Updated: Nov 5, 2021
While this story is based on true events, the names, location, and certain details have been changed out of respect for those involved.
Story and Photography by Teresa B. Schumacher
The day began with a dead chicken.
It might be prudent to mention that it also ended with a dead chicken, the events of that day breathing life into the phrase "all things come full circle." But I don't want to get ahead of myself now, so I'll start from the beginning and work my way around.
The early morning sun cast a harsh shadow over the wide open Wyoming landscape as I navigated my way through the knee-high sage brush, working to catch up with a lanky figure in the distance.
The boy standing at the far end of the pasture was clad in a plaid shirt and baseball cap. Narrow shoulders slumped, hands shoved into jean pockets, he stared at a chicken coop in front of him with a level of attention out of context for one looking at a bunch of domesticated birds.
He turned, and when he noticed me approaching he stumbled back from the enclosure and began waving his arms frantically. As I paused and placed a hand over my eyes to shield them from the sun, he began running toward me.
"Don't come any farther!" he gasped, his adolescent voice cracking under pressure. "There's been an incident!" The last word nothing more than a squeak.
I glanced behind him at the enclosure, where I could just make out the silhouette of two creatures huddled in a corner, clucking softy as if to reassure one another.
"It's ok, whatever it is I'm sure I can handle it" I said.
He looked doubtful, but acquiesced as I continued toward the coop. I quickly discovered why the poor kid was trying to protect me. Blood-stained feathers stuck out haphazardly from between the wires of the pen. The two chickens I'd seen from a distance remained clustered in their corner, murmuring to one another and eyeing us suspiciously while a third, less fortunate creature lay sprawled on it's back on the far side, its corpse half-eaten and gathering flies.
It was a grisly sight.
We stood there for a moment, enveloped in the silence of strangers brought together by shared experience. I was the first to break the quiet, introducing myself and telling him that I was a guest at the ranch and had been instructed to tag along this morning. I also told him that I was a veterinarian, thereby explaining my somewhat subdued response to the sight of a mutilated chicken.
"Trust me, I've seen plenty worse" I said.
The kid offered me a shy, relieved smile.
"I'm just the intern" he admitted under his breath, self-consciously pushing an unruly patch of hair out of his dark eyes.
"Well then, I guess we better tell the person in charge about this!" I replied, and with that we made our way back to ranch headquarters to share the news.
Before I continue, I think it's only fair that I provide an explanation for how I ended up standing in a pasture in Wyoming with a stressed out intern and a dead chicken.
The source of our food has always been a topic that has piqued my interest. My parents were borderline hippies with a fair amount of skepticism toward anything mass produced, grown with pesticides, or originating from a potentially unethical source. I was raised on tofu, kale, and a healthy dose of curiosity when it comes to the path my food takes to reach my table. My father's side of the family has been plagued with diseases - cystic fibrosis, myelofibrosis, fibromyalgia, and I've seen my family members often turn toward the healing power of food at times when conventional medicine has failed. Throughout the years I've witnessed the benefits of a good diet, in others and myself, and I've learned to take nutrition seriously. I'm also the type of person who cries when a tree gets cut down or a squirrel gets run over by a car. I'm a full-blown, unapologetic Empath, and so I've always questioned the ethics of meat consumption and mass produced animal product and sought out ethical food sources.
Over the years my curiosity has only grown. What impact can our diet really have on overall health? My scientific, medically trained mind has wondered. What risks, if any, come with eating genetically modified or highly processed foods? How do ethical, sustainable farming practices benefit our planet? In today's world, these questions and concepts have gained massive popularity. Terms such as "sustainable" and "organic" are thrown around by everyone from newly minted Instagram health gurus to Walmart’s advertising team.
But what does it all really mean?
The Sunset Ranch in Wyoming seemed like a good place to find some answers. The owners, Richard and Laura, long-term cattle ranchers from the West coast, had recently purchased this farm with the goal of producing healthy, organic food via sustainable farming methods and ethical animal production. Their website boasted an interactive experience for visitors, a way to see firsthand what happens during the ever elusive "farm to table" process.
I was here to get some answers.
Back at the ranch, we discussed the murdered chicken over hot coffee and a hearty breakfast. The general consensus was that a fox was the culprit, given the state of the victim, the size of the gaps in the fence, and the lack of destruction to the pen.
Richard, the ranch owner, took the news with a sigh and a shrug.
"That's life on the ranch" he lamented before the conversation turned to the endless list of duties for the day. Next up on the agenda: time to move some cattle.
In the time it took to eat breakfast, the endless blue sky of the morning had transformed into a menacingly deep shade of gray. A wind stirred the grass and whipped fiercely at my legs as we headed out to the pick-up truck, and an aggressive rain began to fall, giant droplets attacking the windshield, just as we piled into the vehicle.
I was getting a crash course on the fickle nature of Wyoming weather.
My company for this mission consisted of the intern (16 year old Jason from Portland), a ranch hand named Chad, and Richard's son, John.
As we drove, our conversation turned down some interesting roads.
Chad, a tanned and toned California native, cowboy hat perched atop a mop of curly black hair and Wrangler jeans tucked into suspiciously shiny cowboy boots, pointed at the colorful rocks lining the road.
"I have got to do some prospecting around here! So many great rocks." He leaned forward in his seat, eyes shining. "These rocks carry energy, man. These rocks have the power to alter our own energetic make-up."
John, also wearing Wranglers, but with boots boasting a bit more wear and tear, nodded enthusiastically.
"I've been putting that quartz under my pillow every night!” he replied. "You were right. It's working. I've been sleeping like a baby."
He turned to me. "And if I want really good dreams, I make it a rose quartz!"
I glanced back at Jason in the rearview mirror and caught him rolling his eyes in disbelief. After the incident with the chicken, he confessed to me that he's only here because he was making some poor decisions back home and his parents thought it would be a good idea to send their only son to Wyoming for the summer. A little fresh air and manual labor, just the thing to set his mind straight and his young life back on track.
As we turned from one dusty road to another, the conversation veered from the energetic capabilities of rocks to dinosaurs and religion. Apparently a giant femur, probably belonging to a million year old T-Rex, was recently discovered in close proximity to the ranch.
"What does your dad think about that?” Chad asked John. He turned to me and explained that Richard is one of those New Age Christians who doesn't believe in the existence of dinosaurs.
John shrugged. "We don't really talk about it. But if you ask me, I think it's all possible. Adam, Eve, dinosaurs, Big Bang. After all, time is relative, isn't it? Why do we need to line everything up in a succinct time frame? Who says dinosaurs and the Garden of Eden couldn't have occurred at the same time, in different planes of existence? It's all possible, if you think about it."
The cab grew silent as we all contemplated the possibilities. Even Jason stopped rolling his eyes.
By the time we arrived at our destination, a stunning blue had once again forced its way through the clouds and as quickly as it all began, the rain and wind were replaced by an almost chilling stillness.
We approached the designated pasture and I peered out over the prairie grass and sage brush at a cluster of cows grazing quietly. John, who I'd been following, stopped suddenly, also staring at the animals.
"How many cows do you have?" I asked.
John cleared his throat. "We currently have 138 head" he replied with confidence, leaning back slightly on his heels, thumbs hooked in his belt loops.
I looked out again at the six docile creatures standing before us, lazily chewing their cud and occasionally flicking their heavy heads back toward their flanks to reach a particularly obnoxious fly.
"So where are the rest?" I asked.
John cleared his throat again and squared his shoulders back as far as they would go.
"I have absolutely no idea” he replied.
And with that, my day took another unexpected turn.
We began by walking the perimeter of the pasture, searching for any clue as to the missing cattle’s whereabouts. Broken fence, hoof prints, fresh cow dung, anything that might tell us where the 132 animals might have gone.
“Don’t you guys have any horses?” I inquired casually on our second trip around, the first having not yielded a single clue.
There were no breaks in the fence, no open gates, no signs of an escape. It's as if the cows had simply vanished into thin air.
“Richard says he’ll teach us to ride someday soon” John replied, his attention focused on the ground, brow furrowed in concentration.
“Maybe they were abducted by aliens?” I suggested, only half joking. Because this was getting weird. Very quietly, so no one could hear, I muttered “And what rancher doesn’t know how to ride a horse?”
The sun hit its peak in the sky, emanating a powerful heat. The search continued. We walked the fence line a total of three times and still found ourselves with no answers, and more importantly, no cows. I suggested that we head down the road to look for any signs, and my company agreed. My position here had evolved from guest to fellow rancher in the span of a few hours, and the superficial facade of strangers was broken. I was now just another member of the crew, searching for our cows.
My boot sunk into something sickeningly soft, and I looked down to discover that I’d stepped directly into a cow patty.
“Fresh shit!” I exclaimed, pointing out my discovery. “They can’t be far off!” My comrades nodded enthusiastically, and the mood shifted from one of solemn confusion to one of possible hope.
A few minutes later we passed over a dusty hill and came face to face with the missing herd. They were resting placidly amongst an expanse of long neglected metal mining equipment. Some were sleeping, others nibbling on bits of dry grass. They appeared utterly unimpressed as we stumbled toward them, wiping sweat from our brows and fighting to catch a breath.
John gave me a a quick briefing on How To Round Up Cattle By Foot. There is a science to this, I was told. We split up and worked like a pack of clumsy, bipedal wolves to push the cows back toward the pasture.
“Act like a predator, but don’t push too hard!” John called out to me. I faced the cows with confidence, pacing back and forth as I thought a predator might behave, occasionally clucking softly to dissuade a particularly obstinate member from breaking from the herd.
One calf just stopped and stared at me in disbelief. He knew I wasn't a wolf, I could see it in his eyes. But he eventually followed the herd anyway. Hive mentality always wins.
It was late afternoon by the time all 138 head of cattle were back where they belonged. As we made our way back to the truck, dusty, sweaty and tired, I heard my stomach rumble and was thinking only of what was for dinner when Chad suddenly said, “you guys ever wonder about what we really are?”
He was answered by silence, and so he continued.
“You know, scientists have broken down the human body into cells, and atoms, and maybe even pieces of atoms. But most importantly, what they’ve discovered is that there is actually space between the smallest parts of us.”
“So, we’re basically all pixels, is what you’re saying?” John replied with a chuckle.
“Yeah man, and there’s energy residing in that space.”
We all grew silent once again, the space between our cells suddenly weighed down with the meaning of it all.
We arrived back at the ranch just as the sun was beginning to set. It had been a long day, but it wasn't over yet. Richard informed us that we would need to slaughter a chicken for dinner. Jason was less than thrilled by the news, his face growing slightly green at the thought. I was feeling a tad queasy myself. Chad returned from the enclosure with one of the chickens I had met this morning. He had the creature placed gently under his right arm and was stroking its feathers.
“Thank you for your sacrifice” he’s murmured softly. “We appreciate your life, and your gift to us.”
The chicken clucked softly and appeared to be falling asleep in his arms.
Chad reached out to hand the chicken to Jason, but the rebellious kid from Portland had a look of complete horror on his face, and so I took a deep breath and stepped up.
“Here” I said, reaching out with shaky fingers. “I’ll hold it.”
Death came swiftly and with mercy - a sharp blade to the jugular administered by Chad as I held the fading creature in my arms. Blood spilled on my boots, and as I watched the light slip from the animal’s eyes, I stroked its feathers and thought of what might be happening to the energy between its cells.
I heard a vehicle approaching down the driveway, and looked up to see a minivan full of newly arrived ranch guests gaping in horror. The poor family, suddenly and unexpectedly faced with that one part of life we never want to see or acknowledge. And now, on their family vacation, of all places.
But in a couple of hours they would be joining us at the dinner table, absorbing some of this creature’s energy in the form of a delicious, home-cooked meal, tucking this unsightly memory away in that place where all other scary, inconceivable thoughts go. The room would be filled with laughter, talk of places visited and places yet to go, and the mouth watering smell of roasted chicken.
I feel that I have failed this mission, my dear readers.
Instead of answering any questions, I’ve only managed to stir up more. Where do we come from? Are we all just pixelated stardust? Tiny fragments of intense energy zipping through the universe at different speeds, alongside dinosaurs at the end and beginning of all time, no different than the rocks and the chickens and the sage brush?
And perhaps the most pressing question of all is, what really happened to all those cows?
I’ll just have to accept the fact that I will probably never know.