The last of a dying breed.
If one were to blow the dust off that big blue book referred to as a dictionary and look for the definition of grit, one would find;“ a non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment, and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.”When I envision grit, I think of one of the last American cowboys to work this land, Doug from the Buckhorn Ranch.
I have known Doug’s wife Leslie for a few years now, but I have never had the pleasure of meeting her husband, the cowboy. Now as I make my way to the Buckhorn ranch it is becoming clear why. Their ranch is located between the White Sands Missile Range and the small town of Truth or Consequences. To get there is nothing short of a full day adventure therefore to make this trip by horseback or a 27 Model T as Doug’s grandparents once did must have been something else entirely. For a cowboy like Doug, a outing to the city would require more planning than just going to the corner store for some milk and a pack of smokes. As I am traveling on this rough dirt road about an hour and half from the closest paved road, with nothing but prairie land and high mesas for miles, it is obvious why Doug would choose to stay at his ranch. This rugged ranch land is breathtaking, indeed, but not for the faint of heart. If someone were to run out of gas, water, or simply get lost out here, it could be a true death sentence. As I slowly travel down this dusty road, it is starting to make sense on the real definition of grit and why a cowboy like Doug has to have it coursing through his veins. Out here, among nothing but vast land and cattle fences, time becomes irrelevant, just as the luxuries and comforts of modern life. I lost cell service after the first 15 minutes from San Antonio, the nearest gas is about two hours from the ranch, and there are no signs of human life. Needless to say, I am still perplexed on the reason from which someone would want to take on this lifestyle and live a true cowboy’s existence. We all have this romanticized ideal of a home on the range with clear blue skies and rolling hills, but I am starting to realize one could not survive on romantic ideals alone out here; by the end of this adventure, hopefully it will all become more clear. Out here the landscape is flat with small mesas as far as the eye can see. The sky is a clear blue and as the wind blows the brush slowly sways with it. There is no sound to be heard other than the occasional mooo from a herd of cattle or the spinning of a windmill that I have passed. I have taken plenty of adventures/trips and I’ve gotten lost a time or two, but this is not the kind of land one wants to get lost in.
After two hours of driving down what seemed to be an endless dirt road, I arrived at their small ranch house, which seemed to be tucked into the land as part of the natural scenery. The house is roughly painted in light brown stucco, with old rustic wooden windows and doors from the 20s or 30s. The house has had many additions throughout the years and it’s obvious that all of it was done by Doug’s family and not a contractor, which is exactly what an old cowboy house should look like. As, I drive up to the house a sense of relief has started to come over me as I know I’m not going be sleeping with the coyotes. On the path to the house there’s a large horse stable to the east, a larger tool shed to the west, and in the center there’s various rusty ranch tools, horse shoes, branding irons, and even an old Model T. Everything about their house and the artifacts almost seems perfectly placed. There is not a single object that is new or modern in the area and patina is an understatement to the items lying around the ranch.
As I get out of my truck to stretch my legs and let Cash from the backseat Leslie, Doug and their grandchild Will come out to greet me with great big grins on their faces. Maybe they are excited to have a guest but more than likely they are probably more excited to see Cash Dogg. It happens all the time. Doug is a shorter gentleman, standing around 5’7 and weighing about 180 or so, and as I go to introduce myself I can’t help but to notice the grip and size of his hands. He has hands of stone only made from true hard work. He is sun beaten and his old denim and cowboy hat is rather dusty but I can tell dust and sweat are part of his genetic makeup. He is in his early 70s and has a broad build. He is in the kind of shape that most men in their 70s would pay top dollar to try and achieve. He gives me another handshake and a pat on the back as we enter the ranch house. There’s a different sense of community out here, a certain genuine character to him that is immediately obvious; he is the kind of man you would expect a real cowboy to be. Within the house there are more antiques about, antelope and deer skulls, and a few worn in cowboy hats. Again, most of the items on the ranch have been here throughout the years and is exactly what I refer to as rusty gold. If there is a single tool at this ranch, chances are it has stood the test of time and was built to last. We all proceed to have a seat at their dinner table as they offer me a bowl of green chili chicken soup and a glass of sweet tea. Doug takes off his cowboy hat, and even though I can tell he is a man of few words, his story of the family and ranch flows for him rather easily. Doug’s great grandfather was originally from Mason Texas, and in the 1800s, he and his brothers made their way out to Hobbs, New Mexico, to work as cowboys. In 1920, Doug’s grandfather, wife, and brother purchased the Buckhorn Ranch, roughly 140 sections. Currently, the ranch sits at 70 sections, which is around 40,000 acres. They lived and worked the land, and in school terms would move to T or C, New Mexico, so their children could attend high school. In 1941 at the start of the war, the US government wanted to use a section of the land for the White Sands Missile Range, and being patriots, the Buckhorn Ranch gave up nearly half of their plot. Doug also informed me that they were rather lucky. Many ranchers at the time lost their entire plot of land to the government. Doug’s grandfather would go on have four children, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren, before his passing.
As Doug grew up, his dream would always be to continue the family tradition, even after Doug’s father pushed him into formal schooling for pharmaceutical studies, he would still opt to stay and work for his grandfather as a ranch manager. He saw many changes during his time on the ranch, such as the 40,000 plus acres that would eventually become fenced in by the WSMR. He would be there to give up the coal burning lamps for modern electricity and the pumping of water from the well to indoor plumbing. Even as the ranch was far from civilization, they could not escape modernization. Doug’s grandfather passed away in 1972 leaving, the ranch to Doug’s mother and her brothers, who with the help of their grandchildren could keep this cowboy tradition alive in the rapidly changing world. When Doug’s uncle passed away, as tradition he too would leave the land to Doug and his sister. Doug could never shake this life, and even though his dad sent him to take on another profession, being a cowboy would always be in his blood. He did, however, use his wit to change with the times when needed. In the early 1990s, he attended a school on intense grazing, which basically meant the cattle would be rotated from each plot every 5 to 7 days in order to keep their grass and cattle more healthy and stronger, allowing the cattle to graze more intensive and efficiently.
Nonetheless, some aspects to his life would never change. For instance, even now at the young age of seventy, Doug, Leslie, and Will start most days at 6 in the morning and end the day as the sun has set. On any given day he is chopping wood, starting a fire, feeding horses and calves at the corral, checking wells and fences, and fixing both as needed, riding the pastures looking for sick cows or lost calves, and then, just maybe, he can make it home for a quick lunch. On a more difficult day, the ranch might have a broken pipeline or two, which requires digging a ditch, sometimes up to thirty feet, or repairing a broken fence, which makes the day much longer in which there’s no need to come home for lunch. Out there at the ranch, it doesn’t matter how cold or hot it is, the cattle need their water, which means that there are no days off. There’s no need to have any schedule or keep track of time because the work in constant and continuous. He can’t go off and leave the ranch for a football game or to have a beer at the bar. What keeps him going, though, is that to Doug it’s not really work, it’s life. He not only lives this life, he enjoys it. To Doug, an impossible day would be one spent in a car waiting out traffic or sitting in an office staring at a computer screen. Out here in the vast openness, it’s just him, his family, and his horses. He never has to answer to anyone but the land itself and he could go most days without saying a word to another person. Any day on the Buckhorn is a good day in his eyes.
As he wraps up explaining the history of his ranch, I finish my stew and politely thank him. His wife Leslie proceeds to show me the house and various historical family heirlooms, as Doug quietly takes a seat in a chair next to the fireplace. I can’t help but to reflect on our conversation has taken a bit out of him and social accolades is not within his comfort zone, which is completely understandable. Leslie allows me to pick through a few old license plates and various cow skulls, all of which could never be found in the city, making these items all that more precious. As the sun is starting to set, my time at the ranch is coming to an end far too quickly, but I know trying to find my way back in the dark would be a death sentence. As I load up Cash Dogg and a few items, I look around for a minute and take a deep breath for I am still in awestruck by the beauty of the land. One would have to make this trip to understand as it is almost too much to take in. Before I leave, their grandson proceeds to show me his newest drone as Doug waves me a farewell.
As I am driving back into town on this open stretch of dirt road, the sun is starting to set and the sky has gone from a clear blue to touch of crimson with the silhouette of the dark mountains behind us. The few town lights are twinkling ahead of us in the distance and it has become obvious as the dust settles behind that Doug couldn’t change what is in his heart any more than the rest of us. He has a true cowboy spirit coursing through and through. This is the only life he knows and desires. While most of us are still in search of our true self, his was found long ago, as one of the last Cowboys.