The fire flickered, reaching up to a brilliant indigo sky. Billowing charcoal clouds lazily settled against the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. I sat on the porch of a homey log cabin, with a hearty bowl of homemade bison chili gratefully held in my hands. It was a welcomed comfort after traveling 1,500 miles across our beautiful country. Next to me were 3 young women from all corners of the United States, who had just made a similar journey and were here also hired on as wranglers. We observed in delight our hosts cracking bull-whips, shooting bows and arrows, and setting BB gun targets with equal parts skill and joy. Heeler pups played, and stories were exchanged as we wrapped ourselves in the beauty of the night. There was an air of excitement & engagement that first night, an energy that would not dissipate. We had arrived at our home for the next six months, Zapata Ranch.
Call me noncommittal, but deciding where to devote six months of my life can be a daunting task, especially when these decisions include temporarily uprooting my home. Add in the overwhelming appeal of the American West, and the many places to tempt my affliction with wanderlust, and it can be a challenge. After a good many seasons exploring and working at guest ranches in the West, I was ready for a different home. I yearned for a place with community, with purpose, where people are so intertwined with the land that they aren’t observers but thoughtful participants. I was grateful for where I had been, but all the while hopeful to foster a deeper understanding of the world of the “cowboy”.
Ranchlands, Zapata Ranch, Chico Basin. I had my eye on this place for quite a while. Being a millennial of the 21st century I greedily devoured the beautiful images of these places. With a stunning display of the happenings of these ranches on social media, History Channel specials, and in print, I was completely fascinated. Could there really be a place like this? A place that marries the revered traditions of the American West with innovative strategies to handle the demands of the modern rancher? And, even possibly more impressively, could this place welcome with open arms and open stirrups, an opportunity for the eager and greenest ranch rookies?
The answer to all of these questions is yes. Though I may have experience in the guest ranch world, my skills in the working ranch world leaves much to be desired. The world of ranching often is reserved for those who come from the lineage of that tradition, and if you do not come from that lineage, it is often more accessible as a strapping young fellow. Being exempt from both of these conditions, my ambitions at times felt unattainable. When I was offered a position at Zapata Ranch as a wrangler, I was thrilled. It was an opportunity and privilege to join the ranks of these cowboys & cowgirls that I held in such reverence.
I was curious if my perceptions of the ranch would be an accurate representation of its reality, and I was not disappointed. Within my first few weeks at the ranch I have already experienced opportunities I could have never anticipated. My first day we rode 20 miles, starting the morning moving cattle and finishing the afternoon checking fence line. In the following days we hiked with naturalists, who gave us a comprehensive overview of the regions ecosystem, its history, and a delightful dose of local outlaw antidotes. From here we went to see where our food came from. A few days later we met up with a range management specialist who educated us on the importance of rotational grazing and explained in detail the health of our pastures. I went to our sister ranch, Chico Basin, and took a peek inside the leather shop where they are creating some of the most beautiful leather goods I have ever seen. Then I went home and practiced leather work. My wrangler partners went back over to the Chico to gather and brand 500 calves. We have spent our days riding among the bison, the Sand Dunes, and the mountains. We have spent our evenings roping, hiking, and discussing horsemanship, all the while actively working towards cultivating a deeper understanding of this place we now call home.
Though our numbers are small, there is an overwhelming sense of community, and a sense of purpose. This isn’t typical or an accident; it’s intentional. It’s hard-work and long hours. It’s people who have conviction in what they do, who are not only passionate but competent. These are people who see the value in our western heritage, and understand the importance of making it accessible. We are present, we are fulfilled. This is what happens when the door is opened.
By Anna LoPinto, a wrangler at Zapata Ranch for the 2018 season. Find more information about working for Ranchlands here.