Home on the Range
When your family’s home and business have barely changed in a century, what happens when you see your livelihood dwindling even as you watch your grandkids growing up? The cowboy is an iconic symbol of the American West, but his life is changing in the digital age. To find out how, writer/photographer Tim Keller heads to far northeastern New Mexico to visit with Darien Brown, a fourth-generation cattle rancher.
Waters flowing down the east slopes of Johnson Mesa, east of Raton, form the Dry Cimarron River as it passes the Folsom Man archaeological site and the village of Folsom, where a devastating 1908 flood left little in its wake. The river – some would call it a creek – continues east and north for 80 miles before exiting the state on its way to the Arkansas River above Tulsa.
In 1865, Irishman Mike Devoy took a job creating the original government survey of the valley. Finding Mexican sheepherders and a winter Indian camp, he liked the place so much that he filed a homestead claim and moved in. He built a small general store and a successful cattle ranch whose irrigation system and buildings are still in use, 140 years later, by the Brown family, who acquired the ranch at auction after Devoy’s death in 1914. From the inception of American cattle ranching to the 21st century, this one ranch has seen it all.
Dawn hasn’t begun when the phone wakes me. “You wanted to ask me some questions about ranching?” It’s Darien Brown. “Today’s a good day. We’re taking some calves a hundred miles south and we can talk in the truck.”
In the sunrise glow I brake for a flock of wild turkeys scurrying across Highway 456 beside grazing longhorn cattle near Folsom Falls. It’s autumn: the smell of roasted green chile lingers in the crisp air.
At milepost 13 I turn in at the modest old “Brown Ranch” sign and find Darien loading cattle from Devoy’s old pens, assisted by his sons Brian and Robbie and friend Lupe Machuca. Underfoot are grandsons Kyle, Kade, and Jace, ages 4 to 10, the sixth generation of the Brown ranch.
“This is the first time we’ve gotten so little rain that we have to truck some cows to someone else’s pasture,” Darien tells me later on the long drive to Vernon Reif’s ranch south of Clayton. “He got his rain this year, and mine, too.”
Darien’s great grandfather was John Thomas Brown, a Texas cowboy who moved to the Dry Cimarron Valley in 1882 and built a home in Long Canyon. His son Jay T. Brown bought the Devoy place and started ranching it when he returned from World War I action in France, paying off the entire loan with his first year’s alfalfa crop. “It’s not like that anymore,” Darien laments.
“Fifty years ago,” Darien says, “my dad could trade the money he made on ten calves for one new car. I’ll make about $700 per calf this year. Ten calves might buy me a third of a new car.”
Over the past century, the Brown Ranch has grown to 10,500 acres, which sounds like a lot to a city slicker. But in this high arid country, it’s enough to raise just 200 cows. “It’s too much work for one man, but not enough money for one man to make a living,” Darien explains. “In the 1950s and 60s, fifty or sixty cows would make a good living for a family. Today, 200 cows won’t pay the bills.”
Like most ranch wives today, Darien’s wife Dianne earns a much-needed paycheck working away from the ranch: with NMSU degrees in agricultural biology and pest management, plus a masters degree earned online, she’s the science teacher at the Branson School, just across the state line in tiny Branson, Colorado, which is closer than the nearest New Mexico school at Des Moines.
Darien and Dianne’s son Brian works for Folsom Well Service to earn a living. “Any time I’m not working there, I’m working here on the ranch,” says Brian, 28, who lives in Branson with his wife Laura and their sons Cole, Jace, Kade, and Kyle. Brian’s brother Robbie, 27, left Texas Tech just short of his mechanical engineering degree to join the US Air Force. “He got patriotic,” Dianne says. Robbie’s a C-130 crew chief expecting to be in Kuwait or Afghanistan by spring, but for now he’s stationed at Abilene, close enough to drive 475 miles home to help move these calves.
Unloading the calves at Reif’s, I ask Robbie whether he wouldn’t prefer a weekend of rest. “This is rest,” he replies. He and Brian hope to one day take over the ranch, just as Darien did from his dad, just as Darien’s dad and granddad did from their dads. Despite today’s daunting challenges, it’s an enviable outdoor lifestyle: it’s not just close to the land; it is the land.
But the cows don’t make enough money for Darien to hire cowboys for this all-day job. He’s got Brian and Robbie. He’s got Lupe, who works in trade for Darien pasturing 16 of Lupe’s own cows, a deal that’s suited both for more than a decade.
Neighbors help neighbors. Driving downstream from the mouth of Toll Gate Canyon, where Highway 551 branches north to Branson from the Dry Cimarron, there’s Jeffers, Bannon, Brown, the Cross L, Burchard, Whittenburg. Darien’s using a Cross L trailer; they’ve borrowed his tractor rake. Darien loads a semi-trailer from the Bannon’s chutes; the Bannons borrowed Darien’s tractor for mowing. Ranchers call this neighboring.
The Bannons have a daughter at Des Moines High School and two sons off at college. Like the Brown Ranch, the Bannon’s century-old spread will be here for the kids, the sixth generation, but it may not support them.
As the numbers increasingly fail to add up, cable pioneer John Malone’s T.O. Ranch is buying family ranches right to the Dry Cimarron, just as Malone’s friend Ted Turner is doing west of Raton. Looking for a place to invest fast-growing wealth, each of these self-made media billionaires is building a sprawling multi-million-acre ranching empire like the cattle barons of the nineteenth century. This preserves the vast open beauty of the land, but it displaces the families along with their century of ranching heritage.
In a caravan of three pickup trucks pulling stock trailers toward Clayton, Darien sees rubber fly off a tire on the trailer Robbie is pulling. Darien calls Robbie’s iPhone from his own cell phone. “This is something that amazes me,” Darien turns to me. “We’re driving down the highway and I’m on the telephone! I use it in the fields, everywhere.” Robbie pulls over to change the tire, losing only minutes.
“Now I have my cow records and bank records in a computer,” Darien continues, though I will learn to reach him by phone: he doesn’t do e-mail. When Dianne’s too busy to type out a business letter for him, he reluctantly sits at the computer to do it himself.
Like the telephone, horses are still around, too, but Darien doesn’t use them as much as he used to. “I’ve got seven horses and three 4-wheelers,” he says. “I use the horses when we’re shipping or branding or gathering cattle off the mesa, but I use the 4-wheelers about ten times more often. They’re better for most things around here. I keep three of them so I always have one that works.”
Another new technology may bring financial hope for the future. Like all of eastern New Mexico, the Dry Cimarron Valley is rich in wind. Darien has joined with many of his neighbors to form the Sierra Grande Land Association, which is lining up to negotiate deals with wind power companies. Like the oil boom a century ago, wind power promises to help many ranchers stay on their land in the 21st century. According to Darien, one wind turbine produces more electricity than all that’s carried by Southwest Electric Co-op, which powers the northeast corner of New Mexico. The new wind corridor will send its electricity on to power-hungry Arizona and southern California, leaving a trail of money to those on whose land the big wind turbines sit.
Darien makes some money leasing his ranch to hunting guides – a lucrative business in these parts where hunters come from far and wide and pay top dollar to bag an elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkey, bear, or mountain lion. This West is wild enough that Darien, Brian, and Lupe carry pistols – not against outlaws so much as rattlesnakes and four-legged varmints. In the last five years, neighboring ranchers have killed a rabid bobcat, a mountain lion, rattlesnakes, and three troublesome
Driving up a back canyon a couple weeks later with young grandsons Kade and Kyle sharing the bench seat of his most recent truck, a 1997 Ford, Darien says he’ll work the ranch as long as he’s alive. “A rancher retires when they throw dirt on his face,” he smiles.
He clearly loves the life. Nodding at Kade and Kyle, who accompany him all day, two days a week, he says, “There’s very few people who have the privilege of taking their kids, or their grandkids, with them to work. We pay a high price for being this isolated, but one of the payoffs is this.”
He recalls riding around the ranch with his own father, Jay T. Brown, Jr., who died in 1992. There’s no telling at this point whether the 145-year-old ranch will pass next to Brian and Robbie, then to Kade and Kyle. It’s supported an economy and a lifestyle since the close of the Civil War. The iconic American cowboy has progressed from trail drives to trailers, from horses to pickups and 4-wheelers.
A welcome rain arrives as Darien throws flakes of hay off the flatbed to a line of hungry calves while 5-year-old Kade guides the slow-rolling truck. At Kade’s age, Darien was doing the same thing. The past is easy to see. Now that it’s coming on dark – his days never end before dark – Darien’s too busy to spend his time pondering a future that no one can see anyway.
Tim Keller and Darien Brown used to work together as volunteer rural EMTs. Tim’s first taste of the Brown Ranch came on the annual Dry Cimarron Tour many years ago. Tim teaches English at Raton High School and freelances his writing and photography to a newspaper and several magazines. See his work at TimKellerArts.com.
Sidebar: The Dry Cimarron Tour
Tour the Historic Dry Cimarron Valley
Meet Darien and Brian Brown
Each May, the Folsom Museum sponsors a free motor tour of the historic Dry Cimarron Valley. This year’s Dry Cimarron Tour begins at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, May 14, at the Folsom Museum. Longtime resident Vinita Brown will give a guided street tour of what the village once was, before the devastating 1908 flood.
Enjoy free coffee while touring the museum, then join the caravan, or a carpool, to travel north and east along Highway 456 all the way to Kenton, Oklahoma, home of the Robbers’ Roost hideout of the infamous Cole Gang.
Visit Folsom Falls Ranch where Fred Balmer will give some history and up-close contact with his longhorn cattle. See the valley’s abandoned first settlement site and travel Toll Gate Canyon before stopping for an hour-long visit with Darien and Brian Brown, who will give a guided tour of their ranch headquarters. Ask them to show you the traps Ernest Thompson Seton used nearby to capture the famed wolf Lobo: Seton left the traps with Mike Devoy and they’re still there.
Continue east across the famed Cross L Ranch to meet Boyd Burchard, who will give a history of the Prairie Cattle Company and lead a short walk to petroglyphs and Indian sites on his ranch. Folsom Falls Ranch will bring a cowboy lunch for all to enjoy under the trees.
Sixteen miles of dirt road pass fascinating geological sites and dramatic buttes with names like Wedding Cake and Battleship before crossing the state line to arrive at Kenton in the late afternoon.
For more information, including local lodging selections, visit www.folsomvillage.com, or call the Folsom Museum at 575-278-2122, or e-mail AbbieReaves@bacavalley.com. Lodging on the Kenton end is available at Black Mesa B&B, www.bmbb1.com or 800-821-7204, and The Kenton Kabins available through Kenton Mercantile (“The Merc”), www.kentonmercantile.net or 580-261-7447. The Dry Cimarron Valley Tour is open to all at no charge, although the museum is happy to accept donations for the tour and the lunch.
©2011 Tim Keller