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Traveling In Style : Of Cowpokes 'N' Cutthroats

October 18, 1987|Van Gordon Sauter | Sauter is a print and broadcast journalist who lives in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles contains 298,000 acres and 3 million people. New Mexico's Vermejo Park has 392,000 acres and (maximum) 102 people--60 employees and 42 guests. It is also home to about 4,000 cattle, more than 5,000 elk, a herd of bison, deer, bear, mountain lions and, for the fisherman, a lifetime supply of rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout.

The bear tracks entered the water at a shallow point where the river widens and tumbles over small stones before turning abruptly, cutting into the red earth bank and forming a deep pool where the better cutthroat trout hold close to boulders at the bottom.

The shaggy black bear had splashed through deep grass to a narrow ravine that leads up into the coolness of the New Mexico pines. It had been a dry summer, and the bears were down from the mountains, seeking food. There were no signs of cubs, so I fished farther down the river, catching and releasing a number of trout that fought with a tenacity out of all proportion to their size. One can go for hours in this special place without seeing another person, and at this point on the river, the only sign of human existence is the remains of a stagecoach stop, where a century ago those en route to the gold fields enjoyed a brief respite from the rolling and pitching of the carriage. The thick timbers and wide boards hang resolutely in place, framing tiny rooms that provided a haven for those whose fantasies drove them to remote camps that are today disintegrating shards of forgotten ghost towns.

The trout, the bear and the stagecoach stop symbolize to me the joy, the wilderness and the romance of this ranch, Vermejo Park, at the northeastern corner of New Mexico, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains--a ranch that contains some of the most beautiful land in America not owned by a government agency, and it is virtually unoccupied. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, contains 298,000 acres and is populated by more than 3 million people. Vermejo Park has 392,000 acres and contains (maximum) 102 people--60 employees and 42 guests. It is also home to about 4,000 cattle, more than 5,000 elk, a herd of bison, deer, bear, mountain lions and, for the fisherman, a lifetime supply of rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout.

Vermejo Park is a working cattle ranch that accommodates fishermen in the summer and hunters in the fall and early winter. It is determinedly backcountry. There is no pool. No tennis court. No lounge chairs. No boutiques. The accommodations range from the Spartan to the graceful. Nouvelle cuisine is as welcome as a rattler on the front porch. The food--and there is a lot of it--tends to fried pork chops and well-done steak, with butterscotch pie and tapioca pudding for dessert. The respectable breakfast is a thick omelet, smothered in chili, with spicy sausage on the side.

Starting out at dawn in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, one heads down a well-packed, dirt ranch road--past the rodeo grounds and cattle pens--and heads for the high country (the ranch property ranges from 6,400 to 12,900 feet above sea level). There are cattle and deer along the way. The mountains seem distant, but within an hour and a tortuous climb up a steep, rock-strewn meadow, one can make it to an old timber road that leads to a pristine and rarely fished creek.

At that altitude the sun has a striking intensity, though there is a brittle chill to the air. The creek is fast and shallow, and the brook trout are highly suspicious, frantically darting for cover if any shadow or movement disturbs the water. The fishing is challenging and rewarding, and after a few hours one switches from waders to sneakers and hikes through the trees to an open meadow. Walking just below the tree line, one can see across the deep valley--there are no houses or cars, just brown ribbons of ranch road and silvery ribbons of creek slicing across the verdant fields--to the opposite mountain range. Settling under an aspen whose bark has been chewed away by the elk, one eats lunch from a small cooler and sings the songs of a simple world.

" As long as there's a broken heart,

there'll be a place to go.

Where good old boys meet good old

girls, and the wine and music flow.

Yeah, there'll always be a honky-tonk

with a jukebox in the corner

and someone crying in their beer,

and one old hanger-on and a lady

looking lonely from a losing

love affair.

Yeah, there'll always be a honky-tonk

somewhere.\f7

A wall of clouds is now escalating beyond the opposite ridge. Within a few hours the clouds will turn dark and heavy, slipping over the mountains and bringing a summer afternoon thunderstorm to the valley. There is still time to fish and get down the steep meadow before the rain arrives.

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