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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Snow Bound On A High Mountain Ranch

 “I have never found a companion that was as companionable as solitude.”
Henry David Thoreau 

To just vanish, be honest, we all have at least dreamingly contemplated it; disappearing without a trace into the wilderness. To hell with the life we have built; impulsively toss it all on the trash heap of experience and move onto a fresh start; to exist, and maybe flourish alone, to face life’s challenges alone, to die alone. Can it still be done today, in a shrinking modern world of amazing and evolving communication, a world gone crazy viral; GPS, google maps, smart-phones? 

Stand here, I am told by my host, and spread your feet apart wide. To the right is south and my right foot now resides within the borders of Colorado while simultaneously several feet away, my left foot is grounded in the great state of Wyoming. Into Colorado, as far as my eye can see lies gnarled and prickly sage brush broken only by the outcroppings of copper colored rocks leading to off in the far distance towering 12,000-foot snowcapped mountain peaks. When I glance over my left shoulder - north into Wyoming - my view is of the same exact terrain. I can see for miles.

I am standing in the kind of place where the legend of the old American West can still be visualized. A google map image would seem out of place here. The Marlboro man riding by on a handsome mount of horse flesh would not.

From both states the biting winds of January swirl over a snow covered land so remote that the howls of a pack of coyotes is still today more common than reliable cellphone reception. What creature could possible survive here? What human would choose to live here?

The never ending wind swoops and soars across what is described to me by my host and guide as a, “8,200-foot-high mountain meadow.” A meadow, I ask? Here where we now stand? Where is the green grass? Of course, it will green up nice in July for the all too short Rocky Mountain summer haying season Anne Pantle assures me.

Anne is as authentic as they come, a western rancher in the truest sense of the area’s 100 plus years of bedrock cowboy tradition. She is introspective and well spoken, possessing a vocabulary that reflects both a formal college education and an informal life long quest for knowledge. That she happens to be a handsomely featured female does nothing to diminish her commitment, efficiency and effectiveness in squeezing out a living in this most resistant and desolate of lands.  Here in the San Juan Mountains “get it done,” is more than a slick slogan, it is a catch phrase for survival in an inhospitable land that cares nothing of Pantle’s gender, only of her grit. A hopeless romantic with callused hands and Rocky Mountain dirt packed tight under her finger nails, Pantle is a vivid and passionate spokeswoman for her unique chosen path in life.

“I have had many career paths in my life,” she tells me. We are seated at the table in the kitchen of her 100 years old log cabin home. A warm aspen wood fire radiates welcome heat from a corner stove, taking off much of the mid-January chill. “But this is where I am content, where I belong, up here with my cattle and my horses. I can’t give a definitive answer as to why I have chosen this path; it is just who I am and what I do best.”

We are posed in the middle of her ranch, 30 miles south of Encampment, WY and 30 miles north of Walden, CO, the two nearest towns with at least one stop sign. Her husband Kirk and her two children, Christine and Luke, have contributed over the years to help run this 1000 acres spread, helped to build it and somehow coax enough of a fickle mother-nature’s benevolence to survive its long cold winters. Pantle readily acknowledges all three’s role and contribution. Legally, her two brothers are also inherited and equal owners of the ranch. But this is her ranch. Listen to her heartfelt stories and of that one is left with no doubt.

“My dad (Jim) bought 500 of the 1000 acres we now own here when he graduated from high school in 1939,” Pantle states. “He paid $7 an acre for it. He went into the Army when Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, but by then he knew this land was his place, his calling in life. He never wanted to live anywhere else, regretted everyday he was away from this Valley. He always said he had to survive the war because he had a ranch to build in land so rough that if he didn’t do it, no one else would. He saw beauty and potential in this land that others did not,” the 53-year-old second generation rancher tells me. “I inherited that vision from him. To me, this is heaven.”

Her father, as he had predicted he would, beat the odds, survived the war and returned home in 1945 to his mountain hideaway. Jim Pantle flew 52 bombing missions as a top turret gunner in a B-17 over occupied Axis Europe. Incredibly, considering the high number of sorties he flew and the dangerous seat he occupied in such a flying fortress, he never incurred as much as a combat related scratch.

Dropping to his knees to kiss the rocky ground upon his return to civilian life; Jim Pantle set forth to fulfill his destiny, to build his dream high country cattle ranch. Fences were stretched, some literally up and over a mountain that borders the land’s eastern edge. An old homestead log cabin was upgraded with new windows and a wooden floor. A wife was added along the way and soon a family followed.

Thirteen years after returning from the war, in 1958, Jim cobbled enough money together to double his land holdings by purchasing 500 adjacent acres.

“I was born here in 1962 and all of my earliest memories are of this ranch,” Anne recalls. She is the middle child with two book end brothers. “It was hard on Mom, living out here. By 1967, with three kids getting to school age and being snow bound more than half the year, Dad had to move to town and take a wages job in Cheyenne. Despite how hard he worked, he couldn’t support a family on this ranch. At the time, it broke his heart.”

Her father found work as a civilian mechanic on a bustling Air Force base and moved his family into a nice little subdivision on the east side of Cheyenne WY, raising his baby boomer tribe deeply steeped in the normalcy and security of the post war era. He hated it, dreamt only of a someday return to the solitude of his mountain home.

When forced to sell all of his cattle, Anne relates to me, her father vowed he would keep the land and would someday, when the time was right, rebuild the ranch. “We always, in the years growing up and living in Cheyenne, came back here on weekends and summers. We kept the place up even though it was for 20 years without any of our cattle.”

Anne Pantle cannot remember a time when she did not feel a deep and aching love, a unique father/daughter connection for her dad’s ambitions for his ranch, tucked away up high in these bi-state mountains. “I was only five years old, but I remember it so clearly,” she says of a definitive moment that bonded her forever with her dad and his dream. “The day we sold all the cattle,” she says, “I remember the trucks taking them away and my dad crying. He tried to hide it from me but I saw him. I cried too. I don’t know if I really could grasp what was going on, but I knew my dad was giving up something dear to him and that left an impression upon me that sticks to me, molds to this day who I am. This land is rooted in me through my dad. I know that meant a lot to him in his later years, knowing that I was willing to carry on his dream, to continue what he had built; that he could leave his ranch to his off spring as his legacy to us. This land may not look like much, but to me it is family and it is special. Through it my dad lives on.”

Newly married to her Husband Kirk, 25 years ago the couple purchased 40 additional acres only several miles south of the one stop light town of Encampment, WY. “We have wintered in town for the last two years, it has proved to be a very good investment,” Anne shares. The Pantles have improved their “town” land with a house, barns, corrals and numerous other out-buildings. “Until two years ago I was teaching history and art for half a day in Walden across the (Colorado) state line at the high school and my kids both went to school there, so it made sense, because the ranch is located between the two towns, to winter on the ranch. The winters could at times be miserable. Kirk works for the State Highway Department north of Encampment, so depending on the weather, some nights he would stay at our house in town and I was on the ranch alone with two little kids. There were many times we had to park the truck on the main road and walk two miles to the cabin, with me lugging two little kids often through snow drifts taller than they were. And remember, winters up here are 8 months of deep snow.”

Their mountain cabin home, even today, has no electricity and a sometime on, sometime off primitive system of running water. In the winter, the family must melt snow for drinking water. A hot bath requires several hours of heating water on a wood stove. Most winters, an abundance of snow was a hard reality, up to 100 plus inches falling between late September and late May.

To this day, when occupying the ranch cabin, the family cooks their meals on a woodstove while kerosene fuels night time lamps. In pre-cell phone days, the family depended on battery driven radios for an emergency life line to the outside world. Today, they still wash their clothes by hand, drying them in the winter on a close line strung across the cabin’s main room. I wonder to myself if they keep plenty of aspirin in stock to buffer against the aches and pains of this primitive existence? Do they gargle vinegar to treat a sore throat, as my Grandmother’s family did 100 years ago?

“Our kids have never had TV,” Anne states. “And that is good. Both love to read and both are very inquisitive.” Pictures of both children growing up dominate the primitive interior log walls of the 100 plus year old cabin. Daughter Christine is 23 years old and after graduating the previous spring from the state University of Wyoming with a degree in Anthropology, has joined the Air Force. After completing Officer Training school this past summer, she is now stationed in nearby Minot, ND.

“Christine loves the military. I would not be surprised to see her make a career of it,” Anne says. “She breezed through basic training. She laughed at the recruits who would complain of having to sleep in a tent. She would tell them, ‘I grew up without electricity. This is a nothing.’”

A framed picture of her daughter, radiating feminine beauty while adorn in full Walden High football gear, lies on the kitchen table where we sit. “I love that picture,” says Anne. “That is Christine, very well rounded. She is the only girl around here to have ever played high school football. At first she was going to be the manager, but I knew all along what she was up to. It took some convincing to get her dad to go along with letting her play. She scored a couple of touchdowns, she was more than just a stunt, she was a good player and the team was glad to have her, needed her.”

Eighteen years old son Luke is a recent graduate of Encampment, WY High School and was the leading scorer on a Wildcat basketball team who had hopes of challenging for the state championship in the small school Wyoming tournament dashed with an upset in the Regional Tournament. “Luke’s dad was a very good basketball player for Encampment and so was his grandfather,” states Anne, “so Luke has carried the family torch, so to speak. People would come up at the games all the time and say, ‘Luke looks so much like his dad when he played’ or ‘Luke looks so much like his grandfather when he played.’”

The lanky 6’3” protégé played his first two years of high school basketball across the Colorado border in Walden, before transferring to Encampment. “I quit teaching at Walden after his sophomore year,” says Anne, “and since we own property on both sides of the state line, he could go to either school. With his dad’s family’s history with Encampment basketball, it was a good move back. Encampment basketball runs deep in Kirk’s family and Luke needed to play for Encampment. He liked living in town during the season. It was a lot easier on all of us than when he went to school in Walden and we lived out here all winter.”

Passing on several partial college basketball scholarship offers from smaller schools, Luke is now in his first season at the state University in Laramie, 100 miles to the northwest of the family homestead. “The academic scholarship they (the University of Wyoming) offered him was just too good to pass up,” Anne says. “He has walked on to the basketball team, so he still has basketball. Right now he is not dressing for games, just being used as a practice player. It is such a big step to playing on the Division I level coming from a high school with 40 students, but he is adjusting well. He loves college and plans to major in engineering. He knows the odds of him ever playing (basketball) regularly are long, but that does not intimidate him. He is a kid who will not back down from a challenge.”

With her youngest spending most of the past summer over in Laramie working out with the team and her daughter in the military, the summer haying became even more of a challenge than normal. Pantle’s 1000 acres’ ranch will support running 30 cows and a bull year round. Calving in the spring will produce, hopefully, 30 newborns. The herd is kept on the mountain ranch through the summer and early fall. The haying season is very short, but paramount to the economic survival of the ranch. “It takes about 60 tons on hay to get us through the winter,” Anne states. “We have about a two month growing season to get the hay put up and then brought to our town ranch for the winter. We cut and bail it ourselves. I prefer the small 70 pound bales as opposed to the big round ones everyone uses today. I do the winter feeding myself and I would rather throw the bales off the back of the truck than have to move them with a tractor. But bailing small is a lot more work and takes a lot more time. With both kids grown, for the most part, I have lost my two best hay bailers and this summer it was pretty much me alone for the haying.”

Depending on the survival rate of the thirty head of cows, most of the calves will be sold in the fall at the age of six months. “If we have a few older mother cows, we might keep a few of the female calves to add to the herd. We use to keep all the newborns through the winter and sell them in the spring as yearlings, but the winters were just so hard. Now we sell them as what are called ‘weanlings,’ at six months, soon as they are weaned from their mother. Selling them earlier is the best for my profit. I have to feed them less, and we are limited here with the amount of hay we can grow. Also, we don’t risk losing them to the elements and other factors.”

“Few ranchers around here anymore keep their herds on the open range in the winter, like they used to. You lose too many, to the snow and to the predators and it is too hard to get them fed in the mountains when the snows get real deep. One year we sent the calves all to Scottsbluff, NE for the winter and then brought them home in the spring. Several times we have wintered the calves at local ranches that are quite a bit bigger than ours. That is a common practice with the smaller ranches.  I like how we have done it the last two winters, selling the calves at six months in the fall and then bringing the cows down to the valley, to our place in town, and feeding them our hay in the winter. It is more profitable for a small ranch like ours.”

In 1983, Anne’s father made good on the promise he had made 30 years prior to his impressionable and precocious five years old daughter - he retired from his town job and moved back to his mountain ranch. “I graduated from Cheyenne East High School in 1980 and the University of Wyoming in 1984, so the timing was good,” Anne says. “I helped dad kick start his dream and in doing so, it became my dream as well. We brought the cattle back and we found a way to make it work. Kirk and I were married in 1989 and living out here took some adjustment for him, but this was a great place to raise our kids.”

“I left here for a short time when I graduated from college,” Pantle says. “I moved to California, Los Angeles, with a boyfriend. I was really out of place in Los Angeles. When I was there the Rodney King riots hit LA and we lived right in the hardest hit area. It was crazy, a little Wyoming girl with not a clue of what she had gotten herself into. I never felt right out on the coast; the relationship, the lifestyle, the whole scene. I never felt content, like I do here in these mountains. The boy stayed in LA but this girl came home to Wyoming,” she says with a laugh.

Her father passed away in 2007, never fully recuperating from a fall he took off of the roof. “We told him to stay off the roof, to let someone younger get up there, but he didn’t listen. He hung on for a couple of years after his fall, but it was sad. He tried real hard, he wanted nothing but to get back to his ranch, but he just couldn’t pull it off. He was just too worn out, I guess. Mom passed away two years after dad.”

Pantle expresses a life-long love for learning, displaying an inquisitive mind that shifts into over drive when in the solitude of her mountain cabin. “I do my best thinking out here, alone,” she shares. “It is strange, I guess, but I never get lonely when I am out here by myself, and I have spent weeks on end alone up here, especially before Kirk and I were married.”

What will the future hold, I ask? “I don’t like to think about that,” Anne tells me with a cavalier shrug of her shoulders. “Maybe that is not best, but I just don’t waste time worrying about that. My dad ran this place well into his 80’s. I have a lot of good years left and plan to be here for a long time. Who does the ranch go to after me? I don’t know. Christine and Luke; one or both; maybe, but both will have to find their way back here on their own, if they ever come back. My brothers have kids who have shown some interest in this lifestyle, but it is not a part time job. Most just can’t get off the merry go round, once they get on it. You know what I mean, your job takes over your life and suddenly you have no life. I have been fortune to avoid that. It has taken some sacrifices and many people would question the life path I have chosen, but I don’t, ever. I am very blessed to be able to live as I do.”

“I know you are shocked at how remote this ranch is. I tried to warn you,” she kindly lectures me, “but I can tell you are taken back, wondering how anyone could possibly choose to live like I do out here. I know it doesn’t look like much to you. People tease me all the time that I keep my barn cleaner and more orderly than my house. But every piece you see laying around, it all has a story, it all fits, has a purpose in the grand scheme of my life here. You just have to know how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. If a person can figure out the puzzle, then these mountains become your home and you feel safe, you feel at peace.”

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