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Mammas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys

American Cowboy – published in the Winter edition of the Basin Wide Spirit magazine

“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 Ex-Wife, her husband, respective children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, along with friends and neighbors.

The Rattlesnake Ranch, located in Johnson Valley, is nestled in the San Bernardino mountains between Victor Valley and Morongo Basin. 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.

This is the High Desert. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. On a typical June day the temperature typically runs into the hundreds. On this branding day in June there are 60 mph winds and it is actually cold enough to wear a sweater. Rich, a neighbor, fuels the wood burning stove and prepares irons for branding – three different brands, each one representing a different ranch. Some of the ranches are now only a couple of head of cattle. To save money and labor, the animals graze on Billy’s land.

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 roundup the cattle and herd them back to the corral.

There is cabin tucked into Burns Canyon. It’s a couple of hours in a car or truck from Billy’s ranch, and used as a mission stop. It’s usually equipped with everything needed for the couple of days away from home. On this occasion, the cabin, recently vandalized, is uninhabitable. The door broken, water pipes have been dismantled. Everything inside, the refrigerator, food supplies, and necessities, have been stolen.

“It happens,” Billy says with resignation in his voice. Some off-roaders and bikers, vacationing in the area have taken advantage of the liberally given hospitality. They ignore the signs and fencing that have been put up by both Billy and the Bureau of Land Management. They recently, cut and rolled up a barbed wire fence allowing the cattle to get out on the road. The fencing and the cabin will have to be repaired.

The men lay their bedrolls on the ground before setting out. 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. The men transport water in barrels 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. If the herd is rushed, they won’t eat, will lose weight and the rancher loses money.

Many ranches have been taken over by environmental groups or have been sold off. Less then a decade ago there were sixteen ranching families in Lucerne Valley. Now their are six. There are constant changes in policy for grazing rights, and leases have to be re-negotiated every ten years. “We didn’t have problems with the environmentalists until 1983,” Billy said. He has been in Washington D.C. this year lobbing for Rancher’s rights. He can’t tell me what brought on the change but he is working to find a way for ranchers and environmentalists to work together.

“Many environmental groups work well with us.” Billy said and the current lawmakers on both side of the political fence are working hard to find equitable answers to these age old problems. But the problems and questions, for now, persist. Is this public land? Does the BLM have the right to give the land out for grazing? And, where and how are rights distributed?

On branding day at Billy’s ranch, everyone is given a job.  The woman cook, the children ride, roundup, rope or feed the strays. Due to the arthritis Billy can no longer do many of the physical tasks. He sits upon his horse and oversees the action like a well-seasoned director.

As hard as ranching is, Billy never complains. “My life is blessed,” he says.

When all the cattle are branded, everyone gathers by the house. Homegrown beef is barbecued, someone made salsa, guacamole, and beans. There is plenty of beer and even a private bottle of whiskey. Billy says a prayer. He thanks God for his family, friends, the land and the animals.IMG_5103