In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “a querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality… It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall, and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.”
Everyone has a querencia, a place where you love what you do, how you feel, where everything makes sense and you’re at your best. The MP Ranch is mine. If I had to articulate the reasons, they would include the connection with my father, horses, hard physical work that wears you out, the peace, the silence, the perspective, the spectacular vastness, the slowing of time, the independence, and the remoteness that makes the local community bend over backwards to help each other.
Some quick history: my dad Mac Baldrige and his ranching partner George Hilliard traded a couple of smaller ranches and enlisted some doctor and lawyer friends (taking advantage of agricultural investment tax incentives) to help them buy the MP in 1960.
My dad was a businessman in Connecticut who had grown up in Nebraska and worked on ranches as a kid. He loved everything about ranching, but mostly roping. He worked hard on his heeling skills in our backyard arena and eventually won enough to qualify for his PRCA card, so he could enter rodeos with the pros. He was quietly proud of that and wore his cowboy boots, belt, and trophy buckles with his business suits. He was successful in business and pretty busy on the East Coast but loved more than anything getting away to the ranch to gather, brand, and rope. It was an escape for him, and he was as relaxed and happy there as I ever saw him. I guess it rubbed off on me. We’d go out every summer for a couple of weeks, starting when I was 8 years old, to ride and get dirty and swim in the storage tanks. Mac and George would organize big jackpot ropings in the MP arena with “neighbors” from as far as 100 miles away.
Over the years, Mac bought out the other partners. We have always had our own cattle and hired managers and hands to operate the ranch, but none of my family has lived there full time, except for one complete year I spent after college working as a ranch hand before starting a career in ag mortgage lending. Even though we are technically absentee owners, we spend a lot of time at the ranch. When our last manager left, we worked out a deal with Ranchlands, whose model is to run their own cattle and manage holistically. Our values mesh, and together we have improved the ranch quite a bit since 2016 when we joined forces.
What is lasting in any relationship – with another person, or with an animal or a place – is how it makes you feel. In other realms of my life, I am in high gear, multitasking, wheel-spinning – it’s all fun and interesting, but when I get to the ranch, I realize what’s missing – feeling settled and focused and timeless. At the MP, we live in rhythm with nature. We get up with the sun and go to bed early. The days there seem to last longer than days elsewhere. We are aware of all the natural things that change – what stage the moon is in, what time and exactly where the sun rises and sets, what kind of weather is on the way, what bugs, spiders and snakes are in season. All of that matters, not just because we are outside most of the time, but because those things affect the health of the grass and the animals and the business.
The ranch is large, because it’s semi-desert with sparse grass, and a lot of land is needed for an economic unit. That vastness is an aspect that affects me greatly. When I’m on any part of the ranch away from the headquarters, I am completely surrounded by juniper-thick hills and open valleys and hawks and buzzards, no people or buildings or towns or paved roads or overhead wires or smoke or man-made noise. I’m a speck in a vast remote natural scene, and ever since I was a kid, that perspective has helped me get over myself. I see that neither I nor any problems I might be having are worth a whole lot in the vast natural scheme of things at the ranch. This offers a healthy, refreshing, and usually humorous perspective.
About 1,000 years ago, there was considerable Native American activity in the area. No one has ever accused me of being overly sensitive, but when I’m in the remote parts of the ranch, even I can feel the presence of a natural spirituality. There’s a peace and a reverence and an otherworldliness to the MP that moves me more than anywhere else I have been. The combination of vast remote areas, a strong Native history, and enough time to stop and listen, makes this spirituality palpable.
And then there’s the physicality of life at the MP. You work hard, you get dirty, and it’s okay to stay that way. I am happiest when I’m physically exhausted and filthy from riding all day or working cattle or cutting wood. I learned, during my ranch-handing stint, and I’ve taught my kids at the ranch, that when there’s a job to do, you do it until it’s done, no matter how long it takes or how tired or cold or hungry or cranky you are. I have a lot of respect for ranchers, because they work really hard, and they have to understand horses and cattle, be veterinarians, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, fencers, gardeners, cooks, familiar with emergency medicine, and jacks of all the other trades, because town is so far away.
And for people who love horses, it’s heaven. There is so much room to ride, and Ranchlands’ values include one that says “ride whenever possible.” It’s good for you and for the horses, and it saves fuel and road wear and tear. One summer, I saw Duke take a couple of interns out on horseback to the back of the ranch, which is a 20-mile round trip. When they finally returned, I went down to the corrals to see how it went. In silence, they rode their horses up to the tie rack and then just sat there for about 10 minutes before dismounting. That ride put them all in the zone.
It’s not just the natural physical world that makes the MP my querencia; it’s the neighbors and how we treat each other. Ranchlands has its own crew from the different ranches it manages, but before Ranchlands’ management of the MP, we neighbor-ed a lot, meaning we helped the neighbors with their cattle work and vice versa. One June we were in the middle of branding season, so we were up at 4 AM many days in a row to get to the neighbors’, start riding at sunrise, brand all their calves, then go home and do our own chores, then do it all again the next day at a different ranch. A mare of mine began colicking one evening, and I was out of the pain reliever Banamine that’s used for colic. At 1 am, she was getting worse, so I called our neighbor Bob who lived 10 miles of bad dirt road away, and he said he had some Banamine that was old but might still work. I asked if I could come over and get it, and he said, “No, let me bring it over to you.” He had to get up at 4:00 just like us and he has his own ranch to run, too. I said, “Thank you so much but no way, I’m on my way over, just leave it on the kitchen table and try to get back to sleep. Sorry to have woken you up.” When I got there, he was dressed and waiting for me, just to hand me the bottle and give me a little pep talk. At the branding the next day, I told his wife how grateful and humbled I was by his generosity in offering to bring the meds to me, and she said, “No, we want to thank you, he was honored that you asked him to help.” And they meant it. It still warms my heart so many years later remembering this example of great neighboring.
The MP has always been my querencia, a vast expanse of harsh natural beauty that is filled with strong histories of both ancient people and my immediate family, where time moves slowly, where we live physical lives, where we raise cattle and leave room for other native species to coexist with us, and where we take care of each other. All of that makes me feel strong and safe, and in Papa H’s words, “inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.”
Molly Baldrige is the younger daughter of Midge and the late Mac Baldrige. From a young age, she and her sister Megan started going to the MP Ranch every year for vacations. Molly worked as a ranch hand at the MP for a year after college, which led to her career in agricultural mortgage lending. After Mac died in a rodeo accident in 1987, the Baldriges maintained the ranch, with Molly in charge for the family. The MP has been a sacred place, and recently, Megan and Molly and their kids have developed a small retreat center at the ranch for artistic, spiritual, and educational activities.