EDGAR - Andrea Clark stumbles from a bed she's barely slept in, wearing the same smelly clothes she had on just a few hours earlier, to do a job she's paying for the chance to do.
"Let's go check for babies," the 32-year-old bank worker from Lakeside tells her mother as they make their way to the nearby corrals and hundreds of pregnant sheep.
It's 2 a.m. The air is crisp and the women are tired. But if they came to Pachy Burns' ranch hoping to be pampered or to spend relaxing nights under the Big Sky, they've driven down the wrong gravel road.
This is "Jam to Lamb," a monthlong getaway that has brought Clark and about 30 women from around the country and a range of backgrounds to Burns' ranch in southern Montana, to share her rural lifestyle and the work that comes with lambing 700 sheep.
Many are stepping onto a ranch for the first time, in brand-new work boots they'd have little use for back home in the city. Others are here in search of adventure, game to cast aside their curling irons and khakis for a few days in baseball caps and Carhartts. Nearly all are in for experiences they never dreamed of when they made reservations on cards that listed "blisters to calluses" and "hands-on learning" as benefits.
"You certainly can't worry about getting dirty," Ellie Taege, a psychotherapist from Rhinelander, Wis., says, her T-shirt spackled with manure and new gloves stained with the iodine used on lambs' umbilical cords.
On Burns' ranch, the accommodations aren't lavish and the workload isn't light. There isn't even a guarantee of a bed in Burns' house - women are asked to bring sleeping bags, in case - and there is just one bathroom to share. Many simply fall asleep with the smell of sheep still on them, too tired for their turn in the shower. Everyone is expected to chip in - from checking ewes and tending lambs to fixing dinner and mowing the lawn when the action dies down - and apply what they've learned from watching Burns to finish all that needs to be done.
"I never want people to think they're being waited on," says
Burns, who works almost nonstop from sunrise to nightfall, powered by strong coffee and adrenaline and working according to a schedule set by the mother sheep, not clocks or her guests' rumbling bellies.
While women come to lambing camp for different reasons, paying $250 for a week of distractions from their busy lives, reconnecting with their roots or confidence-building, they admit that they forget their needs and problems almost as quickly as they drop their unpacked duffel bags in Burns' house.
"Jam to Lamb" is about sheep and getting elbow-deep into a way of life that is fading across Montana and the West. It is obvious just looking around the small house, filled with all manner of sheep and farm-related stuff: magazines, sketches, a few knickknacks, wool blankets. Even meals are made around a main dish of lamb that Burns generally has prepared ahead of time. Shepherd's pie is a favorite.
"Jam to Lamb" has given Burns the opportunity to promote the lamb and wool industry by giving women, many with no background in agriculture, firsthand experience with the work that goes into producing the food and clothes they buy. Hers are among the 300,000 sheep in Montana - not much more than half the 564,000 head in the state just 10 years ago.
"As long as I'm in the sheep business, I'm going to bring people in," Burns, 53, says. "If you can't speak about what you believe in, what's the point of believing in it?"
Burns never intended to make "Jam to Lamb" an all-woman's event - or even an event, for that matter.
But a few years ago when her daughters Piney and Bluesette - her main helpers since moving onto the ranch in 1983 - had left for college, Burns found it difficult to keep up with the work. Her friend Darcia Diehl showed up at lambing camp with five friends. The work went well, and her friends told their friends, and this time of year hasn't been the same for Burns since.
In the seven years she's held "Jam to Lamb," she's had at least 15 women help during each lambing season. Interest this year was so high, Burns says, that she had to turn people away.
"They must have some sense of adventure, walking onto a strange ranch like this," Burns says. "I admire them for that. I don't know I'd ever do something like that."
There are a few men on the ranch. Burns has two full-time sheepherders and Dennis Baumann, who rented a trailer on Burns' ranch with his wife, Lara, and two girls for three months, has helped in the evenings and on weekends. The occasional husband or boyfriend also stops by.
But, largely, women run this show. And Clark and her mother, Gayle Reid, are grateful for that. The two took a week's vacation each to return to the ranch for their second year.
"Being around women frees you to ask more questions. You're not afraid to look stupid," says Reid, 53, an office manager from Missoula. "In the company of men, when you ask questions, they come and take over and do it themselves."
"Or," Clark adds, "they don't have the patience for us to ask questions and learn."
Recently, Clark found herself on her hands and knees in a four- foot-by-four foot pen, groping in the growing darkness for something to offer a hungry lamb as Reid whispered soothing words to the squirming ewe she was holding. After a few minutes, the lamb was wagging its tail and making sucking sounds that brought smiles all around.
Burns and her older daughter, Piney Hardiman, work beside the women, teaching them jobs such as milking and bottle feeding and matching ewes to lambs with painted-on brands. Hardiman is back in the thick of lambing for the first time this year, returning to a way of life she didn't care for growing up but now wants to share with her two young children.
"Now I appreciate it and the hard work and what my mom went through," says Hardiman, 32. "Part of the experience is, you're so exhausted, your vulnerable side comes out. It makes for kind of a wild time."
Becky Helgerson can relate. Her husband sent her to lambing camp for 10 days - about twice the length of the average stay - last year for her 40th birthday. She spent most of the time working alone with Burns and working hard, often eating supper at 11 p.m.
Toward the end of her stay, her arms aching from lifting water buckets over the sheep pens, or "jugs," Helgerson called her husband in Ottumwa, Iowa. "It was three days before I was supposed to leave and I said, Make an appointment with my massage therapist," she says.
But she enjoyed the experience of "doing something useful" so much that she returned and brought her 11-year-old son.
"My friends think I'm crazy and they don't want to come," she says, her white turtleneck and jeans smeared by manure. "But they always want to see my pictures."
Burns is honest with the women, sometimes stern and always direct. When lambing starts in earnest, she cannot afford for the women to coo over fluffy newborns or to cry over dead ones. They must stay focused on the task at hand, she says.
But Burns is patient with them, remembering her own road here: the initial shock of seeing her first lambs born with tails and the sharp learning curve that came with starting a sheep ranch years ago with no experience with sheep or ranching. As she works - delivering a breech lamb, for example - she explains what she's doing, and why.
Burns recently explained to Nancy Wilson, a friend of Taege's, why a badly deformed lamb needed to be killed.
"It makes me sad, but it's important that we're sad," Wilson, 55, a psychiatrist, also from Rhinelander, Wis., says. "It would be unfortunate if we didn't feel that way."
Wilson, who bought boots and gloves just for the trip, says she came expecting to work hard and hoping to see a lamb born on Easter morning. She actually saw several.
"The idea of new life in the spring and of helping newborn lambs get started," she says, "I just love that idea."
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