The day the cattle danced in the rain | Editor’s notes – Chico Enterprise-Record

It wasn’t much, just a few drops in Friday’s early morning hours. But it produced that smell — petrichor — that lets us know rain is once again falling on God’s once-green Earth.

It was nothing to write home or even report about, but it was enough to bring back my favorite memory of the rain, and it goes like this:

As I’ve mentioned a time or three, I grew up on a ranch near Flournoy, about 14 miles west of Corning. I was the fifth generation there and our family raised sheep, but there were also cattle, horses, chickens, pigs and all forms of critters on the ranch most of that time.

In the early 1960s my grandmother sold the back two-thirds of the ranch to a man named Robert Hofstadter, a Stanford professor who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in physics. (He was also the man whose last name inspired that of Leonard Hofstadter on “The Big Bang Theory,” and you could look it up.) Hofstadter and his family visited their ranch often, with my parents running the day-to-day cattle operations for them.

In the summer, this meant hauling hay to the cattle. Lots of hay, because the green grass in those hills is gone long before the end of spring.

During the 1970s, we had a lot of dry years, droughts as bad as anything we’ve seen the past decade. The reservoirs were low — we actually had a half-mile-long hose supplying one with a slow stream of water every day — and feed was scarce. That hose, and the hay, were the only things keeping the cattle alive.

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One day — I remember it was in August — my dad, brother and I were taking a load of hay to the herd. It was a miserably hot afternoon, it had been miserably hot for a month and as far as we knew, it was going to stay miserably hot and dry through September and beyond.

You could see the effect the summer heat was having on those Herefords, too; they looked miserable and defeated, plodding through the dust with no ambition in life other than getting that next meal, swatting away flies with their tails while hopefully surviving through another sunset.

And then, on this one magical day, just as the cattle were approaching our truck in anticipation of the hay, the craziest thing happened.

It started to rain.

Not just a little rain, either; it was a downpour, brought on by some big, dark clouds that were nowhere to be seen when we’d left the house 20 minutes earlier.

We were, to put it simply, amazed — and that amazement tripled once we saw the effect the rain was having on the cattle.

For the next several minutes, those cattle turned into children, playing in the rain. They ran, they kicked their hooves into the air and they  danced in circles, briefly becoming whirling dervishes celebrating the feel of actual, cooling rainwater on their hides for the first time in six months.

And they mooed – in celebration of what was happening. Even the bull – a huge beast that weighed right around a ton – was joining in, kicking his heels and hopping in circles like an oversized drunken cowboy on a Saturday night dance floor.

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It was almost like the Cattle Gods were playing a prank on us, using Hofstadter’s Herefords as puppets in a show only we could see.

After a few seconds I began to laugh, the kind of uncontrollable laugh that can come only from the mouth of a 12-year-old boy. My brother laughed. Our dad laughed. It even felt like the cattle were laughing along with us.

And a couple of minutes later, just as quickly as it had started, it stopped.

We dropped off the hay, which was quickly devoured by the cattle, who had no doubt worked up quite an appetite with their aerobics display. And then we drove away, the unmistakable smell of newly soaked oak trees carving a special place in my memory.

I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.

But every year, if there’s a late-summer rain on a warm day (or even the middle of the night) producing that special petrichor for just a few minutes, I feel 12 again, and I smile … because I can still see those cattle dancing in the rain. And who else can make THAT claim?

Certainly not Leonard Hofstadter. And you could look it up.

Mike Wolcott is editor of the Enterprise-Record. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter @m_mwolcott.




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