Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook:
Home on the Ranch
“My work as a ranch cook gives me a unique perspective. I have lived and worked every summer since 1991 in rural northwest Wyoming, among the people, the wildlife, and in the outdoors. My abiding love for the American West and the passion I feel for the truly sacred land and the culture there have been a major impetus for my music and poetry.”
Singer-songwriter, Poet, Trail Cook, Connie Dover
The Boston Globe has described Connie Dover as “the finest folk ballad singer America has produced since Joan Baez.” Her voice has been heard on numerous film and Emmy award-winning television soundtracks. She produced original and traditional music for the PBS show Bad Blood – A True History of the Kansas Missouri Border Conflict and won an Emmy Award for musical composition and arrangement for her work on that production. She served as musical consultant on Ang Lee’s Civil War epic film, Ride with the Devil and has been featured on A Prairie Home Companion, NPR Weekend Edition, and The Thistle and Shamrock. When Connie is not touring and recording, she spends her time working as a ranch cook in Wyoming, where she draws inspiration for her music.
WILD RIVER REVIEW: Why did you spend 15 summers as a trail cook on cattle drives and the last five as a cook on a ranch?
CONNIE DOVER: I go to Wyoming to remember who I am. I don’t have the capacity (or desire) to live the life of someone who strives each day to be a creative musician. Deep communication, in all of its forms, is what interests me most. Music is a means to that end—it’s a powerful conduit for accessing and sharing the truth of our most essential selves. It can to draw us to each other by circumventing the banality of typical verbal communication.
To be on the giving end of a musical connection requires that I have something of substance to share. Good music doesn’t come from a void, so I try to draw inspiration from my experiences, my surroundings, the people I know, and ultimately, the emotions they awaken within me.
When I am in Wyoming, I’m not concerned about music—I have other work to do there, and as I have learned, once you move your focus (or obsession) away from a creative project, it will often flower naturally, and in its own time.
Ranch cooking is challenging physical work, but I enjoy cooking for and feeding hungry people. When I’m on the ranch, I am not the Singer. I am physically separated from modern technology—from phones, internet, television and radio—and audiences: all of the ways I stay connected to the outer world and to my life as a professional musician. Freeing up this interior space and dropping the need to maintain an image allows me to experience my life without feeling compelled to put a face on it. This is a tough exercise! It requires me to ask myself who I am aside from the usual ideas (and myths) I cultivate about myself, not only in the world, but interiorly, as well. The longer I am away, the more this external self recedes.
WRR: What sparked the idea?
DOVER: I had always felt a deep attachment to the American West, particularly the Rocky Mountains. I decided to take one of those ranch vacations I’d been hearing about. I was drawn to the ranch that sounded most appealing—“92,000-acre ranch set in the unsurpassed natural beauty of Wyoming”. I was also drawn to the word “rustic.” I thought, that’s the place for me, so I signed up to be a guest on one of their week-long summer cattle drives—a ranch vacation on a working ranch.
By the end of my stay there, I was so in love with the place and the life that I asked the owners for a job, knowing that I didn’t have any ranch experience. I hoped my willingness to work hard would somehow meet a need. I continued to be in touch with the owners through the winter, and by spring they realized that I meant it, so they hired me to come out and work their spring cattle drives, doing whatever might be needed, and doing a little singing around the campfire.
When I arrived at the ranch for my first day of work (a flight from Kansas City to Denver, then Denver to Cody, and an hour-long drive to the ranch), I learned that the cook had left, guests were coming and ranch hands were expecting to be fed. I hadn’t been hired as a cook, especially THE cook, so I stayed up all night with a copy of Joy of Cooking, made a menu, went to the store in nearby Thermopolis for groceries, and started cooking. Luckily for me, these cowboys were willing to put up with a lot of variations on quiche, which was all I really knew how to make at the time.
Soon another cook arrived, a great lady from Mississippi who understood people and flavor and life. It was from Bobbie that I learned the basics of cooking for groups, when to laugh, when to sit down, and the One Rule—“First, you make a roux”…I learned from her what a haven a kitchen can be. Wherever she was, no matter what the chaos, the weather, the minor catastrophe of the day—sometimes cooking under a tarp in a driving rain, water streaming down our faces, she would always sing. One of the great things I learned from Bobbie was about when not to panic.
WRR: What’s a typical day like on a cattle drive?
DOVER: The day is determined by a few factors—weather, how far you’ll be moving the cows that day, how many people are moving them, and then “n”—the unknown quantity that can completely change whatever plan you thought you’d made. When people, horses and cattle are moving through remote country, anything can happen.
Cook fires are built in large oval pits surrounded by rocks. Grills are laid over the top, and propped up by two large metal sheets that also serve as a block to relentless winds, which helps to control the heat and intensity of the fire. Wood is cottonwood or pine.
Water is brought along in barrels or 5-gallon plastic jugs—sometimes as many as 15 jugs, depending on the duration of the trip. We would also draw water for washing from nearby streams. All food and cleaning supplies were packed in coolers, camp boxes, tins and barrels, and plastic tubs—we would typically pack enough to cook two hot meals and a pack lunch for three or four days. We loaded everything into the back of a pickup truck and trailer, and sometimes a chuck wagon or freight wagon, the latter two being driven by a muleskinner and a pair of mules or draft horses.
We also packed bedrolls, tarps, medical supplies, fire making tools (our most carefully guarded box—it always rode in or near my lap!), tent poles for range teepees (you can sleep six to a tent on a rainy night), ropes, stakes, hammers, shovels, gear for the riders, lime for the outhouses (which were strategically dug and placed at some cow camps), horse blankets, feed and extra firewood, in case the wood waiting for us was wet. This whole entourage would move ahead of the cattle herd in order to set up camp before cattle, horses and riders arrived.
Our little cook team often consisted of Bobbie, me, and sometimes our good friend Meghan. We would drive vehicles or ride with the teamsters, and would draft a wrangler to help us set up camp, teepees, and unload food and cookware into our cook-tent, which was a lodge pole lean-to with 3 canvas walls.
It would be typical to cook for 25 people at a time—ranch hands, guests and anyone who might happen to wander by at mealtime. Despite Wyoming’s small population, passersby tended to find us at mealtime. The more, the merrier.
WRR: What fascinates you about this job and keeps you returning to it?
DOVER: Working on a ranch keeps me in the present moment. Daily life is very full and very immediate. Your physical presence, attention and focus are required, and for me, they usually are centered on preparing and serving food, providing a warm welcome to guests and visitors, and being around animals and in nature. Everything else falls away. I don’t have the leisure for the sort of self-absorbed reflection that sometimes comes about because everything is provided to me. We have SO much ENERGY, so much passion, and almost nothing to devote it to except the satisfaction of our cravings. This can be tedious, and toxic.
My work in Wyoming forces my energy and attention into the moment. People I meet and work with seem etched in a clearer light. I am able to notice and be moved by the tenacity and humor of people who continue to hold to their dream of living in this harsh place, by their stories and their attitudes. My time there feels like part of the truest piece of who I am. When I want to write, I start from myself as Connie in Wyoming, and then I start to write. It is my root place.
WRR: It is said you “can often be heard singing old-time songs around a roaring campfire to the accompaniment of hoarse cowboys and lowing cattle.” Describe what that experience feels like.
DOVER: My measure for profound happiness is the moment when I’m aware that I want to be no other place than where I am. When I’m around the campfire or out in the wild, I don’t think about being anywhere else. When I hear someone in cow camp singing the songs I’d known as British ballads, but with a Wyoming twist, I see a beautiful example of the continuity of life. I’m fascinated by how well songs travel, and impressed by their durability. It’s like finding friends in common. Making music at the end of the day, when everyone is tired, the moon is rising, your filthy (four days with only a face and neck bath) puts things in perspective. And I realize what a drain it is to feed and maintain our illusion of what constitutes beauty, satisfaction and entertainment. The so-called “real world” which people return to is a construct, and it’s a construct that we participate in propping up, but it’s certainly no more real than life in rural Wyoming—in fact, to me it feels less real.
WRR: What’s the most important thing you learned from your work as a trail cook?
DOVER: I have learned that we are capable of doing much more than we think we can. Every chance we take, every step we are willing to take away from our routine comfort zone, no matter how small, will energize us. If we can pull ourselves away from the security of accustomed environments, we’ll discover an adventurer within ourselves who urges us to say yes to possibilities we never would have considered before. I enjoy being with people in beautiful settings, learning about them, and watching everyone interact with our wild and beautiful surroundings. The sense of community that develops is very grounding. It feels so much more real than being immersed in the contrivances that we deceptively refer to as entertainment.
WRR: How does your love of nature inform your music?
DOVER: Most of what I create is based on visual inspiration. When I write songs or lyrics, I am only trying to manifest another medium into music. For me, the heart of creativity lies in emotion—what feelings are evoked when I am in the wilderness; how do I feel when I return to the city; and how can I most truly express these feelings?
Being deep in the natural world, living in the midst of its honest, raw vitality—experiencing the life and color of everything around me feels like such a . . . relief. The combination of being away from the chaos of a town or city, and in the midst of earth and sky, settles my breath and gives me greater physical ease.
When I am in the mountains, along a streamside at twilight, or watching the moon rise over the prairie, my senses are delighted and sometimes overwhelmed. It is this feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty that inspires me to write. The natural world has integrity. It is fragile and transient, yet it is abiding. We humans love to capture things and to hold them, to make them last past the present moment. When I write, I try to describe what is around me, and I’m driven by that same desire to re-create, hold and keep a moment that I know won’t come again.
WRR: What the most important advice you can give to someone who desires to work (and succeed) as a singer, a trail cook, or both?
DOVER: Do what you want to do. Actually permit yourself to picture an enjoyable life. Make a list of everything you want to try or learn or experience. Don’t hold back in this list-making exercise. Of course, we all have practical considerations, but we have many more choices than we realize. Most of the regrets I have are for things I haven’t done.
Try to remind yourself of what is real. Reality isn’t on the cover of magazines. Reality isn’t just the next new techno-toy. Reality isn’t only house, car, paycheck, although we need some of this to survive. Ask yourself what is real to you. What do you value most?
Spend time alone, whether in thought, meditation, prayer, walking. Feel yourself in your body, and be aware of where your thoughts naturally flow.
Don’t forget to breathe.
Connie Dover and Cowboy Singer and Musician, Skip Gorman
A TYPICAL MORNING ON THE TRAIL WITH CONNIE DOVER
“Assuming breakfast on the trail is at 6 AM, the cook’s morning would go something like this:
3.45 AM—Awake, crawl out of bedroll (or tent, if you’re lucky)
4:00— Start two fires (hopefully, they have been well-stoked the previous night, and coals are still hot). One fire is for cooking and the other is for heating water.
4:15—Put on coffee. This is the recipe for cowboy coffee, which we made in two big blue enamel kettles: fill kettles and bring water to a boil. Throw in fresh coffee grounds, a pinch of salt (and cinnamon if you’re adventurous). Bring to a boil, simmer quietly a few minutes, and toss in a little cold water to settle grounds. Remove pots from direct heat and set near fire. We used “canned cow” (tinned milk) to “decorate” coffee.
Wash water—for dishes and people—heated in a big kettle and open pans. We never use paper or plastic. All utensils and dishes are enamelware, tin or aluminum, plus cast iron pots and griddles for cooking. We wash them after every meal.
4:30—Put bacon on to fry. We usually cook 5 lbs at a time, and laid the strips across big griddles. This was tricky at a camp where the fire pit had been dug (inexplicably) into a slope. Hot bacon grease would run off the griddle and trickle down the hill, creating a hazardous causeway of dirt and grease. Although we cooks complained constantly, we never re-dug this. I guess we took a perverse pleasure in the mess.
4:45—Water for oatmeal or grits is put on to boil. Apples, sliced fresh or dried, are put in another pot, with a little water, butter, brown sugar and spices, to make stewed fruit. This must be stirred frequently, or set aside after bringing to a boil. Sometimes we stir raisin and nuts into this.
5:00—Fry pancakes. Cooked bacon is laid in paper towels or cloth, and set in a Dutch oven near the fire. Grease from these griddles is poured into a #10 coffee can, to be used for frying pancakes or eggs. Dry ingredients for pancake batter are put together in advance, and stored with canned blueberries and syrup in a gunnysack (if everything else failed, we could still make pancakes). We fry four or five dozen cakes, and keep them warm in another Dutch oven while the rest of breakfast is prepared.
If we don’t serve pancakes, we make bacon or sausage gravy, and pour it over hot biscuits, which we keep warm in a pot, sprinkling them with water to prevent them drying out. Greasing the bottom of the pot adds an extra layer of moisture and flavor to the biscuits.
5:25—Oatmeal or grits, and a little salt, are added to boiling water. Raisins or currants are set out on a picnic table that will serve as our “buffet”. Salt, pepper, brown or cone sugar, apple butter, jam, canned cow, butter blocks (thawed near the fire), tea bags, Tabasco, and other condiments also go on this table, plus sweet rolls or breads we baked at the ranch before the drive.
5:35—Set out lunch food for the day. Riders can choose from: boiled Virginia ham, elk or antelope jerky, pickled eggs, chunks of cheese, meat pie, dried apples, Miss Bobbie’s famous trail mix, and hard candy, all wrapped in twists of waxed paper, can then be rolled in cloth kerchiefs and slid into saddle bags. Lunches are prepared by the cooks, stored into camp boxes, and made ready the night before, after dinner is eaten and dishes are washed and put away.
5:45—Oatmeal or grits, hot stewed fruit, biscuits, bacon or sausage are set on the serving table. Pancakes or biscuits, plus gravy or warm syrup are also set out. Serving utensils are fished out of a tackle box reserved for this purpose. Everything is served from cast iron pots, their lids perched to the side to keep the food warm. Oven mitts or woven hot pads are laid on lid tops. Coffee is self-serve, hanging from S-hooks hanging over cook fires.
6:00—If anybody wants eggs, now is the time. After breakfast is set on the serving table, we pour eggs (about a dozen at a time, well-salted and peppered) onto cooling griddles, to serve diners as they walk by with their plates. Depending on weather and available light, we make fried eggs to order. Leftover biscuits and bacon are pilfered and put in pockets and saddlebags. Before we leave, we pack fresh eggs into wooden crates, a flat at a time, and cushion them with cloths or rice. Sometimes, we crack eggs in advance, and store them in big jars that are packed in ice and kept cool.
The other cook or camp tender sets pans of hot water on stumps or on the back of the chuck wagon—this is for riders to wash and rinse their own plates or bowls. We fill separate pans for personal wash water, and put out hand or lye soap and plenty of clean towels. Tooth brushing is done with water from the stream or canteens. The heating and switching out of clean water is a full time job. We carry pans of old wash water out to the prairie, and hope we are watering plants, and not killing them.
6:15—Put pans of wash water on the fire for cooks’ pots and utensils. Riders are finishing breakfast, filling canteens, saddling and feeding and graining.
6:30—Time to start washing dishes, drying them and packing them away. We clean up the camp thoroughly. Trash is collected and thrown into a truck or wagon to take with us. Teepees are taken down, leftover food stored in camp boxes or coolers, and everything is loaded back into trucks or wagons. We carefully drench fires with leftover wash water, and then walk the area to make sure nothing is left behind (although something always is—it’s amazing what you can find rolling across the prairie).
By 7:30 AM we are loaded up, and headed across the prairie or through piney mountain forests toward a noon-time stopping place. If riders have pack lunches with them, we’ll pass them by somewhere on the trail in order to set up the next camp for the night, and so goes again the routine of unloading food, cookware, starting fires, putting up teepees, pouring out water, setting up wash stations and preparing a welcoming camp for riders at the end of the day. We usually greet them with cold watermelon slices as they ride in. (Unless there’s a cold driving rain—then it’s coffee and brownies. We start preparing dinner right away—stew and biscuits or chili and frybread, pinto beans, fried chicken if it’s not too windy, plenty of cold salads and fruit, sweet potato and pecan pie, and pound cake. Then it’s more washing up (usually with the sun going down). This is a great part of the day. The fires are stoked, and we stand around the fire, or perch on rocks, watch the stars, talk, sing, and tell stories (and lies!). The cooks are often the last to bed. We stoke and tamp the fire, prep for breakfast, and I find a bedding down spot in the cook tent. The drawback is that the food attracts critters, large and small, and a snuffling pack rat can sound like a griz to the imaginative insomniac. However, a little shelter and privacy at the end of the day seems worth the risk. And nothing’s gotten me yet!”
Janice Gable Bashman is the Bram Stoker nominated author of PREDATOR (Month9Books 2014) and WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE (w/NEW YORK TIMES bestseller Jonathan Maberry) (Citadel Press 2010). She is publisher of THE BIG THRILL (International Thriller Writers’ magazine). Her short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, and the International Thriller Writers, where she serves on the board of directors as Vice President, Technology.
All Articles by Janice Gable Bashman:
For Better or For Worse: How Lynn Johnston Became One of the World’s Most Read Comic Strip Artists
From Tragedy to Triumph: New York Times Bestselling Author L.A. Banks
Photojournalist Margaret Courtney-Clarke: Finding the Soul of Africa Through the Lens
Connie Dover – Singer-songwriter and Trail Cook: Home on the Ranch
Kathryn Ball – Fire Watcher: On Buck Rock Lookout
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Barry Eisler
Thrill Ride: An Interview with Bill Kent
Thrill Ride: An Interview with David Housewright