2010 Sam Ryerson2010 Apprentice
Where I Rode, and What I Ride For
I like complexity and quiet in cowboying. Ranching can be complicated, but the new leaders of the industry should be equipped to conserve both the land and culture of the West. I've been lucky enough to work on some big old beautiful outfits in Montana, Wyoming and Argentina. I was luckiest to find some good horses, friends and neighbors. Along the way I had a few real generous teachers. Soon I hope I'll run my own place - keeping the horseback traditions and applying the best practices of progressive management. For a guy like me this apprenticeship is a chance to go forward.
The San Juan Ranch is an honest old beautiful place. George Whitten and Julie Sullivan are the best kind of teachers. Their ground on the flats south of Saguache, Colorado and up in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains might not be one of those romantic spreads, which is a good thing. You can't disguise the humble fact this is a real ranch. Down in the chico brush these meadows raise the finest tender beef: organic, grass-fed and affordable. Here in the big open valley George and Julie offer this unique curriculum in learning on the land.
I came here to study some unusual methods of ranch management, grazing planning, beef production, grass-based finishing and marketing. Owning or managing any piece of land is a high privilege, and one to which I aspire. Wallace Stegner wrote, "Ranching is one of the few western occupations that have been renewable and produced a continuing way of life." I like the kind of progressive ranching that keeps the ancient traditions contemporary, growing livestock for the good of the land. I admire the careful old ways the best buckaroos handle their cattle a-horseback. They remain proud enough of their skills never to compromise and modest enough never to tell. You can heal the land with livestock, but not by just talking about it. It happens here at 8,000 feet above sea level in the best kind of a classroom in the San Luis Valley.
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I studied architecture and urbanism at Yale. Directly after
graduating there I moved into a tipi in southern Montana where I was designing a house for my mother. After a while I had a little black gelding. I was just riding him bareback around the county, finding odd jobs and cooking in a café when I landed on a good ranch near Roscoe. They hired me on, just as I was. Soon enough I bought a saddle and a rope to throw at a cow whenever I got the chance. I never planned on being a cowboy but before too long I had more horses, colts and cow-dogs.
A cowboy might need to just wander for a spell, and if I did roam around a little I was lucky to find myself always learning. I hitchhiked across the country. I rode an old bicycle across Italy. One winter I was in Argentina riding with some gauchos, working grass-fed cattle on the Pampas. When I came home that spring I spent a month herding 1,500 weed-eating goats restoring oilfields in Wyoming. I rode on some big roundup crews. I spent months riding alone watching cows and calves in the high country of Montana and Idaho. I managed another herd of goats for weed control on ranches across central Montana. I started colts under some top hands. Most of those jobs never felt like work. I always had the horses and a dog or two right there with me. But we've been traveling enough for now. I'm pulling the shoes off my horses this week. The dogs are glad to stretch out and sleep in the winter sun. I'm ready to settle down and study for a while.
George asked me today where was the best place I ever worked. I said, "I don't know, some places were more beautiful and some places had better people or better horses. But you could never stick around anywhere too long." I said, "I hope this place turns out to be the best one." We were just rattling down the road in his old Suzuki, dogs in the back, late in the day west across the big valley. We'd been feeding cows, planning our winter pasture rotations and roping a dummy calf in the driveway but we had to go bring that old blue flatbed truck home with some hay before the cold tomorrow morning. The cowboy romance of ranching makes a rugged old myth, but I'll take the complex reality. The best part of any place is the quiet way we get along, all of us neighbors on the land.