Lantern light illuminates a small dining area, creating a glowing oasis in the gray almost-light of early morning on the high desert of northern Nevada. Seven buckaroos sit around a long white table eating scrambled eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes. After they eat, they saddle horses and trot out from camp to gather cow/calf pairs for the day’s branding.
The cowboys have been camped out for several days, and they have several more weeks to go until all the work is done. The year isn’t 1885, though; it’s well into the 21st century. While modern technology has altered many aspects of ranching, camping with no electricity and cooking in a chuck wagon remains the most efficient way to complete the spring works on some big cattle outfits.
Riding Out with the Span
Goodnight is credited with inventing the American chuck wagon in 1866. He needed a way to keep his crew fed as they trailed cattle from Texas to various northern points. He bolted a wooden box to the back of an Army Studebaker wagon and added compartments for utensils, bedding, food, and other necessities. The chuck wagon caught on and was used by ranches all over the West, evolving with the industry as the cattle drive era ended and cowboys began camping on individual ranches.
These days, the use of horse trailers, coupled with the diminishing size of the average ranch, has turned the tradition into more of a novelty. More meals are cooked in chuck wagon cook-off competitions than out on the range. However, big ranches such as Texas’s Four Sixes, Montana’s Little Horn, the Diamond A of Arizona, Nevada’s Spanish Ranch, and others still maintain the practice of pulling a wagon each spring.
A century and a half after Goodnight’s invention, the Spanish Ranch uses a renovated Army truck to feed its cowboy crew during the spring works. Located 60 miles north of Elko, in the Independence Valley, the “Span” encompasses 76,000 deeded acres in addition to its leased public allotments to run 3,400 mother cows, plus additional stocker and replacement yearlings. Like all of its neighbors, the Span is big by necessity. It lies in the arid, high-desert climate of the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and little slivers of eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and western Utah. In this country, at least 10 acres are required to run one cow. Often, several times that amount is needed.
“This is a big, rough ranch,” says lifelong cowboy and Spanish Ranch buckaroo Jim Young.
The Span’s vast size makes camping on the desert the most practical way to brand calves, so the wagon pulls out each June for a four- to six-week tour. The camp moves around the desert as the calves are branded, eventually pulling back into the main ranch when every calf is wearing a pitchfork iron on its left hip.
The wagon camp’s farthest location is Dry Creek, 70 miles from headquarters. The drive takes two hours, since most of the route is a rutted dirt road. The pickups and stock trailers leave the ranch loaded down with cowboys, horses, saddles, tipis, and bed rolls to head north for several miles before turning west at the IL Ranch road. For the next 50 miles or so, the road winds back and forth between the Spanish Ranch and the IL. At times, the YP country is also visible, along with parts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho.
Before work can commence, the saddle horses must first be moved out to the camp. The cavvy of 86 geldings is trotted cross-country from the home wrangle pasture to Dry Creek, a 45-mile trip that takes two days and five cowboys. Two ride in front of the horses to lead or hold them up as necessary, two bring up the drag, and another rides along the side. Along the way, the cowboys are forced to navigate around the occasional herd of wild horses that share the range. The domestic horses can become excited and flighty when they see the wild ones, and keeping them separate is tricky.
“It’s neat, because not very many places trot horses anymore,” says Young.
When they reach Dry Creek, the cowboy crew sets up camp in a patch of tall rye grass. They each have a canvas tipi—colloquially referred to as a “rag house”—that they set up far enough away from each other for privacy but close enough to the wagon for convenience. A waterproofed tipi makes a snug temporary home on the range, even if “there are more bugs than house,” as Young wryly states.
Each morning, the crew heads to the wagon at 4:00 a.m. to eat breakfast. The “cook wagon,” as it is called at the Span, is an old rusty brown Army truck outfitted with a bright yellow shipping container. Inside the container is a propane fridge, sink, four-burner gas stove, and cabinets at one end. The rest of the interior is filled by a long white table and built-in wooden benches with hinged lids. The benches provide storage for sacks of flour, cases of canned beans and corn, bags of brown sugar, and other staples. Small black hooks hang on the walls around the table, providing the cowboys with a place to hang their hats while they eat.
After breakfast, the buckaroos saddle their horses before the sun rises. Most days, they trot out from camp to begin the day’s work. Horse trailers are rarely used, and the buckaroos prefer it that way.
“You don’t have to bounce around in a pickup for two hours, then bounce back,” says Young. “Makes you feel like more of a cowboy to just saddle up and go.”
The Wagon Crew
The Spanish Ranch’s adherence to tradition is a big attraction to the wagon crew, which ranges from seasoned full-time hands to young cowboys in their late teens and early 20s. The size of the crew varies from five to eight buckaroos, largely depending on the schedules of local day workers—or contracted, part-time labor.
One day-help cowboy worked on the wagon for the first couple weeks, then left to pursue his ProRodeo goals, as he was sitting fourth in the PRCA saddle bronc rookie-of-the-year standings. Shawn Biggs rolled to the wagon in his late-'90s Ford pickup with a pop-up camper on the back to cowboy for a while in between horseshoeing stints. Conor Leveille, who grew up in nearby Elko, followed his father’s bootsteps to work at the Span while young and single. Young has worked off and on for the Span.
“We’ve got a good crew. Everybody’s a good cowboy. No weak links,” he says.
Trotting out, it isn’t unusual to have at least one bronc ride. Despite the improvements brought about by a targeted breeding program, some of the horses are still old enough to be cranky and some of the cowboys are still young enough to want them to be.
Or, sometimes not. As Sam Marvel hollered one morning between the jumps of his cantankerous mount, “I remember when I used to like this stuff!”
Then he laughed and loped his horse down the dirt road.
Marvel grew up on the ProRodeo circuit with his saddle bronc rider dad, Joe, and is a skilled bronc rider himself. Now on the far side of 35, he prefers to leave the bronco twisting to the younger guys.
A Day's Work
After the kinks are worked out of the horses, the boss positions cowboys strategically around the edges of the pasture, making a circle to gather all the pairs toward the branding trap. Although no houses, power lines, or other humans are visible, the high-desert country they gather is far from empty. There are plenty of fat coyotes, scraggly jackrabbits, antelope, elk, trophy mule deer, sage grouse, chukkar, ravens, and rattlesnakes. Wildflowers reach the peak of their bloom during the first part of the wagon’s trip, decorating the pale green sagebrush sea with islands of dark red Indian paintbrush, yellow asters, and purple lupine. With not a tree in sight, the cowboy’s hat is all that shades his eyes as he gazes upon this scene.
After coming together at the trap mid-morning with the herd, half the crew dismounts and hobbles their horses to work the ground—jobs like vaccinating, castrating, and branding. The Span, like most Great Basin ranches, heads and heels calves to brand. This keeps the ropers sharper and the horses working better, and it adds more style and entertainment to the daily work.
“It’s more fun roping and it makes your horses correct,” says Young. “It’s much easier for two horses to hold a calf than it is for two men. You also make nicer horses by roping both ends. If you do it right, of course.”
The cowboy crew doesn’t start the ranch-raised colts, but they do advance their training in roping and general cow work.
“There are always young horses to ride,” Young says. “After all, if you don’t have young, green horses, you never have old, broke horses.”
The buckaroos typically brand anywhere from 60 to 170 calves each day. After all the calves have been branded, ear-marked, castrated, and vaccinated, the crew waits for the irons to cool, packs them and other supplies up, and returns to the cook wagon for lunch.
“You work until anywhere between noon and three o’clock,” says Young, succinctly.
On the desert, watches aren’t worn and clocks aren’t important. The buckaroos work until the work is done, then rest when it’s convenient. After working in the heat and dust all morning, the cook wagon is a welcome sight. The buckaroos hang their hats and sit inside for a respite from the unrelenting sun, drinking big, cold glasses of lemonade before eating a lunch of simmered beef, rice, and boiled vegetables. The afternoon brings the chance to catch up on chores, maybe shoe a horse, or grab a nap during the hottest part of the day. In the evening, they wrangle and catch horses for the next day.
The crew rotates through wrangling, with everyone taking a turn at gathering the cavvy into a portable rope corral. In keeping with Great Basin tradition, the cowboss always ropes the horses out. If he isn’t available, his second-in-command, the jigger boss, ropes out horses for the crew.
The horses are lined up on the ropes facing outward. Once all the horses are caught and turned into the night lot, the remaining cavvy calmly exits the rope corral. This keeps the other horses and cowboys from getting kicked or injured in an 86-horse stampede. After turning the cavvy back out, the cowboys have some downtime.
“Maybe rope the dummy a little bit and then it’s probably getting fairly close to bedtime,” says Young.
Some evenings, the cowboys fish in the nearby Owyhee River, but usually they can be found sitting in camp chairs near the cook wagon, visiting while they sharpen their knives or braid rawhide into various cowboy tools.
The Heart of it All
In the high desert of the Great Basin, nights stay cool throughout the summer despite daytime temperatures reaching well into the 90s. The buckaroos always pack wool sweaters and keep their bed rolls filled with heavy quilts. Those who have tipi heaters often keep them burning all night, and those who don't have heaters wish they did. One late June morning, the buckaroos awake to find that water stored in small bottles was frozen. However, the weather has been known to be even less hospitable. As Marvel quips, “It didn’t snow this year!”
In northern Nevada, the possibility of snow in July is more real than a person cares to acknowledge. This tough, inhospitable environment is a hard place to survive, but ranchers have made a living here for well over a century. The Span was founded in 1871 by two immigrant Basque brothers, Pedro and Bernardo Altube. Today, the Ellison Ranching Company owns the ranch and continues the founders’ mission of raising beef and sheep on the desert.
Continuing the ranching business using traditional methods is a foundational tenet of the Span. Since not many ranches pull a wagon anymore, many of the younger cowboys on the crew enjoy the new experience.
“It’s real relaxing. No social media, no cell phones, it’s just you and nature,” says Young.
Just cowboy, nature, and dirt. A whole lot of dirt. On a Saturday afternoon, after a long, hot week of working, eating, and sleeping in the dirt, the crew rolls up their beds to keep the snakes out and leaves camp to drive back to headquarters for a night and day off. Showered, refreshed, and armed with clean clothes, they return to the bright yellow Army truck for another week of work.
Even though the look and mechanization of the chuck wagon has changed over the years, one thing remains the same: It is the heart of the camp for cowboys out on the range. The bright yellow truck is the first place they go every morning and it’s where they look forward to drinking a cold beverage before eating a hot meal after the day’s branding is through. It provides a gathering spot for their evening visiting as the sun goes down. It’s an oasis of modern comfort in the big desert, unchanged since the earliest days of the cowboy.
Jolyn Young lives on a camp at the O RO Ranch near Prescott, Ariz., with her husband and their two kids. She enjoys riding, roping, and writing articles for ranching publications. To see more of her work or to read her blog about remote ranch life, visit jolynyoung.com.