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Irons in the fire: The unloading spot

Paul Marchant Published on 29 May 2015

As I snaked around the last bend in the rough, washboard road before the wide spot at the base of the hill where I intended to pull over to unload my horse, I glanced in the mirror and noticed the swinging trailer gate. I didn’t take this as a good omen to start my day.

It was early August. I was heading to the mountain to check some water troughs and kick some of the stragglers and lazier cows up out of the creek bottoms and into some higher country. When I pulled over at the unloading spot, I got out of the cab and walked to the back of the trailer.

I commented to the two dust-covered dogs, who happily bailed out of the back of the pickup, that it looked like we might have to move cows shepherd-style, because the horse that I’d loaded in the trailer when I left home was very conspicuous in his absence.

It turned out a weld on the latch of the old 18-foot stock trailer had broken, allowing the trailer door to swing open, which in turn allowed my steed to escape.

As I pondered my situation and asked the dogs if they figured we had a skinned up pony and saddle back down the road, a town-dweller on a four-wheeler pulled up and informed me that he’d just captured a westbound buckskin and tied him to the fence by the cattleguard a mile-and-a-half down the road. He wondered if I knew whose horse it might be.

A week or two later, I was at the same unloading spot – horse, dogs and trailer all in good order – waiting for Johnny to arrive. Johnny was an affable, if sometimes absent-minded, friend of mine who liked to help out whenever we had some extra day work.

He had a paint mare and an Appaloosa gelding that he used at the local roping club and sheriff’s posse riding club. He liked to keep them legged-up by riding on the mountain, so he was always eager to help if we had some mountain cowboying to do.

On this particular day, Johnny was, as usual, a few minutes late, so it was no surprise to see his old Ford bouncing up the hill, traveling a bit faster than it probably should have been. What was a surprise was that his little two-horse bumper-pull trailer wasn’t behind him.

He roared up the last incline and around the bend, whipped into the unloading spot and turned his pickup around. He jumped out, offered a quick apology for his tardiness and skipped on back to unload his horse.

It was at that moment that he discovered that his trailer was missing. He didn’t seem to see near the humor in the situation that I did. I don’t know how he didn’t notice that his trailer was missing, but we found it and the horse safe and sound a few miles down the road at the bottom of the first hill out of town.

The incident did nothing for Johnny’s ego, but I felt a little better about my earlier mishap at the unloading spot.

Like a favorite quaint café or coffee shop to some folks, I have my own favorite gathering spots. They happen to be unloading spots – those places where cowhands and families gather to unload their horses before a big gather or a branding.

It’s where you meet at the end of a long, dusty day to swap lies and discuss finding that little jag of cows that slipped by you before the BLM finds them in the wrong unit.

They’re places like the spot by the cabin up the south fork of the Weber River or the sorting pens at the mouth of Slate Creek Canyon. Back in the day, the unloading spots had a place dug out where you could back up the 2-ton bobtail to unload the horses. Now all you need is some flat ground to park the trailers.

It’s the place where cold-backed colts always offer some early morning entertainment, and where Leon always left his slicker in the truck. It’s Camel Rock or the old foundation up Willow Creek or Piney Cabin. It’s where kids feel the excitement of being included in something important as dads tighten cinches and tied coats and lunches behind saddles.

It’s also the place they can’t wait to get back to when they’re worn plum out and the last calf is pushed through the gate, and all that’s between them and a soft pickup seat is an hour-and-a- half ride in the dark.

The unloading spot is where you tuck away good memories and learn to appreciate horses and friends and good dogs, old saddles, spare tires with air and family.

The unloading spot is one of those underappreciated little gems that only very few of us in the world will ever get to experience. I thank the Lord that I’m one of those few.  FG