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Life on a ranch

We grew up on two different ranches – the JV Bar north of Wickenburg, Arizona, and the Flying W west of Young, Arizona.  Young is located in Pleasant Valley, site of the historic Graham-Tewksbury Range Feud in the late 1800s.

To say that the two ranches were different is a huge understatement.  The JV Bar was a desert ranch on state land; the Flying W was on U.S. Forest Service land in the rugged mountains of the Mogollon Rim country of east-central Arizona.


Despite the difference in terrains, elevations and climates, the basics of ranch life were much the same.  We ate pretty much the same kinds of food, drove the same kinds of vehicles, even rode some of the same horses, whether we lived at the JV Bar or the Flying W.  We simply took the horses with us, along with our clothes and furniture.


We were always poor.  Our dad, Ira Walker, had lived on ranches all his life.  Sometimes we asked him why he didn’t do something that paid more than cowboy work, and he just shrugged.  “It’s all I know how to do,” he said.  And truly, it was all he wanted to do.  Our mom, Alice “Bunny” Walker, would have lived in a cave, if Daddy was there.  She was in it for love.


Here are some basic facts about ranch life as we knew it:


Pinto beans were one of the food staples, something Mom served just about every meal with whatever else she put on the table.  Although we raised cattle, we seldom ate beef.  Cattle were our business, not our dinner menu.  Instead, we had a lot of cowboy stew, jerky gravy, and dad’s specialty – onion gravy.


In Contrary Creek, we write about a pinto bean specialty that’s still a favorite: pinto bean sandwiches.  Check page 115 of the novel for the recipe.  Warning: Once you try it, you could be hooked.

We may have been living in poverty according to federal standards, but we never went hungry.  Mom was extremely resourceful at stretching her food budget.  But we were often right on the edge.  Once, a container of milk sprang a leak on the way from the store to the ranch.  When she discovered that all the milk was gone, she broke into tears.



The cowboy’s work clothes on our ranches were pretty standard: Levi's jeans, denim work shirt, cowboy boots and hat, a jacket in cold weather.  In rainy weather, you wore a slicker, and in cold weather you wore a lined denim jacket.  There are few places on earth more cold than the back of a horse in winter, but all you could do was be tougher than the weather.  The work had to be done, in broiling summer or frigid winter, and the only way to do it was to get out among the cattle.



Saddles, bridles, saddle pads and blankets are the standard equipment of cowboys.   Leather chaps to protect our legs from brush.   Spurs to get a balky horse going.  A rolled-up slicker tied to the back of your saddle in case it rained.  A coiled-up rope around the saddle horn, in case you needed to catch a calf or cow.  We seldom packed rifles or guns.  Lunch was usually a handful of jerky or can of sardines in the pocket of our chaps.


For reasons that are extremely unclear now, we seldom carried a canteen.  As a result we sometimes were so desperately thirsty that we considered drinking the green water from livestock tanks or abandoned mineshafts.



In Contrary Creek, Aaron Cloud explains the importance of brands and earmarks: It’s “like the Chevy name on a pickup truck.”   Brands are burned into the skin of an animal using a red-hot branding iron.  Earmarks are a visible mark on the ears of cattle, using markings such as a “crop” in which the tip of the ear is cut off or a “swallowfork” in which a short notch is cut out of the ear from the tip back.  Brands and earmarks are registered with the state so that no two ranches have the same marks.  Rustlers like Rowel Hackett in our novel used a running iron to change legitimate brands to their own.



Jeep vehicles play a prominent role in our novel, as they did in real life during our childhood.  At the JV Bar, we used a World War II vintage Army Jeep equipped with a special "cattle caller" horn to get around the back roads of our ranch.  And at the Flying W, we used Jeep station wagons and pickups as our primary modes of transportation other than horses.


Abandoned mines

In the Wickenburg Mountains where we lived until 1958, the country was pockmarked with old abandoned mineshafts.  Some were used as sources of water for the cattle; others were dangerous and deep.  As a result, we just had to transplant at least one of them to the fictitious Rafter C Ranch.


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