Published in RANGE Magazine ~ Fall 2009
Most called her “Ma.” It was a term of respect that she received long before I arrived and remained long after I left. Shelda became a mother to us all in one way or another. In a land where grit holds a high value, everyone knew she had what it took. She rode tall and straight in the saddle. She felt fear, but she controlled it, instead of it controlling her. A woman of few words, Shelda always spoke with careful choosing and sincere meaning. When she spoke, people listened. They listened, not because she and her husband Scott were the bosses, but because they truly respected her. Simply put, she made you want to be better. Her direct eyes and unstoppable drive pushed those around her to keep up.
Shelda would be on the radio making food orders for the next week of hunts, chopping kindling, baking cookies, and she would get it all done without burning her pie crusts. Shelda firmly believed in homemade food. All of her pie crusts, cookies, bread, and noodles were handmade, taking hours of hard work and dedication to excellence. Her talent at making delicious food from last week’s scraps amazes me to this day. Paying clients never guessed that the quiches and pot pies were made from miscellaneous remnants.
Back at base camp, the Simplot Ranch, she made sure everything ran like a well-oiled machine. With purposeful strides, she exercised the hounds, a pack of energetic and ornery hunting dogs that listened to her voice without exception. Under her watchful supervision no hound ever took off, and fights rarely occurred. Her dedication to lame and injured stock never failed. If they knocked on death’s door, she made sure that door never opened. She doctored the rankest of mules with as much love as the sweetest of dude horses. With amazing dedication, she irrigated acres of Simplot Ranch pasture: carving a lush green niche out of the sagebrush’s desert landscape. Her long strides carried her across water-filled ditches with relaxed speed. Many a hunter took a picture of her tall figure amid the pastures, sun in her graying blond hair. She made dinner, walked the hounds, doctored the lame stock, and kept the fragile pastures flamboyantly green with the same hands that skillfully manipulated pie crusts into beautiful ripples. In many ways she epitomized the quintessential western woman, dedicated and tough, but never lacking in kindness.
On top of cooking and caring for all of the small things around base camp, Shelda kept the books for the outfit, both full-time jobs. She tried to make the ride to camp count by making notes and lists on the way. To someone who doesn’t know the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, that might not sound exceptional. The Frank Church extends for miles, being the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48. The area that she and Scott outfitted will always be harsh country. Sagebrush and rock dot the hills, trees scatter with stubborn tenacity. The trails to hunting camps wind their way up mountainsides and teeter across cliff faces. Where picks and shovels could not force the rocks into submission, the old-timers used dynamite to blow trails into the sides of gorges. In the end she gave up on note-taking. Those rides became her peace and quiet from the chaos that is outfitting. Shelda called those long and lonely trails home. She loved the land, the animals on it, and the people who came to lose and find themselves in the snow-capped mountains of her Frank Church.
She possessed the same stubbornness as those mountains. No job was too big and no horse too wild. Sometimes the stubborn streak made her difficult. Her way was the only way, people could deal with her strong personality or they could not. Regardless, those things made her Shelda. After watching her and the cooks she trained, any sane person would rather pull a crosscut with the boys on trail crew than be a camp cook. Keeping up with her proved to be an achievement worth writing down. The stubbornness and drive were tempered with a rarely seen generosity.
Without hesitation, she and Scott took on a guide and cook team with an eight-year-old daughter and a thirteen-year-old son. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that they took the risk, she had experienced kids in hunting camp on a first hand basis. When her kids were too young to ride, she lined pack-boxes with blankets. Her two boys and one daughter slept their way to camp on either side of a trusty old mule. Her sons have their own children now, much to Shelda’s joy.
I saw her over New Years in 2009. It had been years since we had met, since before I could pronounce my r’s and said hosses instead of horses. She was different than I remembered her. Time wasn’t the culprit, cancer was. Strong arms were faded to mere wisps and the long wavy hair was short and sparse. The sunshine smile I remembered still existed. Because of the cancer that robbed her strength, it never lasted for long.
For someone who faced the day prepared with a yellow legal tablet of lists, the cancer came as a surprise. A toe refused to heal after an injury. The cancer had all of the white blood cells occupied elsewhere. She fought for a year, and then the doctors gave her a month after New Years. She spent it at home with family, saying goodbye to friends and teaching her husband how to write checks. Her daughter’s first baby is due in July; Shelda got to see an ultra sound. She said, “That will just have to do.” That was her way, do everything you can and then let it go.
Less than a month after that visit, I visited her casket. Time causes memories to fade, but a few distinct images of her will always remain. Her returning from camp, a silk cowboy scarf around her neck and her clothes stained with bacon grease. How un-impressed she was when all of us told her she looked like a Viking warrior woman with her blond hair braided back, astride Barney, the giant dapple-gray draft horse. How her face would look when she wanted to lose her temper; lips set and eyes filled with irritation, she would not allow herself to. Mostly I will have the image of her standing tall among the lush grass of Simplot Ranch, irrigation boots rising to her knees.
My mind also struggles to put the image of her healthy form together with her cancer-ridden body. Those two images war with each other every time I think of her. It is doubtful that will ever change. When someone lives a full life they have no single identity.
An Idaho rancher’s daughter, an outfitter’s wife, and a friend to a little girl more comfortable around the four legged than two legged. The wake of people she left behind will never forget her. She was a testament to the generations before her and an example to the generation after her. In her way, she taught us all something about life, about what true grit really is. She taught me more than she ever knew. What you do does not define you, how you do it does. I learned that from Shelda.
© Kaitlin Ens