Mother and daughter summer in remote cabin to herd cattle
June 28, 2010
Wanda Walker's eyes swept knowingly around the room of the Maddox Cabin as the summer ranching home came to life.
She stood tall in the cabin's kitchen, blown straight up by decades of desert winds, permanently holding herself steady as if atop a horse.
Her gaze, wild like the horses running in nearby Sandwash Basin, doesn't give away her age, only her connection to the range she's called home during her 85-year life as a cowgirl.
"It's a good life," Walker said of running cattle in Northwest Colorado since 1945. "It's the dust and the stubbornness of moving them, and getting the job done, getting them where they belong."
Another year of pushing cattle around the range is about to begin, and she and her daughter, Dawn Nottingham, 58, arrived Sunday at their summer cabin on Douglas Mountain, northeast of Dinosaur National Monument, to begin preparations for living in the remote meadow, among elk herds and sagebrush.
"We're like nomads, gypsies," said Nottingham, 58, as she unpacked a cooler into the propane-fueled refrigerator. "Our work is here, the cows are here."
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And Walker knows no other life than returning to this cabin, summer after summer, to cook sourdough pancakes and drive cattle through 25,000 acres of private and public lands, 7,000 of which belong to Walker.
From July to December, the pair run a herd of about 250 cattle in a wide circle through Walker's land and the Monument.
"I love it," Walker said. "I couldn't think of any other place I'd want to be. I think (Dawn) is the same way. That's what it all is, home and her."
On a ridge overlooking Rye Grass Draw, with views of Irish Canyon and Vermillion Basin in the distance, the mother and daughter cowgirl team live in the cabin each summer with their only electricity provided by generators. They had running water installed from a nearby spring about a year ago.
"Ranching is what we have to do to keep it all going," Nottingham said. "We just hang on to it, I guess. We work good together, ride good together, run cows good together. The only thing we don't do good together is cook."
The family opens up the summer cabin every year, this year with the help of family friend and area hunter, Jimmy Horton, of Lufkin Texas, and Nottingham's step-grandson, Logan, 7.
Sandy Orgoglioso, of Craig, also made the drive up the mountainside to spend time with Walker, her friend of 15 years.
"She's the kind of person you can't put into words, really," Orgoglioso said. "You have to see her. She's the real thing."
Orgoglioso said Walker is known for recognizing every cedar on the range, and never losing a calf on a drive, even if it means coming home well after midnight.
But, her kindred spirit toward animals was only matched by her compassion for people.
"Her heart is as wide open as the country," Orgoglioso said.
Walker still rides tall, with a rope on her saddle, just like she did when she was Wanda Ramsey, of Southern Wyoming.
As a young girl, she used to ride her horse over to Brown's Park to visit friends and attend dances at Lodore Hall, a historical structure that still hosts country dances today.
"Like anywhere else, the main attractions were the get-togethers," she said. "You always have to go to the dances, it seemed."
It was there she met Boyd Walker, who had grown up at the foot of Douglas Mountain in the home where Walker and Nottingham, now reside in the winters.
They married in 1945, and Walker carried on the cattle business since his death 15 years ago.
While Nottingham and Walker live remotely — with a few neighbors in what Walker calls the "suburb" of Greystone — they make their way to Craig a few times a month.
Before the hour-and-a-half journey up the mountainside Sunday, Walker visited Craig on Saturday, and spoke at a meeting of Preserving the Last Frontier at Sunset Meadows.
A group of about 30 asked questions about her rugged life as a cowgirl.
"There's been a lot of changes, but it's still the same old country you folks know and love," Walker told the crowd Saturday.
She had hugs and stories for the group, many of which were friends of hers. They wanted to know if she still owned her land in Vermillion Basin and if she had gotten plumbing at the summer cabin.
She extended an open invitation to the crowd to come visit her in her home, but many of them might never see the sun setting on Irish Canyon or bring well water to the house in a bucket.
"I know I wouldn't change the years I spent any way else," she said.
Walker will continue to take her time with life, steadying herself with her haze and smiling along the way.
"I don't care for going to town much," she said Sunday, as the afternoon sun shone onto the porch where she was hanging birdfeeders. "It's a hassle. But, I like the people. That's what makes your life isn't it? Family and friends."