Many years ago I was on my way to a conference on the perspectives of land ownership and management. I decided to take a back dirt road across the very first ranch that I ever managed; I hadn’t seen it in years. Later at the conference, coincidentally I ran into the owner of the ranch and said to him during our time together, “I forgot how beautiful your ranch is.” I have never forgotten his response: “Duke, you know… all land is beautiful.” I also remember how he said it in an offhand way, as casually as if he was opening a door to walk outside.
Every time I stand back in my mind’s eye, thinking of the complexity of land ownership and the unfathomable beauty of land, I remember him saying these words. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the soft rolling hills on the high plains of the Chico Basin Ranch, the deep, moving sand and rabbitbrush of the Medano Zapata Ranch, or the brushy, rocky canyons of the MP. Land always grabs me like the wind grabs hold of a cotton shirt hanging on the clothesline and flips it inside out.
Almost exactly to the day, one year ago, my wife and I moved to the Paint Rock Canyon Ranch on the western shoulder of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. We were of course dazzled by this magnificent landscape of so many shapes: a long, deep, timeless winding canyon; the Paint Rock Creek – the big aquifer that tumbles through the middle of the ranch carving the canyon through history, full of boulders, white water, deep pools alive with monster trout; rock formations called The Bugles and Courthouse Rock; cloud-shrouded peaks at the top end of the ranch; rich irrigated fields with the deepest grass I’ve ever grazed cattle on; a wildlife population that inhabits every corner: turkey, eagles, elk, deer, badger, coyote, game birds of every shape and color, geese and cranes. Meredith, my wife, asked me not long after we arrived, “How does it feel to live on the first ranch that you’ve ever owned?” I stopped to think about it because I hadn’t before, at all. Finally, I said, “You know, it feels the same as all the other ranches I have lived on.”
Because I’ve never owned land before, this has been on my mind ever since. I’m proud to have gotten this far, something that I never thought possible through ranching. It’s a watershed moment for Ranchlands. However, when I think of the monetization of land, a voice inside clamors to be heard… asking, how can land possibly be owned? Of course, it can, is the obvious answer. All land is owned. Everywhere. Either privately or by the state. But regardless of whether I own it or whether its stewardship has been entrusted to us, land to me is sacred.
There is a rock wall close by that our creek is named after, scratched and painted upon by the people who lived here not so long ago. They roamed these canyons hunting, fishing, gathering nuts and berries. When I am out on the Paint Rock, I sense them sitting on the ridge, walking along the creek as I am, stalking a deer. Their connection to the land must have been similar to how I feel. I think they felt protected by it as I do.
This place is a refuge for myself, my life with my wife and my children and the people I work with. It is my identity. It is where I feel held together with them, as all ranching families I know also feel with their people and their land. I suppose it’s natural to feel this way when we are in it every day, but also I think it is because this specific parcel of land represents the culmination of the time we have spent building our business over the last couple of decades – the first ranch we have owned.
I have ridden and walked miles and miles across it, fished much of its water, hunted in the canyons, yet I feel I have barely gotten to know it–an impossibility it seems. I feel it gathering in me like the boil of the endless churn of water in the Paint Rock Creek just outside my door. Even after I’ve been out on it all day, when I come home and sit down to look out our glass doors, it pulls me for a walk up the creek.
Ironically however, aside from the physical, spiritual pull that the Paint Rock Canyon Ranch has for me, part of me feels estranged from it. Our bid to purchase the ranch comes with significant financial risk, bringing the possibility of losing the right to live here, my family’s future home. But as it represents the culmination of our work building a ranching business, the ranch represents the future and possibilities that I never have even dared to imagine.
So, I live in two worlds – the beautiful, the spiritual, fun side and the challenging position of owning land. I am pushed and pulled at the same time, a position that I am thankful to be in. The question that I see living in the rocks and trees that I pass among every day is: how can I best earn the privilege of living here? The answer is always the same. Give thanks by returning to this place more than what it gives to us.