Fire embers fade, and the cowboy tucks his fiddle and bow away in the chuck wagon. Still, faint music drifts on the wind as one of the two night riders plays his harmonica in the distance. The melody lingers around the 2,000 head of cattle. The other wranglers lie sleeping on bedrolls while the cows rest quietly. Tomorrow morning’s early river crossing will be here soon enough, and the cowboys will resume driving the herd across eastern Colorado, bound for Montana.
From the 1860s to the 1880s, cattle camps like this one dotted the Great Plains as up to five million head of cattle were rounded up in Texas and driven to Montana or to various railroad towns along the way. Today, trucks transport the cattle much more efficiently. But the herd still needs to be rounded up, so I’m awake before dawn one chilly fall morning to photograph a roundup on the Bledsoe Ranch on the vast, flat plains of eastern Colorado.
As I step outside I’m surprised by the dense morning haze. It reminds me of the thick, wet fog along the California coast in my boyhood town of Santa Cruz. Sounds are muffled. Mist cloaks the trees around the ranch house until they are shrouded like ghostly sentinels. I hike far out into the pasture and position my cameras on a small berm where the herd will pass by. The fog is nearly impenetrable. I hear men yelling and the lowing of the cattle but see nothing. When you stare into whiteness for an extended period, you develop a sort of visual vertigo. Your eyes play tricks on you; you think you see movement where there is none. It’s mystifying how the cowboys can even find the cattle in this fog.
Suddenly there’s movement! Cattle are running right for me, less than 25 yards away.