One of my clearest, actually, one of my fondest childhood memories was of riding the gut sledge to the dump a mile or so from the 71 Ranch. Hooked with a chain to a John Deere tractor, the wooden sledge was piled with a butchered steer’s stomachs and entrails, a mound of intestines, and a six-year-old me on the back of the sledge trailing a stick in the dirt, watching my black and white rat terrier trotting behind.
I have returned in recent years, affirming my recollection of the ranch and especially of the barn. With a gambrel roof, a stone foundation, and an indoor arena, the barn at the 71 Ranch, still standing, still maintained, is one of the finest in Elko County. It was certainly the finest ranch we ever lived on.
The dirt road curving up the hill to the two-story ranch house goes right past the barn. If you slow down and look up, you will notice the large door opening into the hayloft. Inside the loft, along the ridge pole runs a track which extends out along the hood from which a hayfork could be dropped to lift hay from the wagon to the loft.
The same pulley could be lowered to hang a beef carcass for butchering.
I suppose it might seem odd that I remember with fondness watching the butchering of a beef for the ranch larder. I’m sure I enjoyed the bustle of activity and being big enough to go down to the barn to see what was going on. In retrospect, I think it was a privilege to participate, even by watching, in this purposeful activity.
For a six-year old, it was a powerful visual experience. The hanging carcass seemed like a cave. I remember blue, white, silver in the cavity. I’ve not watched the process since, so I had to go to a Wikihow article, “How to Slaughter Cattle,” to be reminded: “The pull of gravity will help clean the innards out...trim the large globs of fat positioned along the backbone...the fat makes it white...the ‘silver side’...pull the intestines, bladder, the stomachs...put a large viscera container..for the kidneys and liver and heart...clean the carcass with cold water…”
When I remember the hanging carcass I sometimes confuse it with Rembrandt’s painting, The Carcass of Beef. When I recently refreshed my memory of the painting, one particular comment of an art critic caught my attention: “in the mundane world of food and eating, the death of this beef will provide physical life for those who consume it.” I remember part of the blessing said around my grandparent’s table, “...bless this food to our use, so it may nourish and strengthen our bodies…”
I am grateful that I am free from learned squeamishness about the necessary rituals on a cattle ranch--from branding to butchering. I can't expect my urban vegan friends to get it, but I enjoy recalling that six-year old ranch kid, probably in coveralls and a t-shirt, riding the gut sledge to the dump, my little dog following behind.
Nancy Harris McLelland taught creative writing, composition, and literature for over twenty years and Conducted writing workshops for the Western Folklife Center, Great Basin College , and the Great Basin Writing Project . An Elko County native with a background in ranching. McLelland has presented her "Poems from Tuscarora" Both at daytime and evening events at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Her essay, "Border Lands: Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" is in the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters .