It's just past noon on a Monday in the last few days of June. The gravel road known as County Road M stretches out ahead, going due west and dissecting an endless expanse of open country. The spring rains have been kind; the prairie grass is a sea of pale green punctuated by occasional cholla cactus bearing deep purple blooms. Fifteen miles or more from pavement with no house or person in sight, the soundtrack of this land is composed of deep silence broken only by the song of some unseen bird every now and then.
There's no doubt that, on those days when a storm might roll in from the southwest, this a place where nature could make herself known in all her furious glory. But no such storm is on the horizon—at least, not yet. On this day, the scene in all directions is one of untouched, timeless beauty as can be found in those canyonlands and plains of the Comanche National Grassland.
In the distance, an old, loaded down pick-up truck parked by a fence line comes into view along with the sight of two cowboys who've already been at work, mending that fence, for hours.
Dean Ormiston and Wes McKinley are co-owners of the Kirkwell Cattle Company. Born and raised in the Canyonlands of Baca County not far from where Colorado borders both New Mexico and Oklahoma, both men are third generation residents, descendants of grandparents who came to the region as homesteaders.
Ormiston was born in Kirkwell. The town no longer exists, but the house where he was born still stands on his property just a few miles away. McKinley was born in Walsh, 60 miles to the east. Both grew up in farming communities but learned, almost straight out of the chute, that they were better suited to riding horses than tractors and working cattle than land. These two men have known each other for most of their lives and been friends—good friends—for most of that time. Each man is also on the other side of seventy years old, and it doesn't slow them down in the least.
We stand on the Ford Ranch, fifteen thousand acres—“ten thousand government land, five thousand private”—that extend all the way to the Las Animas County line. The property is owned by a man named Bob Ford out of Oklahoma. Ford comes to visit a few times a year, but it's Dean who, with help from Wes, manages the ranch and has done so for twenty years. In that time, there's no denying Dean's left his mark, from the strength of the herd—“when the herd does better, I do better”, he says—to one of the outbuildings he built, himself, using rocks he quarried from the top of the bluffs overlooking the ranch house down in the canyon.
Ormiston and McKinley seem to personify the term “cowboy”. Dusty boots. Worn out blue jeans. Strong, rough hands that reflect years of hard work performed in harsh weather. Cowboy hats that have been soaked with rain and sun and sweat so many times over so many years that they seem to be as much a part of them as their hands or feet. And, beneath those hats, a clear eyed gaze and calm, slow manner of speech, perhaps the result of working in country where the view of the horizon is unobstructed, and silence is more common than sound.
But to simply describe the two men in physical terms would do them a serious injustice. Granted, it's easy to see them as the iconic cowboys portrayed in the Westerns of later years, but, as the day progresses, it becomes clear that they are much better captured in a novel by, say, Larry McMurtry, writer of Lonesome Dove. For, in his own way, each man is complicated, and full of surprises and runs as deep as nearby Carrizo Creek after a hard rain.
Dean is the first to step forward. With long hair pulled back in a ponytail and a snow white mustache that would be the envy of Wild Bill himself, he extends his hand, moving with the slightly bowlegged grace of a man who's spent his life on horseback.
Behind him, a herd of several hundred mama cows and calves have stopped grazing to stare in our direction, a few shaking their horns at some unseen annoyance. It's no exaggeration to say that they are truly beautiful with stark white and deep red markings.
“They're one hundred per cent pure Herefords,” Dean says with a mixture of pride and admiration. . “I don't dehorn ‘em,” he adds. “The steers, I do, but not the cows. We have bear and lion and coyote out here. There was a bear in front of the ranch house just the other mornin'. The cows need those horns to protect themselves and the herd.” He then scans the horizon as if figuring out where to start. “New Mexico is just eight miles away on the other side of those mountains.” He then halfway lifts a figure toward the ridge where a butte juts up above the ridge line. “We call that Tater Butte,” he says. “Its official name is Carrizo, but we call it Tater. Why? Because that's what it looks like.” Ormiston is introducing himself in what might be the most telling way possible. In talking about the land, he's talking about himself.
Wes, who stands a few yards away, has the patient demeanor of a storyteller biding his time. He wears a long, loose shirt that's the color of sand and a midnight blue scarf tied loosely around his neck, and he has just the slightest smile on his lips. It's hard to say what he might be thinking behind his amber colored sunglasses, but the way part of the brim of his cowboy hat is curled up and under just a bit on the left suggests he takes it off the same way every day. Despite his hat pulled low over his face, the sun has still bronzed his skin above his full, trimmed white beard as well as his hands that hang loosely at his sides. It's difficult to imagine him without that bronze from the sun; it seems to be a permanent part of who he is.
Wes turns a bit toward the open vista to the west where the short prairie grasses seem to extend forever. “We've seen every color of green out here”, he says. “And we've seen every shade of brown and gray you can imagine, too.” He pauses for several long seconds. “Man is a herd animal,” he begins, as if deciding to voice a thought mid-stream. “I don't know why, but man needs other men around to be sustained. That's why the first towns around here were built about twenty miles apart. A man can walk twenty miles in a day, if he has to. He can do twenty miles on horseback, easy, and easier'n that in a wagon. When the railroad came, all of that changed. Of course, they still needed water tanks every twenty miles to fuel the engines, but towns could be built further apart. That's how we ended up with Springfield and Vilas.”
Anywhere else, it might have been an unusual way to start a conversation, but, on the Comanche National Grassland, it makes perfect sense. Life in this place hasn't changed much since those days when towns were built twenty miles apart. There are no other cars driving down County Road M and certainly no trains nearby. In a land where rattlesnakes bite, horses stumble and fall, cows can go a little crazy and severe summer storms suddenly appear out of nowhere, the niceties and small talk that usually fill an introduction are superfluous.
“Let's head on to the ranch,” Dean says. “We can continue the conversation in the bunkhouse.” So, with that, the conversation is moved to the place where the real stories wait to be told.
Ormiston and McKinley head west in their truck for a mile or so before turning south on an unmarked dirt road that passes over a small rise in the land. And with no warning whatsoever, the landscape changes from grassland to a steep canyon rimmed with juniper and piñon pine. The place just has the feel of lingering history.
At one time, bands of Comanche were in this canyon, and it's easy to imagine hearing the sounds of small herds of horses, stomping at flies and whinnying to one another. Further into the canyon, the ruins of several rock houses testify of those who called the canyon home, perhaps reassured at first by Carrizo Creek that runs along the canyon floor only to have the dry years hit and cause them to leave their homes and the canyon behind forever.
We come to the end of the road, and a tall flag pole bearing an American flag marks the entrance to ranch headquarters where there's a collection of buildings, each one with solid rock walls and a red tin roof overhead. The ranch house, biggest of all the buildings, is set back from the others just a bit. Directly across the way lies the bunkhouse with its long, welcoming porch and hitching posts out front. Tucked up against the bluffs that form the canyon walls, it stands next to the tack room and extensive corrals.
Up “on the flats” where Herefords graze and Tater Butte is seen from miles away, the air is hot and dry. But on the porch of the bunkhouse in Carrizo Canyon, the air is cool and sweet and still.
The men lead the way inside. There have been some memorable conversations held at kitchen tables over the years, and it's a good bet that the kitchen table in the bunkhouse is no exception.
The bunkhouse, built in the 50s, consists of a main room with a couple more rooms off to the side. And the main room is exactly that: a kitchen is on one wall, a sofa and coffee table are on the other and a round kitchen table is placed in the corner, snugged up against the windows.
With the afternoon sunlight streaming over his shoulder, Dean lowers his lanky frame into a straight-backed kitchen chair and waits for the first question. “I was born in Kirkwell in 1948,” he starts. “I was the second child. My brother was two years older, and I had four sisters and brothers younger than me. I had a hard working father who taught me how to work--we had 28 cows that we milked every morning and night. He taught me to be independent, to be self-sufficient, to think for myself. But I'm different from my brothers and sisters.” He chuckles just slightly. “I used to think I was adopted.” He then stretches out his legs a bit and settles a little further into the story. “I started school in a one room schoolhouse. They closed it a year later, so I went to school in Pritchett about thirty miles away. Just a little old town.”
He shifts slightly in his chair and rests his hands on the edge of the table before him, fingers loosely cupped as if, even sitting at the table, they still hold a pair of reins. Worn, sterling silver bands are on seven or eight of his fingers.
“My family came from Kansas in 1912,” he continues. “The whole family came. All of ‘em. Grandparents, uncles... Ormistons homesteaded land all around here. The land up on the flats was all farmland back then. There were people on every quarter section.” He glances briefly at Wes who nods his agreement. “Most of ‘em left in the thirties when the drought hit. Just couldn't stick it out. Walt Dunlap—an old man I rode with sometimes—he was here in the 30s and told me about a man who was packing up and heading east. Said he'd sell his land if somebody just made him an offer. So Walt asked him what he would take for it, and that man said, ‘What have you got?’ Walt said, ‘Well, I've got a pocket knife here’ and that man said, ‘I'll take it.’ They were selling land for $5 an acre back then. Bob Ford who owns this ranch bought 5,000 acres. He paid five million dollars.” Dean pauses and shakes his head at the thought. “Yeah, all the others left, but not my grandfather. He stayed. Raised a hundred mule colts and sold ‘em. Rode a mammoth jack himself—those are the real big mules. His name was George Ormiston.”
Dean was raised on a farm but preferred ranching. “I've always liked horses and cattle,” he says. “All we had was milk cows growing up, so I worked for neighbors.” After graduating from high school, he went to Adams State College where he got both his Bachelors and Masters in Industrial Arts. He went on to teach the subject in Lamar for several years, but as the saying goes, once a cowboy, always a cowboy. He returned to the area in 1971.
He looks briefly out the window to his side. “It's hard country out here. It's hot. There's rattlesnakes. Bear. Lion. Coyote. Prairie dogs. Wind. Hard country, but I like it. I guess you have to be born here to feel that way.”
In 1975, Dean made his “big ranching move”, which lasted for the next twenty years. “I really got into it,” he says. “Took out a million dollar loan to get started. I didn't go like some of these young people now and buy a new truck and new, expensive equipment. I did buy a truck—drove it for years—but I think every other piece of equipment I bought, I bought used. I used most of the money to buy four hundred head of cattle.”
Some may say that being twenty-seven years old and taking out a million dollar loan to start a cattle ranch is a big gamble. It's a thought Dean dismisses. “I borrowed money from the bank when I was fourteen years old and my brother was sixteen. We went to this old banker in Springfield. He asked us, ‘Do you intend to pay it back? Okay, sign here.' That was it. ‘Course, you couldn't do that today. It probably wasn't even legal. But, like I said, I've always liked horses and cattle.”
Unaccustomed to sitting in a chair for long periods of time, he gets to his feet and stretches before putting one foot on the seat of the kitchen chair. His eyes drift back out the window, and his voice grows a little bit softer. “The lifestyle here... it's just about gone. More and more people are finding out about this place. I told my wife, ‘We gotta move. Ten cars came down the road today.'” He smiles and takes a few steps to grab a couple of bottles of water. He looks at them in his hand as he speaks. “I'm going to quit in a few years,” he says. “My niece will take over. She loves this place. I won't get out altogether—I'll still take care of two to three hundred cattle. But my wife is from Ecuador, and we have a condo down there. I'd like to spend some time in that place. Maybe ride a canoe down the Amazon.”
A 2012 election poster promoting Ormiston for Baca County Commissioner is tacked to the wall by his shoulder. In the center, an old photo of Dean as a boy on horseback. Dean just nods. “I was a county commissioner for 4 years from 2012 to '16,” he says. “I didn't run again. I didn't like it. I wanted to help people but... just couldn't get things done. I'll leave that job to other people to do.”
He looks over at Wes who sits on the couch a few feet away, feet propped up on the coffee table. “But Wes here, he was a state representative for four terms,” he says.
Wes slowly nods. “Yes, I was,” he says. “They didn't like me much at the capital. They didn't like what I wanted to do. Remember when the state furloughed workers? I proposed the people who sat around at desks doin' nothin' have their wages reduced instead of the people building bridges, paving roads and actually doing something. They hated me for that.”
“They hated you for more than that,” Dean says, laughing.
At first glance, Wes McKinley is an unassuming man who does not pretend to be anyone other than exactly who he is. “I'm a cowboy,” he says, as if that's all there is to say. If asked a direct question, he gives a direct answer. If asked something a little more open ended, the response is likely to be framed as a story, usually with a little humor and dry wit thrown in. And yet, there's something about him, something just below the surface and out of sight that suggests “cowboy” is just part of the story.
While growing up in Walsh, McKinley worked cattle along with any other job he could find. His first eight years of school were spent in a “country” one room school house with no electricity and “the only water available was what you drew from the well”. Not so different from how he lived at home.
When that school closed, Wes went on to finish high school and then on to college where he earned both his Bachelor's and Masters in Statistics and Advanced Mathematics.
“I like math,” he says simply. He then pauses for a moment and tries to provide an explanation, as if such a fact as liking math couldn't stand on its own two feet. “See, there are no constants. No constants, except one. In order to die, you have to be born first,” he says. “That's the only constant there is.”
It's in that brief interchange that Wes gives a clue to how he, at least in some aspect, views the world and then speaks of what he sees. It's all a matter of mathematics that is revealed in universal ways. How things work. How one thing connects to another. Big thoughts, big questions most likely pondered under big skies.
However, several experiences in Wes' past warrant straight out storytelling, one of which involved the four consecutive terms he served as State Representative for District 64. “I was a Democrat,” he says. “A whiskey drinkin', Bible thumpin', gun totin' Democrat. And I drove those people crazy.” When, as a state rep, he was required to list his occupation for the records, he put “cowboy”. Not rancher. Cowboy. No state representative in history had ever listed cowboy as an occupation before. And no one who knew Wes McKinley would have expected him to put anything different.
Listening to him, it's difficult in some ways to picture him sitting in the chamber of that gold domed building, surrounded by politicians probably wearing suits and doing the business of the state. There just isn't a round hole or square peg where Wes would seem to fit. And yet, as he tells tales of specific battles he fought and legislation he found ridiculous and the bar-b-que where, out of respect, he invited the homeless people in the vicinity to attend, it seems as if Wes was exactly where he belonged.
And then, with barely a pause, Wes casually adds that he was also the foreman of the Grand Jury that investigated Rocky Flats.
Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a Department of Energy facility northwest of Denver, was under investigation of environmental crimes based, in part, on documents seized by the FBI during a 1989 raid. The grand jury of which Wes was foreman was the first special grand jury convened in State of Colorado history, and, for once a month for almost 2 years, Wes drove to Denver where he and 23 other jurors went through complicated testimony and documents related to the plant's operations. At the end, all 24 jurors returned 8 indictments for environmental crimes. But, in a stunning and highly controversial move, the U.S. Attorney for the case refused to sign the indictment, settling instead for a $17.5 million fine with no names or criminal records involved. That made national news. And then, even more incredibly, when the judge signed off on the deal a few months later, he sealed the indictment and, amidst massive outcry from the grand jurors, the media and public alike, threatened to throw in jail on charges of contempt of court any grand juror who spoke publicly about the case. That made national news, as well.
Although outraged, Wes abided, as the law required. And then he wrote a book, titled “The Ambushed Grand Jury: How the Justice Department Covered Up Government Nuclear Crime and How We Caught Them Red-Handed.” The book is available on Amazon. It seems the judge didn't have the last word, after all.
There are doubtless dozens more stories that hang in the air of the bunkhouse, untold, but outside, clouds are starting to roll in, and that seems to be about all Wes feels like sharing, at the time. He does add one final thought. “My wife died about eight years ago,” he says, quietly. “As she was dying, she told me I wasn't the easiest man to be married to, but I sure wasn't ever boring. That was the last thing she said. She died, right after.”
With that, he just folds his hands and grows silent.
Thirty years or so ago, Dean and Wes were riding along one afternoon when Wes tossed out an idea. The land around Ford Ranch and the Ormiston property is beautiful country, unlike anywhere else. McKinley's thinking was that people would probably pay to see country like this and nobody knew it better than the two of them. They could do trips for people—maybe horseback camping or cattle drives or wagon trains, things they know how to do and that people would never have experienced before.
Dean thought it was a good idea, but there was a problem. “I hate people,” he says and then adds, “Maybe I don't hate ‘em, but I can do without ‘em. Give me my horse and my dog and I'm fine.”
Wes told him that was a problem they could work around. Dean would line up everything that was needed to take people on a trip, and Wes would do the “marketing and promotion and all the talking to people part.”
And so, the Kirkwell Cattle Company was born.
Those first years were tough. They gave trips away to everybody to get the name out and lost money for five years straight. But then, things turned around and kept going strong for years. “We did fifteen people a trip, two trips a month,” Dean says. “At fifteen hundred a head... not a bad living.”
Groups came from all over. They had people from France, from Germany. They had 15 bus drivers—all Italians—from New York City go on a cattle drive to Clayton, New Mexico. All of them on horseback (for the first times in their lives) for week long trips into remote, beautiful country where they lived the lives of cowboys.
“First day, they're so sore they're pretty sure they're going to die,” Dean says. “Second day, maybe they aren't going to die, after all. Third day, they're not nearly so sore and are beginning to like it. By the fourth day, they're really enjoying themselves. When the last day comes around, they don't want to leave. It was like that, pretty much every trip.”
What is it that people long for to make them try such a thing? Once there, what do they discover that makes them want to stay? “It's simple out here,” Dean says. “It's real. People live their whole lives by a schedule anymore. Do this by this time, do that by that time. I don't even wear a watch unless I have an appointment to keep. I say, okay, we're gonna go in a while, and it could be ten minutes or it could be thirty. We go when we're ready to go, and we stop when we're ready to stop.” He looks at Wes and gives him a nod. “I didn't used to be like that, did I, Wes. I used to wake up in the morning and say, ‘God, what do I have to do today?' But now, I get up and say, ‘God, what do I get to do today?' Wes taught me that.”
Wes just smiles a bit and nods.
And when asked what it's like in this country at night, both men—literally at the same time, almost as if from instinct—make the gesture of grabbing stars from the sky. “They look so close, you think you can touch ‘em,” Wes says. Dean just nods.
People who travel to these plains and canyonlands for the first time describe the same experience over and over and over. I was driving down this long, dirt road. There's nothing around, anywhere, but miles and miles of grass. And I thought, where the hell am I? What the hell am I doing here? And then, I go over some tiny hill and I'm looking down into these beautiful canyons. Never even saw it coming. Never seen a place like this.
Dean Ormiston and Wes McKinley are, indeed, men of the land where they were raised and continue live on to this day. Rock solid, tough as nails, hard-working, straight-shooting cowboys. And, just like the canyons that surround them, there is a whole lot more just below the surface. You just have to keep driving until it decides it's time to be seen.