Chapter 13: Wrangle Resilience - Saddling Stress In The Midst Of US COVID Collapse
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Special thanks to the University of Vermont Humanities Center for providing a grant supporting research for this chapter.
Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yak on!
SXY BST and I travelled 6,500 miles across US in 13 days visiting 24 yak farms in 19 states.
Yaks wrangle resilience.
As a species, they’ve managed to survive, evolve and thrive over thousands of years.
And now, yaks’ oldest ally and greatest threat, we sapiens ourselves, are up against it, facing what anthropologist Joseph Tainter famous called “collapse” in his acclaimed 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies.
Civilizations like the Romans and the Mayans disappeared, Tainter argued, when their decision makers failed to economically invest in preserving the resilience of their complex social institutions, leading to what Tainter referred to as “diminishing returns on investments in social complexity.” With the destruction of complex civilizations (usually far-flung empires), more resilient local communities stepped in to shepherd forward the post-collapse remains, preserving human institutions (think medieval monasteries after Rome’s collapse) and perpetuating, long term, the continuation of human civilization.
Joseph Tainter's acclaimed COLLAPSE study.
How does Tainter’s “collapse” framework relate to yaks teaching US humans about wrangling resilience and saddling stress?
First, note that 2020 proved a most unusual year in US history, featuring a story that cast a virus as the central actor.
Here’s the official story.
First appearing in late 2019 in the city of Wuhan, China, a so-called “novel corona virus” (designated “Sars CoV 2”) producing a new infectious disease called “COVID-19” swept across the globe. By March 2020, most national governments chose to “outsource” their policymaking to a handful of technocrats at the United Nations (UN) created World Health Organization (WHO) and, in the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute for Health (NIH). The WHO, the CDC and the NIH convinced enough policy makers within US and state government circles to hastily promote historically unprecedented viral policy protocols to counter what nearly every US mainstream news outlet referred to as a “global pandemic” caused by the Sars CoV 2 virus.
Said protocols included a series of extreme and historically unprecedented top-down medical interventions: “physical distancing” (every human must keep at least six feet of distance between each another); near-universal mask mandates to “suppress the spread” of the virus; “shelter in place” (stay home/stay safe!) orders; and widespread “economic lockdowns” that soon began ravaging tens of thousands of small businesses and hundreds of local economies in US towns and cities from coast to coast.
CDC artists' imagined rendering of the "magic corona virus" via computer animation.
By autumn 2020, the US faced a collective COVIDtasrophe, what hundreds of US doctors referred to in an April letter to the White House as a “mass casualty incident.” Millions of COVID-addled Americans stared into the grim face of mass unemployment, economic destitution, potential eviction, and chronic anxiety, depression, abuse and despair – all because of policy protocols based on media-stoked fear of a virus from which WHO data acknowledged that 99.86 % of the human population would fully recover from without any lasting effects. Add to this viral devastation a contested US 2020 election between divisive Republican President Donald Trump and long-time Democrat Joe Biden, aging and cognitively challenged darling of the globalists in charge of the Democratic Party, and sprinkle in a deep sense of political polarization and viral despair eating into the collective heart of the US citizenry.
What was emerging was a “dark winter”- a potent national brew comprised of toxic ingredients.
What better time, I said to myself, for a US yak research road trip?
Thanksgiving week 2020 saw me saddling up my SXY BST – a 2007 Honda Element – with extra engine oil, gear straps and bungee cords, a mattress, yak rugs, two sleeping bags, a few changes of underwear and socks, warm winter layers, four gallons of fresh Vermont well water, and a cooler full of string cheese, pita chips, and Italian charcuterie.
My travel plan – to cover the entire United States in two weeks, visiting two dozen yak operations in 19 states – to discover how yaks and yakkers were weathering the unfolding national COVIDtastrophe, and what lessons we might learn from their efforts at co-domestication. What I discovered in my journey brought me inspiration and hope in the midst of widespread despair and collapse. Yaks and their human yakkers remind US to “wrangle resilience” – proactively “saddling stress” to strengthen body, mind and spirit in the midst of dramatically difficult times.
But first, a bit more on the relationship between stress and resilience.
Focus on the concept of “hormesis.”
A vital if neglected scientific concept, the term “hormesis” comes from the Greek hormesis, meaning "rapid motion, eagerness,” itself derived from ancient Greek hormáein, meaning “to set in motion, impel, or urge on.”
The term "hormetics" refers to the study and science of hormesis.
Hormesis - simple graph of bi-phasic dose/response phenomenon.
Regarding hormetics, a handful of scientists propose that “hormesis” is a central characteristic of many biological processes, what they summarize as a “bi-phasic response to exposure to increasing amounts of a substance or condition” which is “characterized by a low dose stimulation, high dose inhibition” that “results in either a J-shaped or an inverted U-shaped dose response.”
And the “dose” in question is comprised of either a toxin or another stressor.
At first blush, hormetics, the study and science of hormesis, sounds confusing, if not downright ominous.
How can doses of toxins and stressors actually be helpful to a living organism, if not an entire species?
All will be revealed.
Exhibit A for hormetics – the study and science of hormesis?
The US yakking community in a time of COVID Collapse.
Day 1/The Northeast – New Jersey and Pennsylvania (Sat, 11/28)
Helming SXY BST, I left Vermont early morning on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. The cold and gray stick season sky closely mirrored the US COVID national malaise – it felt good to embrace the freedom of the open road. Up at 5 am, on the road by 6 am, we wound our way through Vermont’s cold stick season grip of light fog and gray clouds, heading south on the New York Thruway (NYT) - “One Small Ask, Wear A Mask” - read the ubiquitous orange-lit NYT signs. A young station attendant at the fuel complex fearfully barks at me to “mask up!” when I pop in to buy a few quarts of extra oil.
My US trip’s second yak farm visit had already been “COVID cancelled” via email. “A bad time – hunting season, our son got a positive COVID test, we’re being cautious,” Chris Wilcox at Covington, Pennsylvania’s “Yaks Of The PA Wild” told me the day before I departed. “You also might want to check the state of Pennsylvania’s COVID travel guidelines.”
I did so, finding protocols similar to those in Vermont:
The Secretary of Health issued an order requiring travelers over age 11 entering Pennsylvania (as of November 25th) from locations outside the Commonwealth, including Pennsylvanians who are returning home from locations outside the Commonwealth, to produce evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or place themselves in travel quarantine for 14 days upon entering, unless they receive a negative test result during the 14-day travel quarantine period.
If someone cannot get a test or chooses not to, they must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Pennsylvania.This does NOT apply to: Individuals traveling to and from the Commonwealth for the purposes of work (etc.)
“Purposes of work.”
A grant-funded US yak research road trip?
Since I couldn’t visit, here’s the Wilcox yakkers’ story, straight from their web site:
My great great uncle, in 1903, started the first herd of registered Holsteins in the state of Pennsylvania. We had an active dairy farm until 1998 when we sold our herd and went to selling hay. Twelve years later, we decided to use our land to run a herd of beef cows. In January 2012 we purchased a herd of Yaks from Utah.
We had two tractor trailer loads delivered on January 24. There were 10 royals and 140 imperials and trims delivered. Of them we received four bulls, one crossbred steer, 30 calves, and the rest were females of various ages.
In June we traveled to Maine and purchased five Tame Royals—two bulls and three females, with one of them bred that had a baby girl on August 4. They all have the rare Golden gene, and one of the bulls was a yearling Golden Royal—the rarest of all types. In July we had two registered Royal Bulls delivered that we turned in with our Royal Herd, and have had babies born this spring.
In April 2013 we purchased 11 more. The first baby born on our farm from our breeding program was a trim on May 20, 2013. Our first registered one was May 23.
Those yaks Chris purchased in April 2013?
All eleven came from our Vermont Yak Company’s Steadfast Farm.
At a rest stop, I review my notes on hormesis.
German biologist Hugo Schultz is widely credited as the concept’s originator after he experimented with toxins on yeast. In repeated experiments, he discovered that putting just the right amount of toxin on yeast stimulated growth. In fact, he found that the yeast grew better with a small amount of applied toxin than no toxin at all. Little known is that in 1931, Schultz was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in hormetics, including his discovery of what is called a “bi phasic response” marked by low dose stimulation and high dose inhibition.
Hugo Schultz, discoverer of hormesis.
Here’s an official summary of Schultz’s work from a 2014 National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) peer-reviewed scientific paper entitled “Hormesis: from mainstream to therapy,” authored by Edward Calabrese.
The dose-response concept has its origin in the work of the German pharmacologist/ toxicologist Hugo Schulz, at the University of Greifswald with his first publications in the late 1880s concerning the effects of numerous disinfectants on the metabolism of yeast (Schulz 1887, 1888). As a young academic, Schulz was interested in selecting an emerging research area of great promise and sought to find improved disinfectants that could be used in surgery, following the striking advances of Joseph Lister in this area. Schulz’s expectation as he approached this research was that each of these agents would induce a dose-dependent decrease in metabolism of the yeasts and in colony death at the highest doses.
While this was the case at the higher concentrations tested, Schulz was surprised to observe that metabolism was increased at the lower concentrations for all the agents tested. While these initial observations surprised him, he thought that the best explanation for the unexpected low dose stimulation was some type of methodological error (Crump 2003). However, upon repeated attempts at replication, the low dose stimulation response was reproducibly observed.
As it turns out, Calabrese, the paper’s author, is the US scientist who inherited and expanded Schultz’s work into our new century.
More on him in a moment.
I reach Stockton, New Jersey’s Woods Edge Farm by lunch.
Owner Brent Walker, who had purchased several of our yaks in 2013 when we sold, was celebrating “visitor’s weekend,” with half a dozen young families ooh’ing and ahh’ing over the alpacas in the front yard, the yaks way off in the woods at middle distance. I’ve visited Wood’s Edge on several occasions – it’s nice to be back.
Inside the giant barn’s farm store, Brent greets me warmly as he finishes a customer transaction. He and Amy, his wife of five years, run a multi-species operation here on ninety acres just east of the Delaware Water Gap: breeding; meat sales; wedding catering; and a farm store full of a wide array of beautiful value-added alpaca and yak products: shawls, sweaters, socks, candles, and more.
As we meet and greet, Brent’s phone rings.
“Yak meat? No, my freezers are empty,” he explains into the phone, looking at me with a bemused grin. “We’ll have more come spring.”
Hanging up the phone, he sees my quizzical look.
“USDA is understaffed, slaughterhouses are cautious, been a tough year for butchering with the COVID,” he explains. “We’ve had really good luck with selling live animals, though – folks finish and slaughter themselves with their own butchers. I’m selling females at $2500 and bulls for $4500. Logistical transportation – that’s our biggest problem here in the northeast.”
Brent and I visiting with Tashi at Stockton, New Jersey's Wood's Edge Farm.
He fields another customer, and I wander back into the giant barn/event space, now empty and a bit sad looking.
I find Amy bustling about, gathering product stock to refresh the shelves out front.
“Brent met his first yak at ten years old right here on this farm,” Amy tells me. “He and his dad built this whole place from the ground up.”
She promises to send me a photo of young Brent, and I return to the front of the store.
Walking out to the yak pastures under full sun, Brent and I summon the woods-ensconced grunniens towards us with treats. First to come is Tashi, our bottle-fed calf we sold to Brent – now twelve years older, older, wiser, and still an affectionate love of a steer. The 1,000 plus pound Tashi sidles towards me, a hairy, hump’y, horny flash from my past, and I am, for a brief moment, overcome with emotion. We greet each other like old friends, and as the other yaks come over, Brent fills me in on yak business in the time of COVID.
“Our wedding business is down 90%, but thanks to catered ‘on farm’ events and live animal sales, our overall business is only down 20%,” he says, running the numbers in his head.
Brent’s entrepreneurial optimism and positive energy is infectious, the very model of resilience.
“We have 5,500 people on our email list,” he says. “Folks are hungry to get out of their homes and do something fun, and I’ve never seen so much interest in local food and farming. We had a four-hour $55 a head on-farm lunch BBQ here, and we sold out in four hours.”
“Encouraging, and good for you! I say, and we snap a few more photos of Tashi and Brent before saying our goodbyes, with talk of a rendezvous in Vermont come 2021.
Across the Delaware Water Gap into Pennsylvania, over the mighty Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg, SXY BST and I travel across the mid-Atlantic, layers of history flashing by – indigenous earthen works give way to fenced in farms, industrial gravel operations, commercial strip malls (eerily vacant in the time of the virus), and the two giant towers of a nuclear power plant south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital.
We Humans have figured out how to split and harness the atom for energy, I muse, and yet, we now seem incapacitated, at the mercy of this alleged “novel corona virus.”
As my first day ends, I drive west into a stunning sunset, imagining before me the millions of cattle that now cover farms operations across North America, the collective result of thousands of years of bos domestication. I am driving through a giant civilization of cows now raised by humans for meat and milk, descendants of cattle that displaced the ancient Pleistocene creatures – “charismatic megafauna” - who once freely roamed this magical landscape: American lion, giant tortoises, short-faced bears, giant sloths, tapirs and peccaries, saber tooth cats, wooly mastodons, and, most famously, armies of bison, now confined to small parcels of prairie land.
We Humans have advanced four overlapping theories to explain the somewhat mysterious collapse and disappearance of these creatures: overhunting by sapiens (geoscientist Paul Martin’s “overkill hypothesis”); widespread disease; a dramatically oscillating climate; possibly catalyzed by the sudden dramatic impact of a comet or asteroid (“catastrophism’s “Younger Dryas impact” hypothesis, popularized by journalist Graham Hancock and self-dubbed “renegade scholar” Randall Carlson).
Whatever the truth might be, I remember that today’s United States is constructed on top of the collapsed remnants of previous civilizations – plant, animal, and human. Perhaps the tiny population of a few thousand US yaks nestled among these tens of millions of cattle might reveal a more resilient way forward for our common future.
Day 2/The US Southeast-Kentucky (Sunday, 11/29)
After spending my first night in SXY BST sleeping at a rest stop – all cozy nestled amidst sleeping bags and yak rugs - on the Kentucky state line, I head south towards Wellington for today’s yak visit. The “Bluegrass State,” named after the famed species of grass that has fueled this region’s economic vitality, has served up a heart-wrenchingly beautiful morning– misty and cold, the frozen dew evaporating in the morning sun and lighting up the land with an ethereal otherworldly glow as we drive through rolling hills of fields and farms.
Beyond this beauty, though, lies the reality of US at this COVID-addled moment. “United we stand, divided we fall,” Kentucky’s state motto, seems particularly appropriate, as I begin bearing eyewitness to the COVIDtastrophe’s impact on US small farms and businesses reeling from the effects of historically unprecedented viral protocols. Stopping at a local gas station, I refuel and refill my Yeti, exchanging “Good Mornings” with a local who looks a bit rough around the edges, torn jeans and mud covered work boots, clearly a bit out of sorts but friendly nonetheless. “How you doing?” I ask. “Well, you know, doing my best,” he responds. We wish each other well, and continue on our way.
I quickly look over my notes on hormesis.
“Hormesis has been and is currently known by multiple names; preconditioning, conditioning, pretreatment, cross tolerance, adaptive homeostasis, and rapid stress hardening (mostly low temperature: rapid cold hardening). These are the most common names used to describe adaptive stress responses in animals,” authoritatively notes a 2020 National Library of Medicine peer-reviwed article entitled “A dose of experimental hormesis: When mild stress protects and improves animal performance.” “These responses are mechanistically similar, while having stress-specific responses, but they all can fall under the umbrella of hormesis,” the two authors explain. “Here we view how hormesis studies have revealed animal performance benefits in response to changes in oxygen, temperature, ionizing radiation, heavy metals, pesticides, dehydration, gravity, and crowding.”
Fascinating, I ponder.
Might the low dose application of a toxin or a stressor actually improve animal resilience over time?
“One of the central tenets of hormesisis is: that it allows for cellular protection to build up during the mild dose exposure, and these defenses are present for some time following the end of the exposure,” the authors elaborate. “It is these defenses that prevent the accumulation of stress-induced damage and therefore improve organismal performance over time.”
“Improved organismal performance over time.” Sounds promising, especially in the time of COVID.
I arrive at Gregor Dyke’s “Zhi-ba Sing-ga” yak operation (“Peace Farm,” in Tibetan), nestled in the eastern Kentucky hills, at 10 am sharp, just in time to join a small team of yak researchers embarking on a new agri’preneurial project.
Dyke, who has worked with yaks for 15 years and has served as president of both IYAK (until 2016) and now US YAKS (since 2018), runs 80 grunniens, mostly blacks and trims, with a few woolies and whites in the mix, on 65 acres of grass pasture. His Zhi-ba Sing-ga farm features a concave bowl-like property marked by smaller rolling mounds of pasture grass, with a series of barns and out buildings strategically located across the grassy landscape. A two-lane dirt road on the high country circumnavigates the entire bowl, providing the SXY BST and me with a near 360 degree view of the entire property, yaks and grass included.
The first thing I see?
Several new born fuzzy yak calves, nappily energetic, who approach SXY BST to greet me as I stop to grab a few photos before continuing on to the main barn at driveway’s end.
Yakking at "Zhi-ba Sing-ga" in Wellington, Kentucky.
After greeting Greg and the yak research team, we stand outside the barn and discuss this morning’s yak rodeo itinerary. At 69 years old, Dyke is a veteran US yakker, with an ambitious fivefold “Peace Farm” yak vision, as described at his www.yakseasttowest.com web site:
- To establish a breeding herd of high-quality foundation yaks whose offspring would be available for purchase;
- To establish a herd of foundation bulls with high-quality genetics that would be available for breeding by individuals with yaks who do not wish to maintain bulls;
- To harvest, promote and market yak fiber to fiber artisans;
- To establish a small, meat producing herd of ten dri (cows) and market yak steers at 900-1000 pounds; and,
- To promote yaks as a means of rural, economic development in Eastern Kentucky, including the raising of several yak bulls which exhibit good grow and size genetics for crossbreeding local beef cattle.
All in a day’s work, or, in this case, fifteen years of yak dedication, and counting.
Tall, lanky, and friendly, University of Kentucky land grant researcher Jeff Lehmkuler, who is leading this morning’s project, tells me he has a Ph.D. in nutrition, and introduces his teenage son Jack and colleague Mary McCarty, an ag extension agent for Menefee County’s 4H program. Mary explains she has been experimenting with nine different grasses to discover which species provide yaks with the most robust nutritional options.
Most all yakkers everywhere are in the grass growing business, first and foremost, and getting the pasture grass mix right is key to yak resilience, health and well-being. Looking closely at a yak’s mouth, notice that the front has lower but no upper teeth, while the back has both upper and lower incisors. With a smaller mouth than most cattle, yaks use their lips to graze, like sheep and goats, rather than their tongues, like most other cattle.
In short, grass matters, and my timing is fortuitous, to be a part of this new yak research project here in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
“Our goal with this yak forage experiment,” Greg explains, “is to track twenty yaks for sixty days on four different types of grasses, after we inject each yak this morning with a minerals mix – 1 cc per 110 pounds – to level the playing field for accuracy.”
“Tell me more about the grasses in Kentucky,” I ask.
“Rye grass is yak’s favorite, but they don’t like fescue, which is covering the state of Kentucky, and came by way of Europe,” explains Jeff. “Fescue can be similar to LSD - ergot (fungus) is an alkaloid that lives in the fescue plant, and emerges in the seeds at the reproductive stage, causing vaso constriction and heat stress for many animals, including yaks.”
“Fescue is tough - we try and destroy it but it comes right back,” says Greg, gesturing out towards his fields. “You can see what looks like golf putting greens, places where the yaks have grazed, and the ungrazed high grass surrounding those spots is fescue,” he says, laughing.
“Kentucky has tons of bluegrass - yaks like it, but we don’t have much of it here,” explains Mary.
Ironic, I note, given Kentucky’s state nickname.
“We’re taking blood samples from these twenty yaks in our study as a baseline measurement,” Mary continues. “This past summer, Greg built four pens for our sixty-day program, with each pen serving as a single experimental station.”
“Give me the details,” I urge.
“Pens 1 and 3, what we think of as our best forage test pens, contain a mix of orchard grass and red clover,” says Jeff, “with Pen 2 comprised of pasture grass - orchard plus hay field mix - and pen 4 has alfalfa, which is high in calcium.”
We head into the barn for a morning yak rodeo, running all twenty of Greg’s yaks into the chute for mineral injections, weighing, and general inspection. It feels good to be in the presence of yaks – their alert energy both boon and a balm.
Kentucky yak rodeo.
“Four of these 20 yaks are low in copper and selenium, both of which help metabolize a yak’s enzyme processes,” explains Jeff as we move each yak through the chute, when I ask him about these two minerals’ importance for yak development. “Copper is vital for a yak’s reproductive activity, and the selenium works as an anti-oxidant that binds free radicals in the cell membrane to improve cell integrity.
Working the yaks through the chute one at a time in small groups takes us almost two hours, with no hitches, and is a whole lot of fun, a great way to get to know each team member. Afterwards, we move out to the four pens and observe the newly mineral’ed herd, our conversation continuing. Greg motions to a beautiful white bull above the barn.
“Do you recognize 8-year-old Yangar, Shannon Holder’s bull from Colorado?” Greg asks.
“I thought he looked familiar,” I reply, laughing.
Greg tells me he is leasing Yangar from Shannon for two years to breed with his cows, with Shannon hoping he’ll either buy the handsome bull stud or find her a buyer through his extensive yak network.
“Happy to take advantage of walking semen in exchange for calves,” explains Greg, chuckling, and explains that he collects ear follicle samples to measure yak genetics, at $75 per test from Nebraska’s Ward Lab.
I ask him about the yak genetics debate between IYAK and US YAKS, and what he sees for the future of the US yak community. Dyke has a unique vantage point, having served as IYAK’s BOD president, before defecting with the “Gang Of Four” – including Tim Hardy, Grant Pound, and Ruth Higdon – over the IYAK yak genetics debate blowout, and is now helming the US YAKS BOD.
“I see another five years to a single national yak organization,” Greg muses. “Still too much bad blood, so we gotta let the current crop of yakkers – the good ole’ boys network - age out, and let a younger generation come in. We’re not gonna rush.”
Our yak rodeo complete, we bid the yaks farewell, and head over to the south end of Zhi-ba Sing-ga for a lunch BBQ with our team and Greg’s family – wife Linda and daughter Dara, a vivacious 35-year-old who manages no fewer than four bars. Over grilled burgers and potato salad, we explore possible post-COVID futures, yaks, and holiday planning, and then I say my goodbyes, meeting Greg at the main barn to purchase some Indian handcrafted yak socks and several bags of yak jerky for Christmas gifts.
“Really glad you came,” Greg says to me. “Travel safe - looking forward to 2021.”
Day 3/SouthCentral US – Texas Crossing (Mon, Nov 30)
SXY BST and I drive west until dark, parking in an Arkansas rest stop, nestled amidst giant 18 wheelers, all humming in slumber, by the side of the interstate. My alarm goes off at 6 am, and after 25 minutes of Wim Hof breathing (“Energy Flows Where Focus Goes”) and light stretching, we get back on the highway, graced by a beautiful nearly full morning moon, suspended in a reddish dawn sky, setting to the northwest.
Driving west, I review what I have learned about hormetics – the science and study of hormesis.
Currently, US biologist Edward Calabrese, based at UMASS Amherst, is the scientist most responsible for reviving our age-old understanding of “positive stress” protocols based on years of research. With more than 750 published papers and ten books to his credit. Calabrese received the Marie Curie Prize in 2009 for his work on hormesis, for which he provides a technical overview in his 2010 co-edited collection Hormesis: A Revolution In Biology, Toxicology and Medicine.
Despite dramatic opposition from many in the global scientific community, Calabrese has continued, for two decades, to secure funding for his groundbreaking hormetics work, conducting hundreds of experiments to test and reconfirm his findings. Calling hormesis a “fundamental feature of biological systems,” Calabrese pays homage to Paracelsus, the Swiss-born physician and alchemist who four centuries ago “pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine,” and acknowledged “the importance of the dose of chemicals in determining whether they are therapeutic or toxic,” leading the Swiss scientist to “predict the prevalence of the biphasic nature of the dose-response curve as typical all medicines.”
In considering how to saddle stress to wrangle resilience, then, Calabrese clearly is the scientific linch pin.
Crossing into the Lone Star Republic, I phone Robert at Texas Yaks to firm up today’s plan to visit his operation in Weatherford, west of San Antonio. From their web site, I learn that Texas Yaks run a meat operation – grass-fed yaks on 300 acres, and their enthusiasm for yaks is palpable.
Yak meat is:
A dark red meat
Very low in fat and cholesterol and around 95-97% lean.
Lower in calories than beef, bison, elk or even skinless chicken breast.
High in Omega 3 oil, Linoleic acid, Oleic acids, Stearic acid and poly-unsaturated fats.
Remains very juicy when cooked unlike most game or other exotic meats such as buffalo.
Higher in protein, minerals and vitamins than beef.
Lower in saturated fats, cholesterol, and triglycerides than beef.
Lower in fat than salmon and most other fish.
Sweet and delicately flavored, juicier than buffalo and elk; and never gamey.
At 10 am in the morning, on Texarkana’s eastern frontier, I suddenly find myself fantasizing about a yak rib eye.
I ring Robert to confirm my visit.
“I forgot I have a doctor’s appointment and am tied up until 5 tonight,” Robert tells me as soon as he picks up the phone.
“How many yaks you got?” I ask him, trying to contain my disappointment.
“Eight,” was his terse reply.
“What are you doing with them?” I ask. “Meat? Breeding?”
“Just trying to keep ‘em alive,” he answers. “Some kind of poison in their pasture grass.”
“You feeding them on fescue?” I inquire, fresh of my Kentucky work.
He grunts an affirmative over the phone, I wish him luck, and our conversation is over.
So much for yakking in the Lone Star Republic.
Yakking in New Mexico's Land of Enchantment.
I drive on towards New Mexico, re-orientating my expectations while munching on string cheese, prosciutto, and Stacey’s naked pita chips.
“Spread Calm, Not Fear. Beat COVID,” urged a big white sign with brown letters.
Good advice, belying the general “run down” vibe emanating from nearly every Texas town we drive through.
Fortunately, the sun has emerged from above a silvery gray sky – the geoengineers have been at work today – and the late afternoon landscape lights up as I cross into New Mexico’s Land of Enchantment.
I call ahead to old friends in Albuquerque, probing into the possibility of spending the night with them in their Corrales homestead solo casita (“tiny cabin”) after dinner and a long-overdue catch up. They extend an enthusiastic invitation, and I arrive by 7 pm in the tiny farm community of Corrales, nestled between Old Albuquerque and new Rio Rancho, for salmon, red wine, wonderful conversation, a good night’s sleep in an actual bed, and a morning breakfast and coffee walk with old friends.
Day 4/The US Southwest – New Mexico (Tues, Dec 1)
Awakening early in my little casita, I stretch, breathe, and review my notes on hormesis, trying to embed a deeper understanding of it into my traveling brain.
Calabrese is not known for giving many public interviews, but I do uncover a 2018 podcast interview with him called “Science On The Rocks,” helmed by a German married couple, Dina and Matthias Wittfoth, who both hold PhDs in neuroscience. Their one hour conversation does not disappoint, and I cross reference what I learn with peer-reviewed science papers.
How do low doses of toxins or stressors – “stress saddling” – actually allow for wrangling resilience?
Take mice, Calabrese illustrates (or yaks, I imagine.)
Giving an animal a low dose of ethanol (alcohol) in the laboratory actually appears to enhance what Calabrese calls “horizontal performance.”
Hormetic scientist Edward Calabrese, altered image courtesy of "Science on the Rocks."
Getting mice mildly drunk in the lab, for example, actually improves their ability to navigate a maze or move through a series of obstacles. Too much of a dose, on the other hand, creates an inhibitory response, dampening their performance. This is what is meant by “bi-phasic.”
I smile at the notion of introducing yaks to booze, acknowledging the old adage that alcohol among Humans is a “social lubricant,” enhancing our capaicity for interactions in small doses.
Even more provocatively, Calabrese suggests that other forms of hormesis related to various environmental stressors - Oxygen Hormesis; Temperature Hormesis, Ionizing Radiation Hormesis (low dose X Rays which appear to extend life in some animals); Chemical Hormesis (pesticides in low doses), as well as dehydration, heat shock, gravity, and even overcrowding, seem to promote more resilience when applied in the right dose. Again, consider the biphasic nature of hermetic experiments: 1) resilience enhancement at low doses, but a converse inhibitory response at higher doses.
The challenge, it seems, is to how to saddle up just the right dose of a toxin or stressor to maximize resilience., be it for yaks or humans, or both.
Come noon, I drive east through Albuquerque’s Tijeras Canyon, which runs through the Sandia mountain range, momentarily reversing my travel direction to visit Storm Cloud Ranch in the tiny farm town of Estancia east of the Duke City. The dry, open, arid New Mexico landscape feels familiar – good to back in the southwest.
Caryn DeRochie and her two dogs greet me at their gate, the morning sun giving way to early afternoon clouds as we walk and talk below our way out to her yak pastures just east of her single-story home. A local 4H elementary school teacher, veteran knitter, and animal enthusiast – chickens, reptiles, Dahl sheep – Caryn, age 57, runs fifteen yaks on her 80 acres, having been smitten with the shaggy creatures back in 2018.
“I fell in love with their personality, the way they look, and I have food allergies,” Caryn tells me. “Yak is tasty, their meat is delicious, and I am a fiber gal!” she says proudly.
Her yaks, a herd mix from US yakkers including Colorado’s Grant Pound, Peter and Ruth at Smiling Buddha, and Kentucky Greg’s Zhi-ba Sing-ga, literally pop out of an apocalyptic moonscape – blackened brown land with little signs of immediate life.
I ask what happened to this land.
“The Dog Head Fire in 2016 burned 220,000 acres of our forests here, so hot that it turned these Ponderosa pine and alligator junipers to glass,” she tells me, gesturing across her pasture. “The fire was started by NRCS scientists and the US forest service as a ‘controlled burn,’ which, of course, raged out of control.”
I smile, but cautiously.
“Kinda like our US COVID protocols?” I joke, sensing a resilience-related opening.
“Oh my, COVID has hosed us,” Caryn says. “Finding help is near impossible, everyone is scared, no one wants to work, our vets won’t visit, our neighbors won’t come by. We can only buy 20 bales of hay and 20 of alfalfa once weekly at our local feed store - they jacked up the prices after the virus hit.”
Yakking in Estancia, NM at Storm Cloud Ranch.
I am silent, taking this in.
“What do the neighbors make of your yaks?” I finally ask.
“We had so many farmers come by to see ‘em when they first got here,” she says. “‘Your cattle are deformed!’ they would say – pointing at the humps and horns.”
We laugh, and then stand in silence, looking at the yaks, lazy and languid, under the afternoon sun. Two shaggies wander over to say Hello and we scratch their flanks and heads through the fence.
She tells me about her herd.
“Pandora is a deaf yak,” she says, motioning to one cow. “She has to be careful – the other yaks from Smiling Buddha beat her up.”
I smile at the irony.
“And this gal ‘Gee Gee’ - ‘Golden Girl’ – I got from Greg, who thought she was a bull – she’s been great.”
“What personality traits do you see?” I ask.
“Yaks are very stuck up, which I learned as I’ve mixed our herds,” Caryn says. “Yaks are also kinda whacky – they come peek into our window, curious about what we’re doing. They also like to throw their weight around – I have to be careful around them,” she points. “Ville slammed me against the corral and cracked my rib.”
Stress and Resilience – present on this property in spades.
“Does your husband help out?” I ask, after she tells me Tony, age 59, works at a nearby government lab.
“Yaks are saving our marriage,” Caryn replies, smiling. “Babe, you are driving me crazy, maybe you should go see the yaks.”
“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer three times, my Mom recently passed, yada yada,” she explains, lowering her voice. “These yaks remind me to enjoy every day – like they do.”
Our time over, Caryn walks me out to SXY BST, and we exchange emails, promising to stay in touch.
I decide to drive the “high road” north to Taos, the mid-afternoon sky promising a gorgeous sun set in a few hours, with a bit of snow in the forecast. After a drive-by burrito (green chile’d and delicious) in Taos, I push on west and then north over Ponchas Pass into Colorado, spotlighting an occasional deer by the road side (rutting season – dangerous time to be night driving). Arriving in Canon City, I find a dark spot for SXY BST in the city park below the prison and grab a surprisingly uneventful seven hours of sleep.
Day 5/The US Southwest – Colorado (Wed, Dec 2)
I wake up via a 6 am alarm shaking my head.
I’ve allotted a single day for four yak visits in southern Colorado.
Time to get a move on, on what may be a yak fool’s errand, given that the Rockies are the epicenter of North American yakking, but choices must be made, and I’ll be back to Colorado come February.
Exploring the national map, I decided to cut across Colorado’s southwestern flank, focusing on the back side of the Rockies, which will keep SXY BST and me pointing westward towards the Pacific.
After a series of short and somewhat cryptic text exchanges with Canon City based Sean Gall of Hey Hey Yak Ranch, we manage to settle on a 6:45 am yak “meet and greet” at his place just west of downtown. Telling me he has to be to his job as a butcher by 7:30 am, he agrees to get me onto his property where I am to meet his yak/life partner Dawn. Having yakked with Sean’s mother in Columbus, Ohio the previous summer – the taste of her delicious yak burger still top of mind - I am deeply interested in closing the food supply loop from Colorado to Columbus.
After quickly fueling up on gas and coffee (Vermont’s Green Mountain Coffee Roasters – Jeezum!) I head west towards Royal Gorge, managing to find Sean’s gate a mile off the main road - where he is there to greet me. A bespectacled, lanky, shaggy-maned, tall fellow with an ebullient presence, Sean greets me with a grin, and within moments, lifts his sweatshirt to show me the monstrous yak tattoo galloping across his torso and belly.
“Impressive!” I say. “Put me in touch with your ink artist!”
Yakking with Hey Hey's Sean Gall in Canon City, Colorado, and top of Monarch Pass.
He laughs, tells me Dawn is waiting, and heads down the road to his day job at the butcher’s, while I drive a mile down a winding dirt road below a beautiful mesa catching the very first light of today’s dawn. I note the cloud of steam accompanying my exhales – this is our trip’s first really cold morning – and I make a mental note of my many winter layers packed right behind the passenger’s seat.
Sean’s gal Dawn greets me by the yak corrals in a Isis jacket and jeans, tightly buttoned up with heavy mittens and a wool hat. I warm up our conversation with my quick yakking history and a brief overview of the book project, and within minutes, she is touring me all over the property, proving to be friendly, garrulous, and as good a storyteller as Sean seems to be. The two run more than 100 yaks on two different operations – this one here in Canon City and another place in Moffit, Colorado.
“I fell in love with yaks when I first met Sean,” she tells me over the corral fence, the yaks stirring as the sun speckles the mesa above.
“Tell me more?” I ask.
“Yaks look out for each other - no predator problem here,” she explains, smiling at the enclosed herd and gesturing up towards the hills. “And the calves are so fuzzy and cute.”
Dan and Sean are both 41, unmarried domestic partners, with Dawn bringing to the mix a 13-year-old daughter named Maddie who struggles with health issues – born without a pituitary gland, and now suffering from asthma and a list of related medical challenges.
Dawn manages to brighten when showing me the yak calves, who display their usual nappy energy, and their Mangalitza pigs (the “Kobe beef of pork,” she says), which they also raise here for breeding and meat.
“So you are primarily a yak breeding and meat operation?” I ask.
She nods, smiling again.
“I love ‘yakking off’ with Sean,” she says, and we laugh as she tells me about their many creative yak meals.
“‘Yak’co Tuesdays’ are the best,” she explains. “Tacos with yak meat are amazing – our friends call ‘em a ‘game changer.’”
We both acknowledge the crisp cold of this early morning, and I thank her for the yak tour, say goodbye, and head westward towards Colorado’s western slope, enjoying a stunning snow-covered ascent over Colorado’s famed Monarch Pass and then heading northwest along some of the continents most rugged and stunningly beautiful country – craggy ridges marked by tiny lakes, reservoirs, and nearly non-existent little towns.
I arrive in Paonia by lunch, and meet US YAKS BOD vice president Erin Powell, whom I first met in 2018 at the Loveland Yak Fest with her then-husband and daughter Willow. A tumultuous two years later – she is now running ten yaks solo on this leased farm, and planning her next yak moves – breeding, meat, and fiber, she tells me, are all on the table.
Yakking with US YAKS BOD VP Erin Powell in Paonia, Colorado.
We move through the herd with ease, her yaks completely comfortable around us both, and she points out a rogue yak named “Nova” from a mixed cattle herd while we admire her beautiful white yak calves – we are in the land of white yaks, the subject of so much IYAK consternation.
I ask her about the IYAK/US YAKS situation.
“I feel it is really important to get US YAKS and IYAK back together,” she says emphatically. I nod in assent, and we stand in silence, listening to the yaks’ gentle grunts, before I take my leave.
I drive 20 minutes down the road to the town of Crawford, where I meet Bob Stuplich of American White Yaks, the man who catalyzed the national furor over whether or not a yak-colored white could ever be registered as an actual “yak.” (SEE “BE HERD’ CHAPTER) I first met Bob in October 2018 in Loveland, Colorado, and enjoyed his enthusiastic passion for all things yak. The opportunity to visit with Bob and his herd on home ground, on a stunning sun-drenched winter afternoon, is exhilarating.
Bob and I greet each other with elbow bumps and smiles, and immediately walk over to visit his smaller herd perched on the hill west of his rambling one story immaculately-kept home. I recognize a beautiful yak bull named “Dvorjyak” from Loveland, Bob explains his breeding program – two breeding lines tracking mitochondrial DNA, with the hope, Bob says affirmatively, that some day a white yak will have enough alleles to be registered as a “yak.”
Heading into his garage, we hop into his four-wheel ATV and pop across the street to his main pasture, where we walk across a beautiful grassy stretch populated with the majority of his herd, Bob pointing out calf/mom relationships, patting yaks as we walk through them, and scratching the ears of one particularly curious wee one. I pause to appreciate the view – mountains to our east, the sun creeping towards midafternoon, and a field full of well-tended grunniens completely content in their grassy surroundings. Sublime.
Bob Stuplich and Crawford, Colorado's American White Yaks.
On our way back to Bob’s place, I ask a question that’s been on my mind for two years. How did Bob come to run this beautiful American Yak Operation in his retirement?
I grew up poor on a Wisconsin farm with no running water or electricity, and I was a lousy student – I couldn’t ‘do’ school,” Bob explains. “To this day, I can’t read, and I thought I was ‘stupid’ for the first twenty years of my life.”
I listen closely.
“Not even the US Army wanted me – they refused to draft me because I couldn’t read, and I ended up in Bible College,” Bob goes on. “For the first time in my life, I saw the results of my IQ test, and realized I was NOT stupid – this was a game changer for me.”
Warmed up now, Bob invites me in for tea, where he continues his story. In his twenties, Stuplich became a Biblical treasure hunter, hunting for Noah’s Ask in Turkey’s Mount Ararat after cultivating Kurdish connections through sheer force of personality. He then got ordained, traveled around the country in a makeshift pickup camper, and met and married his ex-wife Becky, with whom he had two daughters, as well as co-founding an educational nonprofit in Crested Butte, Colorado which the two ran for a decade. Bob then discovered a knack for real estate, sold properties to high end Crested Butte buyers, eventually taking over the business from his retired boss and “making a buttload of money” before getting out right before the crash in 2008.
Living solo in retirement, he was introduced to yaks when his daughter Shannon (my next visit) “gifted” him his first white yak. “I fell in love,” Bob tells me. Several years later, Bob has built a stunning yak operation: a solar powered, off the grid operation, complete with pastures, a pond, a Buckminster Fuller greenhouse dome, and a well-kept home with curated artifacts celebrating his life of stress and resilience – from a poor Wisconsin farm to a successful yak’preneur on the Rockies’ western slope.
We say our goodbyes, and I head up the road to Hotchkiss to meet Bob’s daughter Shannon. An attractive woman, she meets me in her driveway with a wave, sporting a homemade mask, and pointing to a Jungian irrigation spiral comprised of large pebbles uncurling from the house to the road. Shannon tells me she lives here with her husband Paul, two sons (Jack and Andrew – famed for ‘surfing’ on yaks’ backs in their marketing photos) and their growing herd. I’ve only met Shannon once in Denver at the National Western Stock Show the year before, but could not get a read on her, and this visit reveals why.
“Yaks give my life meaning,” she tells me, explaining that she learned about the famed autistic author and proponent of humane animal treatment Mary Temple Grandin’s livestock work from the autistic boy who lived next store. “One day after we first got the yaks, he brought me a Temple Grandin book about how to design a humane chute animal management system,” Shannon explains as we walk down the hill and past a sizeable pond to visit with the yaks. “We’ve designed our whole operation around her book – Temple is amazing.”
We walk among the yaks, who wander over and affectionately nibble on my hand and jacket, looking for treats. Shannon casually mounts the back of a nearby yak, faces me, and we continue our conversation, two hairy beasts pressed up against me – all hair, heart, and horns – atavistic and primal – especially when bathed in the dry warm Colorado late afternoon sun. They feel good, and I am glad to be vertical and out of the Element.
Yakking with Shannon Holder of Yaks Matter.
Shannon and I talk, and I can tell she is wanting to share more, but my time is limited. “People here know me as the ‘yak lady’ – they see that I am enjoying family life, pursuing my passions, and promoting a special breed of animals,” Shannon later explains to me in a post-visit email. “Most people don’t notice my physical and intellectual struggles anymore.” Her early biography is a testament to resilience – a premature birth, joint hypermobility disorder, a deeply compromised immune system, chronic asthma, continuous surgeries, and the physical and emotional trauma that accompanies twenty years of life challenges.
She tells me that, in early adulthood, a friend helped her build a Colorado cabin where she resolved to learn how to raise yaks, buying her first few from Tad Puckett’s White Buffalo Hunting Ranch, and discovering that she could cultivate a special relationship with them. “Fast forward 17 years and I am raising 19 yaks, two dogs, one rabbit, and two boys on a 40 acre hay farm with my husband here in Crawford,” she concludes in her email. “We are ever-grateful for all of our challenges because, without them, we could not experience such an extraordinary appreciation for the unique abilities that we have to offer.”
And the yaks?” I prompt, as we meander our way back to my car amongst the herd, returning to the barn for their afternoon feeding.
“Yaks make us better people,” she says, smiling, and we say our goodbyes.
I ponder this epic day in Colorado – Canon City to Paonia to Crawford - as I drive south to Ridgway. I am spending the night at Ruth Higdon and Peter Hackett’s Smiling Buddha Yak Ranch – located just southwest of downtown with a stunning view east towards the Rockies. I arrive at sunset, with enough light to wave to Smiling Buddha’s yak bulls, congregated in a few inches of snow below the main farm. As SXY BST and I drive in, we see the main herd of cows off to the north behind a massive two story barn/house, with a host of new calves, wiggling and squiggling, in the corral where I park.
A Chicago native, and doctor with a medical specialty in high altitude health and wellness, Peter greets me with understated warmth, his two dogs racing up to say Hello. His yak partner Ruth, a practicing surgeon who lives half the week near the hospital in Grand Junction, had hit a stag deer earlier in the week, causing $8K of damage to her Subaru, and Peter had loaned her his pickup to get to the operating table on time. Peter and I agree I’ll give him a lift north to Grand Junction the next morning so he can grab his truck, and we settle in to prepping a dinner of chapli yak burgers and red wine.
As we cook, we discuss Peter’s other career – a touring doctor with the Rolling Stones for several months at a time when Mick and the Boys head out to bring musical magic to the world. “Alexa, play ‘Jumping Yak Flash,’” I joke. “Or ‘Paint It Black,’” Peter redirects.
With the Stones’ music filling the beautiful high ceilinged living room, we sit down to eat Peter’s delicious meal driven by cucumbers, tomatoes, and a variety of Asian condiments. Over a second glass of wine, I ask him about yaks, resilience, and his early work in Nepal’s Himalayas. After going to medical school and working in Yosemite as a helicopter medic, Peter got bitten by the travel bug (“Doctor Dirt Bag,” he jokes) and traveled to the Himalayas for work and adventure. Like many mountaineers, he headed to Everest’s Khumjung Region, where he founded a public health clinic in the village of Pheriche, and adopted three sherpa children from the community after their parents died prematurely - one of whom lives here at Smiling Buddha.
Hypoxic specialist and Smiling Buddha Yakker Peter Hackett prepping yak burgers.
“Tell me about your solo ascent of Everest – you were the 111th human on top of the world’s highest peak, yes?” I ask, my mind happy from the wine and delicious meal.
“I haven’t talked about it in a while,” Peter says, smiling and gathering his thoughts before launching in.
In 1981 at the age 33, Peter made a successful solo ascent of Everest. He brought little oxygen for the final push to the top, forgot a climbing rope, and his sherpa guide turned back on the ascent due to frostbite. Peter tells me it took him 18 hours to get up and down, and he fell descending the famed Hillary Step. He was so exhausted from the altitude that it took him 20 minutes to stand back up, saved only by the presence of an ice axe he doesn’t even remember strapping to his pack, which helped save him.
I listen intently, familiar with the many perils and pitfalls of the Everest ascent.
“At one point, I felt like I was flying over the mountains,” he recalls, after a long meditative silence, in which we sip our wine. “A high-altitude hallucination – and an experience that interested me in high altitude research.”
We laugh, the moment broken. “Yah, I bet!” I say.
Sleeping in a big bed amongst Smiling Buddha yaks in Ridgway, Colorado?
Day 6/The US Southwest –Utah (Thurs, Dec 3)
I awake refreshed and rested, and look over my notes on hormetics, where I discover a new phrase – “biological plasticity” – in an abstract penned by Calabrese.
Regardless of the model (i.e. in vitro or in vivo), inducing agent, endpoint, or receptor/cell signaling pathway mediated mechanism, the quantitative features of the hormetic dose/concentration responses are similar, suggesting that the magnitude of the response is a measure of biological plasticity, within a broad range of biological contexts. These findings represent an important advance in the understanding of the hormetic dose/concentration response, its generalizability and potential biomedical applications, including drug discovery/efficacy assessment and the risk assessment process.
In other words, how toxins, stresses, or doses connected with any natural phenomenon impact living creatures – humans or yaks – depends on the size of the “dose,” with “resilience” responses unfolding in non-linear fashion.
More interestingly, there is so much we don’t know – and I file this away to ask Peter about it on our drive to Grand Junction.
After a quick farm tour in subzero weather– am icy blur of dawn sun, frigid cold, scrunchy now, super friendly calves, cows spreading up the hillside, bulls spilling down to the east– Peter and I jump in SXY BST and head towards Grand Junction. Our conversation ranges widely, from exploring optimal yak herd size for sustainability to Peter’s research looking at ways to enhance human genetic performance at altitude, to the mysterious E-PAS high mountain gene discovered in a Denisovan hominid pinky bone – found in the DNA of high mountain peoples, yaks, and other select species, the E-PAS gene is what allows Tibetan nomads and yaks to thrive under cold high-altitude conditions that debilitate most species.
“You have to be open minded to have yaks,” Peter says to me as we near Ruth’s hospital. “Yaks attract contrarians - independent minded people.”
I grunt my assent, and we say out goodbyes in the parking lot, promising to exchange articles about Wim Hof (Peter has yet to plug into Hoffers’ hormetic practices) and the Denisovans.
I drive a full day under beautiful azure skies and stunning geological formations that defy description – through Salt Lake City, across the Bonneville salt flats into the center of Utah’s Mormon Country. The only truly Euro-American homegrown religion, Mormonism was invented in Vermont (Joseph Smith’s birthplace is well advertised off Vermont Interstate 89) and the early Mormons, continually persecuted for their unique approach to religiosity, fled from New York to Illinois to the deserts of the southwest, where they successfully set up their radical utopian experiment in collective spiritual living. Talk about resilience – like ‘em or not, the history of Mormonism is a tribute to humans’ capacity to endure and thrive.
I push through Salt Lake City by midafternoon, and SXY BST and I ascend up and over the mountains, dropping down into a small farm town called (predictably) Eden, rendered more so by the arrival of Golden Hour, as if the Mormons themselves controlled the weather. Nordic Valley Yaks is, to my knowledge, the only yak operation in Mormon country, with a herd of 65 yaks owned by Brett Hansan, a real estate appraiser who operates this farm as an investment, according to our phone conversation of two days before. Hansan put me in touch with ranch manager Lee Broadbent (a rancher’s name if ever there was one), who I find standing out in the pasture, feeding carrots to a beautiful black yak cow named Lily.
“She’s my favorite,” Lee says fondly, patting her flank after we introduce ourselves, and telling me he’s Brett’s “Yak Jack of all Trades,” looking after the seven bulls, 13 calves, and mama cows that comprise the herd.
“Why yaks?” I ask.
“Yaks are not like cows, not like any other animal I’ve encountered,” explains Lee, after a few moments of thought. “Yaks are real personal animals, big, but not aggressive – and they take care of each other – they are loyal.”
I remain silent, listening.
“Like how one cow serves as babysitter for many calves,” he explains, “and the way they grunt to talk to each other – neat.”
“Any crazy yak stories?” I ask.
Yakking in Eden, Utah with Lee Broadbent.
Lee laughs. “We had a big bull a few years back who was totally humiliated by our yak cows,” he explains. “His name was Shaq, a big blackish gray guy – old and tired – and the cows started poking him, hitting him, and generally being mean – Shaq hid in the trees over there,” he points,” “and we finally had to pull him out – poor dude.”
We both laugh, and then stand in silence under the bright blue sky, the late afternoon sun reflecting off the light dusting of snow here in Utah canyon country, an occasional grunt emanating from the herd.
“You like yak meat?” I finally ask.
“Delicious!” exclaims Lee, who tells me they sell meat online and to a few local restaurants and grocery stores. “Yak meat has a different flavor, with a lot less fat, and I cook it a bit longer – it tastes sweetish, kinda like beef.”
We swap cooking strategies, and Lee tells me he loves grilling frozen yak T-bones over high heat, first seasoning and then flash searing the meat.
I make a note, and suddenly realize I am hungry.
I thank Lee for his time, say goodbye to the herd, and head up the road to Wolf Creek to spend the night with Vermont friends ensconced in a nearby ski condo.
Day 7/The Pacific Coast–California (Fri, Dec 4)
SXY BST and I hit the road by 6 am the following morning. A long drive across Utah and Nevada, listening to the latest COVIDtastrophic news, across wide open spaces, open country normally full of promise, but now a bit bleak – despite the dry desert landscape and the warmth of the December sun.
We arrive in Truckee, California, just over the Nevada border, by 2 pm, and pop into an auto repair shop. I had called ahead, and Allan the auto mechanic – Human and helpful, with a sense of humor and efficiency to match - replaces a front headlight padiddle and check the oil and the battery. I text Jenna, my next yak contact, and let her know I’ll be arriving in an hour. We’ve been in regular correspondence over the past day – I sense they’re in the midst of what I call a “yak rodeo” situation – events unfolding beyond the boundaries of what what might be called “complete control.”
Stress leads to Reslience, but only if we can control the dose.
“Yak butcher still hasn’t showed. Husband Greg busted ankle. -in a brace,” Jenna texts as I wrap up with Allan. “Little crazy here but come on up!”
A newly lit SXY BST and I drive north through beautifully forested country on 89 north towards Calpine, the midafternoon sun dappling the road through the pines, covered with a slight dusting from a recent snow.
Married co-owners Jenna and Greg run Sierra Nevada Yaks, on what turns out to be a wide-open sun-drenched property full of massive shaggy grunniens. Their bulls, languid and loose, are on prominent display in a roadside front pasture – a dream landscape, with a low-slung home and out buildings set back ¼ mile, mostly hidden among a small copse of trees. Off in the distance to the east, I see the main herd – cows and calves – moving in slow motion in the comfortable heat. A US flag icon and beautifully lettered Sierra Nevada Yaks sign complete the picture – and I hop out and snap a few photos before I drive up the dirt road to their home.
All smiles despite busting his Achilles and sporting a brace, Greg “gimp hustles” over, greeting me in with a super friendly welcome, though I sense from his energy that he’s in the midst of a hectic day.
“What can I do to help? Put me to work,” I say, grabbing the other end of a cattle gate he’s moving and helping him align it into position. “I hear you are waiting on the butcher?”
As he confirms with a nod, his mobile phone rings – George and Randy the butchering team are finally on their way.
Suddenly, we’re in “slaughter day” mode, and Greg calls for Jenna, whois finishing up a ZOOM call inside. Time to herd five yaks back into the shooting corral for the second time today, in order to isolate the single steer slated for slaughter. Slaughter day is always stressful, but complicated by Greg’s busted Achilles, the tenseness of the just-released yaks, and the lateness of the hour.
Jenna greets me with a smile, apologizing for the yak craziness.
“I am here to help,” I say. “I’ll stay by this corral on the road, wait for the butcher, and you can tell me what to do.”
Greg and Jenna hop onto their ATVs, and give chase to the steers, maneuvering the five back towards me. As if on chaotic cue, the butcher’s truck arrives in the driveway, and, a complete stranger from 3,000 miles east, I welcome the two guys who step out of the pickup as they suit up and grab their rifles.
Yakking with Jenna and Greg at Calpine, California's Sierra Nevada Yaks.
After a few minutes of ATV wrangling, we get the five steers into the tiny pen, and sort out the four lucky ones. The remaining steer, beautiful and black with a long snout and a decent rack of horns, clearly knows something is up – prancing about the enclosure, poking for openings in the gates, snorting in frustration, and eye’ing the fence bar, a jump imminent.
Having experienced years of yak rodeos myself, I wonder exactly how this is all going to go down.
Clad in muddy work boots, well used blue jeans, a long-sleeved red shirt (interesting color choice for slaughter day) and a ball cap, George approaches the penned steer, giant rifle in hand, and proceeds to dance with the yak, moving in and around the pen in parallel with the steer, speaking in subdued tones, even patting the yak’s flank and head to calm down the nervous creature.
The rest of us watch from middle distance, trying to project calm and quiet, despite the imminence of “The Kill” moment. It is vital to keep the yak as calm and quiet as possible – stress hormones coursing through an animal’s body will taint the quality of the meat and render the whole exercise useless.
After 15 minutes (it feels like an Eternity) of the dance, George finds an opening, places the rifle on the yak’s skull, and pulls the trigger. The gun shot sounds like a cannon, the earth vibrates, and the yak immediately drops to the dirt – again, critical to make the first shot count: humane for the yak to ensure an instant kill, and important for eatable meat.
I walk over and bend down in front of the dying steer, face to face with this magnificent creature. Bright red blood, acridly pungent, is slowly coursing from the fatal head wound, and, as the steer’s lower legs convulsively kick and jerk against the brown earth, steam rises from his flanks, and I watch as a living fire slowly exits the yak’s big bright eyes, his mouth below in a death rictus, teeth exposed.
Intense, always, to deliberately take the Life of another living creature, especially a creature as large as a fully grown yak steer.
The Deed done, George and Randy prepare to render the animal, and Jenna invites me to head out to the main pasture for afternoon feeding. We jump on the two ATVs, zip around to the back of the property to grab two bags of grain pellets, and head across the muddy fields – a five-minute ride to the main herd. It feels fantastic to be back on the land, in close proximity to these marvelous creatures, bathed in blue sky and late afternoon sunshine. I realize my body and mind are vibrating with nervous energy – be good to get back in the presence of living yaks.
After some mud jockeying, our ATVs arrive at the main corral’s fenced-in edge. “We cranked up this whole operation in 2015, and we’ve got 89 yaks on 80 acres,” Jenna tells me when just before we open the gate to the main pasture.
I grunt, looking around. “That’s a lot to manage for just two of you,” I say.
She laughs, a bit wearily, nodding her head. “Today’s particularly crazy,” she says, “and yes, we’re gonna be selling off a bunch of the gang,” waving around her hand at the assembled, and explaining that the main herd will not be shy with us as we enter, knowing we are carrying bags of pellets for afternoon feeding.
We acknowledge the intensity of the slaughter.
“Meat is Greg’s thing,” Jenna says. “Me? I’m a knitter.”
We laugh, breaking the tension of the afternoon.
Upon entering the pasture, the entire herd of yaks enthusiastically approach us, swarming in and around our ATVS as we stabd atop them and fling out giant scoopfuls of yak pellets, the yaks circling us like a school of hairy, horny porpoises.
We feed and yak for a half hour, Jenna excitedly pointing out and describing her favorites – Lily, the matriarch, another rogue non-yak cow that seems completely at home among the grunniens, and each yak calf, all nappy and energetic. Clearly, the mutual cross-species affection between yaks and humans runs deep here in Calpine, California.
One particular story resonates.
Yak tag #59.
“When word got out about our yaks, we started having local Tibetan families showing up to visit,” Jenna tells me, pointing at the tag. “One group of kids saw tag #59 shortly after she was born, and asked if they could name her. We agreed.”
“And the name?” I asked, recognizing the significance of 59 – 1959 was the year China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded and occupied Tibet and chased out the Dalai Lama.
“They named her ‘Freedom,’” said Jenna tells me, looking at me closely.
I feel like weeping. It’s been a helluv’an afternoon.
“For Tibetans, yaks are their spirit animal,” Jenna says. “They often leave us white scarves tied to the roadside pasture fencing.”
“The katas,” I say, nodding, remembering my Nepal trekking adventures and the generous hospitality of my sherpa friends.
Feeding complete, we hop on the ATVS and return through the mud and beautiful sunny afternoon to the scene of the slaughter.
Greg is bustling about with afternoon farm chores, while Randy and George disassemble the yak steer, the rendered carcass hanging off a hook at the back of their truck. I dismount, walk over to examine the carcass, and Randy holds up a fistful of organ.
“Liver flukes,” he says. “This is my first yak butcher – haven’t seen these in most of the cattle I do.”
“Ivermectin is the solution,” says Greg, behind me. “We’ll have to up our Mectin game for next year out in the corral during vet time.”
Over my shoulder, by the killing corral, I hear noises, and turning, I notice the giant yak bulls have gathered at the scene of the Deed.
Walking towards them, I see four mature males – guard hairs dangling down to the ground - nosing the bloody ground, and then tapping each other with their massive horns. As I approach, the four begin what can only be described as “keening” – body convulsing grunts and moans, grieving for their dead comrade.
Stunned by their reaction, I stand and stare – the bulls groaning, snorting, crying, and consoling each other, alternating between laying their noses into the blood drenched soil and clacking together their horns in a shared gesture of sadness and loss.
The Grieving. Stress. Resilience. Life and Death.
My heart caught up in the intense power of this Moment, my mind flashes to a recent article I read in which an eminent scientist suggests that animals don’t feel emotions as much as we sapiens do.
I wince, looking at these four grieving bulls – keening at the loss of their dead community member.
Do yaks have feelings?
After a post-slaughter dinner – an entire pizza and a pint of local blonde ale – I find a quiet semi-dark parking lot at the edge of a copse of pines and read up on Edward Calabrese, our leading US hormesis researcher.
“Calabrese continues to work with chemical toxins, radiation, drugs, hormones and other categories of molecules on cells, plants and animals. Regardless of the agent used or the organism exposed, the hormetic dose response is observed,” explains public health practitioner Amy Rothenberg in a recent Huffington Post article in which she refers to Calabrese as a “Toxicological Rock Star.”
What a wonderful moniker.
“Calabrese is a hands-on research scientist, and his lecture was peppered with laboratory stories, compelling interactions with colleagues around the world, and a delightful sprinkling of self-deprecation and humility.”
More and I more, I am thinking I need to meet this guy.
Exhausted, I sleep like a baby.
Day 8/The Pacific Coast–Northern California and Southern Oregon (Sat, Dec 5)
SXY BST and I awake early for a four-hour morning drive through beautiful wooded northern California forests – cruising by lakes, streams, and the appearance of Mount Shasta to the north – one of North America’s most iconic peaks. Over the course of the morning, we encounter only a handful of travelers until arriving at Interstate 5 for the last leg of our journey to North America’s largest yak ranch by acreage.
Remember Michigan-born Hollywood martial arts actor Steven Seagal?
Ex husband of 90s bombshell Kelly LeBrock of “Weird Science” fame?
The vaguely Asian looking black-haired rat-tailed aikido expert who had a spate of successful tri-worded action films – Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Marked For Death, Out For Justice – in the late 80s and early 90s?
Now living in Russia, a close confidante of Vladimir Putin, fleeing, perhaps, from multiple #MeToo allegations accumulated over the decades in the US?
Yes, that Steven Seagal.
Seagal’s second marriage, to a beautiful Mongolian woman named Erdenetuya Batsukh (call her “Elle”), led to their investing in a “spiritual passion project,” the purchase of an entire herd of yaks, now numbering 80 animals, loosely managed on a 6,000 acre ranch property just north of Mount Shasta. I’ve heard rumblings of this ranch in the North American yak network for years, but, for understandable reasons, Benza Pema keeps a very low profile – hard to locate them on the Internet.
Thanks to the intimacy of the US yak network, I manage to obtain a phone number for a woman named Greer, who tells me she “oversees” operations at the Seagal yak ranch property, just before I leave on my trip.
One week later, a few miles east of Interstate 5 in northern California, in a secret undisclosed location, I pull up in front of a sturdy gate at the edge of an unassuming property, Mt Shasta to the south, rolling hills unspooling to the northeast. A minute or two later, a Subaru pulls up on the other side, and Greer opens the gate, greeting me with a smile.
“Welcome to Benza Pema Yak Ranch!” she says.
We talk for a few minutes, sizing each other up. Satisfied that I am legit, Greer invites me to stay for dinner and, if possible, a guest bed.
“Daniel, our ranch manager, is preparing yak Bolognese tonight,” Greer tells me.
“Say no more!” I say, and we laugh.
I follow her in our vehicles a mile east, and zipping over rugged dirt roads, we soon arrive at an unassuming two-story house, surrounded by pasture to the south and low slung ridges to the north. After briefly meeting Daniel and his family, Greer and I drive back around to the cattle guard and walk out towards the familiar shaggy humped creatures off in the distance.
“Anna is Steven and Kelly’s daughter, married to Daniel, and they run the daily operations here,” Greer tells me. “Mr. Seagal hasn’t been here in fifteen years, and he and Elle have decided to sell the property.”
“How much?” I ask, teasingly.
“$10 million,” she replies, “but first we have to find a home for these beautiful yaks.”
She stops at a healthy distance from the herd, encouraging me to approach as close as I wish.
Clearly, these yaks are not used to humans being in their daily mix – their heads pop up as I approach, alert and watchful, and a few of the cows cautiously begin moving towards me, emanating quiet grunts to alert the rest of the herd to my presence. The scene is sublime – the late morning sun lighting up Shasta and the yaks in the pasture – but I sense their nervous energy, and keep a healthy distance while snapping a few photos.
“Do you want to see Mr. Seagal’s Japanese cabin?” she asks. “We have a guest bedroom if you would like to spend the night.”
“That’s very generous,” I say.
Yakking at Benza Pema ranch, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.
We drive a rutted back dirt road through the scrub brush to a stunning two-story home, with a pond to the south and yet another stunning view of Shasta off in the distance. “Mr. Seagal wanted a traditional Japanese style cabin, but made with black Tennessee pine,” Greer explains, as we walk into the immaculate uninhabited home. “Would you like a tour?”
The home is a double decker homage to Steven Seagal’s career and hobbies – stuffed bears and giant cats vie with exquisite horse saddles, beautiful objets d’art, paintings, and photos of Seagal with his wife, Seagal directing on set, and Seagal with various foreign dignitaries, including Mr. Putin. Upstairs features a room built as a traditional monastic shrine – walking in and looking around, I suddenly feel like I am back in the Himalayas.
“It will be sad to sell this property, but it’s time.” Greer says behind me as I marvel at the space. “After Mr. Seagal’s career slowed down here in the States, and he married Elle, his geographic center shifted to Asia.”
“Makes sense,” I say, nodding, and, walking out, we agree on a time for dinner before I head north in SXY BST for my second visit of the day.
North, over the border, into Oregon, known as the “Beaver State,” but now home to at least one herd of bos grunniens.
I’ve been following Ashland, Oregon’s Firebird Yaks for more than a year on Instagram. A younger member of the US grunniens community, thirty-something yakker Sophia Weiss operates a stunning yak farm (at least according to her curated profile) on a steep hillside in the mountains west of downtown. Sophia and her yaks prove super photogenic on her social media feed, but I sense a more tough and resilient energy from her story, as well.
Turns out, my hunch was correct.
I arrive at Firebird just after lunch after SXY BST maneuvers up a steep and winding mountain road, and then through a switchback dirt drive up the steep ridge.
In the shadow of a small “Beware Of Yak” sign, I punch in the four digit gate code and park by a giant open air hangar full of hay, the energetic grunts of yak calves drifting over from next door in the chuted corral area. The main herd of yak cows spills down the hill below me, with a trailer sized single story home just above the dirt parking lot, a small hand built wooden outhouse off to one side, and the usual trappings of a yak operation – fence posts and wire, miscellaneous farm equipment and piles of this and that spread across the property.
Dressed in a light green tee, ball cap, and work pants, Sophia emerges from behind the house carrying a chain saw, set it down, and extended her hand. The striking young woman, while smiling, exudes a no-nonsense energy. Offering to show me around, she walks me up behind the house past two young men using a tractor to set fence posts below another sizeable pasture full of handsome bulls and steers.
“This is my 114-acre pasture where I run the bulls, and I have another 130 acres below the pond,” she gestures around. “With a friend, I converted this cargo container into a temporary house with a mud room walk in, and I’m building a house down below by the pond.”
Her words tumble out, but methodically, thoughtfully. Clearly, Weiss, who now runs 80 yaks up here, has thought through her evolving yak vision, which she shares with me as we stand among the bulls with pellets, Mt Ashland in the distance, ski trails already visible in the early December season, with clouds coming in – a hint of a storm brewing after a week of stunning travel weather.
Yakking with Firebird's Sophia Weiss east of Ashland, Oregon.
Sophia tells me she grew up here in greater Ashland, over the mountain, on a nearby Buddhist commune. Despite the farm clutter, her farm radiates a sort of spiritual energy – prayer flags and other understated Buddhist symbols abound - and she clearly has a deep connection with and affection for her animals.
“I paid for this property with a high-end software job and a nest egg,” she explains, looking around and taking in the scene. “I am pouring everything I have into these yaks – I love their energy.”
Explaining that her two primary yak interests are in what she calls “ethical breeding” and meat harvesting, she introduces me to her bulls, and I am taken with a particularly stunning gent – Rhaygar – a reference to the insanely popular HBO fantasy series Game Of Thrones.
“Winter is Coming,” I say, invoking GOT’s famed tag line, motioning to the darkening sky to the west, and we laugh, the bulls sensing our playfulness.
I ask her how she squares her Buddhist sensibilities with raising her yaks for meat.
“Karmically, harvesting yaks for meat seems to make the most sense because of the size of the animal minimizes the karmic harm,” she says, acknowledging the spiritual tension. “Our US industrial food system is so broken in so many ways, this feels like a healthy alternative.”
I agree, and we swap recipe ideas and butcher stories, the bulls standing by, occasionally sauntering in and out of our personal space to nibble on a pellet.
We walk down to the main pasture, past a Jersey cow nursing two little yak calves – a hilarious sight, and unprecedented, for me. Sophia explains that she now has a cross species “wet nurse” for yaklets who occasionally lose access to their mama’s milk, and we enjoy the scene for a few minutes.
Sophia’s cows, despite having just been separated from their calves the day before, remain calm and friendly as we walk through them down to the pond, as used to Humans as Sophia’s bulls up above. As the sky darkens, we walk down to the sizeable pond, which doubles as a water source for the yaks, discussing breeding, slaughter, and US YAKS versus IYAKs. While Weiss is an IYAK board member, she tells me she is “not all that interested in the politics,” but firmly states her commitment to transparency and consistency with regard to breeding and the genetic enhancement of the US yak population. Like every other yakker I know, too, Weiss expresses hope that the two organizations will find their way back to common ground. “Give it time,” I say, and she nods.
We return to the parking lot, discussing the imminent sale of Stephen Siegel’s yak herd directly to her south.
“Greer and I have been talking, and we’ll see what happens,” she muses, acknowledging that Seagal’s Benza Pema herd is a bit more wild than most.
“Whatever happens,” she says by way of goodbye, “I’m in with yaks for the long haul.”
After a stop at a local winery for tasting, truffle fries, and Christmas shopping, I arrive back at Benza Pema a bit late, having grabbed a few groceries in town. Daniel’s yak Bolognese is delicious, a welcome change from pita chips and string cheese. Anna and Daniel have their hands full with three young girls and a teenage boy from Daniel’s first marriage - over red wine, our conversation ranges widely, from child rearing to the COVID to public education to the challenges of being the kid of movie star parents. Anna is warm and open, and Daniel, while quiet, has a fantastic sense of humor. Their daughters, all bright eyed and energetic, make for welcome distraction, and Greer, a sort of Matriarch around the table, soaks up all the good energy, ever the gracious hostess.
Back at the “Cabin,” Greer directs me to the guest room, and we say our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch about the fate of Benza Pema’s yak herd. I tumble into bed and sleep soundly for eight hours, up at 5 am for an epic drive across Oregon and Washington to western Montana – a distance of 1,000 miles.
Day 9/Oregon to Washington to Montana (Sun, Dec 6)
Sunday, December 6 – my longest single drive day of the trip so far - is my wife Kate’s birthday, and I arrange for flowers to be delivered – 12 white roses – to our home in Mad River Valley the following day after a morning HBD phone call. Catching up with Kate and both of our kids on the phone, I find myself missing the Vermont shire. I feel like a hairy footed hobbit – Bilbo or Frodo - in the Mirkwood forest, adventuring on while pining away for hearth and home.
Looking out from SXY BST, the eastern Oregon landscape appears particularly bleak, and as I enter eastern Washington south of Walla Walla, the darkening sky starts spitting snow flurries, the Honda Element pitching and yawling as the storm begin to gust. At a particularly windy gas station - hello ice planet Hoth - I fuel up, silently acknowledging into the howling swirling whiteness that I am more than halfway done with this yak adventure.
To take my mind of off being homesick, I mentally review my notes on hormesis while driving.
Might modest doses of saddling allow yaks and humans to adapt, to “upregulate,” as Calabrese suggests, for future resilience?
Even more intriguing - could yaks and humans, two species engaged in co-domestication for millennia, strategically collaborate for cross-species resilience building, using hormesis as a guide?
Calabrese’s research suggests the possibility that animals undergoing hormesis under certain conditions – mild doses of hypoxia administered to an unborn developing fetus, for example, seems to pass on more biological resilience to the emerging baby.
Again, provocative. Even sinister sounding.
And what of cross generational hormesis?
Common scientific wisdom suggests that the descendants of chronically stressed humans exhibit chronic PTSD like symptoms. Calabrese’s work, by contrast, suggests the opposite.
Which science is correct?
“Both sides may be found to be correct,” says Calabrese in his 2918 interview, “once we understand the parameters of the experiment” and “the epigenetics that have to be worked out,” and we have “some initial evidence to suggest hormesis moves trans-generationally.”
Can we strategically saddle low doses of stress to train our kids and our grandkids to be more resilient?
That’s a question worth answering.
Mercifully, after a few more hours of driving through spitting white flakes, the snow ends before dark, and I arrive in Kalispell in time for a pizza and a beer in a very quiet downtown bar and grill – the bartender and I exchanging stories about growing up back East. I sleep in a darkened medical complex just outside of downtown, and awake the next morning to the same cold gray sky as the day before.
Day 10/Montana (Mon, Dec 7)
Big yak day in Big Sky Country today.
I have interviews scheduled with Spring Brook Ranch’s Jim Watson (Kalispell) and Living Diamonds’ ranch’s Laurence Richards (Polson), two veteran deans of US yakking, with nearly a century of livestock management experience between the two of them.
Determined to kick start my psyche in the face of this cold gray morning, I head downtown in SXY BST to try and find an open (and fully human) coffee shop. Under normal civilizational circumstances, this would be a snap – but months of this COVIDtastrophe now touch everyone and everything. Primed by 24/7 viral fear porn, many humans are treating each other as bioweapons – “physically distance! 6 feet of space!! – which I find deeply troubling.
Humans have proven an incredibly resilient species, but Calabrese’s notion of injecting positive doses of healthy stress into our daily experience to cultivate a more healthy mind, body, and spirit is the mirror opposite of what is happening now, courtesy of end-to-end viral national “news” coverage and the horrific consequences of historically unprecedented viral protocols – including economic lockdowns that make Kalispell (and most every other town and city through which I have traveled) feel like abandoned ghost towns.
Remarkably, I find a downtown café with a manager willing to have me sit in the back with a cuppa and jump on their store’s wifi to check in with my online courses back home and transcribe the past few days of yak road notes. Sitting in a booth, listening to the chatter of hipster baristas, sipping a hot fresh cup of joe, I feel almost normal – though the cashier turns away a handful of customers looking for a group table. How odd, that a “cuppa and computer” combination in a public space feels so novel.