Thirty miles south of Prescott, Arizona is a road called Wagoner. It’s also known as Walnut Grove and occasionally just “the dirt one after the Kirkland junction.” To get to it from Prescott, you either go up and over the Bradshaw mountains or take the Iron Springs road around them. This is the way I like. On it, you’ll find the Kirkland Bar, built as a stagecoach stop turned bordello in 1863, and the somewhat ominously named town of Skull Valley.
And that’s all before you’ve even hit the dirt.
Once you’re on Wagoner, you’ll cross cattle guard after cattle guard belonging to ranches that have existed for over a hundred years (one family claims to be the first white ranchers in all of Arizona). If you follow the road back to mile 26 up and down some grizzly ruts and canyons, you’ll find the gold mining turned ghost town of Crown King. You’ll also find the occasional junk yard, stray horse, and wild javelina.
But more than any of that, the road is the neighborhood. It’s the place where people pass each other in their trucks, on their horses, on foot, and slow down for the latest news or maybe to show off the coyote, tomcat, and, sometimes, mountain lion pelt they’ve got in the back from the latest hunt (I’ll save the story about my own lion hunt for another day…).
I called mile 11 home for most of late November and December. There, tucked away beside a creek and cottonwoods, stands Ella and Mike’s Gold Bar Ranch. This was my second experience as a roaming farmhand through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (aka “WWOOF”), having spent November at a vineyard in southeastern Utah, and it was just as great an immersion into a different way of life.
My first Tuesday at the ranch and we were off to the Chino Valley livestock auction with a bull and a calf for sale (after we had herded them through a squeeze box into the trailer). The auction sees about 1000 cattle pass through it a day (plus a cool 800 goats and sheep) and is the main one in Arizona. It’s mostly composed of a metal-sided building with a system of wooden pens, gates, and cut-throughs that stretch off into the distance behind it. Inside, there’s a front room where you can pick up your latest copy of Beef Today with article after article extolling the health benefits of beef and a small arena where you sit on cement bleachers and watch cattle come through, one by one, onto the sawdust show floor.
It’s what happens on this floor that had me transfixed for the two hours we sat and watched the cattle sell. The door opens and the bull, steer, or cow moves from the pen where it’s just been weighed (most cattle is priced per pound, though sometimes the auctioneer will sell it as a whole or sometimes even as a whole herd — like a furniture set) and out to the floor. It’s here you catch a glimpse of the backstage work crew (all Mexicans) armed with cattle prods to coax the animals forward. (Getting an animal to the show room floor can be a grizzly operation — Mike said he once had his bull go in healthy and come out with a broken leg.)
Once its through that door, the real show begins. In beef, it appears, it’s a buyers world and there are only a select few that do that buying. I counted five in the arena that day. 1000 cattle, five buyers, and roughly $1000 per animal means these guys (and they are all men) are putting down some serious money for a Tuesday morning. And it’s between them and the auctioneer that the real dance happens. He sets the price, they start to bid, most with a slow nod to the top of their hat, and it goes back and forth like this with all of the sellers watching and hoping the number keeps going up.
(On this particular day, beef was selling high but the price has been radically dropping this year due to devastating drought in Texas. Put plainly, there is no hay in Texas to fatten a cow so it’s getting shipped in from Oklahoma and Arizona, which is driving up the price of hay across the board, forcing sellers to get rid of their herds, and saturating the market with beef. Once these herds are gone we’ll most likely see a huge spike in the price of beef so invest wisely and enjoy your cheap burgers for now!)
I snuck out back to watch what happens after the buying and got my first glimpse at some real cowboys working. I grew up riding horses back East for competitions like jumping and cross-country but it’s worlds and worlds away from Western riding. Western riding is just some tough, tough stuff. I don’t think I’d ever seen a horse cut, sprint, turn, and stop quite like it. I’d definitely never seen a rider so completely in control at those speeds, not to mention herding, roping, corraling, and I don’t even know what all else. I’m also pretty sure I’d never heard more swearing and never saw more spitting than watching these “good ol’ boys” work.
Then on my second Sunday there was church. Just over the hill from the Gold Bar stands the one-room church next to — maybe you’ve guessed it? — the one-room schoolhouse that is open when the neighborhood has enough kids (I think they need 10 total). Ella and I arrived at church to find Bill unloading stereos and karaoke equipment and Trip, whose family built the church and technically owns it, opening up the shades. After Bill and I had figured out the wiring for the karaoke, the preacher, Gavilan, arrived with his wife wearing a full on Canadian tuxedo — blue jeans and jacket with cowboy hat and boots. Bill stayed at the microphone, we all slid into the pews, and church began with just the six of us.
And this is how it went: Bill invites Ella and I to join him at the mike and we sing old country songs with vague references to God and things (Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird” and a very fitting Hank Williams number called “The Old Country Church”) for over an hour. Bill, when he’s not describing what every song means to him, sings with the clearest, deepest baritone I’ve ever heard. It’s so good I forget I’m supposed to be singing too and he says at the start of the next song “Remember, honey, you gotta help me with this one.” Then the pastor gives a little sermon (“we’re gonna keep it short today”), his twinkling blue eyes smiling out at us as he looks up from his notes, and after we have coffee hour. Two whole chocolate cream pies for six.
It’s over our Amen-inducing dessert that Trip asks, “so when should we have church again?”. All agree that there’s too much going on for Christmas but the week after should be good. “Let’s not get that shouting preacher again though. Gavilan, ya free?”. Apparently Trip invited a new pastor to come last month who was full of old school hell, fire, and brimstone that didn’t go over too well with this karaoke congregation. I’m with them. I don’t really ever go to church but, if I do go again, let it be a down home, easy time like this good ol’ country church.
The bulk of my days though at the Gold Bar, when not at a church or cattle auction, was spent on “the ditch,” a two-mile long 2′ by 2′ cement irrigation ditch that threads its way over high washes from the Hassayampa river to the property. It is well over a hundred years old and a huge feat of engineering that testifies both to the craftiness of its creators and their need for water.
Like the riding, the Western relationship to water is a whole different beast. If you don’t have the water rights, you don’t have the farm. The cemetery up the hill from the Gold Bar is an eery testament to this desperation. There, grave upon grave marks the victims of the 1901 flood who were killed in their sleep when a dam, meant to give water access to a growing population, broke and sent a wall of murky water rushing as far south as Wickenberg, 30 miles away. (The story goes that the dam builders knew it was about to break and sent a man to warn his neighbors but he ended up inside a whiskey glass instead and the rest, well, those plain little white graves say it all.)
Mike’s mother purchased the ranch fifty years ago not because of the land, but because it came with some of the oldest water rights on the road (in the West, the water doctrine is “first in time, first in right” i.e. you don’t want to be the new kid on the block.) The ditch gives the Gold Bar access to the main river and so it was our job to clear it of debris and patch the holes so that they could open the dam and let that sweet water flow.
It was the best walk to work you could ask for.
We’d, there was four of us — me, Kim, Casey, Mark — we’d wind our way up the glittering creek past Gary’s trailer (more on his story some other time…), past the little pool they dam up in the summer for swimming, and cut up the bank to the ditch. Sometimes we’d take out shovels and start digging or sometimes we’d just stand around, chat, and watch Casey make cement. Sometimes we’d wander back to the house for lunch and sometimes we’d just sit there beside the creek , Mark and Casey smoking their Marlboro Reds, eat a sandwich and throw some rocks around. Always I had that “peaceful, easy feeling” that you feel, as that Eagle song goes, when you’ve found solid ground.
Thinking it over now, I have to say that more than anything it’s people who can make even the most different places you’ve ever been to feel like a home. Mike’s easy smile and stories about surviving in the backwoods. Ella’s unending hospitality and humor. Mark and Casey’s incessant boy chatter, jokes, pranks, and, underneath it all, hearts of gold. People to share bonfires with. People to play croquet with on Thanksgiving night and on a rainy night in a barn. People to pick gardens with and tell your lame chicken joke to (“What’s a chicken’s favorite vegetable?” “Bawk, bawk, bawk choy!”). People who you can be the real you with, without thinking, and who give you the same right back.
The story goes that the Gold Bar got its name from an old miner who hid his trove of gold in the surrounding hills. He passed away and so, somewhere out there, lies a fortune. Now I don’t know about finding any gold, but I’d say that’s only half the story. I’d say, at mile 11, there’s things worth more than any old miner’s treasure.