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Irons in the fire: So, you think you know where you’re going?

Paul Marchant Published on 14 August 2013

Nowadays, everybody seems to think he has a pretty good handle on where he’s going and how to get there because we’ve all got a GPS system in the car or on the phone.

I’ll admit that although I’m sometimes quite technologically challenged, I’ve grown quite fond of a good GPS system when I’m traveling in unfamiliar territory.

The GPS can direct me from Ft. Worth to Bowie through Decatur, down to Weatherford and back to Dallas without too much trouble. Without some sort of special help, I could wander around western Kansas for days and wonder why the sun was setting in the north.

In the absence of a good mountain to help me keep my bearings, I’m pretty useless. I’ve discovered that a GPS can usually find an end point, but the route it chooses isn’t always the most efficient.

I’ve even been known to resort to an old form of GPS when I’m really desperate – ‘go find someone’ who knows how to get to the freeway!

It’s not always as easy as having the right address, though.

Several years ago, in late October, we were gathering pairs in northern Nevada so we could sort and ship calves the next day. There were four or five of us, and we were gathering a five-section pasture.

We dumped horses and riders along the way, and the last guy took the trailer to the corral where we were to meet.

I knew the country pretty well, and never gave a second thought to getting lost. It was big, open country, and I could see for miles.

From my drop-off point I could see several cows about a mile away in a greasewood flat that stretched down into a little draw. I was riding a half-Thoroughbred gelding that wasn’t much smarter than a railroad tie but could really cover some country at a long trot. It wasn’t long before I had 30 or 40 pairs gathered and headed southeast, toward the corral.

The cows were moving along at a decent pace, and about all I had to do was keep the stragglers tucked in on the flanks. It was about this time some heavy clouds moved in and one of those wet high-desert snowstorms settled in right on top of me.

The cattle didn’t really want to keep moving, so I had to work a lot harder to keep them headed in what I thought was the right direction.

Eventually, the storm lifted. Now, with clear skies above me, I figured I could gather my bearings and speed the procession along.

To my chagrin, when I could finally see in every direction, I realized that I had somehow turned my little herd around and had been traveling the exact opposite direction. Instead of being a half-mile from my destination, I was nearly two miles farther away than when I started.

I’ve learned over the years that a GPS won’t save you from yourself, no matter how good your directions are. In my younger days, the cow boss and I were gathering some yearlings out of a big meadow near the home place.

Being just a touch impetuous, I figured I’d race my compadre across the field and through a little creek that ran through the middle of the meadow. It was all great fun until we got about 50 yards from the creek.

Without warning, and quicker than a Chris Paul crossover, both horses were sucked into belly-deep mud and both riders were somersaulted over the horses’ heads and planted head-first into the mud.

We managed to roll out of the way as the horses frantically floundered around and half swam, half ran out of the little swamp. We got the horses rounded up and the cattle gathered, but it took a good garden hose shower before I was allowed in the house.

Where we intend to go and how we intend to get there doesn’t always mesh exactly as we’d like. Sometimes bogs and snowstorms get in the way. I doubt I’m the only one who thought he’d cut a fat hog by selling a bunch of bred heifers last fall.

It seemed like a can’t-miss deal – before another summer of drought and shortfall in the corn crop led to big-time uncertainty for herd expansion.

Meanwhile, we were stuck calving 300 heifers in the coldest spring we’ve seen in over 30 years and dealing with the calf mortality and scours that come with poor timing and rotten luck. No GPS could have helped me maneuver out of that one.

The lesson here, I believe, is that in business and the business of life, it’s always best to have a well-formulated plan. Keep your GPS-enabled smartphone in your pocket and your moral compass handy, but proceed with caution.  FG