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Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West

Times Past at Carrot Ranch by @Charli_MillsGen X, rural California, USA

Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).

“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.

Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.

Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.

Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.

Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.

I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.

Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:

We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.

At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.

4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.

And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.

***

Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.

Times Past: Food From the Sea

Times PastGeneration X, Rural Northern California

Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.

When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is:  The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.

I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.

The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.

On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.

Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.

Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.

And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.

Clara’s Quesadillas

Recipes From the RanchMy Great-Grandmother Clara had a Portuguese last name, but she was half Scots and half French-Basque.  Growing up, I knew her as an aged, lean woman who liked to laugh and gamble at the nickle slots. She was a fiery old lady. In fact all the Kincaids were known for their heat in the small cow-town of Tres Pinos, California. They were tough pioneers and buckaroos with a fighting-spirit.

This Scots clan clung fiercely to their Catholic faith despite being kicked out of Scotland for fighting on behalf of the Bonnie Prince Charlie back in the mid-18th century. My particular ancestral line of Kincaids settled in Virginia then Missouri before pushing cattle into California to build up ranches that would feed the gold-rush miners. Great-Grandma Clara’s grandfather, James Kincaid, settled in the San Benito County area where hills and valleys were rich for growing hay and cattle. The Kincaids even helped to build the Tres Pinos Catholic Church.

Tres Pinos was the furthest inland from San Francisco that the train pushed. This track traveled through vineyards, orchards and ranches known to Steinbeck, and any story of his that I’ve read, I can’t help but picture the place of my birth; the same place where Great-Grandma Clara was born; the place where buckaroos come from. The Kincaid women were tough. Clara’s mother was a justice of the peace and famous for orneriness.

One Kincaid woman, an aunt of Clara’s, decided she had enough of being a ranch wife and left her husband and children, stepping onto that San Francisco bound train with a young, handsome cowboy. The story goes–which is printed for posterity in an old 1880s Tres Pinos newspaper–that the aunt’s husband met her at the station with a gun. He shot the young swain, but didn’t frighten his wife at all who simply yelled at her husband, wrapped her cowboy’s wounded arm and left on the train.

So it should come as no surprise that Great-Grandma Clara like food that matched the temperament in her Kincaid blood. She liked it hot. This recipe is a bit of an alteration on my part. Originally Clara heaped this cheese-topping on a split loaf of French bread, but I use it for quesadillas. Serve it with sliced mangoes for lunch or along side vegetable soup for dinner.

Clara’s Quesadillas

  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 2-4 Tbsp spicy taco sauce
  • 1 can diced jalapenos (or you can use mild green peppers)
  • 1 can chopped black olives
  • 1/2-cup chopped red onion

Simply mix all the ingredients. When ready to make quesadillas, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. I prefer white-corn tortillas, but you can use your own preference. Set out as many tortillas as you want (my cookie sheet accommodates six at  a time, but usually I just make one or two for myself for lunch). scoop cheese mixture onto each tortilla, spreading evenly. Top with a second tortilla. Bake for five minutes and then carefully flip. Bake for another three to five minutes. Serve with sliced fruit, rice or a green salad to counter the heat.

Quesadillas