Gail Steiger and Amy Auker, two authentic American cowboys, talk about life on a ranch and COVID-19

Interview by Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

The COVID-19 pandemic puts a lot of stress on our personal lives and business. This time, I decided to interview two authentic American cowboys, husband and wife, who live on a ranch in Arizona and breed cattle. They are also talented poets and writers. Each year they present their songs and poems at the International Cowboy Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Amy Auker and Gail Steiger visited Bulgaria in 2015 as part of the show “Cowboys and Indians – in song and verse” and performed in Sofia, Bankya, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas and Kurdjali. They were invited by the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center – a foundation in public benefit, dedicated to building bridges between cultures and exchanging knowledge.

How is your life now during COVID-19? For many people isolation is a big problem. But for you, it is normal, you spend a long time by yourselves, with the cattle, in the desert. What does your typical day look like?

Amy: Our day-to-day existence has changed very little. We are on a very big piece of land and our jobs put us in contact with species other than our own. This year we have not hired any outside help and we minimize our trips to town for shopping or retrieving our mail. But, we live 40 miles from the nearest gallon of gasoline or gallon of milk anyway! As a couple, we are accustomed to relying on each other in our work and living. 

Gail: We’re in a good place for a pandemic because our closest neighbor to the east is 3 miles away and to the west is about 24 miles away. Our job involves moving cattle around in big, rough, remote pastures. Every day we’ll gather a different piece of country and a different bunch of cattle. We rotate them between 7 different pastures to allow each pasture to rest and recover after use. There is no way to work the cattle without horses. We’ll ride a horse all day but we each have 2 or 3 different horses we use on different days so they don’t get too tired. We have 4 camps in addition to our headquarters so we don’t have to ride our horses too far. In the summer we have to start early in the day before it gets too hot. Our routine hasn’t changed much other than wearing masks and gloves when we have to go to town to buy food and supplies. We worry about our old people and try to visit with them before we expose ourselves to potential infection.

How did you become ranch cowboys? What is the job like? What do you do in the spring, summer, fall, winter? What kind of cattle do your breed?

Amy: I was born into a livestock family and married a working ranch cowboy when I was 19 years old. After my children were raised and I got divorced, I came here to be with Gail and chose to cowboy for a paycheck rather than work in town. Growing food is an honorable profession for me, a choice, and it feeds my writing in ways that I cannot begin to describe. We sleep out on the ground, cooking over an open fire, 60-70 nights of the year. Sometimes more. We are always moving cows, rotating from one pasture to another to minimize impact on the land. Living with a holistic view is an incredible window. We constantly consider each tiny plant, each animal in our care, the weather forecast, the precipitation, markets, the interests of the owner of the ranch, the government agencies with oversight, the horse between our knees, the person we sleep with and the person who rides next to us… it is a big puzzle that is constantly shifting and changing. 

Gail: My grandfather and father were both in the cattle business and I grew up around horses and cattle. I took the job I have now back in 1980. I thought I’d do it as long as it was fun, then maybe I’d still have time to make something of myself. It’s still fun and I’m still at it. Probably too late now to do anything else.

In the spring the cows are having baby calves. We sell last year’s calves who have been weaned by their mothers. We have to be sure we don’t separate a mother from her new baby calf. We brand and vaccinate the calves. In the summer we have to make sure there is enough water for the cattle. If a pasture is getting dry we have to move where the water is better. In the fall we’ll sell the calves that were too little to ship in the spring. In the winter we have to make sure the cattle have enough protein block if the snow covers up the grass.

Our cattle are a Barzona/Brangus cross. The Barzona breed was developed specifically for the kind of rough, rocky country here. The Brangus (Brahma/Angus) strain gets black calves that the buyers like a little better than the red Barzonas.

In the winter you have time to be creative and write poems, songs and books. What inspires you mostly? Tell us about your works so far. Amy, you have written several novels, which are very successful. Gail, you have produced a movie about the life of a cowboy?

Amy: I have written two novels and two works of creative nonfiction (essay). I write poetry almost daily. My inspiration comes primarily from the natural world, from the weather, seasons, plants, animals, space, and miracle of life all around me.  

Gail: I helped make a documentary about some cowboys I was working with years ago called Ranch Album that was pretty widely released.  I think we are very fortunate to get to live the kind of life we live and I try to share that any way I can, through music, poetry, video, stories, etc. It seems like the least I can do…

Are you working on new projects now, tell me about them?

Amy: I have a new manuscript out on submission called Drinking Wild Water. It is a follow-up to my previous creative nonfiction, Rightful Place and Ordinary Skin. However, in a time of pandemic and global change, we are all examining and re-examining our lives. This applies to creative endeavors as well so I am going back into the current manuscript and updating the content to reflect that new way of seeing. 

Gail: I have a couple more music projects left in me, I think. One of original songs and one of cover songs I wish I had written I’d like to call Undercover Hippy. 

The life of a cowboy is sometimes lonely and isolated. But there are lots of benefits as well. Tell us about them? 

Amy: We have a body of knowledge that many urban dwellers lack. We know how to grow and forage for food. We know where our food comes from. I don’t get lonely, so the isolation is a blessing creatively and spiritually. We understand silence. We understand dirt, not filth. We are on 50,000 acres so we are not shut inside a small box of an apartment or home. We can move our bodies and work out of doors. We have relationships with species other than our own. That is an incredible blessing and a gift. 

Gail: Working with animals is great. They give you back what you give them. Every day is different and every day outside we get to appreciate what a gift it is to live on this amazing planet.

Do you follow the COVID-19 news? The information is overwhelming and often conflicting. What is your opinion about the virus? Did it really originate from the bats in China or is it man-made? How long is it going to be around?

Amy: The biggest change in our lives in the past 60 days is the stream of information. Sure, we wear masks and gloves when we go into the town, but that is mainly to protect the dear elderly people in our lives and to be socially responsible. But we are limiting those trips to town, buying things a bit differently than before. Our freezers are full of beef raised here on the ranch and my garden is growing and my hens are laying. But every day, news of the pandemic comes into our lives. 

Gail:I have no idea how the virus originated. I suspect it will be around for a long time and will impact us all in a big way until a vaccine is developed and effective treatment becomes available.

What is your view on globalization now? Should it be reduced? Should borders be closed? How can we stop the virus from spreading? Do you think governments are doing enough? What else could be done?

Amy: There are too many people on this planet and Mother Earth is shrugging some of the parasites from Her skin. My path is to learn to say, “I don’t know.” If the pandemic and world news teaches us anything, it is to say, “I don’t know.” These are big questions. My heart hurts for humanity. 

Gail:I believe this pandemic illustrates the need for humans to re-organize ourselves into smaller more regionally self-sufficient communities.

We’ve been operating under the principle that all growth is good, the more the better, and that we should move out of rural areas into densely packed cities and consume as much as possible.  If we really want to insure the survival of our species we will have to seriously address climate change, public health, and unlimited population growth. If we fail to do that nature will address it for us in the form of more pandemics, etc. The failure of our Federal government in the US to address this corona virus just demonstrates the foolishness of relying on government to protect everyone, not just the wealthy.

You live in nature and you eat fresh food and good meat. Is this the key for staying healthy? Are there any specific “cowboy medicines” and supplements that you could recommend to boost the immune system during this pandemic?

Amy: Get outside. Take your shoes off. Eat as close to the source as possible. Stop putting chemicals on your skin and into your body. Drink water. Plant something in the dirt and watch it grow. Turn off the screens. Read real books. Make something. Get to know a species other than your own. 

Gail: We eat meat we’ve raised without antibiotics or hormones and vegetables from Amy’s garden, eggs from her chickens, etc. We are outside a lot. Fresh air, sunshine, and physical activity are the best “cowboy medicines” I can recommend.

My grandfather contracted the “Spanish Flu” in the pandemic of 1918. He took to his bed with a bottle of bourbon. He always credited the whiskey for his ultimate recovery.

How is life going to be after COVID-19? Give us your vision…

Amy: Things will never be the same. But it is a human construct to believe that there is any security anyway. In the natural world, things are constantly in flux. Things are living and dying, living and dying. It is arrogant of humans to believe that we are in control. Of anything. There is a freedom and a peace with loving what is, right now. To recognize the life/death/life cycle. Perhaps we will realize that we don’t need to move around quite so much, that we don’t need to consume quite so much. Perhaps we will recognize that bigger and more are not always better. Perhaps we will connect at a deeper level than buying and selling and having all of the answers. 

Gail:I sincerely hope that this is an opportunity for all of us to examine how we have been living and to slow down a little, consume less, travel less until we find a carbon neutral way to do that… I hope we will love each other more, appreciate our old people more, and appreciate the moments we’ve each been given to spend here more.

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