Time for the tale of how I earned a scar worthy of a champion.
In the early days, our lone piece of “heavy” equipment on the ranch was on old Ford tractor. I’m guessing that it was of a 1940s vintage, but without going to the trouble of emailing my sister for verification, I can’t be sure. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.
It wasn’t a big tractor, nor did it run very well, which meant that most time it had to be fixed before you could use it. That also meant that it fit right in with the rest of our rusty, crumbling, creaky equipment.
One of the tractor’s more entertaining traits was it complete and utter lack of functioning brakes. They were just useless metal appendages affixed down near your feet, fun to stomp on, but nothing else. If you wanted to stop, it was best to plan ahead. As in, Hey, there’s a gate coming up in about fifty yards. If I don’t want to crash through it, I better take action now. And, since the tractor had a top speed of about five miles an hour, fifty yards gave you plenty of time to take action.
Okay, money in hand, I was ready to buy a horse that didn’t suck! How hard could this be?
The first horse we got at the ranch for me to try out looked pretty good. At least he wasn’t swaybacked or 200 years old. I saddled him up and got on. Not once did he try to bite me, which put him way ahead of Lady already. In my book, any horse that resists the urge to bite me gets a gold star right off the top.
I clapped the spurs to him and he moved into a trot, then a lope, without too much trouble. He turned when I pulled on the reins. As an added bonus, he stopped when I wanted him too. Not once did I come close to being crippled for life, which put him ahead of Misty.
By the time I was five or six I was judged old enough to ride my own horse during round up. At last I could begin to earn my keep.
The horse for beginners on Date Creek Ranch was Lady, a horse so ancient she had turned white, speckled with little brown spots, like liver spots. Lady was a good choice for beginners in some ways. One of the things that makes horses so dangerous is they spook easily. Unlike cows, which are pretty placid, horses have a tendency to basically freak out when something pops up that startles them. If you’re in the wrong place when that happens, you can get hurt. You might even lose a body part. (I’ll save that story for another day.)
Here’s how skittish horses can be. I remember as a young adult going to Texas to visit my sister, Kim, and her husband who were managing a ranch in West Texas at the time. We were out in the corrals feeding the horses and she said, watch this. She patted the horses, scratched their ears, then we turned and started walking away. After going about ten steps she grabbed the tails of her jacket in both hands, raised her arms and went batwings with the jacket. Then she turned back to the horses, took a step toward them, and they freaked out. (What is this scary thing that suddenly appeared where that friendly human used to be?) Then she lowered the jacket, they realized who she was and they were okay again. Five seconds later she did it again. Same result.
However, there was no spooking Lady. She was so old and lazy and she’d been around long enough to see it all that nothing fazed her. You could have let off fireworks under her belly and she wouldn’t have twitched her tail. She knew all about humans and their foolish ways and she wasn’t buying any of it.
That made her good for little kids. You could also get off her, anywhere, any time, and just walk away and she’d stand right there, head down, dozing peacefully, until you came back. Not like most horses which might just take the opportunity to run back to the barn and leave you stranded a few miles from nowhere (this also happened to me; I had lots of fun with horses).
What wasn’t so good was that she had a mean streak a mile wide and she was always watching for her chance to get you. At that age, getting on the horse was a big task. I had to take hold of the saddle strings at the front and the back of the saddle (saddle strings are long, narrow pieces of leather attached to roughly the four corners of the saddle and they’re for tying things like ropes and saddle bags to the saddle) and jump in the air until I could get my knee into the stirrup. Which usually took a few tries. From there I had to pull myself laboriously up until I could get a hand on the saddle horn (that thing that sticks up in the front of a Western saddle, where the cowboy traditionally wrapped his rope after roping a cow or some other cowboy-related quadruped). Then I could make it into the saddle itself.
Lady liked this game. If I wasn’t quick enough, if I didn’t get all the steps right on the first try and scurry up into that saddle, she would reach back around and bite me on the ass. It hurt!
I had a pretty bad temper even as a little kid (hmmm, wonder if I learned it from Dad?) and when she did that I’d yelp, drop to the ground and just start punching her wildly (while Dad, if he was nearby, laughed uproariously). Lady liked that part of the game too, since I couldn’t actually hurt her at all.
Compounding my fear was the fact that my wonderful older sister (four years older) at some point fed me this story about how if a horse every really bites you, I mean, breaks the skin, the horse can’t stop biting until its teeth come together. I lived in fear of that, waiting for that damnable horse to tear off half my ass and leave me sitting lopsided for the rest of my life.
Lady had other games too.
Sometimes, when I was standing beside her, trying to get the cinch right or adjusting the stirrups or something, if I wasn’t paying close enough attention she’d pick up her front foot and set it down on mine. Then she’d lean on that foot, putting her weight on it.
I always wore boots when riding, so they protected my feet somewhat, but still, it hurt like hell. I’d scream and start pounding on her and she’d just look at me calmly—I was too small to even reach her face, so all I could do was flail futilely at her shoulder—all the while enjoying my suffering. There wasn’t really anything I could do since I was about thirty pounds or so (I was a terribly small child) and she probably weighed twelve or fifteen hundred pounds. All I could do was screech and pound until she got bored and let me go.
Worse than the hurt was the absolute sense of helplessness. Helplessness would just enrage me.
Lady had one other favorite game she liked to play.
When you’re out gathering cows off the range, most of the time it’s pretty dull. You ride for hours and hours by yourself, no one to talk to, nothing to really pass the time. It’s easy to sort of nod off. Not actually sleeping, but just sort of lulled into a trance-like state by the horse’s steady, rhythmic motion.
When that happened, Lady mentally rubbed her hooves together and cackled with glee. (Yes, I’m sure that horse was capable of cackling. She was an evil, old witch.)
It went like this:
We’re plodding along (and plod was Lady’s only real speed) a few feet from a barbed wire fence or some cactus, I’m half asleep, everything’s calm, and suddenly Lady would just sidestep, running me right into the barbs or filling me with cactus thorns.
I’m not making this up. That lazy, nasty old horse would wait—wait!—until I wasn’t paying close attention, and then she she’d just do this neat little sidestep and jam my leg—and sometimes upper body, if the cactus was big enough—right into something pokey and painful.
Geez, I hated that horse.
I always carried a switch to swat her with to make her go (she didn’t react to my pathetic jabs with the spurs at all and if I let her go her normal speed we’d fall behind the other rides and Dad would yell at me) and after she wounded me I’d just go berserk, smacking her on the hindquarters until I ran out of breath. And you know what?
That didn’t bother her at all. Not even a little bit. She’d just keep plodding (plotting?) on, her head down.
Some of my very earliest childhood memories on the ranch, when I was three or four years old, are of riding behind my father during round up. (Round up being that time when the cattle are gathered off the range and brought into the corrals, in case you’re not familiar with the term.) Now, you might be wondering why a toddler was going along on what sounds like a fairly risky job. Why not leave him with a babysitter? I mean, aren’t horses quite large? Aren’t cows, at least the Old West kind, somewhat prone to running off, causing the cowboys to race after them?
All true. However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Dad wasn’t the sort of person to spend money he didn’t have to. Babysitters cost money. Bringing the child along for the ride, as it were, didn’t cost money. Now is it clear? (In case you’re wondering, in addition to caring for the house and preparing food, Mom worked every bit as hard outdoors as Dad did. That meant she was out riding with everyone else, and thus not able to stay at home watching children.)
I also remember riding behind Mom, but those rides weren’t as memorable as the ones when I rode behind Dad. Mom—as mothers are known to do—checked on me during the day, made sure I was doing okay. She made allowances for my age, perhaps even letting the occasional rowdy cow escape rather than risking the child to catch it.
Dad was a lot more focused on the work at hand. In Dad’s mind: There’s cows in those hills and we’re bringing them in, come hell or high water.
There just wasn’t a lot of time for other considerations.
Which meant I had to be alert. I had to keep a good hold on Dad’s belt loops at all times—no matter how much my nose itched—because I never knew when I was going to need those things.
Most of the time it was pretty uneventful. We’d plod along. I’d amuse myself by wondering if I’d ever be able to walk again. The wondering was due to the fact that Dad’s horse, Dinah, was quite fat, so my short little legs basically stuck straight out to either side. More than once the cowboys Dad had hired to help us would get a good laugh when, at the end of a long day, I got off Dinah and wobbled around while I tried to get my legs reacquainted with each other. (If you’re wondering why Dinah was so fat, despite the fact that, like the other horses, she mostly had to support herself on a meager diet of desert grasses and rocks, it was because she would eat literally anything and did so at every chance she got. I’m pretty sure she ate in her sleep. I’m not kidding. The horse definitely had an eating disorder.)
But every now and then things would very suddenly get very exciting. A cow would bolt for freedom, Dad would clap the spurs to Dinah, and off we’d go in hot pursuit. I learned pretty quickly that there’d be no warning from Dad when this happened. If I’d gotten careless, and I wasn’t holding onto those belt loops tightly enough, I was going for a quick ride to the ground. Which meant that after the rebellious cow had been brought back into the herd, Dad would come back and get me and express his displeasure at having to do so.
I distinctly remember one time when we were driving some cattle across the creek a half mile or so downstream from the house. Just across the creek the trail—actually an old wagon road—goes up the side of a hill and there is a mesquite thicket.
Well, we were just about to start up the hill when one of the cows made a break for it. Dad clapped the spurs to Dinah and off we went, charging through the mesquite thicket. All well and good at first. I was paying attention so I was still on the back of the horse, holding tight, two inches from Dad’s back, no idea of what’s going on except that I better hang tight.
Suddenly Dad’s back was gone. He ducked. The whole world opened up and I could see! Hallelujah!
What I saw next was a limb right in front of me. It dawned on me then: that’s why Dad ducked.
A split second later the limb whacked me right on the forehead and I just sailed off the horse backwards.
Being young and basically made of rubber, I was okay, except for a sizable lump which appeared on my forehead with astonishing speed.
What I didn’t realize is that incident foretold what would be a definite trend in my childhood at Date Creek Ranch. People get hurt on ranches. They are dangerous places, full of large, excitable animals and rusty machinery. But I, I was the champ. I got hurt the most. I was the one on a first-name basis with the emergency room staff at the Wickenburg Hospital.
Sixty square miles of hard-packed dirt and caliche, filled with rocks, greasewood, cactus and more rocks. Twenty-six miles from the sleepy town of Wickenburg, straddling Highway 93 and Date Creek. That’s Date Creek Ranch.
Now you’re probably thinking, sixty square miles? What is that, like a million acres? (Actually, it’s about 38,000.) That’s freakin’ huge!
And you’re right. It’s a lot of land. Most of us would feel pretty lucky to have an acre of our own. Such acreage would be unthinkable somewhere crowded like Europe. There’s cities of hundreds of thousands of people living in areas that size.
So let me clarify a bit. Only one section of that land, 640 acres, is privately-owned. The rest is leased from state and federal governments. And this isn’t what you’d call lush land by any means. The ranch sits in the transition zone where the Sonoran and Mojave deserts meet. Much of it is volcanic, steep and rocky. It’s covered with mesquite, palo verde, catclaw, prickly pear, cholla, ocotillo, joshua trees, saguaros and a startling array of assorted flora and fauna designed to prick, pierce, poke and puncture you. There’s an old saying in the desert: “Everything here will either stick you, sting you or bite you.” That pretty much sums it up.
It’s not an easy place to raise anything other than lizards and jackrabbits.
My parents bought the place in 1966. It was a big jump for my mom. Her family was pretty well settled in the Globe-Miami area. They’d been ranching there since the 1870s, when great-great-someone-or-other decided Colorado had, darn it, become just too civilized and so they packed everything into wagons and headed for the Arizona Territory (Arizona wouldn’t even be a state for about forty more years). They owned the Pinal Ranch for the next hundred years until selling it in 1973. (My siblings and I are actually fifth-generation ranchers in Arizona, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe we should get a trophy or something.)
It was an even bigger jump for my dad, who’d grown up in Phoenix, a typical city kid. He and my mom met while they were students at the University of Arizona. It started out normal enough. He got a geology degree and went to work for a mining company. But then, somewhere along the way he thought, I’ve got a bunch of schooling in rocks, I’m from the city, all I know about cows is how good they taste on hamburger buns, and hmmm, think I’ll go into ranching. How hard can it be?
But that was my father. For all his faults, he was not a man to shy away from a challenge nor was he a man to give up. He lived on the ranch from 1966 until his death in 2007.
I was about one when we moved there and the place was pretty rough. There was a tiny, badly crumbling house (painted battleship gray on the outside and pink on the inside), a wooden barn and workshop—both on the verge of falling down—and some rotten corrals—actually falling down. I honestly can’t imagine what drew them to the place except that it is a long way from pretty much everything. Also, it’s hot. And it hardly ever rains there. So basically, Disneyland.
The closest town is Congress, about 16 miles away, four miles of which is our dirt road. Congress has grown somewhat, but in the 1960s it was as close to nothing as you could get without actually disappearing. The metropolis in the area was Wickenburg, 26 miles away, a sleepy hamlet of a couple thousand people that wouldn’t receive its first stoplight until the 1980s, the sort of place where you only needed to dial four numbers to make a phone call.
An hour-plus beyond Wickenburg was Phoenix, which had not yet begun the explosion that would turn it into the behemoth it is today. If you turned right at the end of the dirt road instead of left, you were on your way, literally, to Nothing. As in, there was a “town” called Nothing about a half hour down the road that was just a gas station and a single trailer. Beyond that, the grand city of Kingman and past that the city of Las Vegas.
Highway 93, the highway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, was so empty back then you could take a nap on it in the middle of the day, except that you’d cook on the asphalt. (Now they’re talking about needing a freeway there.)
You have, now, the humble beginnings of the Knight family and the saga of Date Creek Ranch.