“Mamma don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys.”
Branding day at the Rattlesnake Ranch starts at the break of dawn. Billy Mitchell, a tall man with a long, well-dressed mustache, feeds, grooms, and saddles the horses with the help of his daughter Serenity. Billy’s wife, Julie, prepares food and greets members of their extended family – Billy’s x-wife, her husband, respective children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, along with friends and neighbors. Most of the people present are not Cowboys, or no longer ranchers. Most have traveled far to support the family. For some, branding day is a way of experiencing and preserving a historic way of life, for others, a means of helping out.
An underlying cowboy spirit is American and, in particular, the American West, but the lifestyle is becoming more challenging to maintain. Costs are rising due to environmental restrictions, and lack of available land. Men and women who have chosen this life are trying to hold on, not always successfully.
Billy Mitchell jokes, “The ranch should be called the ‘Losing Money Ranch,’” because his costs outweigh his profit. Most independent Ranchers have a second job. Billy’s wife is a librarian in another town. Billy can no longer afford to hire help. This gathering of part-time buckaroos is a blessing.
Cowboy means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, it is about the myth of John Wayne and Roy Rogers – heroes following their conscience and making a difference. To environmentalists, the cowboy is a selfish villain draining the resources out of the land for their gain. To others, the cowboy is a rebel, fighting authority. They are sometimes wearing jeans and cowboy boots and thumbing their nose at rules and regulations.
The Rattlesnake Ranch, located in Johnson Valley, is nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains between Victor Valley and Morongo Basin. Johnson Valley has no post office, no schools, no grocery store, and no central district. The area, once Native American land and currently designated for recreational vehicles and Marine training ground, has roots in homesteading and mining. The population is approximately 2,000 and mostly an aging one.
The Ranch, a twenty-minute drive from the main highway, can’t be seen until you’re approaching the last half mile. When it comes into view, after a slow trek along a narrow, rock-cluttered dirt road, it catches your breath. It’s an oasis surrounded by sand and desert vegetation.
The desert is cold in the winter and hot in the summer. On a typical June day, the temperature can run over a hundred with winds blowing about ten miles-an-hour. On this branding day, the pebbles and sand pelt my face due to unseasonably high winds, but the wind is a relief from the heat.
Rich, a neighbor, fuels the wood-burning stove and prepares irons for branding – three different brands, each brand representing a different ranch. Some of the Ranchers own as few as a dozen animals and graze them on Billy’s land. The cowboys separate the calves at the time of branding.
It takes two people to rope an animal; one on horseback, the other standing. Each person, man or woman lassos the animal until its front and back legs are securely tied, and the animal drops to the ground. An additional three men hold the calf down while Rich applies the hot iron to the animal’s hide. Serenity and her boyfriend, both age 16, perform the ear notching, and they sometimes castrate the animal.
There is a great deal of controversy as to whether branding hurts the animals. Billy and the other cowboys think not. Earmarking, ear tagging, or tagging with a microchip are new methods of branding, but Billy, intent on maintaining a link to the past, feels the old way is the only way.
Billy’s Grandfather, his most significant influence, is the reason Billy is committed to ranching “the way it has always been done,” he said.
Rattlesnake Ranch has some modern conveniences – horse trucks, jeeps, quads, electricity, and an old television. Other things are more basic. Water comes from a well; they just got an indoor bathroom, and the family is still building the house.
Three weeks before the semi-annual branding, Billy and his immediate family traveled the 29,000 acres of Rattlesnake Canyon and Burns Canyon by quad, jeep, and horseback in search of cattle. The herd is found 50 – 60 miles at the top of the BLM land. A good portion of the roads are dirt and can only be accessed by horse.
Three days before the branding, Billy, his grandson, and a friend pack bedrolls, water, cooking utensils, food, and three horses. They set off for a three-day excursion to round up the cattle and herd them back to the corral.
A small wooden cabin tucked into Burns Canyon a couple of hours from the Ranch is an excellent place to camp. Usually equipped with everything needed for a couple of days away from home, the cabin, recently vandalized, is uninhabitable. The door broken, water pipes dismantled, and everything inside, refrigerator, food supplies, and necessities, have been stolen.
Some off-roaders and bikers, vacationing in the area, have taken advantage of the liberally given hospitality. They ignored the signs and fencing that have been put up by both Billy and the Bureau of Land Management and entered prohibited areas. They cut and rolled up a barbed-wire fence allowing the cattle to get out onto the road. One cow, hit by a truck, had to be shot.
The three men lay their bedrolls on the ground before setting out in search of cattle. For this outing, they will sleep outside in the heat, among the desert plants and animals. The pipes, carrying water from natural springs to the water troughs, have also been vandalized. Water, in barrels, is transported on the back of the truck.
When the men find the cattle, they patiently lead them to the corral nearest to the house. Herding is a slow process. “Cattle take time to graze,” One of the Cowboys tells me. “If you move too quickly, they lose weight, and you lose money.”
A couple of calves found away from the herd and in need of nourishment are carried back on the truck or quad and fed by an oversized bottle with a nutritional supplement until they are strong enough to stand on their own.
Ranching is hard work. Due to crippling arthritis, Billy can no longer do many of the physical tasks. When younger, Billy worked Rodeo. He saddled bronc, rode bareback, and rode bulls. He said, “fell a lot, broke a lot of horses and sometimes,” he says with a shrug, “a horse flips on you.”
There are many ways to get hurt: stampeding cattle, enraged bulls, horses dropping you, falls, rope burns or Billy adds, “you might lose a finger.” In the end, it takes a toll.
Billy, now sixty-four having worked construction, ranching and Rodeo, often at the same time, attributes his arthritis to the hard work. “My Grandfather always warned me this would happen.” As he says this, he shows me his hands. He tries to open them, but they remain clenched in tightly distorted fists.
Ranching in the Mohave Desert is particularly rough. You are always at the mercy of extreme weather conditions. It’s a constant challenge dealing with drought, high winds, extreme heat, and cold. Add to that, fluctuating costs and environmental restrictions that seem to change with every new political administration.
Most cowboys tell me they are fiercely protective of the environment. Billy works with the environmental groups in his area.
“It is, after all, our livelihood and our home,” Billy said. “The cowboy knows that it does not serve anyone to overuse and overgraze the land.”
Less than a decade ago, there were sixteen ranching families in Lucerne Valley. Now there are six. Many ranches have been taken over by environmental groups or sold at a loss. Additional concerns are changes in policy for grazing rights and leases, renegotiated every ten years, can be terminated.
Billy has been in Washington D.C. this year, lobbying for Rancher’s rights. He hoped the Ranchers and Environmentalists would work together.
“We didn’t have problems with the environmentalist until 1983,” Billy said. He can’t tell me what brought on the change.
In 1983 Denzel and Nancy Fergusons trumpeted a call to get all cows off public lands. Their book, Sacred Cows at the Public Trough, became widely read. Billy doesn’t know the book, but the anti-ranching sentiment shows up sharply after Sacred Cows is published.
Current Law Makers on both sides of the political fence are working hard to find equitable answers, but the issues, for now, persist.
On branding day, everyone has a job. The women cook, the children ride, roundup, rope, or feed the strays. As hard as this life is, no one I spoke to complains. When I ask them, “Do you have any regrets?” They all stop and contemplate the question. They look around at the wide-open space and the surprising beauty of the desert, and said, “My life is blessed.”
With the branding finished, everyone gathers by the house. Homegrown beef is barbecued. Someone made salsa, guacamole, and rice and beans. The Cowboys bring beer and a bottle of whiskey. Billy says a prayer. He thanks God for the cattle, his family, friends, the land, and the animals.