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 may be an icon of the American West, but his life is changing in the digital age. To find out how, writer and photographer Tim Keller heads to far northeastern New Mexico to visit with Darien Brown, a fourth-generation cattle rancher.

Note: Our May 2011 article on Brown Ranch (by Tim Keller) is experiencing a surge of renewed interest, due to author Forrest Fenn's appearance on the Today Show. Fenn's book, The Thrill of the Chase , gives clues to the location of a $2 million treasure he buried in the northern hills of New Mexico, and Brown Ranch is among the locations mentioned. Thousands of treasure hunters around the country are hoping to solve the mystery and locate the stash, which includes over 20 ounces of gold, a 17th century emerald Spanish ring, a gem-studded bracelet with 254 rubies, 6 emeralds, 2 sapphires, and diamonds, plus a turquoise bracelet and a necklace from Colombia that's 2,000 years old!

Waters flowing down the east slopes of Johnson Mesa, east of Ratón, 165 miles northeast of Santa Fe off I-25, form the Dry Cimarrón River, which passes the Folsom Man Archaeological Site, proof that our predecessors resided here more than 10,000 years ago. The river—some would call it a creek—continues east and north for 80 miles before exiting New Mexico on its way to the Arkansas River above Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In 1865, Irishman Mike Devoy surveyed this valley and found 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, 146 years later, are still used by the current generations of 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 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, patriarch of the Brown family. “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 N.M. 456, on the other side of the fence line from grazing longhorn cattle near Folsom Falls. At Mile Marker 13, I turn at the modest old “brown ranch” sign and find Darien loading cattle from Devoy’s old pens, assisted by his strapping sons, Brian and Robbie, and family friend Lupe Machuca. Underfoot are grandsons Kyle, Kade, and Jace, ages 4 to 10—the sixth generation of the Brown family to ranch here.

“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 neighbor Vernon Reif’s ranch south of Clayton, more than 50 miles to the southeast. “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 Cimarrón 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, my dad could trade the money he made on 10 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. That 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, 50 or 60 cows would make a good living for a family. Today, 200 cows won’t pay the bills.”

Unlike generations before her, but like most ranch wives today, Darien’s wife, Dianne, earns a much-needed paycheck working away from the ranch. With New Mexico State University degrees in agricultural biology and pest management, plus a master’s 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 school in New Mexico, in Des Moines, to the south.

Darien and Dianne’s son Brian, 28, 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, who lives in Branson with his wife, Laura, and their sons, Cole, Jace, Kade, and Kyle. Brian’s brother Robbie, 27, left Texas Tech University just short of earning his mechanical engineering degree to join the U.S. Air Force. “He got patriotic,” Dianne says. These days, Robbie is a crew chief for a C-130 Hercules and expects to soon be deployed to Kuwait or Afghanistan, but when I visit he’s stationed at Dyess Air Force Base, in Abilene, Texas—close enough to drive 475 miles home to help move these calves.

Unloading the calves at Reif’s, I ask Robbie if 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, and just as Darien’s dad and granddad did from their dads. Despite today’s daunting challenges, the young men believe ranching to be an enviable outdoor profession: The lifestyle isn’t just close to the land—it is the land.

The cows don’t make enough money for Darien to hire cowboys for this type of all-day job. Instead, he’s got Brian and Robbie. He’s also 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 N.M. 551 branches north to Branson from the Dry Cimarrón, there are the Jeffers, Bannon, Brown, Cross L, Burchard, and Whittenburg families and ranches. Darien’s using a Cross L trailer; they’ve borrowed his tractor rake. Darien loads a semi-trailer from the Bannons’ 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 Bannons’ 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-television pioneer John Malone’s T.O. Ranch is buying family ranches right to the Dry Cimarrón, just as Malone’s friend Ted Turner is doing west of Ratón. 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, as did the cattle barons of the 19th century. This preserves the land’s vast, open beauty; it also displaces many working families who have more than a century of ranching heritage in the area, but who now struggle to keep the lifestyle alive.

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. Darien turns to me. “This is something that amazes 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, but 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, but Darien doesn’t use them as much as he used to. “I’ve got seven horses and several four-wheelers,” he says. The mobile ATVs offer a quick way to perform routine ranching duties at extended distances, such as checking cattle, breaking ice, hauling hay, or mending fences.

“I use the horses when we’re shipping or branding or gathering cattle off the mesa, but I use the four-wheelers about 10 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 ranch’s future. Like all of eastern New Mexico, the Dry Cimarrón 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. Darien says one wind turbine produces more electricity than all that’s carried by the Southwest Electric Co-op, which powers the northeastern corner of New Mexico. Some predict that 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 also 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 elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkey, bear, or mountain lion. This West is still wild enough that Darien, Brian, and Lupe carry pistols—not to combat 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 bears.

Driving up a back canyon a couple weeks later with young grandsons Kade and Kyle sharing the bench seat of his newest 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 says with a smile.

Clearly, he 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 146-year-old ranch will pass next to Brian and Robbie, then to Kade and Kyle, but so far 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 four-wheelers.

A welcome rain arrives as Darien throws flakes of hay off the flatbed to a line of hungry calves, while five-year-old Kade waits in the cab. At Kade’s age, Darien was learning the ranch life, too. 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 Cimarrón Tour many years ago. Tim teaches English at Ratón High School and freelances his writing and photography to newspapers and magazines. See his work at www.TimKellerArts.com.