My all time favourite movie is “The Horse Whisperer”, for me it’s the epitome of cowboy life……remote but dramatically beautiful and serene, a life filled with horses as trusted companions, a life lived surrounded by the wonders and visions of nature, but a life also at the mercy of her vengeful wrath. Of course, Hollywood romanticises and polishes reality, preening imperfections and smoothing rough edges, but nevertheless the net of intrigue was cast, and I was entangled.
Living in the Australian Outback my cowgirl dreams had been satiated for a spell, playing Jillaroo on Home Valley Station was a dream realised, however the pangs of hunger once again growled ravenously in my stomach, there was only one thing that would satisfy the bellowing beast.
Although “cowboys” originated in Mexico, they played an incredibly important role during the westward expansion of the United States of America. The American Cowboy created a style and reputation all their own, their lifestyle became iconic and glamorised in countless books, movies and television shows……but the rough, remote, gruelling and lonely work of a cowboy was not for the faint hearted.
There are countless numbers of guest ranches and dude ranches to choose from in the USA, offering beautiful accommodations and a polished taste of what cowboy life is like, a holiday in the Wild West so to speak. I however wanted to strip back the embellished perception of the cowboy life, I wanted to live as a cowboy and be part of a working ranch, I wanted to experience the harsh realities of the ceaseless, backbreaking work, most importantly, I didn’t want to be a guest. Being November with the harsh Northern Winters settling in most parts of the States, I also had limited options of where I could visit……which is how I found myself Arizona bound to stay on the Williams Family Ranch in Wickenburg.
It didn’t take long for me to spot my driver at Phoenix Airport, the Stetson proudly perched on his head was a dead give away! Leaving the bright lights of Phoenix, we headed North West to Wickenberg “Where the West is still Wild!” It was late by the time I rolled into the Best Western Rancho Grande Motel, jet-lagged and exhausted all I wanted was to stretch and sleep before embarking on my cowboy adventure.
Despite numerous research suggesting that travelling East is worse for jetlag, I find flying West incredibly difficult, the jetlag just knocks me for six and despite exhaustion you still find yourself awake at 3am (my body tells me it’s 9am), staring at the ceiling and unable to sleep eventually drifting off as your alarm begins to drill! I had a few hours to explore before meeting “Grandma Carrol” so off I traipsed.
Wickenburg is Arizona’s most western community and walking around this picturesque town I felt I was on the set of a Western Movie. Founded in 1863, miners, ranchers and farmers built homes along the fertile flood plains of the Hassayampa River and to this day the Western ambience, hospitality, determination and grit still exists, so much so that I could almost hear the echo of hooves along the paved streets and the jangling of spurs on cowboy boots. Sitting outside Ben’s Saddler the smell of leather hung heavily in the air as I lazed in the early morning sun, the crunch of tyre on gravel stirring me from my daydreams as a pickup truck rolled to a halt and out jumped Carrol Williams along with two other guests from the ranch. Affectionately referred to as “Grandma Carrol”, within five minutes of meeting this lady you instantly feel a sense of familiarity, immediately becoming a part of the Williams clan. After running a few errands in town, we had lunch at “Ninas”, an insanely delicious Mexican Restaurant, went grocery shopping, packed up the pick-up truck and pointed towards the ranch.
Although located only 16 miles outside of Wickenberg, the ranch is extremely isolated…..and as we left the gravelled roads and hit the dirt tracks I understood why Grandma practically bought the whole grocery store……you would not be popping into town for a casual litre of milk had you forgot it! The red dirt road meandered and swerved around mountains and ridges, great big wash outs pockmarked the track a reminder of previous rain storms, but Grandma navigated that pick up to perfection. I always find the greatest beauty exists in places of isolation……despite the dusty, aridness of the area, the mostly subterranean Hassayampa River provides fertility and lushness, rocky, craggy mountains covered in a dusting of desert scrub and cacti stretched far across the horizon. We descended into the floor of the valley just as the sun disappeared behind the majestic peaks and there to meet us at the Ranch was Grandpa Roy, all 83 years of him, his low raspy voice offered a greeting to his homestead, a true old-time cowboy. With jetlag beginning to drag my body asunder and an early start looming in the morning I decided to settle myself into my room in the “bunkhouse”, lit a little fire in the stove and surrendered to sleep.
Once again, I rose early, to the cock crowing and the drone of the generator, a big day lay ahead……a neighbouring ranch had their cattle round up earlier in the week and a few had gone astray so together with other neighbouring ranchers we would be combing the area to try and find the stragglers. Grandpa and Grandma’s grandson Rob Roy, and their nephew Sam arrived earlier in the morning from Phoenix to help and put us three wannabe cowgirls through our paces! After a delicious home cooked breakfast, we headed for the corral, caught and tacked our horses and cowboyed up.
Thick leather full chaps and leather gloves are a must when cowboying in Arizona, there are cacti, thorns, prickles and “everything bites, stings or scratches”, so once I’d adorned myself with a pair from Grandpa’s fine selection we mounted up and followed the dogs. The landscape here is extremely mountainous and can be notoriously difficult to navigate with ample space for cows to run and hide, cattle dogs are an invaluable resource, a necessity……..the dogs run ahead to hunt for the cows and once they find them they bark to alert their location. Without them you could be playing hide and seek amongst the canyons and crevices for hours.
After about 90 minutes riding along the sandy valley floor we met up with the rest of the ranchers and set about making a plan……..split up and comb the whole area – left ridge, middle and right ridge. The right ridge was nasty looking and didn’t gain many volunteers, Rob Roy and I the only ones who were either brave enough or stupid enough to rise to the challenge! We managed to follow a few cow trails to begin with, meandering along, climbing the spine of the peak gently…….but then the cow paths filtered to nothingness and the true pioneering started. I felt like I was a true explorer, forging my way towards my fortune during the Great Westward expansion of the United States. It was an adventure of epic proportions………arduous uphill climbs only to be met by sheer downward drops, crossing through gulley’s and over peaks, forging through cacti and mesquite trees, in true pioneering spirit we managed to make it through with just a few scratches and bruises but not a single cow in sight! Rob Roy later confessed to me that he had never actually ridden that ridge before, and was not in a hurry to do it again……but hey, it was an adventure! We met up with the rest of the crew on the more inviting terrain of the sandy river bed……. not one cow had been found or spotted so we made our way towards the River Crossing Ranch for a lunch stop then turned back towards home.
The ride homeward was pretty cruisey compared to our previous escapades, we even managed a few little races, our Quarter Horses loping along gently, akin to the soothing motion of a rocking chair. By the time we reached the boundary of the Williams property the sun had already set and it was pitch black with still 8 miles to ride! In the distance we could just about make out the shadowy silhouettes of a small group of cows we had passed earlier that morning and decided to try and drive them home to the corral for tagging and checking the next day……..but they of course used the cloak of darkness to their advantage, broke and scattered…….a job for another day! Eleven hours in the saddle certainly gets the appetite stirred so we quickly completed our chores and returned to the house for a delicious home cooked meal! Of course, a long dusty day of cowboying must end around a camp fire so Rob Roy and Sam gathered the firewood, I brought the beer and we settled down to watch the embers burning and swap life stories.
The following six days were a whirl of cow chasing, cow branding and tagging, welcoming new life to the ranch, shoeing horses, helping start some of the younger horses, riding to the perimeters of the property to check cameras………and I got exactly what I asked for, a true authentic cowgirl experience with plenty of hours in the saddle!!
Sometimes in this life its not the journeys we take, but the people we meet along the way, and I’m honoured to have met and spent time with the Williams Family. Their ranch is not a fancy guest ranch, it is not polished or glamorous, but it is real, and their lives and stories echo through the walls and across the land on the breeze. It takes a lot of grit and determination to live the isolated life of a rancher, and Grandpa and Granny are more than willing to tell you their stories, living history. Some of my favourite memories are just sitting around the table after dinner and listening to their tales……….Granny’s days as a Rodeo Queen, the story of how they came to own this isolated piece of land in the fertile plains of the Hassayampa Valley, their journey across America to Alaska in the seventies to try their fortunes “up North”, how their ranch was almost destroyed in their absence by a “hippie Church Community”, listening to Rob Roy and Sam’s country drawl as they recounted with great affection their childhood adventures on the ranch……fascinating, I was enthralled.
I arrived at the Williams Family Ranch looking for adventure and to explore the cowboy life……and I certainly got what I was looking for! But, I gained something more valuable, I became part of a family, I became part of a rancher’s dynasty and I became part of their story.
Williams Family Ranch, Wickenburg, Arizona, November 2013.
Author : Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)