Uncle Cow Pie

     There is only one real failure possible; and that is,
not to be true to the best one knows.”
-- Canon Farrar

 Uncle Cow Pie

Remember that monumental right of passage when you turned eighteen? People in their 90’s and beyond can recount the milestones when they became and an adult and the world suddenly belonged to them. Well, Napolean Bonaparte said that "History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."  So keep in mind that others may have a slightly different view of my recollections here.

As part of my own right of passage, to the surprise and alarm of my parents, I hitchhiked around the country with some friends.  Risky, but I survived the road trip and in 1974 landed in Southeastern Idaho along the Snake River. I spent three summers at the old South Fork Lodge, just a few miles from the town of Swan Valley.

Each season I stayed in a rustic, little one room cabin that had a front porch overlooking a channel of the river. It's where I spent days on end writing poetry, journaling and where I indulged my newly idealistic view of the world.

If I close my eyes and think about it, I can almost smell the piney scent of logs, with the mix of willows and mud along the bank. Sometimes even now, I expect the sharp smell of wood smoke to follow a crisp breeze. And on cold, wet days I often remember warming up in front of the old rock fireplace in the lodge. These are a few of the flash bulb memories I have from that time. You probably have your own vivid pictures of passing from adolescence into adulthood. You may know the ones I mean, the memories that stay bright over the years and seem like yesterday.  

 Well for me, meeting a rancher named Uncle Cow Pie was one of those times my mental camera took a few pictures worth keeping. I’m not sure how he came by his knick-name, but from what I remember, he didn’t like it much. His real name was Max and he may have been one of the few ranchers left who actually moved cattle across dirt roads and pastures before all the land became fenced.

Max was an empathetic soul. His temper had a long, slow fuze, except when he was dealing with sheer stupidity. At least that’s how it looked from my perspective. I recall how kind he was to me, a kid from the burbs with a lot to learn about ranch life. A friend of mine and I met him near the end of our second season there, during a cattle round up. He watched as we tried to work the herd. We must have been a funny sight when the heifers planted their hooves and stared at us as if we were foreign objects. And the bulls, well let’s just say we did whatever we could to stay out of their way! Observing our efforts in futility, Max shook his head with a loud laugh and called out, "Just be yourself!" That was the first time I heard what I later dubbed Max’s motto. He gave the advice he appeared to live by. He was just himself, like it or not. And isn't that what most 18 year olds are trying to do anyway?

I still smile when I remember the mischievous twinkle in his eyes whenever he was amused by something. There was the time he talked my friend and me into climbing up the side of a crowded cattle chute. He watched us as we stepped carefully, trying to avoid putting our feet in anything messy. “Just get in there with the mud n' mess and move em’ through. A little cow manure won’t hurt ya!” He didn’t actually call it manure, but for the sake of web-side courtesy, I’ll paraphrase. Being ourselves seemed to fit with getting in there and trying something new. So we did and had a good laugh afterward!

Once in awhile Max stopped by the old farmhouse I lived in during a few of my winters in Idaho.The snow in the high country piled up too deep then for the cattle. So they had to be trucked down to a lower altitude, where they could be fed hay and birth their calves in the barns. At the time, the farmhouse was around 70 years old. It had lathe and plaster ceilings in the kitchen and a side porch that was cold enough to keep perishable foods fresh. Once in awhile Max stuck around for some of my bad coffee. Something hot to drink on a cold day always helped. But I was never very good at boiling it camp style, in one of those old ceramic pots that didn't have a percolator. The grounds were supposed to settle to the bottom of the pot, but we usually found them floating in our cups.

Max also had a dry sense of humor, something that always put me at ease. On occasion, I went to him for conversation and advice. Each time he’d say pretty much the same thing. "The only thing you can really do here, is be true to yourself," I guess that was his way of telling me I had to find my own way through things. In fact on our last meeting, as I was second guessing a decision he said, "Like I ALWAYS say, you've GOT to learn to be true to yourself!"

I can't remember exactly how old he was then and I don't know if he's still around today. I'll probably never have the chance again to ask him about his life in Idaho in the early 1900’s. But I'll always be glad I knew him. Isn't that just the kind of bittersweet trick hindsight plays on us? I’ll never forget his old felt cowboy hat, creased with grease stains along the band and the worn cowboy boots that sometimes sat drying on his oil heater like old friends. Oh, the stories that old contraption could have told!

Psychology today might say that being true to ourselves requires some life long quest of endless self inspection. And maybe that works for some. But from Max’s point of view, it was much simpler than that. Try it out sometime and see if it's not so. Next time you're going against the grain with something new or you just don't feel quite comfortable in your own skin, give Uncle Cow Pie’s motto a go. 

That means after all the opinions and advice have been sifted through, the final say has to come from your gut. Of course to get there, you might have to escape the kids or your boss, hide out in the bathroom with the door shut or lock yourself in your car for awhile to hear yourself think. But when you do, just get right in there and be true to yourself! 


Have faith and pursue the unknown end.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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