Since finishing my first thru hike last summer (Colorado Trail, July 2-26), I’ve voraciously read and listened to just about any account of thru hiking I can find.
In truth, most of the published thru hiking books are worth three or fewer stars, basically charming, sincere and mostly fun, yet rather artless, hiker journals. Ironically, the best of them seem to be by people who don’t bother finishing their trails — Bill Bryson’s Into the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and I Promise Not to Suffer by Gail Storey are three good ones. In other words, the author-first, hiker-second formula results in better books.
One of the better books in the next strata down is A Long Way from Nowhere: A Couple’s Journey on the Continental Trail Divide by Matt and Julie Urbanski, a detailed account of a difficult trail that goes beyond the day-to-day tramping.
I also want to plug a podcast I recently discovered, Sounds of the Trail, put together by a hiker who goes by her trail name, Gizmo. So far, listening to the podcast is as close as I’ve come to soothing a heart that still aches from being off the trail.
But I’ve noticed a common thread in a lot of these accounts: Excessive fear of animals, both wildlife and livestock.
Others have written extensively about the extreme unlikelihood of being injured by a large, “scary” animal on the trail — bear, mountain lion, moose. Suffice it to say that while caution is warranted, particularly in areas where wildlife has become habituated to humans, actual attacks on hikers are vanishingly rare.
But I want to talk about what seems to be an area of terror for many hikers: cows. Or rather, as ranch people say — I’m a former cowboy — cattle, since “cows” are only mature females; mature, intact males are bulls; mature, neutered males are steers; young but sexually mature females are heifers; and all the babies are calves.
One day on the trail as I approached Princeton Hot Springs, I turned a switchback to find a teenage girl standing hesitantly mid-trail, all alone. I said hi and she said her father was down in the next draw, photographing a moose. “I’m scared, so I stayed here.” I hustled down, hoping to see the moose and was bemused to discover instead about 15 cow-calf pairs, mamas and babies, rummaging and snorting and shitting around in the riparian greenery.
The photographer seemed flustered about how to get himself out of the midst of what are, admittedly, very large animals. So I started “cowboying afoot,” getting around behind the little herd and gently, quietly working them onto the trail. Then, again, very calmly, I gradually walked around their flank, and they responded precisely as 99% of cattle will, moving away from me, back into the trees. I was through them in a minute and kept walking.
Cows are big, up to 1,000 pounds. Cows can kill. In fact, cows kill more people in the U.S. every year than bears, by far. But they are nothing to be afraid of in almost all circumstances. So, some things to know before your next hike through cow territory:
- They are skittish and, like most bears, want nothing to do with you.
- You can turn them or spook them with a yell or by waving your arms, but….
- Don’t do that. There is no need to upset them. Instead,
- Remember that cows want to move away from you at all times. Whichever direction you want them to go, get on the opposite side of the cattle.
- Be calm. Gentle motions and sounds will keep them moving. All the “yeehaw” bullshit you’ve seen in Western movies? That will get you fired on most ranches.
- In fact, you can walk right through the middle of them, if you wish; they’ll part like the Red Sea. But go slowly, so they don’t panic and bump one another into you.
- They are extremely unlikely to attack you except in one situation: If there is a very small (i.e. just born) calf in the vicinity, stay away from that mama cow. She may be stressed already from giving birth, and she will protect the baby by charging you (as I know all too well; I once had to pull a calf’s afterbirth off so it could breath, and mama did not like that at all … she ran right over me; it hurt).
- Once babies are up and moving around, they learn from mama to be afraid of you, so they will keep their distance.
- Bulls are usually lazy, and want no more to do with you than other cattle. But if they start fighting each other, get as far away from them as you can. Once the ol’ testosterone kicks in, they see nothing and I’ve seen them literally knock a horse and rider to the ground, blindly charging.
A couple more quick cow facts for the curious:
- Those red-and-white cows are Herefords and the black ones are Angus, the two most common cattle breeds you’re likely to see on the trail. Angus-Hereford crosses range from all black to black and white to red and white to all red.
- You may see white cattle or off-white. They are either purebred or crossbred Charolais cattle.
- The cattle most people think of, the tallish, white-with-black-spots variety, are Holsteins, a dairy breed you aren’t likely to see on the trail (in the West; perhaps on the AT it’s different).
- There is no such thing as a “factory farmed” beef animal. They are all raised outside on pasture. Most are sent to a “feedlot” at the end of their lives, but even there, they are in large pens outside. I’m not defending any of this, just educating.
- Dairy calves raised as “veal,” however, are raised in terrible confinement.