Lyal Corliss' huge hands tell the story of his life. They have felled Sequoia sempervirens and shod countless horses.
His fingers are burly and broad like tree roots, and they are wrinkled and weather-beaten. A finger on one hand is missing from an accident in the woods. Still, they are immensely strong hands, especially considering that Corliss — who has worked on the North Coast as a horseman, farrier, brand inspector, high school ag teacher, sheep shearer and tree feller — is 80 years old.
It's a little past 9 o'clock on a recent Friday morning and Corliss — dressed in a clean pair of jeans, a starched button-down shirt with horses running across the breast, suspenders he's clipped together at his chest with a metal clasp so they won't slip off and a pair of leather chaps so old and patched they're turning gray — is getting ready to shoe his first horse of the day. He's already shod four this week.
Corliss uses a jerry-rigged pole with a nail banged through the end of it to reach into the back of his truck bed and slide out a few buckets filled with horseshoeing tools. He snags two hoof jacks — a stand for balancing the horse's foot so he doesn't have to hold it between his clenched knees. For half a century, he shod horses without one. "They're for amateurs," he used to say. Now, he admits, he has to eat his own words. But an octogenarian like Corliss deserves to cut a few corners.
The man is a walking toolbox. His chaps are loaded down like a Christmas tree with everything he needs for shoeing. Everything, that is, except the anvil. He has pliers and a double-edged hoof knife in one pocket, a tool he tells me wasn't even invented when he started shoeing. You needed two knives, he explains, a left- and a right-handed one; a pair of nippers, for cutting off big chunks of hoof; a set of clinchers for tightening down the nails you've banged into the horse's foot (which also weren't invented when he started shoeing); a rasp, used for smoothing the hoof before the metal shoe can be put on; and a custom-made hammer, notched on the hilt for a better grip and with a cow magnet glued on the back end for picking up stray nails without having to bend down. "When you get old, that's the way you pick things up," he says.
At least, that's the way Lyal Corliss picks things up. Your average 80-year-old doesn't usually find himself hunched over a horse's hind leg with eight razor-sharp nails squeezed between his index and forefinger, unless his life is flashing before his eyes at the final moment of reckoning.
"Easy does it," Corliss reassures the horse as he works its hoof over. First he trims the horn, the hard outer part of the foot. Then he cuts back the frog, the squishy pad at the back of the hoof that acts like a shock absorber. It sounds like he's shearing through thick fabric. When that's done, he unhooks his rasp from his chaps and scrapes back and forth to level off the foot. Imagine the sound of a serrated knife cutting through cardboard. "This is where shaved coconut comes from," Corliss jokes. God forbid. Horse hooves smell like Limburger cheese.
The horse isn't making things easy for Corliss. He keeps pulling his foot off the jack. "I keep telling her it's easy but she don't believe it," he says. He stands up slowly, red-faced and smiling. "I don't know how his back does it," the horse's owner tells me. I don't know either. There's a dull pain in my lower back already, and all I've done is stand around with a reporter's notebook.
Even when the horse isn't perfect, Corliss doesn't mind. "Makes me earn my money," he jokes. But last year, a horse Corliss was shoeing kicked him in the chest just above his heart. For most people his age, that would have been like punching out the last full stop on a typewriter of the last paragraph of one's autobiography. But Corliss didn't let it stop him. He shows me what's written on his baseball cap: "I'm not as good as I once was / But I'm as good once as I ever was / Bulletproof." I wouldn't doubt it. The word "cowboy" is stitched on the bill.
In the span of two hours, Corliss has earned himself $160. He shod two horses and drank one cup of strong coffee. He takes his first break of the day on the fender of his truck in the warm sun, resting one arm on his anvil. Never look into the mirror and you'll never know you're getting old, he says.
But that can't be his only secret.
Corliss wakes up everyday at 4 a.m. and has a bowl of oatmeal with fruits and nuts. "It's like giving a race horse a bowl of oats," he says. He also has a woman he euphemistically refers to as his "lady friend" who's 32 years his junior. He eats lots of fruits and vegetables and he doesn't smoke. He tried smoking once, during the Depression. His brother offered him a homemade cigarette: dried coffee grounds rolled up in Sears Roebuck catalog pages. Needless to say that was enough to turn him off for a lifetime.
Corliss was born in 1927 — the last year the Model T was made — 30 miles outside of Burlington, Colo., on the south fork of the Republican River. He was the son of a farmer and one of 10 children. His brothers and sisters still live in Colorado, but after being discharged from the Army — he served 13 months in Korea — Corliss thought he'd try his luck elsewhere. He bought a 1938 Indian motorcycle, taught himself how to ride it and spent a year on the road, traveling.
When he'd pull into a small town somewhere and see a pretty girl, he'd strategically drop his leather jacket by the side of the road where she was passing, then circle around. She'd pick it up and return it to him, and Corliss' rugged good looks did the rest. "It worked every time," he told me with a grin when we met for the first time back in January in a coffee shop on a rainy weekday morning. Eventually he rode his motorbike out to California, where he met his wife and settled down. He wanted to get away from Colorado's bitter cold winters. Nineteen forty-nine was a particularly bad year, he recalled, with blizzards and frozen cows. "A Canadian honker's got a brain the size of a pea," Corliss said, "and even he knows to go south."
Corliss has done a variety of things to make a living on the North Coast. He still shoes horses as far north as Coos Bay and as far south as Garberville, but not like he used to. When he was a younger man, he racked up 70,000 miles a year on the road.
In addition to working as a farrier, Corliss felled trees. He supplied wood for his friend, California sculptor J.B. Blunk, whose massive, elemental sculpture, "The Planet," stands in the lobby of the Oakland Museum. Blunk passed away in 2003 at the age of 76.
When Corliss and I met in January, the bad weather was preventing him from shoeing for the "good old boys and the good old girls" he so likes to visit with. But "You've got to roll with the punches," he explained.
When we parted, I asked him what he had planned for the day. He didn't miss a beat: "Go home to a pot of beans and cuddle up to a good woman," he said.