So my neighbor finally got a ranchette. Whether it’s five acres or 40, the next step is apparently the perfect entrance gate. Rancheteers have made these huge gates the latest symbol of affluence in the West.
They boast uprights bigger than my house, flanked by imported decorative boulders. The crossbar seems sometimes to be a whole tree. The majestic sign in the middle often perpetuates some notion of Western myth: "Misty Mustang Meadow Ranch," or the place is named for the wildlife driven out by building: "Dancing Deer Development." Honesty would call it "Gone Grizzly" or "Elk Eradication Estates." Some folks try to be clever: "Poverty Pastures."
The last time I looked, the sign across from my ranch read: "Everything is Everything." Maybe that’s this owner’s philosophy of life, a scary concept in gate slogans. What if he really thinks that’s everything? One of the most pretentious gates I’ve seen straddled a dusty road leading to a scabby-looking trailer backed up against a bare hill. An economy car and a poodle stood in front, both looking confused.
An immodest rancher might reveal his first name on his belt, but not in letters a foot high. We prove our financial worth by supporting our community directly — no billboard boasts.
Antique machinery sometimes gets piled next to these self-important gates, turning tools into décor or even worse, planters for geraniums. This array is exhibitionism, a thug flaunting victory over the vanquished. You might as well decorate a driveway with the tombstones of neighborhood ranchers, or hang their heads in your den.
Once the gate’s up, some landowners turn five horses to "graze" on five acres of dirt. In this drought, with no supplemental feed, horses have starved to death because their owners didn’t bother to learn the facts behind the fantasy. Many newcomers, for example, plant trees that won’t survive without irrigation — wasting the entire community’s groundwater. The National Arbor Day Foundation misleads us all by giving away Colorado blue spruce, alien to the High Plains. By contrast, my junipers survive on natural water after 10 years of drought, while the lone spruce someone gave me died two years ago. There’s a reason we choose to grow scraggly trees and bushes: We’ve learned from experience which trees will grow into a windbreak in our lifetimes.
Remember the wind. Building on a hilltop only shows old-timers that you can pay higher heating bills and that you’d rather wreck the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge than conserve. When fuel runs short, you’ll need more firewood than we’ll burn in our little houses in the gullies.
Amazingly, some folks build a log house on a prairie where the tallest plant is a sagebrush. After a few more years of drought, those logs will be so dry they might as well be living in a full matchbox.
And what do newcomers do when their Western estate is complete, when they have created a dream ranch? They buy the perfect finishing touch. Picture it: Embellished by the hat, the Hummer, the horse, they look out on rolling acres of subtle, tawny grassland beauty. They’ve got every Western dream money can buy. And to protect all that’s held dear, they surround it with — a white plastic fence?
Kinda like duct-taping pink flamingos onto Vatican marble. Putting red noses on Mount Rushmore’s presidents. A mustache on Mona. OK, I’m a grouch. Moreover, I shouldn’t blame uninformed folks who fantasize about having Bonanza’s Hoss as a saddle pard. Greedy developers who sell land without educating buyers are mostly responsible. They are, however, ably assisted by city and county officials too shortsighted to accept responsibility for warning newcomers about the semi-arid West.
We ranchers are also responsible. We’re apparently too spineless to use zoning laws to protect our agricultural livelihoods. We’d rather just wail bad cowboy songs about loss. We’re all afraid that if we tell the truth about the West — about the persistence of drought and fire and fencing laws here, not to mention depression and the scourge of methamphetamines and other drugs — no one will buy real estate at inflated prices.
Here’s the truth: There isn’t enough water and oil on earth to make viable communities out of most subdivisions in the West. But if you’re tough enough for the honest West, and you really want to be part of a community, come on out and get acquainted. I might introduce you to Hoss.
Linda M. Hasselstrom splits her time between a South Dakota ranch and Cheyenne, Wyoming.