Mildred Kanipe's life is etched on her face. A life of sun and occasional wind, long winter nights and hot summer days on an Oregon ranch. Most of her front teeth are missing. She feels she is a woman who has worked and who has lost any beauty of youth that a life of leisure might have preserved. She won't allow a photograph: "It would ruin it for them" she says. "They'd say, 'Why that poor crippled up old thing couldn't do all that'." Yet her faded blue eyes sparkle and the sides of her mouth turn up in a childish smile of pure delight as she recounts the events of her lifelong love affair with the land. Mildred Kanipe is one of the most beautiful women I've ever been privileged to meet.
"I was my daddy's only boy. He taught me everything I know." She was 18 when she bought her first piece of land, about a mile from her father's. When her father died seven years later, she took over the home place - about 200 acres. After a few years, she added 700 acres that joined the two pieces. "To pay for it," she says, "I ran a grade A dairy for eight years. Let me tell you, don't ever get a dairy, unless you want to work yourself to death. Because it don't make any difference. If you died, you'd have to get up and milk those cows. They got to be milked every morning and every night. And 365 days a year. And 366 on leap year."
" It wouldn't be so bad if you had two people. But I done it alone for eight years. And no matter, if I got sick or I got hurt, I had to milk those cows. I got the flu once, and I couldn't stand up for more than two or three minutes at a time. I had to go out there and milk the cows. Another time, a horse rolled over with me - crushed my shoulder and tore up my knee. So I hobbled around on crutches to milk the cows."
" I also done a lot of things by myself that most people don't, like logging. Those were long days. I'd start in the fall, soon as haying was over. I'd get up in time to do all the chores and start logging at seven. I'd get home after dark and I'd move the irrigation pipe by moonlight. It's silver, you know, and shows up in the moon so I could see to find it. After I'd move it, I'd do the chores. So I didn't have too much time off. More than I did though, when I had the dairy. When I had the dairy and was haying, too, I was doing good to get four hours sleep a night."
" How'd I keep going? Just tough! That's the only thing I can say. I didn't have time to marry! Didn't have time to be lonesome, either. People come out here - in the spring it is all so green and pretty - and they say 'You sure are lucky to have this place. You sure are lucky.' Well, they can call it luck if they want. I call it something else."
"A lot of people, home is nothing to them. They live here and they live there. But I've always been here. I'm like these old oak trees. I'm rooted down in here so deep that I don't think there is any moving me. If I could do half of what I used to do, boy, I'd just be doing fine. But I'm all crippled up now, can't do much. I guess I could have retired. But I'd probably been dead before now. All of my neighbors got old and sold their land and moved to town. And all of them. Every one of them, died within a year after they sold their land. So I guess I'll hold on to mine!"
Reported by Teresa Jordon who was born and raised on a ranch in Wyoming, and traveled 60,000 miles to track down and interview contemporary cowgirls. She is also a frequent lecturer on rural women.