Not very far from where I live, there's a ranch tucked under the shoulder of a great mountain. They call it the Cox Place. It’s out of the way: across the valley, down a long dirt road, past some hot springs. The house gazes out over hay meadows. It’s a two-story building with a slanting roof that sprouts a squat red chimney. Just beyond the kitchen window, a windmill straddles a well. All around the house grow well-established trees; one of them, a Bartlett pear, is loaded with fruit in late summer. The construction on the Cox Place is a bit old school, but enduring. No Powder River panels here. Lodge poll gates hang on stout juniper logs, which form the uprights in the corrals and shop. In all, this is a modest place, big enough to run maybe two hundred cows. It’s what you’d call a small family ranch: a place where you could raise your kids close to animals and land. A place to live quietly.
But no one lives here any more.
The Cox Place is an empty gutted bone yard. Abandoned for over twenty years, the house is home to nothing but packrats and empty beer bottles that roll and clink against each other when the wind moans through the shattered windows. The fences are down, and the yard strewn with buckets, burn barrels, beer cans, shotgun shells, corrugated metal scraps, expired farm equipment, coffee cans, nails, ancient hoses, and barbed wire. The pears fall and rot, or are carried off by birds. The hay meadows, once green and fertile, are choked with greasewood and rabbit brush.
What happened here? Good intentions gone astray, possibly. An environmental organization bought the Cox Place some two decades ago, and since then it has been gradually sinking into ruin. I have no doubt that the leaders of this group intended to do something good for the land: to “return it to nature,” perhaps. But is this really a return to nature? And by letting this ranch die, what has been lost? Good people who take care of the land because they depend on it and live off of it. Irrigated meadows that attract passing migratory birds. Children who grow up with daily chores and animals depending on their care. A lighted window in the dark when a traveler is lost or broke down.
But not at the Cox Place. The windows are dark, the fire’s gone out, and no one lives here any more.