By Chandler Jade Mellon
I woke up to the warmth of sunshine on my face. It was only 7 a.m., but it was time to throw on my cowboy boots and get to work. As I opened my door, the brisk South Dakota air brushed my face and let me know it was going to be a great day, not too hot and not too cold. It didn’t take much to make me mentally ready for work, because my work day was spent outside in my own little paradise.
South Dakota is usually only known as the state with Mount Rushmore. People see it as being full of nothing and more nothing. I know I didn’t expect much when I accepted a summer job there in 2012; however I fell in total and complete blissful love with its windy roads, vast open spaces, friendly faces, lightning storms and extreme amount of wildlife.
I spent two summers on Robbs Flatt Road, a winding dirt road following the path of the nearby Cheyenne River. It is 70 miles away from any civilization. I guess you could say that I was in the middle of nowhere. The first summer I didn’t know if I would be okay being away from everything I knew for so long, but as the weeks went on it became refreshing. My job was to raise mule deer fawns, feed adult deer, observe adult does and clean various things around the ranch. It was hard work – and not exactly the type of thing you see a nineteen year old, 5’6” and 130 pound girl doing. But, I did it and I enjoyed every moment.
I grew in more ways than one that summer. The time I spent there was ultimately a time of self-discovery. I think that the open spaces and ability to be far away from everything made it easy for me to enjoy life instead of worrying about petty life events that will not matter in 20 years. Before I went to South Dakota I was always worried about time, what people thought about me and how I should act instead of how I actually wanted to. After three months there I was happier than I had been in years. I was so happy that I went back for three more months during the summer of 2013.
A day of work at the ranch consisted of me waking up at 6:30am every single day to go and feed the mule deer fawns their milk. Of course, first I had to make the bottles and that itself was a twenty-minute process. After making the milk, I headed out to the fawn pen with a crate full of nineteen, 16-ounce bottles, each labeled with an individual fawn’s number. Also in tow I had baby wipes and a garbage bag for the fawn’s waste, which I was also responsible for monitoring. As I entered the pen, all nineteen hungry fawns ambushed me. Fawns may seem like very cuddly creatures, but I can tell you first hand that their hooves are quite sharp and can be painful. The fawns would jump on me in order to retrieve their meal and they issued more than their fair share of bruises to my poor legs and back. Even so, I still adored them.
After I had finished cleaning the fawns bottles, I fed myself and shortly after that headed out to the deer pens to do a “deer check,” which consisted of me and my co-worker counting all of the deer and observing them to make sure they were healthy. In addition, we were to walk all of the doe pens in an orderly fashion to look for any fawns that may have been born in the past twenty-four hours.
Usually after the deer check, I went out to cut fresh alfalfa from a nearby meadow for the fawns. It was healthier for them and they enjoyed it very much. Then around that time it was mid-morning, my boss and the other intern would head out for the day to do farm work, check the cattle and sometimes just do scouting of the wild deer that surrounded the ranch. I was expected to independently do my chores around the ranch while they were gone for the day. My chores consisted of filling feeders for the adult deer and cleaning water bucket’s if need be. In addition, I was expected to clean any messes that may be on the ranch, for instance in the lodge or in the shop where all the tools were held and if the lawn needed to be mowed you can bet I was expected to do that as well.
My main job though was to feed and socialize with the fawns. So at 7am, 12pm, 5pm and 10pm, I was out in the fawn pen feeding the babies, making sure they were all healthy, giving them fresh alfalfa and being the best mom I could be. Not only did I feed the fawns in the pen, but also when we first took the babies from their mother in order to make them tame. They were kept in my house for a few days before they got used to the bottle. It was my job to start the fawns on the bottle and it took a good 24-48 hours before they finally got the idea that I was the only way they were going to eat. There were many sleepless nights where the fawns were crying, but would not drink from the bottle. This in itself made me feel like a true mother; waking up every few hours to a crying baby. This made it even more rewarding when the fawns did begin to drink.
Even though raising fawns was the main reason for me being in South Dakota, my experience would not have been the same if my environment hadn’t been as beautiful and people hadn’t have been as wonderfully generous. I still to this day keep in contact with the neighbors who lent me a truck for the summers and brought me food when they thought I needed it and not just that, but just being good people made my time better.
I now look back at my time on Robbs Flatt Road as one of the best experiences of my life. I will admit it was not all fabulous, however, I remember the good parts more than anything and I wouldn’t change my two summers spent there for the world. Every once and awhile I find myself wishing I could go back just to see one more lightning storm or stand outside in one more rainstorm or maybe to go for one more run on the flat windy roads where I could see for miles. South Dakota may not be much to many people, but for me, it is where I found who I wanted to be and it has my heart.