Just a few dusty miles down the road from my parents’ home in Tucson, there is a little ranch I like to visit. Nestled deep inside of Colossal Cave Mountain Park, La Posta Quemada sits in a little valley at the feet of the Rincon Mountains, surrounded by rolling foothills of red rock, thick with saguaro cactus and scrub brush.
The ranch has been in constant operation for over one hundred and twenty years, but for all the time it’s existed, it remains a simple operation. An old stone outbuilding built by the first settlers who kept a herd here is accompanied by a two small shacks made with plain, unpainted two-by-fours. A old pole barn runs alongside a handful of corrals, their fences covered in deep green paint that’s slowly being chipped away by the scorching sun and the constant clanging of saddles tossed over the rails by tired cowboys. On any given day, you’ll find about fifty horses milling about in the dusty pens, many of them tacked up in their saddles waiting for the arrival of tourists who come to the ranch looking for a taste of the “real” old west experience.
The herd is a mix of quarter horses, mustangs and heavy drafts. Some stand in the sun head to tail, fanning flies aways from each while those with more energy — or something to prove — playfully nip, whinny and kick as they wrangle for position at the water trough or push their way to the fence for the best spot to be fed a treat by a gullible tourist. A handful of burros, llamas and a couple ornery sheep and goats are mixed into the group for good measure.
I like to come here to sketch whenever I visit Tucson, but I especially like to come here in the spring because that’s when the foals are born. On this trip, a draft horse had just given birth to a little golden-haired filly. All wobbly legged and short-necked, the little girl would follow her mama around the pen, pestering her every few minutes to suckle. Curious, but shy, she would peer out at me through her mother’s massive legs, snorting and snuffing in my direction. When she finally got brave enough, she stuck her head through the fence and let me pet her velvet soft little muzzle before romping off in a joyful fit over this strange new experience.
I always feel like I've traveled back in time when I visit the ranch, as the history of the West is written in every detail of the landscape. Next to the pens, sits an old railroad car which, despite some rust and dust, looks as if it could spark to life again in a cloud of black smoke to revive its role as a new-fangled upgrade to the wagons that once bounced their way across this rough terrain. The abandoned tracks it rests upon extend out into the valley like an old scar, sometimes disappearing completely under the scrub grass before popping up again. In a few spots, the steel tracks cross the dusty remnants of the old Pony Express trail that winds through cactus and brush so thick that you suddenly understand why chaps were invented. You can almost hear the yips of bandits who once robbed the train and then unhitched it from the engine, leaving passengers stranded deep in the middle of the scorching Sonoran desert before running off the hide in the cool, dark caves for which the park is named.
A few tangly telephone lines still hang from dry wood posts and you can almost imagine the first time a phone rang in this quiet, cactus-filled valley. And then, of course, there is the enduring quality of the horses - who have been a part of this western landscape from the moment dusty settlers and explorers crashed into the land. The relics of the people they displaced are still nearby, too; take a short walk up into the hills from the ranch and you'll discover perfectly drilled holes in the stone where the Hohokam once pounded grains into flour and watched their children splash in the cool water of a stream shaded by the quivering leaves of towering cottonwoods.
It's a beautiful place, at once desolate and full of life. Standing under the brilliant blue, cloudless sky, I imagine all the stories that happened in this dramatic landscape. I’m happy to play my role as documentarian, transcribing just a few moments in the history of this place into the pages of my notebook.