The wind shook the car as I glanced in the rearview mirror at my reflection. Why was I even attempting to push my hair the right direction? I looked away and scanned the parking lot for a sign of which direction my boys had gone while tumbleweeds seemed to be having races across the dirt.
The mud puddles were drying up quickly and the dust swirled up and around the makeshift barbecue area that was being assembled in preparation for lunch. Large smokers and propane tanks sat ready to give it their all, and the stack of aluminum pans near the edge of the table were eager to be filled. I smiled to myself as my mouth began to water just thinking of the delicious burgers that would be served at lunchtime with a large helping of mushrooms piled on top, along with the perfectly seasoned, home-style fries. It was tradition I was counting on, and I knew without a doubt that my memory would serve me right.
I situated the hood of my coat, slid a glove over each hand, and then reached for the sale catalog with the date and two of my favorite families’ names in large, bold font across the cover.
This particular catalog had made its way to the top of the pile at our house over the course of the week, and been looked through, marked, and talked about over dinner almost every evening. There were photos of life at its finest inside, and a whole lot of numbers the men in my life understood much better than I did. I giggled to myself thinking about the past month at our mailbox each afternoon — remembering the bets the boys had placed on how many catalogs would be arriving and who they would be addressed to. Yes, in the dead of winter, on the coldest of days, the greatness of a mailbox full of bull sale catalogs seemed to bring warmth to all of us.
I pushed the door open against the wind, and braced myself for the cold that I knew would find the tip of my nose. With my camera bag against me, I made my way toward the pens on the north side of the parking lot that were filled with fresh straw and groups of black bulls. These bulls — that had been raised from birth to be genetically sound and sturdy in every sort of way — were about to be sold to the highest bidders.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they knew what was coming. Did they know how many people and families just like us had looked at their pictures and circled their birth weights and weaning weights, along with the expected progeny difference and calving ease direct written under every picture? Did they know that money had been put aside in hopes of growing a herd with their purchase? Did they know that they would be leaving their friends and making their way to “greener pastures”?
I held my camera tightly and pressed the shutter button over and over, capturing the day and the people the best I could, making my way through cattle pens, around bleachers and through the auction crowd. There were cattlemen and women with clipboards and sharpie markers, and kids with soda pop cans and chocolate chip cookies jumping across fences and over bales of hay. There were families filling up chairs around an auction ring, hats being lowered, prayers being said, handshakes, smiles, and conversations captured forever.
New caps and gloves were handed to buyers, sorting sticks found new homes, and the smooth talking, fast-paced rhythm of the auctioneer’s voice filled the room, along with shouts from the irreplaceable and valuable ring men who looked for nods and numbers to the best of their ability.
The photos were still, but emotion could be felt just looking back through them. I could see the mud on the boots, and hope in the eyes looking back at me, and I could almost feel the warmth of the smiles that were wrapped in wild rag scarves as if I’d been wearing them myself.
The event had been over for about an hour. The line at the payment office was down to just the last few buyers. Groups of people sat in the sale barn at long rectangular tables that were covered with green cloths. There was laughter, along with deep sighs of relief. There were thank yous spoken, and cheers given. Prices had been great, stress levels had lowered, and the sale catalog that I still held in my hand would now be a distant, yet fond memory.
Bull sales offer so much more than bulls. They create and build cattle operations, they strengthen relationships, they allow for life to be shared around tables and sale rings. But most of all, I feel that they offer hope. The kind of hope we all want. The hope that speaks to our souls — reminding us that we live in a great community, with some pretty amazing people who are working very hard to build a sustainable future, not just for themselves, but for the world they live in — one herd at a time.
Lindsay Murdock lives on an Echo ranch and teaches in Hermiston.