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Home on the Range

November 15, 1990|DIRK SUTRO

One warm morning in Crouch Meadows, a few miles from Mt. Laguna, Jerry McDaniel stood behind his pickup, adjusting a saddle. The only sounds were natural: wind through tall grass, birds screeching as they floated on warm air currents, the neighing of McDaniel's horse and the braying of a mule a few yards away.

It was almost eerie not to hear a siren, freeway noise, telephone, doorbell or the beep of an answering machine or pager.

A seasoned beige cowboy hat shaded McDaniel's face, where the years have weathered crow's feet into his leathery skin. He wears low-slung blue jeans, a denim work shirt and black cowboy boots.

McDaniel has been a cowboy "as far back as I can remember. My dad was a cowboy and rancher. I was riding before I could walk. My dad would work his horses and mules in the fields, and I'd meet him at noon and ride back to the barn. I'd sit on the horses while they ate."

When McDaniel was 6, his family moved to Central California. He grew up working their ranches in places such as Oakdale and Sonora.

"I knew from the beginning what I was going to do. In high school in Modesto, I was buying mustangs for 2 1/2 or 3 cents a pound, breaking 'em in and selling them."

At the moment, McDaniel's territory is 100 square miles in an area south of Mt. Laguna.

Out on the range, McDaniel sees wildlife most people only see in a zoo or on television: bobcats, hawks, deer, rattlesnakes.

He has read most of writer Louis L'Amour's Western novels, and McDaniel tells those kinds of tales. Like the time he and his wife were chasing some cattle and her horse began acting up. Understandable, since a mountain cat was flicking the horse's tail with one paw. The cat followed playfully for several minutes before running away.

At 60, a day in the saddle makes McDaniel sore, but he still works from just after sunup until early evening.

At the center of his life are his work and family. His wife, Holly, 33, is an artist who sometimes rides with him. His four grown children live throughout California. None grew up to be cowboys, but one son is a horse trainer.

The last time McDaniel traveled into San Diego was more than three years ago. And that was only to testify in court against "a couple Navy guys who shot a steer."

"Time don't mean anything to me. Usually, I work seven days a week." He's never been interested in any other line of work. "This is the easiest job I ever had in my life."

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