Category Archives: USA

South Dakota’s Spring Cattle Branding

NOTE to South Dakota Folks: CLICK HERE for full set of pics.

Late spring is “branding” season in South Dakota. A local rancher who caught a ride with us to one of the calf branding events called them “celebrations.” The cold winter is over and the year’s crop of calves are a couple of months old and in need of vaccines, brands, and more. The whole community works together almost daily, with all the local ranch families taking turns helping one another. It’s both hard, serious work and social event. Notice in the pictures how often people are smiling.

The fire, ropes, needles and knives look harsh to the uninitiated – and I surely wouldn’t want to be one of the calves. But the health of the cattle is a major purpose of the process. A veterinarian was on site at all times. Every one of the hundreds of calves I saw hopped up and scurried spryly back to its mom as soon as its short ordeal was done.



South Dakota rancher, Tom Trask


Emily Linn (right) takes a turn wrestling the front end of a calf during a branding on the Trask’s Spanish Five Ranch.



Justin Namken, the sole non-family-member “hired hand” on the Spanish Five Ranch.


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            Here’s how the branding process works: The cattle – usually a few hundred pairs (mother and calf) at a time – have been gathered in advance into a single section of pasture. On the morning of the branding, the first hour or two is spent herding them all into a set of pens. Next, the cows are separated from the calves, generally by horsemen urging the adult cows one by one through a gate while a handful of sorters (on foot) push the calves in a different direction. Most of the attention will be on the calves, but the cows may also be sent through separate chutes to get vaccines or other treatments. Batches of 150 or so calves go into a medium sized roping pen adjacent to the branding area – which is set up at the edge of the big pasture.


A minor glitch in the process of sorting moms from babies.

            Three or four mounted ropers go in and out of the calf pen, roping calves by their hind legs and then dragging them out one at a time. Pairs of “wrestlers” (mostly teenagers and younger men) take each calf. One grabs the roped rear legs; the other grabs the tail and shifts quickly to the head. With a swift and skillful yank, they flip the calf onto its side, hold it down legs splayed, and release the rope so the roper can go get another.


            Now things really start to happen: people converge on the calf like a pit crew on an Indy car. Two give shots containing multiple vaccines. Others apply treatments for worms, flies and ticks. Another person walks up to crop an ear. If the calf is male, someone with a sharp knife deftly castrates it – an operation that takes about 20 seconds and produces surprisingly little blood. Preschool-aged kids follow the castrators, carrying the self-explanatory “nut buckets.” An antiseptic foam is sprayed on the incision site. Depending on the breed, the calf may be de-horned (by burning the budding nubs of horn using small irons similar to the branding irons). And of course, there’s the brand itself: just an old-fashioned piece of red-hot metal that burns the hair and scars the skin. Between calves, most of the crowd have a beer or two from the cooler – which is usually in a pickup bed next to the laden nut buckets.


A “nut bucket.”

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Tom Trask owns around 20,000 acres next to the Cheyenne River east of Rapid City. He and his sons lease several thousand more, for a total of nearly 50 square miles of land. His brother Pat’s ranch is just to the north; his cousin Todd’s place is just to the south. Tom got much of his land from his dad, whose U.S. Army uniform is hung proudly in Tom’s home.

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Mark Trask (My apologies to his brother, Mick, and sister Tomilyn, for whom I failed to get good portraits).


If you imagine life on a rural ranch as serene or simple, you should spend a few days with the Trasks. The most striking aspect of my visit was the remarkable array of skills and knowledge required to run a huge ranch like this. They can do an emergency bovine C-section, battle weevils on their hay crop, raise bees to pollenate their alfalfa, train horses for roping, milk cows, build their own houses, weld broken tractor parts back together, recommend the perfect ammo for prairie dog eradication, and drive a pickup through a muddy field without getting stuck. It should tell you something that the one “hired hand” on Tom Trask’s cattle ranch has two college degrees: one in animal (livestock) science; the other in “range” (grazing land) science. They dig 75 million year-old fossils from the creek for extra money. They host paid deer hunts in the fall, and can butcher the venison onsite and do the taxidermy work to mount the trophy.



Todd Trask


South Dakota winters are biting cold, the summers are scorching, and blistering spring winds don’t allow much relief in between. The work is hard and the hours are long. Around huge animals and farm machinery, the risks of accidents and injuries are a routine part of life. I overheard one conversation about which kind of tractor would be most easily operated by a young woman with a devastating farm injury that left her with very limited use of her legs. These folks are tough and resilient.


The county sheriff’s office is about an hour and a half away in Sturgis. As in other areas of their lives, the folks here view it as their responsibility to take care of themselves and of their own families, and they’re ready to do so. There are a lot of guns, and people know how to handle them. They say they have very little crime out here. {Note: They’re right.  South Dakota’s homicide rate ranks #44 among states; its gun ownership rate ranks #4.}


The folks here are hardworking, loyal, patriotic, and proud – and I think they’d consider those descriptions to be the highest of compliments. In the last few years, I’ve been on six continents and met fascinating people in exotic cultures, but the lives and lifestyles in a down-home and close-to-home place like South Dakota are every bit as interesting and in many ways probably far more relevant for other Americans to appreciate and understand. These folks will vote in the same elections and will have to live by most of the same laws as people from New York City and Washington D.C., and yet each group often has only a faint caricatured picture of one another’s worlds.


My dad and I were in South Dakota in late May and early June. The weather cycled between rainy, chilly, windy, and hot. We stayed in a modest small-town Best Western, and the local Subway and Dairy Queen were the best restaurants in town. Yet it was one of my favorite trips ever. Getting to know the Trasks was a real treat.

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A multigenerational “pit crew” descends on a calf (under there somewhere) as Rob Powell pulls the Spanish Five branding iron from the fire. That’s Mick Trask in the camo cap, holding down the head.





Tyler Trask with an “it’ll do” roping result: this time catching just one leg.



Calf roping is an equal-opportunity and co-ed endeavor. Kelly Anders seemed to be one of the best ropers in the county.



Mick’s daughter, Annie.






That’s my dad below (green hat) with Todd Trask.  He met Todd and Tom 20+ years ago when they were all hanging out together in the mountains of southern Colorado.  That’s me (orange vest) with my calf-wrestling buddy/instructor Matthew, who works up at Pat Trask’s ranch. (I didn’t catch the name of the photo-bomber).  Matthew taught me how NOT to get kicked in the face by a calf as you restrain its rear legs. It’s harder than you might think. Actually — restraining a 150-pound calf while it’s being castrated is probably exactly as difficult and awkward as it sounds.





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The big sign in the “middle” of Elm Springs, South Dakota gives directions to all the community’s homes. (For example, 3E 1N means you drive three miles to the east, then 1 mile north).

Leadville 100 Trail Run – A View from the Sidelines

As a spectator watching the 30-hour Leadville Trail 100 Run last weekend, I watched the 4 a.m. pre-dawn start on Saturday, put in a very long day along the course, got a nice dinner and a full night’s sleep, then woke up , had breakfast, and headed down to watch most of the runners cross the finish line mid-morning on Sunday.


The Leadville Trail 100 Run starts in the dark, at 4 a.m. in downtown Leadville

About half of the 700 or so amazingly fit and marginally insane runners who crossed the start line at 4am last Saturday made it back to finish in downtown Leadville — after an almost unbelievable 100-mile trail run — before the 30-hour time cutoff.  One hundred miles.  On foot.  All of it between 9200 and 12,600 feet elevation, and doing more climbing than an ascent of Kilimanjaro.

Even for someone who’s done several “ultra” endurance events (on foot, bike, and otherwise, and including some in Leadville‘s thin air), the 100 mile mountain trail run is hard to get your head around.  Of the lucky half that do finish, the vast majority take over 24 hours — most watching two days’ sunrises during the same race.  They don’t sleep — they barely even stop moving.  I was eager to get some pictures of the event, but a major motive for my spontaneous trip to Colorado was to see if the Run was something I might conceivably do someday.  The verdict?  I’m not so sure.

A few miles into the race, before sunrise on the first morning, the racers start a trail that skirts the edge of Turquoise Lake, west of Leadville.  You can see the runners spread out for miles along the lakeshore, their headlamps and flashlights twinkling through the trees and outlining the edge of the lake with bluish light.



A three-mile-long string of runners makes its way along the trail at the edge of Turquoise Lake during the first hours of the LT100 Trail Run.



The signature features of the Leadville course are its two separate ascents of  12,600-foot-high Hope Pass — once in each direction at mile 45 and mile 55 of the run.  The aid station near the top was a great place to watch a few hours of the race mid-afternoon on Saturday.  It took well over two hours to hike up to the top, so there were hardly any other spectators and only a small squad of volunteers up there handing out water and food.  There were 20 llamas hanging out — they’d carried all the supplies up there because the trails up are too high, steep, narrow and rocky for any vehicles.  We watched the leaders coming back over the pass on the inbound leg, and watched most of the more mortal racers hiking up the mountain — still less than halfway through the race after nearly 12 hours.

The guy in the yellow shorts is Robert Krar — flying down the mountain after his second ascent of Hope Pass.  He went on to win the race that night with a time of just 16 hours and 9 minutes.


We cheered for and chatted with dozens of runners, often the same faces several times in different locations.  Dramas unfolded, and faces became familiar.  Inevitably, we remembered them with descriptive nicknames.  There was British Guy.  Sandals.  Bathroom Guy.  Peeing Girl.  Elmo.  Duck Dynasty.  As we descended from Hope Pass, we found Air Force Dave still only halfway up on his first ascent at 4:15pm — the deadline to get over the pass.  We offered him some food and water and tried to buoy his spirits as he turned around and walked back downhill with us.    I saw him quietly remove his race number in a symbolic personal ceremony recognizing that his race had ended early with a “DNF” (Did Not Finish).   “Puker Guy” had a happier ending:  we first saw him in trouble at mile 43,  doubled over, nauseous and struggling, but happily we saw him crossing the finish line 57 miles (and about 17 hours) later, flanked by his celebrating friends and family.

Ken Chlouber, the founder of the Leadville Race Series, famously tells every 100-mile racer, You are better than you think you are; you can do more than you think you can!  I don’t think that’s true for everyone — certainly some folks aren’t even as good as they think they are or can’t actually do what they think they can.  Most people are afraid to ever find out; Leadville is one of the places you go to do that.  Somehow, every racer can and should be both proud and humbled, no matter how their race ends.  Win or lose, finish or fail, these were the folks who weren’t afraid learn whether Ken was right — about them.


#674 Trevor Teeselink (center) was the “Last Ass Over the Pass” — the last finisher to reach the finish — just four minutes ahead of the 30 hour deadline.

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Two new friends I met and ran with some this summer in Leadville were among the 100-mile finishers.  Somehow I saw Stephanie Lefferts (in green and white) over and over during the race — both directions at Turquoise Lake, at Hope Pass and at the finish.  Her boyfriend Mike Ambrose was so fast (he finished in the top 20 despite a nasty fall that almost ended his race) I barely saw him during the race and missed his midnight finish.  After a nap and shower, he was back at the finish line to celebrate with Stephanie and her dad at 9:25 a.m. Sunday morning.  Congrats to them both.




A Hawaiian Connection: Mahalo, United Airlines


The view of Honolulu and Waikiki from atop Diamond Head Crater.

On my way home from Australia, my connecting flight was cancelled, leaving me stranded in the middle of the Pacific and halfway home.  Happily, that was Honolulu.  My 2-hour layover became a 26-hour layover, leaving me time for dinner on the beach, a morning run to and up Diamond Head Crater, and an afternoon on Waikiki before heading back to the airport and resuming the trip.  I got just a handful of pictures.  It worked out well, so I’ve decided to wholly forgive (and maybe even THANK?) United Airlines for the screw-up.

At least the botched connection had a huge silver lining.   The airline debacle on the front end of that trip was all downside.  I arrived in Cairns, Australia on a Sunday, and my bicycle (needed for the triathlon I was there to do) arrived four days late, after an unintended (and unattended) tour of Tokyo and Sydney (neither of which were on my travel itinerary).  At least it got there in plenty of time for the race.



Waikiki Beach, at the Moana Surfrider Hotel





New Orleans Mardis Gras 2014: Bon Temps*


Shane Merz tosses highly-coveted hot pink beads to the Mardis Gras crowd along St. Charles Street.

Riding a float in one of the big New Orleans Mardis Gras parades isn’t like you probably think.  Everybody seems to ask me the same question:  I’m sure I threw at least 2,000 strings of beads, cups, toys, or footballs (roughly one every five seconds for over three hours), and never saw a bared female breast.  That happens over on Bourbon Street – but not much on the parade route.

I did see lots of kids having great fun, usually with their friends, parents, grandmas or grandpas close behind.  People on ladders so they could see above the crowd.  Lots of college kids acting silly.  Groups on balconies in sportcoats and party dresses.  Lots of pretty young girls, and lots of not-especially-young-or-pretty girls.  Grown men and women jumping up and down, genuinely delighted to get even a fifty-cent trinket thrown at them from a masked man on a tacky float.  I’m sure a large percent had had a bit too much to drink, but happily it was hard to tell from my perch up on the top deck of Float #20.


One of my float neighbors, Houstonian Tommy Miles, ready for the Bacchus parade with beads organized atop our float

You don’t just sling beads at the blur of the crowd.  The vast majority of those 2,000 strings of beads I threw were aimed at a specific person with whom I’d made eye contact before making a targeted toss.  They break eye contact to catch the beads, then usually look back up with appreciation so we could jointly celebrate our successful connection with a mutual fist pump.  You’d have also been impressed with my bead-flinging accuracy – even underhanded, leaning over the rail atop a moving float, throwing gangly strings of varying weights, a majority went to the intended receiver.

Here’s a side note to you 20ish-year-old males out there:  If you stand near a little kid, a grandma or a pretty girl and jump to intercept beads being thrown to them, you’re an idiot (and something that starts like “dude” but rhymes with “swoosh-tag”) – and the gods of Mardis Gras karma will ensure that none of those pretty girls out there will ever even speak to you. 

 Another of the riders on my float – a guy from somewhere in central Louisiana who (initially) stood right next to me — had a different experience.  I didn’t learn much about him – he passed out about a quarter of the way into the parade.  This is not especially uncommon, so we just left him on the floor.  I didn’t drink anything but Diet Coke and a bottle of water (and fueled myself with a couple of mid-route Powerbars), and I’m very sure I had a lot more fun than he did.  Maybe I should have explained to him the hilariously ignored New Orleans Ordinance prohibiting drinking on the floats?

Most of the pictures here are from my day riding a float in the Bacchus parade.  You spend an hour or two organizing your “throws” (mostly bags of beads), then get your costume mid-day.  The masks are mandatory; you can literally be fined for not wearing one.  You also have to wear a harness underneath to clip yourself onto the float (for reasons perhaps made obvious by the prior paragraph).  Our float was assigned alligator costumes.  It takes a pretty strong sense of tradition to get a big group of straight Southern men into matching costumes with sequin sleeves and a crazy pink collar.


Bacchus parade riders, in costume, inside the Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas St.


The floats roll mid-afternoon to the staging area — a neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River with several tiny local bars that probably don’t see a lot of middle-class white guys any other week of the year.  Imagine 1500 or so grown rednecks dressed in those satiny, sequin pajama-like costumes converging on an urban neighborhood.  It takes another three hours or so to navigate the parade route through the Garden District , downtown along the edge of the French Quarter, and through the middle of the already-booming party in the Convention Center.  We arrived at the party after 11pm.  It’s a formal “gala”-type event where ladies must wear floor length gowns, but only half the men are in tuxedos and the other half are in those goofy costumes.  Styx played at midnight, and everybody headed to the casino around 3:30 a.m.  I saw more than one New Orleans sunrise on this trip, and I surely never got up early.



In 2012, I told the stories of how the Mardis Gras “krewes” put on the parades here, of how – even amidst the chaos – New Orleans can be as civilized as you choose it to be, and how you calculate the day and time of these Mardis Gras parades. This year I had higher hopes for my Mardis Gras photography, but much of that proved incompatible with the preference to spend most of my time hanging out with the couple of dozen friends that were in town for the festivities.  These won’t win any prizes, but hopefully they’ll at least give a good feel for what it’s like to see and to ride in a big Mardis Gras parade.  Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler*


*Of course “Mardis Gras” is a French term (“Fat Tuesday”) and its events are centered in the French Quarter; “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler” is a popular Mardis Gras slogan, French for “Let the Good Times Roll.”  “Bon Temps”: good times.

Santa Fe September





I spent last week in (and around) Santa Fe learning photography from Nevada Wier.  She’s a National Geographic veteran photographer and a true world adventurer who lives in Santa Fe when she’s not in places like rural China or India or Myanmar.  I came here because her photographic ‘style’ is very much what I TRY to do.  My images here are a seemingly random group — the product of several smallish ‘assignments’ we did last week.  The goal was not so much to gather perfect images of Santa Fe, but to practice some ideas that will work in the rest of the world.  I learned a lot.


One of the assignments is in a separate post from the New Mexico State Fair.  Another was to go grab a local and take some on-the-spot portraits that might reveal a little of their character — much as you might do in a more-exotic global destination.  I drove to the small town of Cerillos and vowed to just grab the first person I saw and see if I could make the best of it.  I wound up working instead with the third person I saw — the young cowboy’ you see in the handful of pictures below (and the big close-up above).  Zach makes his living on his family’s horse ranch.  I found him unloading firewood at a house near downtown Cerrillos.  He was a great sport and, as it turned out, a fine impromptu model.  In that last super-close-up shot, I asked him to just think about his family and his horses and his ranch, and how those things made him feel; that’s my favorite shot of the day.


Finally, a huge thank-you shout-out to my former law partner Kathy Patrick and her husband, Art Murphy.  They let me spend the week in their adobe swankienda on the northwest side of Santa Fe.  I was living it up with the whole place to myself!