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A father and son from a ranch somewhere in the neighborhood–I can’t even remember their names or their faces–had helped us gather cattle one fall day in 1963. The bunch was traveling well, and the son (let’s call him Mike) and I were in the “drags.” Mike, who was a year or two my junior, took down his rope and threw out a nice stand-up loop that trapped the hind feet of a rear echelon cow. The boss didn’t object to this practice shot, so Mike connected with another, then gave me a look that was clearly an invitation for me to follow suit. But my rope stayed in its usual place, as saddle decoration.

Mike shrugged and said, “Here, check this out.” He shook out a considerably bigger loop, and from a single ass-backwards-looking swing launched it out over the hindquarters of another cow. The loop hung there, and as she walked it kept drooping down under one side until she stepped into it. Mike jerked his slack and had her by both heels. “That’s a good one to know,” he allowed.

I realized, then and there, that I wouldn’t need to learn that loop, because soon I would head to the city to engage in the profession I had trained for–architecture. I also felt, with absolute certainty, that Mike, who had perfected his loop, would become, as the cowboys say, a “lifer,” and that his way of life would last forever.

Back then I was 26, single, and unwinding from a stint in the peacetime Army. Rancher Warner Glenn was 27 and my boss. To this day I am still amazed that Warner and Wendy took this wide-eyed pilgrim into their world, and even paid me the going wetback wage for my blunderings.

Turns out that, thanks to my unexpected but fortuitous transition from architecture to photography, I have avoided the grip of cities and have often prowled the landscape of the West with saddle and camera. The generosity and hospitality of the Glenn family was but a preview of the wonderful reception that I have consistently received from the ranching community. As I revisit nearly 30 years of photographing on the cattle ranges of the West, I am grateful for what has persisted and am alarmed at what has disappeared.

Sonora 1985 ©Jay Dusard Gilberto Rivera and Francesco Carranza, Rancho El Diablo, Sonora, 1985

A book project that writer Alan Weisman and I were working on brought us to a beautiful canyon in the borderland country just west of the Continental Divide, which is the boundary between the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

While photographing on a certain ranch, we saw these vaqueros ride up, and were told that they were from a neighboring ranch. The bronc mare mule, on the left in the photo, was snubbed up to the saddlehorn of the gentle mule, and progress was, at times, erratic. I asked Alan, who is fluent in Spanish, to ask the men if I could photograph them, and was disappointed when they politely turned down my request.

Later in the day and farther down the canyon, the duo reappeared. La Bronca was free of her tether and moving along nicely. Now the vaqueros were willing to be photographed, and I had one sheet of film left.

Three Generations: Bill, Skeeter and Mack Hughes, Diamond 2 Ranch, Arizona, 1984

Back when this photograph was made all three of these gents were running ranches. Skeeter managed the Diamond 2, his son Bill ran the neighboring Cross S, and his father, Mack, worked a small family outfit several hundred miles away. For many years Mack was the stockman in charge of one of the ranch divisions of the vast San Carlos Apache Reservation. Mack, who started cowboying around age 12, was still plying his craft well into his eighties, some time after Skeeter and Bill reluctantly turned to “real” jobs. Mack is gone now, but will be long remembered as the subject of the classic “Hashknife Cowboy,” authored by his widow, Stella Hughes.

Arizona 1984 ©Jay Dusard
Texas 1986 ©Jay Dusard Buster Welch, Welch Ranch, Texas, 1986

The celebrated cutting horse trainer Buster Welch grew up cowboying throughout much of west Texas, which included riding the rough string for the legendary Four Sixes. Of Welch’s early years on the range, my friend Tom McGuane writes that, “Buster learned to shape large herds of cattle and began the perfection of his minimalist style of cutting horsemanship and ranching in general.”

The fact that Buster Welch is a cattle rancher of long-standing tends to set him apart from the rest of the cutting horse world. On a working outfit a colt can become a cowhorse before he is asked to “deliver” in the cutting arena. Concerning Buster’s philosophy and practice, McGuane continues, “In the age of proliferating horse whisperers, his methods are direct, based on reaching an under-standing with the horse that there is a job to be done.”

Jesús Bracamontes Lucero ©Jay Dusard Jesús Bracamontes Lucero, Vail & Vickers Ranch, Santa Rosa Island, California, 1998

The Vail & Vickers Company, of Santa Barbara, owned and ranched the 54,000-acre Santa Rosa Island, off the Southern California coast, for nearly a century before the government deemed that it become part of the Channel Islands National Park. I had the bittersweet experience of riding with Jesús Bracamontes and the ranch’s other vaqueros on the last cattle roundup in that “Garden of Eden,” a grassland paradise reminiscent of coastal California before the developers came.

Mounted on confidence-inspiring, island-raised horses, we gathered cattle on windswept headlands and canyon slopes steep enough to retune your pucker-string up an octave. The last boatload of fat steers left Santa Rosa in the summer of 1998, 13 years ahead of the agreed-upon schedule and under extreme pressure from several quarters. The island’s remaining grazers, the herds of Kaibab mule deer and Roosevelt elk that were successfully introduced early in the 1900s, must be fully “deported” by the close of business in the year 2011.

Warner Glenn and Kelly Glenn-Kimbro, Malpai Ranch, Arizona, 1996

The Glenn family has ranched in southeastern Arizona for generations, daughter Kelly’s generation being the fifth. In addition to running two ranches, the Glenns are hunting guides and outfitters, and Warner is renowned for his half-century of experience with mountain lions. On a March 1996, guided hunt, a hound on Kelly’s circle jumped a hard-running cat that appeared, from its tracks, to be a big tom lion. After an arduous rough-country chase, Warner, riding the good gray mule he calls Snowy River, caught up with the fleet quarry that had broken bay several times–a magnificent male jaguar in his prime. After grabbing several chilling closeup photographs, Warner managed to get his dogs out of harm’s way, then marveled as the great cat trotted southward toward its Sierra Madre homeland in Mexico.

The decades have brought numerous changes to much of the West, yet relatively few to the place where the jaguar ran. The region has been ranched steadily since the time of Geronimo, is sparsely populated and has not been compromised by development. It’s the home range of the Malpai Borderlands Group, which has received international recognition for its work to protect open spaces, wild lands and traditional livelihoods, thus perpetuating the concept and reality of working wilderness.

Malpai Ranch, Arizona, 1996 ©Jay Dusard

Editor’s note–more about the people and places depicted in this portfolio can be found in the following books: “Hashknife Cowboy: The Recollections of Mack Hughes,” by Stella Hughes, University of Arizona Press. “Some Horses,” by Thomas McGuane, The Lyons Press. "Eyes of Fire: Encounter with a Borderlands Jaguar,” by Warner Glenn, Printing Corner Press (contact Malpai Ranch <> or 520-558-2470. “Cowboy Island: Farewell to a Ranching Legacy,” text by Gretel Ehrlich, edited by Nita Vail, Santa Cruz Island Foundation.

Photographer Jay Dusard of Douglas, Ariz., received a 1981 Guggenheim Fellowship that led to the publication of “The North American Cowboy: A Portrait.” Between travels to photograph and teach workshops, he raises a few quarter horses, punches cows and plays jazz cornet.


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last page update: 04.03.05