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Return of the Cowgirl

"There's 30,000 acres out here," she says. "They could be anywhere."

This is, I am beginning to think, a hell of a way to make a living.

Double E Ranch in New Mexico
Double E Ranch in New Mexico
Ranch hands take clients on horseback rides through the spectacular scenery at Double E Ranch in New Mexico. (Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)

_____Spring Travel Issue_____
Wash Thoroughly Without a Swimsuit (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)
Cruise Control (The Washington Post, Mar 6, 2005)

The Egglestons run a cow-to-calf operation, which means that they make money by producing calves. The number that matters the most in this business is the number of cows that are retrieved in roundups with a calf tagging at their heels.

Well-fed, healthy cattle breed better, of course. On this kind of land -- rocky, largely barren, and dry -- each animal needs at least 100 grazing acres to get enough mesquite and grass to eat. This is a very high number -- Colin's cattle, in the rich grasslands of northern England, require only one acre apiece -- and during a drought, the number can be even higher. In a good year, the Double E's grasslands might support 350 cattle. This year, the Egglestons are running about 200 head. For a ranch the size of the Double E, with all its operating expenses, the income from a herd that size no longer covers the cost of raising it.

At dinner, Alan Eggleston tells me that cattle ranching, unlike many other animal-production businesses, has not been corporatized. This puts ranchers at a disadvantage when dealing with monopolized industries such as meat packing, he says; the selling price of beef has not kept pace with packing costs and the expense of raising cattle. These days, Alan says, almost the only successful ranches are run by families who own their land outright.

Alan sits back in his chair. He has the sort of mug that belongs on a cowboy: long and lined, with a wide Pace Picante-style mustache and slightly jug-handled ears. He is tall and narrow, and as ranch boss presides with a soft-spoken gravity. He rubs his cheeks with both hands. "Used to be," he says, "ranching was a way to make a living."

The glory days of cattle ranching were the decades following the Civil War, when some 40,000 young men were making their living on the Western range. After the invention of barbed wire in 1873, farmers gradually began fencing their wide-open spaces, and by the late 1800s, the days of the huge cattle drives were over. In the dusty Southwest, squatters and homesteaders competed with cowboys and Spanish families for control of the grasslands.

In 1877 Donald Hooker's grandfather began homesteading on a pretty parcel of farmland near what would become the town of Gila, N.M., in what was still just a territory of the U.S. government. In the ranch's heyday, in the mid-20th century, it was nearly 70,000 acres. Donald and his father ran 1,000 head of cattle and branded 900 new calves a year with the Hooker brand -- the gripsack, a square with a handle on top. But times changed. Donald's father died, and it became harder for Donald to run the ranch, much of which was accessible only on horseback. By the mid-'90s. the beef market was in the gutter, southwestern New Mexico was in the middle of an epic drought, and the market for picturesque ranch land was booming. The idea of selling was too hard to resist.

Donald lives with his wife, Betty, in a sunny double-wide trailer on the site of his grandfather's original homestead, on the 11,500 acres of farmland he kept for himself when he sold the ranch to the Egglestons. When I visit them one morning before a trail ride, there is a fire in the wood stove, and we stretch our legs in front of it. Three versions of James Fraser's iconic image "End of the Trail" -- an Indian slumped over his drooping pony -- hang on the wall over the sofa. Donald, who was a county commissioner and a state official for many years, is a cowboy-statesman in his mid-seventies, snub-nosed, tall and rangy, with a neat white pompadour. Dude ranching, he says, was something that never interested them. "I used to take people hunting with me in the hills. But I never took them for money, because then I'd have to wait on them."

Donald may be a rancher because he was born into ranching, but he is a cowboy because it suited him to work nearly his whole life in the saddle, shoot mountain lions when they were eating his herd and turn thousands of acres of unfarmable scrub land into a long, independent life. He is a cowboy because he is the same kind of man as his distant ancestor, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, who was run out of England like Roger Williams in the early 1600s and whose maverick individualism found, in the rough, unrealized potential of the new world, its natural home. Donald is a cowboy because, at 75, he still brands his cattle -- still has cattle to brand -- and at 10:30 in the morning on his day off, he is wearing spurs.

AT BREAKFAST the next morning, Alan announces over a plate of eggs that he has gotten a call from a neighbor, who has penned 12 cows and a bull of the Double E's, and that we will be driving the cattle back to the ranch today. It is unclear to me at first if we are going to drive them in vehicles or if we are going to drive them in the cowboy sense, but then Preston comes around with our horse assignments, and I am saved from having to ask.

As we assemble in the yard I realize that everyone besides me is wearing a cowboy hat, and the sun is already strong. My face and the backs of my hands are sunburned enough from the last two days. It is time for me to get a hat. I dash over to the Mercantile -- the Hookers' thick-walled old food cellar, now housing a collection of silk neckerchiefs, chaps, some of those fringed leather pillows, and hats -- and pick out a stiff, wide-brimmed number.

"You're going to want a stampede cord with that," one of the ranch hands says when I return, meaning the horsehair toggle that cinches the hat securely under one's chin. A stampede cord! This sounds promising.

My stampede cord cinched, the hat's wide brim gives my head an exaggerated equatorial wobble, as though I am at the center of a hat-sized gyroscope. I have been told that Buster is taking the day off, and I will be riding a horse named Gonzo, who I have been promised is comparable to Buster. British farmer Peter also has been transferred -- to a stout little horse called Lefty, so named for a tendency to list to the left, like a shopping cart with a stuck wheel. He is taking it hard. He slouches up next to me, looking sour. "New hat, eh?" he inquires. "Well, it suits you. Of course, it's hard to tell from down here."

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