Cattle drive that's still alive
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP)--Here's old Jack Eaton climbing out of his dusty white Dodge pickup, standing in the bumpy dirt road to face the 300 head of cattle that have ambled to a stop.
A worn cowboy hat casts a shadow over his baby blues as he calls out to a rider among the herd.
One brave cow seems to remember this drive through the Yakima River Canyon and makes a break for Canyon Road, where a pair of state transportation officials and a handful of curious onlookers with cameras wait.
"Some of them who have done this before know they're going home and they're excited," Eaton says before he chases after the animal with a quickness that belies his 80-year-old bones.
On a brilliant sunny Saturday morning at the corral down Burbank Creek Road begins this yearly winter cattle drive that will end a few hours later at the Eaton family ranch, where the cows arrive to calve. Four generations make it happen--from the family patriarch up at the front encouraging the herd with hay to a great-granddaughter who warms up a heavy-lidded white horse as the sun rises over the hills.
When Eaton says it's not like it used to be, he's remembering his first cattle drives some 60 years ago, back when there was more land available to graze in the Kittitas Valley.
"I started with my dad just after I was married. My wife and the family all liked it and we stayed with it," Eaton says later, leaning against his truck while the cows and everybody else rest at Big Pines Recreation Area. "Mostly nowadays it seems like a lot goes onto a truck and gets hauled.
"There aren't many cow outfits left in Kittitas Valley. A lot of people have retired."
Perhaps for that reason--because real cattle drives are increasingly rare--more than a dozen cars and trucks have lined Canyon Road by noon. Many families pull over to watch the slow stream of reddish-brown and white cattle make its way through the canyon, and one father raises a cell phone to snap a photo. The Old West meets Modernity.
Lauren Peak can barely contain her pride as she waits to see her husband, Joe, a truck driver by day, ride with the Eatons and their cattle. He's so handsome up on that horse, she feels. A real cowboy.
"He got up with the chickens and got his chaps ready, the spurs on his boots. He was so excited," Peak said. "If it has to do with cattle, he's gonna love it. A cowboy learns firsthand. It's in the heart."
A 4-year-old boy from the Wenas Valley with wide green eyes decides he wants to meet a real cowboy, and his mother, Rhonda Haffner, lifts little Kaden into her arms.
She walks across the street to the man in the worn cowboy hat. Shyly, her son greets Eaton before hiding his face.
"Did you like the cattle?" the cowboy asks. A quick nod.
"You should come out to the ranch in a couple of months to see the baby cows." Green eyes light up.
In a few minutes, the cattle and riders are rested enough to continue, so Eaton climbs back into his truck to get ahead of the herd. The Haffner family lingers at the rest area, savoring the moment.
"That's why we picked to be here," says dad, Robert Haffner. "We're 30 minutes from mountains. We're 30 minutes from the river. And we can come to do things like this--see a cattle drive in the middle of the winter on a sunny day and meet different people and learn the history of the place."