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.
My arrival at the Chico was met with a hazy blue sky, land stretching for miles with a color palette that rivals a Wes Anderson film, and a donkey named Pica curiously peeking over the fence in my new front yard.
You can still see the horses’ breath in the morning air. There are still some mornings that the windshields of the trucks are frosted over. Morning coffee is still a necessity to warm up after wrangling the horses. However there are signs of spring all over the Chico. Migratory birds are stopping in, singing their spring and summer-time songs. There is new growth in the grasses that have started to tint the golden winter prairie green. Throughout the day, layers are shed to soak up the rays of the sun. Adding to the sights and sounds around the ranch, newborn baby calves and their mothers are united for the first time. You can hear their excited moos in most pastures. It seems spring on the Chico has practically sprung.
I traded one desert for another. My life packed into one pickup I left behind Nevada for Colorado. New opportunity awaited me; opportunity to learn and experience new adventures. Coming to Chico Basin to further hone my skills in a trade that has been perfected so many years before by so many that came before me. The art of working cattle while also being stewards of the land. Preserving the life we hold dear in a world the seeks to continually change. We are few and far between yet stand to lend a helping hand, a bit of advice, or a kind word in passing to all those that share in our passion. I strive to work hard and learn during my time here while enjoying the new company I have met. Being around others who wish to help a young man follow the dream he’s had since childhood makes every day a blessing.
Nick Baefsky started an apprenticeship on Chico Basin Ranch six years ago, in the fall of 2012. Today he and his wife Amy, another Ranchlands apprenticeship graduate, manage a ranch in New Mexico with the help of three young interns and apprentices. They fix old generators, prop up fences, uncover and splice lines of ancient poly pipe. They gather big brushy pastures by waiting until late in the day when the cows come into water. They keep lists of the vehicles, generators and equipment that needs to be repaired, the pastures that need to be prepared for cattle, the pipeline leaks that need to be fixed. They keep precipitation records and grazing charts that they use to estimate how they’ll move the cattle herds across the ranch through the year.
With only one month or so left of my internship here, I wanted to take a moment to write down some of the highlights of my experiences—both to share with you in the moment and for future me to fondly recall them. As I recount these experiences, I am reminded of a book shared with me at a camp I worked at last summer called I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor.
Duke Phillips could have been a “normal” rancher. Raised in northern Mexico in a second-generation ranching family, he came of age in a world where cowboys shot coyotes to protect their calves, ranches were grazed in their entirety year-round, and cattlemen were just that–men who raised cattle. The rancher-conservationist had yet to emerge. While the tide has been changing in recent years, with more and more farmers and ranchers embracing their role as land stewards, perhaps Phillips’ most radical act has been not just to join this growing group of agricultural conservationists, but, since the very beginning, to throw the doors open and invite others to observe and participate in the project for sustainable ranching.
A whirlwind bison works in South Dakota.
Many of you probably think I’m completely stranded in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a few hundred buffalo and a herd of horses keeping me company. This is not entirely true—the small town of McLaughlin is but a short five miles south of the Wilder.
Vast views on the plains.