Driving through the miles of creosote scrub and Joshua tree forests in the Mojave National Preserve, it’s hard to imagine anyone living there, let alone trying to earn a living. Yet, fences, outbuildings, corrals, and equipment all indicate that someone is, or was, engaged in that pursuit. Most of them are historic reminders of the days when many ranches operated in the Mojave Desert. They’re preserved for their historic value.
But one hardy family is in its fifth generation of ranching in the desolate Mojave. The 7IL ranch is the only cattle operation left, and the Blair family runs it. The ranch headquarters is near Mitchell Caverns in the center of the preserve. That’s where all those generations of Blair family ranchers have called home.
Ranching is a full-time job, and it isn’t an easy one. Trucks, fences, corrals, and equipment must be maintained, not to mention miles of water lines that must be kept leak-free and flowing on a desert ranch. Windmills are still used to pump water, and lines are checked almost daily.
The 7IL Ranch leases 350,000 acres from the government upon which it grazes 389 head of cattle—about 1000 acres for each animal. It’s traditional open-range ranching—“You kinda keep an eye on them,” says Kate Blair, but mostly they roam unattended. Sometimes park visitors and the Blair cattle encounter each other warily.
When congress passed the Desert Protection Act in 1994, the Blairs weren’t sure whether their ranch would be relegated to historic scrapbooks. “The original bill was supposed to eliminate grazing altogether,” says Kate Blair—until Senator Dianne Feinstein stepped in at the last minute, allowing grazing to continue on this federal land. “Some nights we went to bed not knowing if we would have a ranch in the morning,” recalls Kate.
Roundups happen twice a year, spring and fall, which Kate describes evocatively:
In the heart of every rancher lives the cowboy; and every cowboy lives for spring roundup. There is nothing like saddling up in the morning with the cool bite of morning frost, the smell of horses and leather, the soft murmur of the cowboys as they speak low to their horses, the jingling of spurs and the occasional snort from a horse. The anticipation of the day is like a tangible thing: sharp, vivid, and unspoken. The boss gives the order to load up or mount up, and the day begins. As the crew fans out in search of cattle, they stay alert and within long sight of eachother. They know that if they are seen before they see, the cattle will be running hard to get away from the mounted threat and then it will be all-hands-come-a-runnin’ to help stop the stampede.
Qtd. in Mojave National Preserve publication, Spring 2011
The three Blair children were raised in the wild isolation of the ranch and attended a one-room school in Essex, a 100-mile round trip. And while “we were really tight as a family,” still, slumber parties and Friday night football wasn’t part of their childhood experience. The two Blair girls now live in San Diego and Los Angeles, but their son still works on the ranch.
When I asked why they soldier on in this demanding (and, to the outsider, thankless) fashion, Kate hesitates. She has punted this question many times. “It’s hard to describe,” she says. “It’s your life. It comes as a package. The reward is in the work itself. You have to have some pioneer spirit to enjoy it.”
Maybe Rob Blair describes it best in this poem (yes, he’s part of the great cowboy poet tradition):
He was an old cowboy/and he rode this land/From the Clipper Mountains/to the shimmering sands/On ole Biscuit/he rode these trails/Where the Spanish claimed/and the Indians dwelled.
He spent many a long year/in that Fergie saddle/Breakin’ them broncs/and raisin’ cattle.
I was just a lad/When he turned to me and said,/“Son, this land is wild, young and free.not much money, but it’s me.”
At the time,/I didn’t understand/What my father had said/when he talked about this land./How it grew/and the cattle it fed
Here I am still carryin’ on/in footsteps of a man still here./Whose legend/will always live on.
And now I understand/the words he said/Because my colt is gone/and Biscuit’s dead./And I’m covering these trails/In my Fergie saddle
And together with dad/We’re still raisin’ these cattle./This story will be carried on/From son to son/Of the legend and the man/And how it all began.
by Rob Blair, used with permission (Apologies, Rob, for the crappy formatting. I haven’t figured out how to avoid double spaces between paragraphs, which makes it very hard to properly showcase poetry.)