A Man Who Knew How to Live
Everyone at the Graham Ranch wishes we could have a do-over last Sunday.
Steve and I had weaned our calves on Tuesday, but as the Sunday sun rose, I spotted calves mixed with cows in the pasture. They had busted down the corral fence so about two-thirds of them escaped.
I milked the cow, then headed back to the house to tell Steve we would have to re-wean the calves.
On the way, my dog caught one of the barn kittens. He looked sheepish, but that didn’t bring the kitten back to life.
Steve was still recovering from his fourth open heart surgery, but he jumped on the tractor and headed out to the stackyard for a bale of hay. About 40 cows followed him into the stackyard. I was getting ready to wean lambs – some friends, plus my mom and 11-year-old Abby would help so Steve could avoid that nasty job – but I dashed to the stackyard when I saw the wreck in action. Steve had kept damage to hay bales to a minimum. My mom, the dog and I pushed the cows back to the pasture while Steve caught his breath.
Steve fixed the corral fence while we worked sheep for the next five hours. A few lambs crawled through a hole, but we managed to get them back in.
Steve wanted to build a windbreak with some straw bales that were still in the neighbor’s wheat field so he asked my stepdad to follow him while he drove the tractor, then give him a ride back to the truck and trailer.
On the way back, a cow was in the road. Steve circled around her and walked her to the gate. He collapsed on the county road. When I got to him, I knew I didn’t need to bother trying CPR.
I always knew this day would come. I just didn’t know when.
Before we were married, Steve explained that he was living on borrowed time. So far, the gamble of two heart valve replacements and a repaired aortic dissection had paid off. But his aorta was being held together with basically the same nylon webbing that holds big alfalfa bales together.
Steve was the best man who had ever come my direction so I grabbed that gamble and held on tight.
What a ride.
He had faced down death so he knew how to live. Right now. Don’t wait for tomorrow. He taught me to pack horses so we could spend days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The smell of the mountains, the glowing aspens, a glimpse of a trailing wolf. We shared all of it.
We bought the Graham Ranch, a dream come true for both of us. We found out we pulled together in the traces because we both loved the land enough to manage it as well as we possibly could. And we both had strong opinions about just how to do it. Those opinions usually differed.
Steve had enough self-confidence to live with and love a hard-headed, determined, passionate woman. No one else had ever accomplished that feat. We might yell at each other about which direction to bring the calves to the corral, but we danced a tango getting them there.
Working sheep together was a different story. That dance was more bump and grind.
Steve was a risk-taker who could make a decision so quickly that most people did not believe he would stick with it. I knew better. If I could get Steve to make a commitment, he would never back away from it. We bought the ranch on a handshake. I never could get him to commit to letting my mother move to the ranch, though.
He would assess a person by his posture and eye contact, no doubt he learned it from his father, Andrew, who traded horses and mules, among other things. Now, I trust my gut instinct about a person and I am always glad I do.
Steve was born on Feb. 2, 1954, in Christiansburg, VA, the youngest of four brothers. He was proud of his upbringing in the mountains – raising livestock, hunting, eating from his mother’s garden all year, using whatever was available to fix whatever needed fixing.
Steve attended Virginia Tech, earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s degree in crop and soil environmental science. He believed education is the great equalizer.
An eternal optimist, Steve married three times and had three daughters, Alexandra, Stephanie and Abby.
About 20 years ago, he spent two weeks on a ranch in Colorado. That trip fortified his determination to ranch in the West. A few years later, he made his way to Montana, first as a county extension agent for Rosebud-Treasure Counties and then as the Pondera County ag extension agent.
We met at a conference in Great Falls – he was getting out of the office for the day and I was writing an article for a magazine. One day, as we drove toward the mountains for a day-ride, we passed through the Graham Ranch.
“I don’t know whether this ranch will come up for sale or not,” he commented.
“Let’s find out,” I said.
He researched the owners and I wrote a letter to them. We signed the papers on January 6, 2006. Abby was born that October.
Steve was a voracious reader who loved clever language. He was passionate about respecting his heritage, both the people who came before him and the land. He distained pretentiousness to the point of resoling old boots until the leather was worn out and wearing old socks on his arms when his shirts developed holes in the elbows.
Steve admired the beauty, craftsmanship and functionality of pre-64 Winchesters and every other wooden-stock rifle except Remington. The safety mechanism that does not follow industry standards was unsafe in his opinion. He taught Hunter Education in the classroom for several years, but every day was a firearm safety day at the Graham Ranch. He knew that if he could prevent a single firearm accident all of his effort would be worth it. Steve was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and bought lifetime memberships for all of his daughters.
Steve loved ethical hunting, enjoying the skill of the chase far more than the kill. His trophies were symbols of the experience on that hunt, a reminder of the story. Once, he spent 29 autumn days in the Bob Marshall Wilderness between completing ranch work. He hoped to break that personal best next year.
Steve valued friendships and worked to stay in touch with those he respected. With friends across the country, he could start calling people on the east coast early in the morning and work his way west as the sun rose. Texting was a dream come true for Steve, except when his thick fingers hit the wrong letter.
Steve loved athletic horses, especially foundation quarter horses. He was a fantastic trainer and always rode as one with his horse. To Steve, good horses represented honesty, integrity, effort and teamwork.
He rode good horses.
I don’t know what it feels like to lose the man I love. My kids and I are numb. It’s easier that way.
I do know two things, though: First, the Graham Ranch is not for sale or lease. Second, I’d take that ride again -- in a heartbeat.