Homesteader Country

One day in New Mexico Nancy and I were inside peeling garlic and she started to tell me the story about how she came to the mountains with her goats. I had asked her a little about it when I first met her over lunch in lonely Grants, NM. She hadn’t had much to say then. Now, sitting side by side, empty buckets and a couple hours work in front of us, it was easy to talk.

Fence on the long road into the farm

House and old windmill one pink morning

House and old windmill one gray morning

Nancy’s lived up in the mountains near the Continental Divide in southwestern New Mexico for about thirty years. She’s had her goats there with her the whole time. Her dairy, The Coonridge Dairy, has got to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. Located about a two hour drive from the nearest booming town of 200 residents (named Pie Town for — you guessed it — its ample amount of delicious homemade pies), she lives in the heart of old homesteader country.

“Texies” and “Okies” arrived in Catron County during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. They came, as biographer Joan Myers writes in Pie Town Woman, an account of local homesteaders, “in any sort of conveyance that would roll.” The dream was to reach the fertile land of California but many couldn’t make it that far and settled instead on the open, scrubby ground beneath Alegra Mountain, or “Ol’ Legra” as its locally known.

Looking out over Catron County and the Sawtooth mountains

Abandoned steer out in a field grazing

Grab a homemade slice at either the Pie Town Cafe or the Pie-O-Neer!

“Life in such places,” Myers writes, “is not something to remember or wait for but just to live.” Most families started working the land — “proving up” — so that they could earn the title to their 160 acres (under the original Homestead Act of 1862; 640 acres if you were raising cattle thanks to a revised act in 1916). They built small 15′ by 30′ dug outs to live in, haled water by wagon to drink, and prayed that their beans and corn would grow. If they had a good season, they could sell some crops to the Pie Town general store in exchange for other necessities, but that was pretty rare.

By and large, these homesteaders lived the hard life of hand to mouth, relying on each other more than money to see them through the cold winters. Myers paints a picture of a vibrant but bleak existence that by the early 1950s had been abandoned by most, including the government (though not officially until 1976). Now, in the mountains surrounding Pie Town, all that is left of that era are the collapsing pine frames of dug outs, the outlines of rutted roads, the abandoned windmills and wells.

Still, some have stayed.

In the late 1970s, Nancy and her ex-husband Andy were in these same mountains, topographic maps in hand, trying to find land to build their dairy. They stumbled upon the Wild Horse Windmill, parked, and set out on foot to find their promise land. Instead, they found old Mrs. Sommer’s place. It was the height of summer and they were parched. She sweetly invited them in and gave them water. Soon after, Mr. Sommer returned and, having spotted their car up the field, started cussing them out for parking on private land. (One of the kinder sides to frontier culture is the generosity. One of the darker is the deep, sometimes dangerous, distrust of any outsider.)

Lucky for them, they smoothed it out. During their first winter there, Nancy and Andy were snowed in for six weeks. They again visited Mrs. Sommer. “Oh, I know how you feel honey,” she told Nancy. “I was once snowed in for two years!”. (She had six children and so stayed put while Mr. Sommer would leave on horseback and come back a couple months later with supplies.)

The old bus Nancy and Andy lived in when they first arrived in the mountains

Black pig wading through the snow

Unlike the Sommers and old homesteaders, Nancy came from California. She grew up in Sonoma where lupine grew on the hills behind her house. Still, she thought herself a city girl until one day she was hitchhiking down the California coast and got it in her head that she wanted to buy a goat. She coaxed her driver into a detour to meet a prominent dairy woman and was part of a co-op by the end of that year. This was during the Vietnam War when evaporated milk was in high demand so most of her milk was turned into powder and shipped overseas. Then came a series of changing “lovers,” changing goat herds (Angora for Nubian, Jim for Andy) and a ten-year stint as a commercial truck driver. “The only thing better than being a hippie, is driving truck,” she tells me.

It actually is completely fitting that this remote dairy farmer would be a truck driver in her previous life. You have to have an ease with all things mechanical when you live in the middle of nowhere. Your truck gets stuck, you’ve got to get it chained up and out. A flash flood takes out a section of your road, you’ve got to work the backhoe and re-dig it. But more than any of that, when she tells me about driving truck — the sense of power behind you, the open dash, the winding roads, the chance to be completely your own keeper and no one else’s — I can understand why she’s in the mountains too. Your independence, your craftiness is tested every day in a way that keeps you focused on life in the present.

Nancy repairing the road after a big snow

Let's hope the patch job holds!

Wild donkey finds the truck on the way home

It’s also fitting that Nancy’s truck breaks down in New Mexico with Andy (her co-driver turned husband). They take it to the shop and leave it behind. They’re going to use the money to find land in the mountains. And bring their goats. Andy’s dream is to homestead (like he did growing up when his mother told the kids to “pack your trunk” and they set off for the Sierras.) Nancy’s dream is to give her goats the space they’ve never had in California and to make her cheese. “When you own goats,” she tells me, “you really want to just be making cheese.” They leave the evaporated milk and mohair behind, and never look back.

“The ultimate climax for me was when we finished the road to where the house would be,” Nancy tells me. Then she thinks a little, rolling a garlic clove around in her palm. “Actually, no. The real moment was when we found our goats.” They had brought them little by little up all twelve miles of newly dug road and realized at the end that they had lost some. Nancy went back and found the two sitting under a pinyon pine in a bed of yellow flowers. That was the moment she knew she had made it; she was exactly where she wanted to be.

Porch with cistern beyond used to collect rainwater and snow for drinking

And then they made cheese. Those early years her and Andy were just living in a bus they had winterized with a wood stove. They milked into pails, would pasteurize the milk into feta because it didn’t need refrigeration, and hang it from cheese cloths in the trees. They sold it at markets until New Mexico started to get tougher on dairy and sent an inspector out to their farm. He took one look at the cheese in the trees, made a big sweeping gesture with his hand, which Nancy mimics for me, and told her “this place is condemned.”

Determined, Nancy and friends spent a year bringing in supplies and building their “cheese room” outfitted with sinks, linoleum floors, and two large pasteurizers. They learned how to make soft goat cheese and mix it with herbs and oil for preservation. They called back their inspector, who admitted that he didn’t think he’d ever hear from them again, and gave the dairy and its cheese room the green light.

That was thirty years ago. Today, the dairy consists of an expanded cheese room, green house, goat barn, wood shed, welding shop, and the main house with its one room kitchen and lofted bedroom. There are cabins, trailers, and buses — and yes, even Nancy and Andy’s original bus — strewn about the property for farmhands to sleep in.

My lovely one-room cabin

Getting socks and cabin toasty

Misty morning view from the cabin

In some ways, much has changed from those early years. Gone are the days Nancy can pick up the phone and hear all the conversations happening on the same line between the homesteaders (they only had one operator based in Pie Town and sometimes they’d all just hang out on the line to get their news and socialize). Now, she uses spotty satellite internet and Skype to send and receive messages.

But I like that, sitting on top of the hill looking down at her dairy, I can see the whole journey. The old bus. The road they carved. The main house her friend built with a “pile of nails and boards in front of him” that got him sober. And far away, up and down canyons, ridges, washouts, and arroyos, I can find fresh prints in the snow of her goats, making their slow journey home for the evening meal.

And, as we put the bucket of garlic away for the day, I think about her love for these animals and her love for this country. And I think about how we all should be so lucky to look out and deeply love everything we can see and touch and call our own.

Big Southwestern clouds above the dairy

Field sweeping up to the house

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3 responses to “Homesteader Country

  1. Seriously, you should write a book!

  2. Thank you! I’ve thought about writing a book, or even a set of short stories. I just know very little about the publishing world so haven’t put a toe in yet!

  3. would love to meet you. Want to retire into a cabin near the continental divide after working since i was 13. and I love goat cheese.

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