Rod Taylor led us off Fowler Mesa on a late summer afternoon in July. The trail into Bonita Canyon was short, but steep. Once in the valley, we found it boggy due to winter snow melt and summer rain, so we kept to the trail in order to cross the creek over rocks. We could see about a hundred Hereford cows and calves grazing up and down the canyon. As we rode along, I noticed several wildflowers that I hadn’t seen since the last time the canyon was so wet.
A mile and a half up the canyon we opened the gate into the cow camp’s horse trap. Soon Rod’s three saddle horses trotted up to greet us. With these fresh recruits, our entourage continued through a grove of aspens and then veered left into a clearing. There, set among a few scattered aspens, was a low slung log cabin with a wooden porch and a stout log hitching post planted out front.
Rod told us the camp, built in the 1920s, has been used every summer since by cowpunchers who care for the cows and calves grazing Bonita Canyon. He has camped there himself for more than twenty summers.
The cabin has three rooms. Rod keeps his bed on the west end kitchen that is equipped with a wood cook stove, a table, a few chairs, and a chuck box. The saddle room is in the middle. Along with several saddle stands and a few nails set in the wall to hang bridles, halters, and feed bags, if has two bunks and a Servel gas refrigerator. The east end room has more bunks, a table and chairs, and a rock fireplace. Rod calls it the Men’s Card Room signifying its primary use whenever he has visitors in camp.
Bonita Canyon is part of the 138,000 acre Philmont Scout Ranch owned by the Boy Scouts of America. Located in the mountains west of Cimarron, NM, the ranch is used each summer as a wilderness camping area for Scouts from all over the United States. It was given to the BSA in 1941 by Waite Phillips, who had owned it as Philmont Ranch since 1922. Although he attached few stipulations to his gift, he encouraged Scout officials to keep a cow herd and some saddle horses so that the boys from the East who camped there could experience western ranch life. Horses and cow have been an important part of Philmont’s attraction for the Scouts ever since.
Rod came to ranch in 1974 after graduating from high school in Lubbock, TX. After several summers wrangling dudes, he took a cowboy job on the WS Ranch headquartered at Cimarron. He punched cows there for a few years then left for a winter on the Little Horn Ranch in southern Montana. In 1980 he returned to New Mexico and spent three years at a camp on the TO Ranch east of Raton.
By spring 1983 he decided he’d had enough of camp life and moved back to the Scout Ranch. Philmont’s cowboy job held an extra attraction because it gave him a chance to get back to the Cimarron mountains he’d fallen in love with years before.
Riding for Philmont turned out to be a lot different from taking care of cows at a camp. Along with 150 mother cows, the ranch also pastures 250 saddle horses, most of them used by Scouts for day rides in the summer. In addition, Philmont has 150 burros that Scouts use to pack their gear with diamond hitches. Although Rod’s primary responsibility is the cow herd, he pitches in during early summer to help teach the wranglers how to shoe and take care of their saddle strings.
Because most of the ranch is rough, mountain country, ranging in elevation from 6,400 feet at headquarters to over 12,000 feet, many pastures are not accessible by vehicle. Consequently, whenever stock needs to be moved, it is trailed horseback.
An example is the cow herd. Most of the winter it is pastured in the foothills on the east side of the ranch, where the cows give birth to their calves in the spring. But in early June Rod and a crew moves the cows and calves up to Bonita Canyon. The drive starts near headquarters, where the cowboys start gathering before daylight. After the herd moves past Lovers’ Leap and Crater Lake, they start up the stock drive, which rises a full 1,000 feet on the north side of Fowler Mesa. The cows methodically make the climb, knowing they’ll soon be knee deep in grass at their summer home.
Once the herd reaches the canyon, the cowboys hold it up and pair the cows and calves. Then they find shady spots under the fir trees, dismount, and eat bologna sandwiches before leaving the cows to their grass. After a short nap, they take the same trail back to headquarters.
For the rest of the summer Rod spends several days a week at the Bonita camp. Every morning after breakfast, he catches a horse and prowls the canyon looking for sick cows or ailing calves.
Roping calves is never easy in any country, but in the mountains a man is challenged even more. Not only must he catch the calf, but he has to do it while riding over bogs, lava rocks, and downed trees. Even a careful man encounters obstacles that attempt to snag his loop and drag him off his horse.
Over the years Rod has gotten pretty handy at doctoring in the mountains, most of the time doing it by himself. But as he acknowledges, he wouldn’t do as well as he does without the horses he rides, most of whom he breaks himself. You always see him on something that’s tough, legged-up and handy on his feet.
In the fall, winter, and spring Rod helps the horse foremen, Ben Vargas and Chuck Enloe, take care of the dude string. They trail the saddle horses to the high country in the south part of the ranch at the end of the summer. Before the snow gets deep in the winter, the cowboys gather and bring them back down to the foothill pastures. Then in February they start them north along the road to Cimarron, headed for their spring pasture, which means they have to drive the horse herd through town.
Motorists are amazed to see only three cowboys driving such a large herd of horses through and around the many buildings and cars. The cowboys’ work is helped along by horses who have made the trip before and who take the lead. But the cowboys still have to plug holes at the right time to keep everything headed in the right direction.
Once the horses have been driven through Cimarron, the cowboys point them up Ponil Canyon. After six miles along a dirt road, they turn into the North Ponil Canyon, where the horses will stay until they are gathered for summer use. In the middle of May a crew of wranglers brings them back to headquarters for shoeing.
Aside from cowboying the other part of Rod’s life is music. He grew up playing guitar and singing and since he’s been at Philmont, he has performed for Scout groups at the ranch and at various events all across the country. He’s also put in a lot of appearances at the many cowboy poetry gatherings held in the West. Rod also plays with The Rifters, a popular band that plays concerts and dances all over New Mexico, Colorado, and West Texas.
Although he’s a cowboy, it would be inaccurate to typecast Rod as a singer of only cowboy songs. Actually, he’s a student of many musical styles and has been known to sing rock, pop, country, jazz and blues – whatever he thinks is good music. The songs on his newest CD, Here, There, and Anywhere, that comes out in June attest to that fact. Like he says, “A cowboy song is anything a cowboy wants to sing.”