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

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

American Cowboy – Published in part in the winter addition of the Basin Wide Spirit Magazine

American Cowboy

Story and photos by Hilary Sloane

For the Basin Wide Spirit

Branding day at the Rattlesnake Ranch starts at the break of dawn. Billy Mitchell, a tall man with a long, white, well-combed 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, tucked into the bottom of the mountain.

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 round up 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 a short stay. On this occasion, the cabin, recently vandalized, is uninhabitable. The door was broken, water pipes dismantled and everything inside, refrigerator, food supplies, and necessities, have been stolen.

“It happens,” Billy says with resignation in his voice. He suspects off-roaders and bikers who have been vacationing in the area. They have ignored the signs and fencing that have been put up by both Billy and the Bureau of Land Management and recently, someone cut the barbed wire fence. The cattle got out and a calf was hit by a car. 

Without the cabin the men had to sleep on the ground. This takes it’s toll on Billy who is sixty-four and has debilitating arthritis. 

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 16 ranching families in Lucerne Valley. Now there are six. There are constant changes in policy for grazing rights and leases have to be renegotiated every 10 years. 

“We didn’t have problems with the environmentalist until 1983,” Billy said. He has been in Washington, D.C., this year lobbing for ranchers’ rights. He can’t say what brought on the change, but he is hoping to find a way for ranchers and environmentalists to work together. “Many environmental groups work well with us.” Billy says. The current lawmakers on both sides of the political fence are working hard to find equitable answers to these age-old problems, but the problems, for now, persist. Is this public land? Does the BLM have the right to give out the land for grazing?And, where and how are rights distributed?

On branding day at Billy’s ranch, everyone is given a job. The women cook, the children ride, round up, rope or feed the strays. 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 rarely complains. “My life is blessed,” he says.

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

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