home from the university in the evening, but of course, being the gentleman that he is, Dave includes it in my introduction. I really hope nobody heard that part and that they will treat me as the novice that I am and are not afraid to allot me a fair share of the day’s work. At this point, I am glad that I changed into my work clothes and at least do not look the part of a sissy academic. Or so I hope.

Dave tasks me to help him unload his vehicle at the house. When I see the amounts of food that he has prepared for this day, I am again awestruck. How in the world did he get all this done in such a short amount of time? I just saw him last night, and he has a full-time job away from the ranch! We proceed to carry the supplies into the house, passing by an old icehouse and a quaint irrigation canal running parallel to the walkway, all surrounded by lush vegetation that sweetens the air with the fragrance of summer. A black cat is sunning itself by the door, eager to receive a belly rub. We walk through the door straight into the kitchen, and I place the boxes I have carried onto the table. I cannot suppress a smile when I take in my surroundings. In fact, looking back now, I must have given the impression of being a smiling idiot several times during the day; I had a hard time expressing my emotions and often just stood and stared, grinning. I should note that I usually am very communicative, but I was quite overwhelmed by a range of different sensations throughout the day.

The main house is over a hundred years old, and still features flowery wallpaper and outdated fixtures and appliances. However, especially as a historian, I am in love with it from the moment I walk in. The rooms are all small and the ceilings high, in keeping with good old Victorian fashion. There is a charming array of antique furniture items scattered around the house, and photographs line the walls. It looks as if nothing has been changed in fifty years. I notice a framed newspaper article that addresses the history of the ranch, including a description of the colors and pattern of the MacFarlane tartan, which belongs to the family who founded the ranch. The night before, at the dance, I had noticed Dave’s tie, which features the same design, and I am touched once again by his attention to detail and his deep love for this ranch, its history, and this type of work. And even though I feel a blush creeping into my cheeks, I have to say that I am intrigued by his seemingly contradictory character traits. He is a walking enigma if I have ever met one! Financial advisor during the week, rancher on the weekends, and generous philanthropist in between, he defies conventional categorization. The fact that there is a stack of Wall Street Journals piled up on one of the old fashioned end tables underscores this point further.

While it is an integral part of the history of the house, the kitchen I find myself standing in reflects the personalities of its current inhabitants; it is a bachelor’s pad all right. It is very utilitarian, but also shows signs of discipline and order among the occupants. Four chairs are grouped around a round table in the center of the room, and a large double sink and a stove/oven combination take up most of the space. The fridge is decorated with magnets you would expect to find in any good western home, about the troops, and the constitution, and America. I try to make myself useful as much as I can in a kitchen I am unfamiliar with and with rules I have yet to learn. I love cooking, and especially cooking for groups, and I can say with pride that usually my audience is appreciative of my edible contributions, at least judging by the voraciousness of their response. However, I did not bring anything to this occasion, and I am keenly regretting the state of my empty-handedness.

In the midst of the bustle of getting the food prepped and warmed, a thought strikes me that keeps my mind busy for a while. (I probably stared and grinned). Like a newspaper headline, or the flashy news animations you see on TV, the words “gender roles” appear in my head and trigger a whole internal monologue.  I am an independent, strong-willed woman who will not hesitate to give you a (mostly friendly) piece of her mind. Standing in that kitchen, I think it is fair to say that I am utterly shocked by that little voice in my head whispering the subversive thought that I belong in that kitchen more than I do out there with the cattle. Now, this could be because I am much more familiar with the workings of a kitchen than those of a branding. But does the simple fact of familiarity explain this reaction?

While Dave is busy getting things ready, I imagine myself in the role of a ranch wife, and realize that I somewhat like that thought. As a historian, I have seen many a picture and read stories about women homesteaders in the West, and have always felt admiration for these women. Physically inhabiting the space in that kitchen and busying myself with the same tasks adds a dimension to this admiration and understanding of ranch life in the past that I now cherish. My initial shock at the realization of feeling like I belong in the kitchen is considerably diminished when I think about the boys who live in this house on a regular basis. So, I quickly overcome my chagrin and remind myself that gender roles have always been fluid and women and men alike have tackled all kinds of different tasks to get the job done in this type of setting. I have come to like the fact that I can see myself as a complex woman in that context, who can just as well identify with a life in a ranch setting as with a life in an academic environment. There. I am left with a sense of satisfaction after this internal monologue, and grinning from ear to ear.

After Dave has changed into an old shirt (which he still carefully tucks into his jeans), he gets back into his vehicle and tells me to jump on the running board. What? I am dumbfounded for a moment, and he patiently explains that I can simply ride over while hanging on to the outside of the vehicle; that is how they do it here, he says. Ok, then, I can do that. What I did not expect is the speed with which he whips around the corner, which causes me to grab on with both hands and consequently to lose much of the cool and casual appearance that I am so desperately trying to uphold.

When we get back to the corral, still echoing with the constant calls of the cows, Dave informs me that I will be tending the fire and keeping the branding irons hot. Good Lord. One thing he does not know about me (but is most likely not going to forget!) is that I do not deal well with the one constant feature of keeping a fire going: heat. The sun is starting to beat down, since it is close to 11am now, and I just know that I am going to put on my red-hot tomato face in no time. Nevertheless, I feel like I have been charged with an important task, and I am thankful for the fact that Dave is including me in his operations even though he knows that I am an absolute beginner and have no experience whatsoever.


The branding irons are heating up in the hot coals.

Crossing the catch pen while carefully avoiding any clusters of calves, he guides me over to the “stove,” which already contains a roaring fire and a good bed of hot coals. I learn that five branding irons need to be rotated and kept hot. I have never touched a branding iron before, and it takes me a minute to figure out that the part that needs to be the hottest is the straight edge at the very tip of the iron. I do not know how I thought a brand would work before, but somehow I find myself in an “aha” moment. Dave briefly explains how to rotate the irons and that I need to clean them in the bucket of rocks right next to me if they have any residue stuck to them. I also need to make sure to throw more logs into the fire to keep it going. After two minutes of standing there, I feel the heat creeping into my skin, but I am too excited to pay much attention yet; the branding is underway.

Dave is giving instructions to his crew before the branding.

Dave is giving instructions to his crew before the branding.

The ropers start throwing their ropes at the calves’ hind feet and drag them over to the wrestlers, who make sure the calf stays still during the procedure. One of them steadies the head, while the other holds down the back end (you want to be the one holding the head). I watch the wrestlers keep the calves down, impressed that they do not struggle more. Maybe these guys are just that good! After I hand Dave a branding iron, he walks over to the wrestlers and carefully presses the hot iron onto the calf’s hide, releasing and reapplying four times until he has branded the number “14” into its side. If it is male, the calf also has to endure castration, its testicles pulled out and snipped (who would have thought they are that long!), then thrown into a bucket. Those testicles are also called Rocky Mountain Oysters and considered a delicacy around here; supposedly they taste like chicken. As a vegetarian, I am mighty glad they are not frying them up right here and now, as is customary at many brandings, thus sparing me the embarrassment of refusing and fessing up to my impractical dietary preference. After all, I am in beef country. Beef is what’s for dinner, and it provides “Mmmultivitamins,” or so the commercials around here say. Although, I might as well have eaten a piece of steak, because the smell of burnt meat and singed hair invades my nostrils and settles on my tongue.

Along with the smoke from the branding wafting over to me, the dust stirred up by the horses’ hooves is getting stuck on my sweaty face, which is turning redder and redder by the minute. I walk over to the cooler to grab a bottle of water, and I do not know why I did not just grab ten. I keep moving the irons in the coals, throwing more logs on while bending over what feels like the fires of hell, and finally notice some of the irons coming out red hot. Dave keeps coming back for more, and occasionally comments along the lines of “oh, that was a hot one,” or “this one is red hot,” although I am convinced I am not doing as good a job as any of the other folks here could. I still appreciate his praise, like a school kid who finally figured out how to spell her name and receives a gold star from the teacher.

The calves are roped, wrestled down, and branded.

The calves are roped, wrestled down, and branded.

Catching calves can be so easy!

Catching calves can be so easy!

ropingWhen my face reaches nothing short of the color purple, Dave informs me that we are about half done, which is a huge relief. I think he may be a little concerned about me, and so am I, but I am determined to not pass out from heat stroke. I keep chugging my water, glad that at least I am wearing long pants; otherwise, my legs would probably catch fire standing next to that barrel. The ropers keep pulling the calves up and circle back around to the remainder of the group still designated to be branded, their path leading right by me. The horses come within inches of me, but do not misstep once. I suspect that these are the same teams of cowboy and horse that I have watched perform at rodeos in the past. They appear as one, centaur-like, the horses concentrated and focused on their task, knowing exactly what to do, and the riders completely trusting them to do it. It is a beautiful synchronism between man and animal.

As if I am not already warm enough, a hot flash of realization strikes me when I remember that I put a pie in the oven over an hour ago. At this point, it looks like the branding is just about finished, so I let Dave know that I am going to check on the pie. Gladly abandoning the hellish furnace, I walk over to the house as fast as I can. Now, if that apple pie had been in my oven, it would have been burnt to a crisp, and not the tasty kind. But, since this oven is more of a vintage model, it is barely warm. With a sigh of relief and a stab of concern for the approaching lunch hour, I crank up the heat and also put in two other desserts Dave has prepared. For the next ten minutes, I busy myself trying to stick my whole face under the faucet to reduce the heat in my cheeks, especially after catching a wave of heat from the oven, too. Thank goodness I did not put on any makeup this morning!

Trying to make myself useful, I wash and cut up the strawberries and do some dishes. The quiet peacefulness of the house surrounds me, with its walls full of history and its current inhabitants completing the same tasks that have been performed around here for over a century. This continuity offers a sense of connectedness that I have never really experienced in my life, having moved around fairly frequently in Europe and later between Germany and the US. I think that I have gained an even deeper appreciation for history and the ways an old house can lend a place of belonging and a sense of identity. As Dave later put it, the house is like a loving old grandmother, wrapping her arms around you. I could not have described this feeling more accurately.

Soon enough, I hear footsteps approaching and the door opens, revealing Dave and his ranch hands ready to load up the food and bring everything over to the shop, where we will eat. They look completely unphased by the two hours of physical labor they just performed, and start grabbing food items, serving spoons, and paper plates. Somebody must have snatched the desserts out of the oven while I was not looking, or I would have intervened because they are likely underdone. In a whirlwind of activity, we get everything loaded up and are on our way to the shop, again perched on the running board. Arriving there, we set out soap and two wash basins, one each with hot and cold water, and everyone proceeds to scrub their hands and arms clean.

The shop is sizeable, approximately forty by sixty feet, and surprisingly well organized and clean. Construction material lines one wall, along with lots of storage, and an assortment of brooms hangs on the wall right across from where I sit down to eat. I also notice a bird’s nest perched high in the beams, and a little bird fluttering in and out of the building.  We place the food dishes on a long table along one of the walls, and line up to dig into a crock pot full of meaty Sloppy Joes with buns, a huge bowl of salad, the cut-up fruit, and the desserts. Dave even thought to bring ice cream.

While I am loading up my plate with salad, one of the older ropers next to me chuckles and says, “ah, Davey, he always has the healthy stuff, too. Eh, might as well.” I had learned earlier that these guys have known each other for an eternity, and I cannot help but be completely endeared to them. The long-standing friendship between the men makes me ponder another aspect of this way of life, and that is that time seems to progress differently here. As I later learned, this “older” roper is indeed over 70 years old, when I had not guessed him a day over fifty. Similarly, I am rendered speechless when one of the guys who I assumed to be in his late twenties, judging by his bulging biceps and thick beard, reveals that he is a tender fifteen years old. Fifteen! Sloppy Joes and salad must have some kind of mysterious effect on these people! I have never before been this spectacularly far off in my estimates of men’s (boys’!) ages.

The long tables we sit down at are covered with white paper tablecloths decorated with western symbols; horseshoes, covered wagons, and cowboy boots. Again, this whimsical attention to detail I keep encountering is utterly charming. There are pots with blooming annuals scattered all around the ranch, and I marvel at these small touches of hominess. Most men I know would not give a hoot about flowers or tablecloths, and the sheer presence of these details adds another layer to my fascination with this place and with the men who run it.

The food is delicious (knowing Dave, I did not expect anything less) and we have a pleasant conversation about the importance of recording the stories of some of the old ranchers in the area. I completely lose track of time, just listening and enjoying myself, and soon the ropers bid their farewell and it is time to pack up. Usually, I am the one in charge of everything that goes on around me, which I often bring on myself because of my personality; right now, the cowboys are teaching me a lesson in what it feels like to not be the person responsible for getting things done. They all pitch in, clean up, and put things away, like the long-familiar team they are. Their ease, speed, and efficiency remind me of a scene in Harry Potter in which a room cleans itself by a flick of a magic wand. I could get used to that! For the umpteenth time that day, I am left in stunned silence (and yes, grinning), which is so unlike me.

Back in the kitchen, Dave and his cowboys decide to tackle another task this afternoon, and that is to vaccinate, de-worm, and record the tag numbers of the mature cows. He sends them ahead to the corral, and together we clean up the rest of the kitchen. As I am gathering the plastic containers that held the strawberries, Dave surprises me again with the request to please wash and dry them so that he can recycle them. He points me to the “recycling center” on the floor by the old hearth that I have not noticed before. Sure enough, he is not kidding, so after I spend a few seconds staring at him while his back is turned, I do as he asked. I have rarely ever met an American, or better yet, a Westerner, who seemingly embodies such contradictory values with similar ease and nonchalance. Resolute recycling in Wyoming? I beg your pardon? The usual banter you hear, even in a more liberal town like Laramie, is how annoying it is to recycle, how the city overcharges for a service they do not even use, and how the government dares to tell them what to do with their trash. But this here is a remarkable blending of tradition and new-age eco, and I am digging it!

Dark clouds have gathered when we step back out of the house, and lightning is flashing in the distance. It looks like the storm is going to pass us by, though, so we proceed with the task at hand. The cowboys have already rounded up the cows and lead them one after the other into the squeeze chute. Cows being cows, they have to be prodded and pushed, and the boys are using long sticks, or pokers, to get them to move forward. I finally witness the origins of the term “Poke,” which is the nickname for the University of Wyoming’s football team. (When I first heard that term a decade or so ago, I thought of it in a different context and involving cheerleaders, not cows). Dave divulges that the best way to get them to move is to twist their tails. I sure am glad I do not have to participate in that activity; these beasts can be pretty yucky if you know what I mean. We had set up a worktable, and Heather, the wife of one of the hands, notes down the tag number and color of each cow coming through the chute. Caleb, her husband, sprays their backs with a parasitic, pumped through a complicated looking contraption and applied like you would a weed killer, and Dave gives them a vaccine shot into their necks. That leaves me, who has never touched a cow before, with the task of cutting away their hair from the tags around their ears in order to make the numbers more legible from a distance.

The work station. Dave and Heather are refilling the vaccination needle, and Caleb is standing by with the parasitic spray contraption.

The work station. Dave and Heather are refilling the vaccination needle, and Caleb is standing by with the parasitic spray contraption.

Again, I am sure Dave could do this ten times faster and better than me, and my first few attempts are pretty pathetic, but my technique is rapidly improving. I grab the cow by her ear and gently hold it steady, then bring the scissors in to cut the hair away. Some of them hold completely still, or even lay their heads on the ground, and those are the prettiest cows in the herd now. Then there are those who are not having any of this. They struggle, throw their heads around, and nearly squish my hand a time or two when they jerk their head up against the metal bars of the chute. Thank goodness for my quick reflexes. My left arm is soon covered in goop and slobber and other things, and a couple of them even manage to run their rough tongues along the skin of my arm. So yes, I have been licked by cows.

Bending over to reach one or another cow, the occasional snigger reaches my ear, and it is not until I look at my pictures later that I fully realize what this is about: Dave is standing behind me with the vaccination needle and pointing it towards my backside, of course. Cow after cow is pushed into the chute, and for every single one, Dave closes and opens the mechanism that traps them so that we can have our wicked way with them. I watch his back muscles strain under the thin fabric of his shirt when he pulls the levers, and add another item to my list of character traits I admire about him: this guy is tough! Now, I am just glad he is not wearing a cowboy hat, or I may swoon. His knowledge of the cattle is impressive, and the way he treats them is charming, even though his vaccination needle is soon bent out of shape and he is covered in slobber. I catch myself sweet-talking the cows myself, and as someone who has always loved animals, I quickly get over their at times pretty revolting stench. The only ones I stay away from as much as I can are those that have parts of their heads covered in unsavory substances.

I’m trying to do serious work here, which is repeatedly sabotaged by the jokesters behind me.

I’m trying to do serious work here, which is repeatedly sabotaged by the jokesters behind me.

Trapping the cows in the chute is quite the task; it requires strength and good timing.

Trapping the cows in the chute is quite the task; it requires strength and good timing.

The clouds considerably darken while we work, and the inevitable rain starts to fall towards the end of the task. The horses grow restless with the approaching thunder, and after the last cow has been released, the cowboys saddle up and drive the entire herd back out into the holding pasture, where mama cows and calves are reunited. We quickly clear away the tools and the table when the rain starts coming down in earnest. I wait for Dave at his truck after I lugged the drink cooler over and stored it in the back, and I am glad I do not have to ride on the running board but am invited inside the vehicle instead. Gentleman that he is, Dave even comes around in the pouring rain to open the door for me.

We all gather back in the kitchen, and after the two cowboy brothers put away their horses they join in as well. We are all drenched, and it does not take long for the guys to pull off their shirts, right there, in the middle of the kitchen. I try to avert my eyes, but then I do not really want to. Dave pulls on a Wyoming polo shirt, and Caleb does not. That is, he does not put on a shirt at all, but stands there bare-chested for the next thirty minutes or so. In his defense, he does not have anything to be ashamed of, quite on the contrary. As a European, I do not mind one bit, having grown up with a much more relaxed attitude towards nudity. I always think that Americans are way too uptight about these things, and I am just really glad to see that none of that drama exists around these guys.

The two brothers after they sorted the cows.

The two brothers after they sorted the cows.

Looking back, I think I may have had one more episode of staring and grinning while I was part of that circle of people in the kitchen, and I do not think I will ever forget this moment. Let me back up for a minute and briefly explain the code of ethics the state of Wyoming officially adopted in 2010: it is a collection of ten phrases, somewhat like the ten commandments, and includes advice such as “Take pride in your work;” “Always finish what you start;” “Do what has to be done;” ”Talk less and say more;” “Remember that some things aren’t for sale;” and “Know where to draw the line.” I cringed when this collection became Wyoming’s state code, because I am convinced that we are much more than a collective of idealized nineteenth-century cowboys in this state, despite what our tourism offices are trying to make the rest of the world believe. The romanticized myth of the old west that Wyoming has selected for its advertisement campaign flat out denies the elements of diversity and innovation that exist in Wyoming and makes us look like a bunch of old-timey hicks.

However. And this is the new part that I have added to my view of this while standing in that kitchen, reflecting on the experiences of the day at the ranch. There is still a part of that old Wyoming around if you care to look closely. I had witnessed some of those cowboy ethics in action throughout the day; the pride they take in their work, finishing with the cows despite the rain, and this sense of kindness and patience and old-fashioned manners among the men, especially towards me who had no experience or skills whatsoever. Triggering this whole train of thought was one particular piece of advice from the code of ethics that rushed into my head; “talk less and say more.” These guys are what you would call taciturn, standing in a circle and not saying anything for a few minutes. Then one of them would make a comment about the weather or a kid they all know who has been in a horrific car accident, and they all throw in a “yeah” or a short comment of some kind, and then fall silent again. Not that the conversation is of no substance, quite on the contrary. Instead, it seems like they all have thoughts going through their heads, but they only choose to share the most profound ones. Talk less, say more indeed. I am the opposite of that, and that is maybe the reason why this strikes such a chord with me. I converse almost constantly, sometimes ending up with my foot in my mouth or scolding myself for wearing my heart on my sleeve. I realize I need to become more comfortable with silence.

Standing in that circle and listening to the conversation’s ebb and flow, I am humbled, and I am moved, and I realize that I have painted my Wyoming image too much in black and white, in too much of a contrast between myth and history on the one side, and reality and the present on the other. Perhaps the myth is much more a part of this Wyoming reality, with history reaching into the present more than I have cared to realize. I am sure that some of the decisions in how the ranch is run and how the cows are branded are made deliberately to uphold traditions, but nevertheless, this life of ranching, and branding, and wearing cowboy garb, and tipping your hat and opening the car door is part of their reality still, and I will be much more careful in the future to respect this piece of reality of the American West. It is a complex reality, one that allows room for the contradictory lifestyles of cattlemen and university professors, and ranchers and financial advisors, and cowboys who practice recycling.

Before long, the last of today’s helpers bid their farewell, suppertime is approaching, and I am still standing there, keeping Dave and his boys from their chores. I want to ask if I could get a more comprehensive tour of the house, but at this moment I do not want to impose on them any more than I already have, especially since they have been so patient with me all day. So I put on a brave smile, hug my favorite cowboy and my friend Dave, and thank them for their kindness. I almost turn my truck around when I get back to the highway to beg for the tour of the house after all. I guess I will just have to come back another day, and hopefully that day will be tomorrow.

I am left with a new appreciation for the work of these men. The physical labor outdoors, even though I did not work all that hard, feels rejuvenating. I find myself more clear-thinking and more focused. The experience truly inspired me, more than most things in the last couple of years, and it makes me want to be tougher and more useful in a concrete way. There is something about being able to finish what you start, as the code says, to be able to get all the cattle through the routine and then call it good. As an academic, I am too often left with a feeling of incompleteness, of dissatisfaction with a task that should be done but I cannot get out of my head. This constant preoccupation seems to devour my time even when I am not at work, and after my experience at the ranch, this has become clear as day to me. The first thing I have changed is that I have picked up my guitar again after ten years of having “no time for it,” and I started singing the old cowboy songs again.


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Wyoming’s 125th Birthday!


This July, Wyoming is celebrating its 125th statehood anniversary. To kick off the celebrations, the Wyoming State Historical Society, in collaboration with the State Historic Preservation Office, hosted a conference in Laramie June 11-13. It was a great success, if you ask me! More than 200 people attended the conference, and we had a wide variety of programs, speakers, and topics. I was a member of the program committee and the planning committee, and it was a great experience to plan this event along with a vibrant group of representatives from different agencies around the state.

During the conference, I had the opportunity to contribute to three panels. The first one explored aspects of the history of the University of Wyoming, and I presented a brief history of the university, highlighting some of the major events and personalities. We had a great turnout for this session, and it was a lot of fun!


Joking around during my university history presentation



I’m answering a question from the audience during the entertainment panel Q&A

The second panel was scheduled for 8.30 on Friday morning, and it was called “Wyoming Entertainment.” The line-up of speakers was absolutely cool! It was so awesome to be on a panel with the illustrious Chuck Rankin from the University of Oklahoma, who gave an absolutely fascinating and funny talk about Wyoming humorist Bill Nye. What a great idea to present a paper on a humorist; it’s just bound to be hilarious! My own talk focused on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show abroad, in a sense taking Wyoming’s entertainment and bringing it to the world. The third contribution to the panel was a virtual tour through a selection of Wyoming’s hole-in-the-wall bars. It was fabulous! I was shocked to see some people I would least expect to know all of those establishments! (That’s you, Linda!) It was quite possibly the most entertaining panel I have ever been to in my entire conferencing career. Apparently, it’s not that difficult to convince people to go virtual bar-diving at 8.30 am either! We had a great turnout for this session.


The third panel I participated in was focused on Oral Histories, and I spoke about an oral history project that I directed a few years ago. It was the first time I presented a paper on this, and it was a little emotional. I interviewed Wyoming National Guard soldiers who deployed to Korea in 1950, and they endured significant and intense combat. I described their deployment and then talked about three issues that I encountered during the project: dealing with trauma, earning a close-knit group’s trust, and getting past their humility to hear stories of valor and bravery, which they all had but were reluctant to share. I apologize to the three male attendants in the room who were trying to hide their tears. During this talk, I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking, a reaction that I thought I had under control ever since I graduated.DCS_5099


I’m showing one of my most prized possessions, a framed copy of a painting that depicts the Cowboy Artillery at Soyang. Members of that guard unit signed my copy, which makes it unique. I’m so very proud of these soldiers.

On Saturday, the events took place at the Wyoming Territorial Prison. We had several speakers and events, and the dinner was followed by one of my absolute highlights from the conference: a country dance with a live band! The Country Club Band from Cheyenne provided the music, and they were awesome! Well, almost as awesome as my colleagues from the American Heritage Center, who all danced the night away. NOBODY can say that archivists don’t know how to have a good time! Thanks to my friend Dave, who is a wonderful dancer, I even learned some country waltz and two step moves (at his expense, or that of his feet, I have to admit). It was a beautiful venue, fun times, and the best ending to a fantastic event. Yay Wyoming, and happy birthday!

country club band

The awesome Country Club Band from Cheyenne


Territorial Prison and tent

It was a beautiful evening at the Wyoming Territorial Prison

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“Out of the Box: How AHC Collections Enhance UW Humanities”

Peter and Julia

I was excited to show my friend Peter the exhibits in the Gateway Center!

On May 1st, 2015, the long-time director of the American Heritage Center retired from his post. To honor Mark Greene, the AHC, the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, and the university hosted a symposium and a banquet. Our keynote speaker was my dear friend Dr.Peter Blodgett from the Huntington Library in California, who gave an excellent keynote address. During the day, we also heard several great talks by Brian Hosmer, John Rumm, and a number of others from around the state. I happened to be one of those “others,” and presented a little talk about my research for the Gateway Center, which is based very heavily on holdings at the AHC. I also addressed the ways in which I used the resources at the Toppan Rare Books Library for my Civil War class last semester. Overall, it was a great event to honor and bid farewell to an excellent scholar and superstar in the archives profession. The AHC’s Board of Advisors, under the exemplary leadership of board chairman Dave Foreman, and in cooperation with the UW Foundation, have also founded the Mark Greene Excellence Fund, a substantial endowment that will benefit the AHC and its mission for many years to come. I’m proud to call this institution my home!


Rick Ewig honoring Mark at the banquet


The American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming

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“Lingus-Interruptus:”* non-native speaker troubles

*warning: not an official term!

I bet the last time you called a help line for a tech problem or a credit card inquiry and the voice on the other end of the line was heavily accented, you rolled your eyes and steeled yourself for a difficult conversation. “I’m sorry, what?” “Can you repeat that?” “I have no idea what you’re saying.” We’ve probably all been there and it’s annoying, and you just want to hang up and try your luck again, hoping to get a native English speaker this time.

I’ve been there, too. And, I have been “the other” person, too. The non-native speaker. The one who is trying so hard to understand YOUR accent, and what YOU are trying to convey in your rapid-fire, American-slur, non-standard English tirade of what’s wrong with your computer, or your phone, or those assholes that ran up your credit card. Well, I have never worked for a tech help company, but that doesn’t mean that I have never experienced difficult phone conversations due to the fact that I am not a native speaker.

Being on the phone is tough when you converse in a foreign language. Many of our language cues are conveyed by body language, facial expressions, and by watching lips move and form words. Yes, I know, a little creepy, but nonetheless true.  Thus, when I can’t see you, I lose an important element of communication and a layer of interpretation of what is being said. During my first few years in the United States, I tried to avoid phone calls as much as I could because it was always uncomfortable. Sometimes, I would have to ask three times and then still did not understand the question. I was acutely aware of this deficiency in my language skills, and often very embarrassed. I was mad at myself, willing myself to make sense of the other person, and often got frustrated; the harder you try, the more you try to analyze, the harder it becomes.

The same difficulty applies to group conversation, even when they happen in person. I often shied away from engaging more than one person at a gathering or party. People interrupt each other, there is noise, you don’t always catch the beginning of someone’s sentence because you’re still looking at the last person who spoke, and then you’re lost anyway. It takes a long time to develop the skills to have a conversation on the phone or in a group.

In addition to the difficulties posed by “blind” conversations, like phone calls and group conversations, Europeans have another hurdle to cross when they learn to converse with native speakers of English. We have a different speech pattern, especially in regards to pauses in between sentences. Us Europeans may sometimes come across as rude because we tend to interrupt. That’s not (usually) because we are rude, but because in many European languages (I can speak for German, French, Italian, and Spanish) the pauses in between sentences are much shorter and interjecting, inserting, and interrupting are socially acceptable, if not expected! Americans tend to leave much more time between their sentences, and I have such a hard time sometimes to keep my mouth shut and wait until you’re done, especially when I have a strong opinion on something.

So, blog-interruptingmy American friends, be patient, be kind, be supportive, and keep in mind that this person is trying to learn YOUR language. The cultural exchange between peoples of different backgrounds can be so much fun and open your mind to whole new ideas and ways of looking at the world. It will make you ponder your own life, question your assumptions, and more often than not, lead you to a deeper appreciation and understanding of what you have and who you are.

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Get off that Western horse, Wyoming! It’s old!


As an academic and a scholar of the American West, one of the recurring themes in my research is the entwinement of Western history with myth and nostalgia. In this age of rapid technological changes, acceleration of life, and increasing anonymity, Westerners in general, and I believe Wyomingites in particular, are struggling with the task of forging an identity that iswestwardho rooted in our history but still adaptable to the changes of modern life. There’s an increasing disconnect between the older generation and the new, the old-timey Wyomingites and the newcomers; there’s a distinct lack of continuity between Wyoming’s history and future in peoples’ minds.

In the eyes of America and the world, Wyoming is being forged into the mythic West of the olden days, in which cowboys ride their horses into the sunset and don’t care much about anything else; sorry, no intelligent life here. Several occurrences in the past few years have contributed to this image: in 2010, Wyoming became the first state to adopt an official state code of ethics, the “Code of the West.” Here are the ten “commandments:”

4614_1__49823-1322771315-600-600While these certainly are honorable and admirable goals to strive for, they also have a distinct western ring to them, and while this western ring might strike a chord with people today, it is mostly because it feeds into the imagery of the mythic west of old.

Another example for Wyoming’s attempts to cling to its western past and somehow profit from it in today’s market is the Office of Tourism’s advertisement campaign with the slogan “Wyoming-Forever West,” and a tagline of “not to be tamed.” Yes, we will be forever west, in a geographic sense, but what are you implying? That the values of the Old West are still valid here? That we still ride horses to school and duel each other in the streets? The focus on the bucking horse around the state is another example. It becomes especially questionable in the context of the only state university adopting a symbol like the bucking horse as its most commonly-used logo. The university has a beautiful seal, the state has a meaningful motto (the “Equality State” for being the first to give women the right to vote), but still both entities repeatedly choose the old west symbol over all others. What does this project? That this is a “Cowboy Campus,” where we teach the old cowboy ways? “Forever 19th-century?” Are we saying that the Old West is alive in the state and that we haven’t changed one bit in the last century?

Newsflash, Wyoming: the younger generation does not identify with these values anymore. They are a nice-sounding triviality, an ode to bygone times, at best a cool symbol that students use to justify being rowdy, like they imagine the cowboys were in the Laramie saloons a century ago.

We need a more nuanced and more thoughtful approach to our western heritage. One that translates into our modern surroundings and does not exclusively evoke a mythic, golden past that was somehow better or simpler, because it wasn’t. Why can’t we be proud of how far Wyoming has gotten in the last century? Why can’t we focus on the adaptability of Wyomingites, their innovative spirit, the creativity of our youth? That does not mean that we have to discard our history; on the contrary. When you look at the history of cowboys more carefully, you can see a distinct effort to improve, to adapt, to evolve. Why can’t we do the same with the image we project to the nation and the world? Why do we continually reduce ourselves to the mythic west when we can be so much more? We have so much more to offer in this beautiful state!

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Working towards a PhD in the US: How it happened

First of all, let me explain where I’m coming from. I am one of those academic hybrids who don’t really have a home anywhere because they are schizophrenics in their academic training and their country allegiances. I’m a German citizen and followed a “normal” educational path until the third year of my studies at a German university, when I discovered American History as taught in the US, as opposed to American Studies as taught in Europe; I followed this discovery back to its source and emigrated to the US in 2005.

But first, I  earned a Staatsexamen degree in Germany, which is somewhat equivalent to an American M.A. but also includes a teaching component. After 6 years of studying English and History to become a teacher in a Gymnasium (no, not a gym but the German word for High School), I graduated in 2005 and left Germany for the US. More specifically, I returned to Wyoming, where I had completed a student exchange year previously. What did I do in Wyoming, you ask? Well, I applied to grad school programs, of course, while my American husband served a year patrolling the desert sands of Iraq.

Due to the fact that I had married an American (and, inadvertently and unknowingly, one of those who was then sent off to deploy after he had just brought me here) I was the proud owner of a Green Card (the picture being a sorry representation of myself because I was told not to smile). Thus, I had no issues with obtaining a visa, a work permit, or even with the application for scholarships.

Back in Germany, my academic training had been in American Studies, consisting of a mix of history, contemporary issues, and a spotty overview of American cultural values. After my exchange year to Wyoming, I convinced my examination committee to let me write my thesis about a topic in Western American history, an area of study that I had first encountered in Wyoming but that was not a core part of the program’s curriculum.

In other words, when I applied to grad school in the US, I was utterly naive and unprepared for the rigor of the program and the content of the area that I had chosen.

I was accepted to the PhD program in American History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2006. Yes. There is a university in Las Vegas. Yes, it is next to the Strip. Is it awesome to be a student in Vegas? No. Because you’re poor, and all the cool shows cost money. And even though I was awarded a full scholarship, I still had no money to even go out to eat (except for beer at the Hofbrauhaus,which of course counts as food because beer is food). And when you go out in small groups of girls, you get asked if your apartment complex has a pool and why you don’t want to go skinny-dipping with the random drunk male tourist who loudly proclaims that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, when you live there, that’s exactly part of the problem.


Anyway, back to the program. Holy cow. Here I thought I had worked hard for my German degree. I knew nothing.

And let me say here, without bragging, that my English language skills were pretty damn good at that point even. No, English isn’t my native language, I don’t have American parents, I am not a military brat, and I had never even spoken to an American until my first year in college. (In fact, I credit Michael Jackson with teaching me English.-He was cool in the 80s and 90s!) I acquired English through hard work and repetition, and by not being offended when I got corrected (which happened constantly). At this point, nobody can tell that I’m not a native speaker, unless I drink beer.

My area of emphasis was, and still is, the history of the American West. I am particularly interested in identity and memory studies and in the ways a region defines itself. But I am also interested in public history: the way history affects people’s lives in an everyday setting. I took classes in museum studies, historic preservation and oral history, and have recently been working in the museum field. I studied with a couple of wonderful and supportive faculty mentors, who have guided and shaped my intellect and my scholarship in crucial ways. I appreciated them then, but even  more so, I appreciate them now. Let me say this about American faculty members:

They care about their students. I have never felt as supported as I did during the time of my PhD student time. I never once made a cup of coffee for anybody, or made copies, or taught classes that my advisor didn’t want to teach. Instead, I was given the opportunity to teach classes that I wanted to teach, to work for a non-profit organization, to direct an oral history program, and to write an exhibit proposal for a local museum. On top of that, I was awarded a couple of stipends from the university to support my dissertation research.

But man do they make you work. And if it turns out that you have little or no background in the subject matter, you are in for a hell of a ride. During my first semester, I took three classes. I read an average of 6 books a week, not including book reviews and my fellow students’ papers. And it doesn’t stop with mere reading of the books. You have to take notes and write short summaries, source analyses, book reviews, historiographical papers, and put the texts in context. And of that’s not enough yet, you have to look alive in class, participate in the conversation, and draw on additional readings that are considered fundamental but you have no clue about because you didn’t earn your MA here but in Germany in American Studies, which is, as you find out, fundamentally different. When you get your papers back, they are soaked in red, with scribbles that are hard to decipher but meant to improve everything from structure to argumentation to extra points to consider to suggestions for grammar and spelling improvements.

Did I have a life in Vegas? If it happened between the pages of monographs, sure. Otherwise, are you kidding?!

Am I happy I went there and subjected myself to this process of rigorous and relentless improvement of my thinking and analytical skills, my writing and reading skills, my whole outlook on history and academia? The answer is an unequivocal YES. I want to do a Vulcan mind melt with my advisor and know everything he knows. (I’m in love with your brain, David!)

julia gradA word about the “American system” to earn a PhD. It is SO NOT THE SAME as the European system. The degrees should not be considered equal. Sorry, if you’re European and earned a PhD in two or three years, that’s great for you but it is not comparable. Europeans usually argue that their High School prepares them better for college, and thus they only take classes in their major, which leads them to graduating with a comparable level of knowledge. Fair enough. BUT: when it comes to PhD programs, the American system is far superior, in my humble opinion. There’s a reason why it takes us six years to complete the program. It is not to “make up” content material that Europeans have acquired in their MA program. Instead, it is to deepen our knowledge in our subject area on a BROAD scale and not just in our immediate dissertation topic. It is to give us a BROAD foundation in historical methods, a BROAD understanding of the historiography of the field and the pressing questions and issues that historians have grappled with over the decades. And it is to uncover and draw parallels between our area of specialty and a variety of other issues that offers new angles and areas of inquiry. The three years of coursework lay the foundation for the dissertation, which is framed broadly and analyzes its content rigorously and thoroughly. I mean no disrespect to my European colleagues; I do believe, though, that the American PhD adds a dimension that is missing from the European doctoral education.

Now that I’ve put this into perspective, I’ll start collecting some resources that I have discovered throughout the course of my studies and by the virtue of living in this country.

Please feel free to share your opinion. I’d love to hear from you!

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Wyoming National Guard Family Readiness

115th Field Artillery patch

115th Field Artillery patch

This past weekend, I attended the Steering Committee Meeting for sanctioned volunteers of the National Guard Family Readiness Groups of the state of Wyoming. (Quite the mouthful!) We met at the Guernsey Training Center and planned the activities for the next training year. Each National Guard unit has a Family Readiness Group, consisting of volunteers who are trained in a variety of areas, such as resiliency, mental health, and leadership. We assist our soldiers’ families in times of crisis, and especially during deployments, by providing resources and support. This weekend, I especially appreciated the suicide prevention training we received, along with information about mental health professionals who are standing by to support our National Guard family.

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