Friday, April 25, 2014

Lighting out for the Territories, 4: Clueless cowboys...

Rancher Cliven Bundy's refusal to pay his federal grazing fees has captured the imagination of many Americans who know nothing about public lands and assume people can do as they please when on them. They can't, thank God.                                                       

  I got interested in the West while working for the Washington Post, years ago. I wanted to write about the vast public lands, what I saw as a "kingdom in the country," and since the editor didn't know what they were, I took off in a van on my own. Below is one chapter from the book that was later published by Houghton Mifflin and has just been rewritten and reissued in paperback:                                                                                    

                                                                  Antelope Clover

I had driven for two days across the plains of Oklahoma and Texas, seeing redbud blooming on the stream banks and smelling manure and diesel fumes, when suddenly the West began. Huge country rises from the Pecos River toward a lost, rocky upthrust known as the Capitan Mountains, in southeast New Mexico. In April, antelope clover turns whole sections an electric yellow, and the long straight road mounts and dips among the thermals.
This rising plateau country is the range, the most salient aspect of the West, and the most evocative. Walter Prescott Webb wrote of the range, "There you will see action, experience adventure, hear strange new words, and see a relationship between man and man, man and horses, man and cattle, man and woman, that you will find nowhere else in America."
When I thought of the range I thought of sweeping country altered by cows and sheep; of men on horseback, remote settlements in difficult places; of gorgeous scenery in which you could become lost; of self-sufficiency and hardship and raucous good times. All of those images inform the notion of Western character so important to our national myths, an idea still vigorously mined by cigarette advertisers and scriptwriters.
In that notion of superior Western character, the range is ruled by individualists — ranchers bound by the wisdom and audacity of their own decisions. But what they think about this view, and how they actually do what they do in this era of feedlots and the disappearing beef-eater remained a mystery to me. I often wondered exactly who these people were and why they kept at it.
 That first day in the West, as I approached the junction of the narrow highway and a dusty track without a sign, mailboxes came into view. They sat on a pipe frame that had been welded in someone's barn, proof of life beyond mirage; they were full of bullet holes. For the first time in hours I got out of my steel box, with its cushiony tires, vibrant electronics, and all the insulation of the contemporary voyager. The bright colors of mail-order catalogues gleamed in shafts of sunlight; I heard the wind whisper through the ventilated names of strangers.
One of those mailboxes belonged to Bud Eppers, who owned land in the last unbroken string of ranches in New Mexico, extending a hundred miles south from Vaughn to Roswell and sixty miles west to Ruidoso. This part of the state, close to the Texas Panhandle, had been the scene of big cattle drives the century before and now was home to more sheep than cows. They foraged and birthed on Bud Eppers's thirty thousand lean acres, the lambs and calves standing up on wobbly legs amidst sacaton grass and dried mud left by rare rainstorms, gawking at big open country between the high plains and the Chihuahuan Desert.
Eppers's was the first wire fence I came to west of the Pecos, and the first stop on my journey. I had met him at a stockmen's convocation in Denver the autumn before; he was expecting me. Bud owned cows and sheep but was identified as a sheepman, an ongoing bit of cultural segregation as old as the West. As soon as a cattleman acquires a sheep he loses a century's worth of social superiority. The sheepmen have the reticence of any minority but tend to open up more than cattlemen once you get to know them. Bud talked in unabashedly countrified locutions about yoyos who worked for the federal government, and the deficiencies of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which forced the BLM to actively manage the land. He had a boxer's two-tiered nose, and when he took off his hat he revealed the white head that is the hallmark of ranchers.
I assumed that a man with thirty thousand acres lived in relative splendor, with a green lawn and a servant or two. But Bud lived in a whitewashed stone house that had a corrugated iron roof and was surrounded by piles of rock, at the end of a sixteen-mile dirt road. A string of bright red chiles hung from the eaves. A cow skull sat on the ground next to a metal screen door that would have been more appropriate on a penal institution than a ranch house.
Bud came out to greet me in faded Levi's and pointy-toed boots that were split up the seams and covered with a patina of dried mud and sheep dung. A cracked leather belt with a silver buckle held up a middle-age spread. On his Cat hat — one of those billed, slogan-bearing caps made stylish by the drivers of Caterpillar tractors — was an advertisement for a feedlot in Roswell, the closest town. As he showed me around his place he pointed out a ramada he had built of pipe to shelter the geraniums from the sun. When we passed an old Chevy pickup sitting in the grass, a bullet hole in the windshield, Bud said affectionately, "Kids."
His three sons and a daughter all lived in distant towns. They preferred life on the ranch, but thirty thousand acres would not support more than one family, not when you needed forty acres to run five sheep or one cow. Fewer people were eating beef and lamb, and paying less for the privilege. And the federal government wanted to raise grazing fees, with the livestock industry already ailing.
The Epperses' house had been built in 1850 and patched and painted over the years by Bud and his wife, Alice, a sturdy woman who in a pinch could do any work required of her husband. Now she put on stockings and make-up every morning and went to work for the local congressman in Roswell, an eighty-six-mile round trip. Some days she and Bud talked more by CB radio than face to face, while she drove back and forth over the blacktop and he traveled the back roads in his pickup. Often he had to make dinner himself.
"And he gets to make up his side of the bed," Alice said. 
"Women's lib," said Bud.
His CB handle was Redman, after the brand of chewing tobacco; hers was Padrona. They had been born within three months of one another, and delivered in Roswell by the same general practitioner. Both were accustomed to ranch life, however. She carried a .38 Smith & Wesson in the front seat of her car, mostly for shooting rattlesnakes, and he carried a .357 magnum.
We ate dinner prepared from cans. Bud had bought a secondhand pool table for $150, balls and cues included, and a beer tap where he drew a single ice-cold mugful each evening after work. There was plenty still to do on the house, but the Epperses didn't have the time or the money. Ranching wasn't the moneymaker it had once been. Bud's secondhand Cessna sat on a sage flat above the house, unused in more than a year.
His stepfather had come to New Mexico from Missouri in a covered wagon and lived to see space shuttles hurtled into the atmosphere on the screen of the Zenith color set in Bud and Alice's living room. He died at eighty, after that same general practitioner who had delivered Bud and Alice removed a piece of his intestine. He had seen some of the range wars in what became Chaves County. Water, not land, was the power base. Once you understood that, Bud said, you could understand the West. Bud ran three hundred mother cows and sixteen hundred ewes on land not designed for such an industry. Now he could barely make ends meet. His ranch was part his and part the government's, although he didn't think of it that way. He had inherited the land and water, and grazing rights on government land that went with the water rights he owned, all from his stepfather. He treated all the land as his own, but in fact he paid grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management for much of it.
The measurement of use was something called an Animal Unit Month, or AUM, a complicated formula that boiled down to $1.35 a month per cow, or 27 cents per sheep. That seemed cheap to me, but Bud recalled the time before the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 when the range was free. It would be free again if he had anything to say about it. The range, in his view, had become the province of the politicians and bureaucrats. They had tried to force him to adapt his fences to let antelope through. Bud had always objected to the federal government telling him how to ranch, but this was the last straw. And he was willing to go to extremes to preserve what he saw as his rights.
Although he owned and carried several guns, Bud had never used one on a human being. Instead, he registered his protest to government interference by going to Rock Springs, Wyoming, to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure. The only other time he had stood up before a group of people was to call a square dance at the Roswell high school. Bud told the senators, "I resent statements by bureau personnel that all or the majority of public lands are being considerably abused by the livestock permittees."
Asked by a senator about BLM agents' knowledge of ranching, Bud had said, "They lack strongly in that area."
"His voice shook," Alice said.
"I was scared," Bud admitted, "but the force of what I wanted to say helped me overcome it."
He was invited to the nation's capital to testify again, and he took along a .38 revolver, as he always did when traveling. When he was finished on the Hill he dropped the pistol into the pocket of his suit jacket, which he left hanging in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency while he had a drink with another rancher. He didn't discover that the gun had been stolen until he got back to New Mexico. "I almost went back and found the bastard," he said. "If there's anything I hate, it's a thief."

I went to bed in their spare room and propped the pillows up against the whitewashed wall. Stuffed animals sat in old milk crates, waiting for the Epperses' grandchildren. Beyond the window I could see hills flushed with the yellow light of a westward-trending moon and the dark crease of the Macho Draw, which ran through the ranch, dry now. Bud had called this land "right rough ole country." I thought of the Anglos who settled here in the early nineteenth century; they had contended with the Spanish for what they considered theirs. In 1845 a magazine editor named John L. Sullivan excoriated foreign countries for "limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."
Those multiplying millions were at first reluctant to die at the hands of savages, or to starve in country rough beyond their imagining; they had to be oratorically prodded out of Eastern cities. By the time of the Civil War most land in the West not too rough or dry to be plowed had come into private ownership, much of it through fraud. The Homestead Act at the end of a string of uncommonly wet years moved nesters into places normally unfit for farming or other human sustenance. Boosters like William Gilpin, the territorial governor of Colorado, proclaimed that moisture followed the plow and that firewood lay under the sand and that, in short, agrarian culture could modify the West's aridity and transform the landscape. It was a cruelly deceptive claim.
Tenacious dirt plowers and their suppliers, including disgruntled Southerners fleeing the aftermath of the Civil War, settled by the dozens along the Macho, where no families live today. Three derelict schoolhouses are testimony to the homesteaders' optimism. Eighteen inches of annual rain at the end of the last century had meant flowing streams year round, and flourishing grain; but that precipitation proved to be a fluke, and widespread disaster followed in the drier years. Bud himself had been raised in one of the settlers' dugouts, a one-room house with a dirt floor, but he belonged to a very different tradition, that of the stockman, fencer of the range. His stepfather had bought up a number of homesteads early in the century, after extended drought ended the squatters' dreams.
John Wesley Powell, the first runner of the Colorado River and visionary of the settled arid West, advocated more land for homesteaders, to be sold or given to them according to the amount of available water. Where water was scarce, more land would help overcome the shortage of moisture and so of crops. But Congress stuck with its policy; too little land for homesteads created cemeteries in country where individual families could not make a living on a quarter-section or a half-section or even a whole section. Before the end of the century, cattle and sheep had come to dominate the West.
In 1890 the U.S. Bureau of the Census announced that for the first time it had been unable to discover a clear boundary between wild and settled areas. Officially, there was no longer a frontier. But the West as a state of mind remained important to Americans, whether or not they intended to go there. "American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier," Frederick Jackson Turner said in 1893, in a speech before the American Historical Association that left a lasting impression. Free land, he said, had made our unique democracy possible. "This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, furnish the forces dominating American character."
The evolution of public lands could be seen from the window of Bud's spare room. The homesteads had clung to the river, where low meadows received water at least some of the year. They could be plowed, and wells dug, and a house built like this one, within sight if not the shade of cottonwoods. The higher country, away from water — the land nobody wanted — touched and mingled with the private holdings, but its ownership had been ignored or taken for granted. No one wanted to buy this land when it was for sale. It had been free for the use up until the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act. Now the government leased it for far less than the cost of grazing rights on similar private land, but ranchers had always considered the public land theirs. They still did.

Bud had not saddled a horse in two years. Dirt bikes were faster than a horse, he told me, and cheaper. "When my Honda's settin' there, it ain't eatin'," he liked to say.
He and another rancher were getting ready to round up sheep to be tagged, a cooperative process known as neighboring. Bud's neighbor straddled a new candy-apple-red Honda, much brighter than Bud's mud-splattered two-year-old. The rancher's jeans were unfaded, his shirt pressed, his Cat hat spotless. He wore a .38 revolver in a new nylon holster — protection, he called it — tied down to one thick thigh. He sold real estate in Roswell and had decided to take up ranching in one of the worst years in fifty.
They waited for the third member of the party to catch up, a Mexican who worked for Bud. He feared his dirt bike and rode it badly. Now the shriek of his engine carried up from the dry bed of the Macho, out of sight below the steep-cut bank.
"Watch," said Bud.
The Mexican vaulted into view, legs dangling like wet linguine, and landed in a cloud of dust. He almost went over the handlebars but regained his balance and bravely smiled.
"You can't get good wets anymore," the real estate agent said, unperturbed by the presence of the Mexican, who spoke no English. "They used to walk up here from the border and hang around the barn, to see if you'd give 'em food. If you didn't need 'em, they'd move on."
"Now they walk right up to the house," said Bud. "Or drive up."
All three men sputtered off in search of ewes, across land severely grazed for a century or more. I waited in the shadow of the barn. Half an hour later, forty sheep came down from the hills, made skittish by the dirt bikes. The men herded them into the corral and dismounted.
I joined them, as did a Mexican who worked for the real estate agent; we all waded in with pliers and blue plastic tags, grasping handfuls of wool and punching holes in the ears of the animals. The ears bled, and the sheep lunged and bleated, raising dust that drifted across the yard and the dry Macho and the arching, lemony sweep of country.
After the tagging was done, conversation turned to predators. Coyotes were the worst, Bud said. They crawled through holes in the net wire fences strung for sheep, and preyed on lambs. "It's damn near impossible for a coyote to get away from a dirt bike," he said. He carried a .22-250 rifle on the Honda, between his legs, fitted with an eight-power Leopold scope, the bluing long since worn away by the machine's vibration. Sometimes he just ran over the coyotes.
Eagles were also a problem. In the old days ranchers killed them, but that was illegal now. The real estate agent remembered checking snares with a dog, which killed most of the predators on the spot, but not the eagles: "We had to beat 'em off that dog."
The sheep were to be trucked to spring pasture. The men loaded them into a trailer and then put the dirt bikes into the pickups, just like horses. Bud said goodbye to his neighbor and climbed into his pickup with his Mexican, Abel, and me. Abel's clothes were grease-stained and smelled of wood smoke. As Bud drove toward home, Abel jumped out of the truck to open gates, the real measure of distance and proprietorship on land with few natural barriers.
Abel got out for good at the tin-roofed shack where Bud allowed him to live and unloaded the hated dirt bike. He had wrecked it once and broken his wrist, but biking went with the job. I felt sorry for him.
"Hope we get some wind," Bud said. "I want to burn that old sacaton in the bottoms, so the new grass'll grow."

Bud went out to the machine shed before supper, to change the oil seal in the Honda. Alice, sitting on the sofa and combing out her freshly washed hair, told me something of his past. The conversation was accompanied by the sound of the television set.
Bud's real father had left his mother while Bud was an infant, Alice said. "He never knew why his father left, he never asked his mother. He thought if she'd wanted him to know, she would have told him." She tugged the comb through a tangle. "His father didn't go far, just down into Texas. We pass the town all the time, on the way to El Paso. Once I said, 'Why don't we get off the Interstate and go look up your father?' Bud said, 'I don't care to meet him.'
"Bud can't tell even a little lie. It's what gets him, gets all the ranchers, into trouble. Their individuality."
He came in and washed his hands. He sat down with the newspaper. "I've never seen so many ranches for sale," he said. The next morning the Epperses' oldest boy, Tom, called to ask if he could drop the kids off for the weekend. He ran a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle; he and his wife were headed for the Albuquerque Marriott for a brief vacation.
Bud and I drove out after lunch to meet them. "My forebears made all the improvements here," he said, pointing to a stand of grama grass. "They made the pastures and drilled the wells and put the water around. But the BLM don't think ranchers are worthy. They don't know anything about ranching. They're bureaucrats. They sit around that Roswell office with all their vehicles and their feet up on the desk, and try to tell us what to do."
We sat next to the highway, facing east. Thermals on the horizon gave the impression of rampaging herds. Antelope strolled across the foreground, with mulish faces and white rumps. A station wagon sailed up on the far side of the road, and Tom and his wife and children got out. Tom wore a new Stetson, his wife a new blue pantsuit. The towheaded boy rose in his grandfather's arms, followed by his sister. They were Kirk and Lisa, six and seven, minted in the Panhandle and soft as her Cabbage Patch doll.
A rancher cruised past in a pickup, finger raised in greeting. "They foreclosed on him," Bud said, of the rancher.
"The heck!" said Tom.
Tom and his wife went on to Albuquerque; Bud and I drove back to the ranch, with Kirk and Lisa on the seat between us, sitting contentedly on the tools of their grandfather's trade: baling wire, a Phillips screwdriver, a chisel, and a .357 Ruger.
Bud looked down at Kirk. "Now what's this I hear about you being in love?"
Bud turned in past the riddled mailboxes; he fished his CB microphone down from the sun visor and thumbed the button. "How 'bout it, Padrona?"
Nothing but static came back. He tried it again, and put the mike away. "I was lucky to get the gal I got," he said. "She's town-raised but moved out here and learned to like it. It's not something everyone would enjoy. You learn to tough it out, to pull together. Our lifestyle's changed," he added, "with Alice working and me on all these boards."
He was chairman of the Public Lands Committee of the New Mexico Woolgrowers Association and a similar committee of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers; president of the New Mexico Public Lands Council; and vice chairman of the Public Lands Council of the National Cattlemen's Association. Now Bud wanted to run for the New Mexico legislature. He hated government so much he was about to become a politician.
Spending time with Bud, I had learned that the range is an intensely public affair and that ranchers depend heavily upon the system, like everybody else. They have to pay rent, obey rules, fill out forms, and tolerate the presence of government specialists in water, grass, and livestock on "their" ranches.
Alice had beaten us home. She was watching television, shoes off, stocking feet up on the couch. Lisa and Kirk changed into their bathing suits but Alice wouldn't let them swim in the water tank, it being only April. Bud took them out into the dust and spent an hour tossing a softball while they cut at it with an old hickory bat. Then he drew us both a beer. Alice served enchiladas and sat off to one side, dieting, while the men ate.
That night Bud stood in the front yard next to his Honda, watching thunderheads build in the north. The unused Cessna sat forlornly against the gray backdrop. The wind had come up; the sky, spectacular even by Bud's standards, held a burnt ocher sun and purple wisps of moisture riding down toward Mexico.
Spidery lightning spooked the kids, promising rain.
"We won't catch it," Bud said. "Not when the fire stays in the clouds."
Big drops drummed on the tin roof but, sure enough, the rain moved on.
"Oh, it's good ole country when you can get some water on it," he said. "Maybe this wind'll hold. I hope there’ll come a rain. I've got grass that needs a-burning.                   

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