WORKING CATTLE 

AT RANCHO ESCONDIDO

NORTH OF LEADVILLE, U.S. Highway 24 runs through a large, more-or-less flat expanse of grassland that lies surrounded by mountains -- Tennessee Park.  

Just past the overpass that carries the highway over the old Denver & Rio Grande Western tracks, the road passes a jumble of run-down buildings, pretty evidently deserted.  There is still a sign, though, that identifies the place, as "Rancho Escondido".

("Rancho Escondido"?   The place is obvious to the eye now, lying as it does right along the highway.  However, the highway used to take a different route across Tennessee Park, running farther to the east.  The ranch, some distance to the west of this old route, was partly hidden by the gentle slope of the land.  I was told by a local, that the ranch was given its name because of this characteristic.)

 


 

I was out there one morning in the summer of 2003, trying to get some good shots of the place. After parking on the east side of the road, across from the ranch,  I wandered north a ways to shoot the old log cabin with the collapsed stone chimney.  

As I was scouting for angles, I noticed two pickups, both towing livestock trailers, pull into the driveway of the ranch. The occupants of the first got out, unlocked the gates, and drove in.  

The driver of the other also pulled in -- and then hollered down to me. He let me know that he needed me to get my car, which I had left in front of the gate to a small corral, out of the way.  I quickly jogged back and moved my car to the other side of the highway.  

 


 

The man who had hailed me was Clarence Neppl, a rancher from Salida who leases land in Tennessee park to graze some of his cattle. 

 

He and three cowhands -- two men and a woman -- had come up that day to move a group of a couple of dozen cattle, which had been grazing on the east side of the park, over to the rangeland west of the ranch.  

 

They were going to be moving the cattle into the small corral I had stopped in front of, and would then drive them across the highway, into the corrals at the ranch.

 


 

Soon, more people arrived -- Clarence's wife Donna Neppl, and her daughter Michelle and two of her children.  Michelle and the grandchildren were evidently visiting, and had come to watch.  The Neppls were kind enough to let me come on into the ranch and tag along with them. 

I was grateful for this opportunity, as I was able to get some nice shots of the area with the old buildings of the ranch in the foreground.

 

 


 

Then, another visitor arrived. Tony is the "overseer" of the land for the City of Pueblo, which actually owns it.  

Pueblo bought Tennessee Park with an eye towards construction of a reservoir that would help supply the city's water needs.  The plans had to be shelved, though, when it was discovered that there was a stand of a protected species of native grass in the park that would have been destroyed by the reservoir.  

So, while the land still belongs to the city, it will probably sell it off -- although to whom, and for what purpose, is up in the air.  It's simply not possible in this economy, Donna Neppl told me, to amortize a mortgage note on land like this just by ranching cattle on it. 

 


 

Eventually, the cowhands had gathered up the cattle and confined them in the corral on the east side of the highway, and it was time to make the crossing.  

Two of the hands positioned themselves squarely in the middle of the highway, north and south of the crossing point; the other hand, and Mr. Neppl, then positioned themselves to herd the group across.  

Neppl warned me to stay behind my car, so that my presence did not distract and confuse the cattle and lead them to head off in the wrong direction.  

This was a dicey operation, not only because it involved taking them across the highway, but also because during the crossing the cattle would of course  be outside of any fenced area.  If the herd got spooked and took off in the wrong direction, either up or down the highway, it would be difficult and dangerous to get them all rounded up again.

However, the crossing went quickly, and smoothly.  The cattle, well bunched, trotted across at a good clip, and were successfully ushered through the open gate into the ranch area.  

From there, the herd was driven into one of the corrals, and the gate was quickly closed behind them. 


 

THERE IS STILL really only one good way to get a particular cow picked out of a herd and immobilized so that it can be "worked", and that is to rope it.  

Two cowhands need to get a rope around some part of the cow, hoof or head, one at each end.  

When this is accomplished, they secure the rope to the pommels of their saddles, and the horses back off so as to hold the ropes taut.  

Then, somebody "bulldogs" the cow down.

 

This needed to be done here.  Before the group could be turned loose onto their new grazing grounds, there was some veterinary work needed.  A couple of them needed medication, for hoof rot and other problems that had been spotted.  

So with the group confined in a large corral, the hands got their ropes out and went to work.

The scene was one that probably differed very little from ones that have been played out on countless ranches for well more than a hundred years -- except for the fact that the cowhands wore sunglasses, and t-shirts with things like Corona bottles on them. 

 


 

One cowhand's horse didn't do its job of keeping backed up to hold the rope taut.   Instead, it allowed itself to inch forward, giving the roped cow more opportunity to move around and struggle, and thus making the cowhands' jobs harder.  

Eventually, in evident frustration, the horse's owner gave his mount a couple of quick whacks on the snout with his hand, to communicate his dissatisfaction with its performance.  

"He's not a 'horse whisperer' ", Donna Neppl commented to me, "he's more of a 'horse smacker' ". 

 


At one point there was a need to drive a group of the cattle through a gate into one corral, and then keep them moving across and out of that corral through a gate on the other side.  

However, the cattle were likely to turn and head up to the north end of the corral they were to be driven through, instead of heading across it.  So, it was necessary to have something up there to discourage them.  

That something was people -- all of the people who were available.  That meant Donna Neppl, and her daughter and grandchildren, and Tony -- and me.    

We headed up to the north end of the corral and waited for the cattle to be driven in at the south end, knowing that when they were, they would initially start charging up in our direction. We were not supposed to yell, or move, but just stand there and let our presence discourage the herd thundering down on us.  Or not.  

Well, Donna Neppl didn't seem nervous, and her own offspring were also being used as part of the operation, so I figured it couldn't be a big deal.  

We got set up, and the gate was opened, and the riders drove the herd in -- and, as expected, they headed right for us.  As soon as they spotted us, though, they faltered, and then veered off towards, and through, the other gate.  

 


 

I RAN INTO Clarence Neppl later that day in Leadville.   He had switched from his western hat to a farmer cap, and was sitting on a bench in front of the Lake County Courthouse, apparently lost in thought - or perhaps just waiting for somebody.  

Anyway, we talked for a while about this and that - where we'd been and what had brought us there, ranching, and cattle, and mountains, and politics, and other things. . . 

 

Like what I had done the day before.  "My wife told me that you scattered your father's ashes on Mt. Elbert", he said,  and I allowed as how I had. "That's very interesting", he said.   I could tell that he meant it, but I couldn't tell what he thought about it.  

It seemed to me that there might have been a hint of disapproval in his tone.   Was it that I had done such a thing?    Or  was it just that I had shared the fact that I had done it, and thus turned the mountain, an ever-present backdrop to daily life, into a reminder of mortality?  Or perhaps I was just reading too much into it.  I hope so.

 


PHOTOGRAPHY
BY DAVE NANCE
   

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the old same place

2004 David B. Nance