Yesterday, I came upon a small herd of range cows, maybe a dozen, who eyed me pensively as I jogged past. Some just looked at me, blankly, with that know-nothing sort of look that really doesn’t reveal what they’re thinking; I just know that they didn’t feel threatened enough to run. Others gave me a similar look but quickly turned tail, inciting a few of their nearby bovine compatriots to follow suit. It was two of these cows, trotting away from me with four stiff but rapidly moving legs, that did something I have never seen before.
I’m not a big fan of cows, particularly when I seem them in the mountains munching on what’s left of a grass depleted range, nor do I enjoy dodging the crusty piles of excrement that they leave behind. I don’t eat their flesh, but I do wear the shoes made from their hides, so I have a grudging appreciation for their existence. This group of cows was on a private ranch, or, rather, they were supposed to be.
When these two aforementioned cows ran from me, they headed down the same dirt road that I was using and never looked back. I rarely see them on this section of the road because a nearby cattle guard is supposed to impose a non-negotiable barrier. I have to cross the same cattle guard myself when I run this old road, and when I do, I always stop and walk across it, placing each of my feet across two rails at a time. After three or four careful steps, I’m safely on the other side.
Those steps that I execute so easily are not supposed to be possible for cows. They have hooves, not $150 running shoes, and their bone hard feet don’t adapt well to the slick surface of the steel railroad rails that cattle guards are often made from.
The classic homemade design requires someone with welding skills and a dozen recycled steel rails. A frame of concrete is poured, then the freshly welded rack of rails is lowered in place by some sort of backhoe or tractor. Ideally, it should be installed so that the approach and exit from either end is no worse than a well- designed railroad crossing.
The rails are thin and the gaps are wide, so this combination is supposed to keep the cows in bounds, acting like a horizontal barbed wire fence, one that is easily driven over by a vehicle. On the sides, a standard vertical fence of barbed wire usually extends off in both directions so that the cows cannot do an end run around the guard. Sometimes, there is a gate on one side that allows the rancher to allow the cattle through, should there be a legitimate reason to do so.
On this day, the cows that were running ahead of me were hemmed in by a vertical bank on one side of the road and a steep, brushy slope that led down to the creek on the other. Their flight (rather than fight) response was irrevocably engaged, so they trotted straight down the middle of the road, gaining momentum as they did. It wasn’t stamped speed; there was no panic or desperation involved, just a shared commitment towards a common goal that could only mean one thing: they were going to cross that cattle guard.
As far as cars and trucks go, each cattle guard is unique, and locals usually know which ones they have to slow down for and which ones they can cross without hitting the brakes. Just east of the Arboretum, within fifty feet of Highway 60, there is a notorious cattle guard on the dirt road that leads to the historic wagon tracks. The smooth and level approach to the front of it belies the excitement that waits on the other side. The crossing is uneventful until the unsuspecting driver feels his car suddenly pitch downward when it drops off the far side. As the front tires hit the road below, so does the undercarriage make violent contact with the unforgiving rails of the cattle guard. With it comes the industrial scrap yard sound of crushing mufflers, perforating gas tanks, and twisting bumpers, sounds that only a tow truck driver can love. Word spreads quickly about such pitfalls; that’s why site seers with low clearance sedans are often seen parked on the highway side of that cattle guard.
As a bicycle rider, I have crossed far more cattle guards on two wheels than I have on two feet. There is virtually no way to “fall through the cracks” on a bicycle, yet, in the past few years, signs have appeared on cattle guards, particularly on back roads, that say, “BICYCLES CROSS WITH CAUTION.” It doesn’t make sense because a rider would have to intentionally turn his front wheel at a ninety degree angle to become entangled in one of these, and that would throw him off his bike in the best of circumstances.Where is the precedent here? I’d love to see that wreck.
But back to the cows. They were hell bent to get away from me, and though I half expected them to stop within inches of the cattle guard and decide what to do next, I knew that they wouldn’t.
Each of them, one after the other, without breaking the cadence of their trot, jumped over the cattle guard. Yes, with the same ease that you or I would jump over a rain filled puddle. They didn’t slow down, just made a graceful, low arc, easily clearing the last rail of the cattle guard with inches to spare. It was effortless but practiced, like a ballet leap, and, after landing, they trotted nonchalantly into the pasture. It was obvious that they had mastered this technique, proven when I saw two more of them munching grass along the railroad tracks, a full half mile down the road on the wrong side of the cattle guard. I had no doubt that they had been here before.
According to Mother Goose, a cow has been known to jump over the moon, so it should come to no surprise that I watched two of them cross a diminutive cattle guard. To witness their next trick, I will no longer be watching a heifer munch grasses off in the mesquite brush, or watch a pair of brown and white cows slowly walk down the road together, their heads hung low with slow lethargic steps. No, when I see cows along one of my running routes, I won’t be checking out the cattle guards, I’ll be looking skyward.