AT RANCHO ESCONDIDO
OF LEADVILLE, U.S. Highway 24 runs through a large, more-or-less flat
expanse of grassland that lies surrounded by mountains -- Tennessee
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"? 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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Two cowhands need to
get a rope around some part of the cow, hoof or head, one at each
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
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.
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.
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.
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' ".
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
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
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
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. . .
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