‘Not everyone is cut out to be a cowboy’
Take a drive an hour-and-a-half from Vail, from multi-million-dollar homes and money, to the northwest corner of Eagle County. Here paved roads turn to dirt, cell phones don’t work and working men favor cowboy boots and hats over Patagonia jackets.
This is where Kip Gates lives, on top of a mesa, on a ranch that his family has owned for decades.
This is where Kip works, between 10- and 14-hour days, six, sometimes seven days a week, just like his father did, and his father’s father. Kip is a fifth-generation cattle rancher, and for that, he is thankful.
He gives thanks for his three children and for his family, and for the mountains that support and surround the 740-acre ranch near Burns that his ancestors homesteaded more than a century ago. He gives thanks nearly every time he steps outside the house he grew up in and sees the expanse of land where his forebears toiled. And he gives thanks every time he steps out of an ethereal aspen stand and into the light of an autumn afternoon.
Kip is made even more thankful because he’s painfully aware that he’s a member of a dying breed.
“People have become lazy, they don’t want to have to work and a lot of the younger generation, they don’t have the heart for it,” he said.
The number of ranches in Eagle County and across the Midwest has dwindled over the past several decades. The once fertile soil is concealed by concrete pieces of the suburbia puzzle: foundations, sidewalks and streets. Ranches south of Gypsum and Eagle are being bulldozed for golf courses. And families that long relied on cattle and grain for their income, now must take jobs in town to make ends meet.
It hasn’t been easy for Kip, either, and it likely won’t get any easier. But despite all this, this ever-thankful rancher is determined to stick it out. Not just on principle. For Kip, ranching is a way of life.
Kip spent his childhood riding horses and running cattle, learning how to love and respect the land and the Lord, from his parents. His father is Bud Gates, a former two-term county commissioner. His mother is Marge, a former county public health nurse. Kip was the first of five children, born in 1954. After college at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and ranch management jobs in Montana and Meeker, Kip returned to his family’s ranch in 1990 when his brother, Doug, left the ranch. Kip took over. He’s been there ever since.
But times have changed since Kip’s forefathers. Raising horses and cattle on the ranch isn’t enough to sustain the family ranch, anymore.
To support his family and to keep the Gates’ family ranch operational, Kip created an outfitting business, River’s Bend Outfitters. He takes hunters on pack trips in the backcountry in search of prize elk and deer, fishermen to remote lakes and abundant trout streams, and youth on kid-friendly camp trips, introducing them to the wilderness.
“I want to teach other children what I taught my own children, and what I was taught by my forefathers about survival and camping adventures,” he writes on his website.
It’s not unusual for career ranchers these days to take on other jobs to make ends meet.
Loyd Gerard, whose family has owned a ranch south of Gypsum for three generations, said his wife does the books for a warehouse distribution center in Eagle so the family can afford health insurance.
Despite the modern adaptations, Kip is an indisputable cowboy. His body is tattooed with scars and an x-ray would reveal bones that have been fractured over the years while working the ranch: ribs that have been cracked, and a collarbone that was broken. A few years ago Kip broke his ankle in two places when he was training a friend’s horse. The animal, in a dead run, lost its footing. Kip went over the front of the horse and the horse landed on him. He spent the rest of the day walking on a cracked ankle; something a friend didn’t realize until she pulled his boot off that evening.
Kip’s 24-year-old son, Tel, talks openly about his love and respect for his father. He speaks of how much his father has taught him: how to feed the cattle in the winter the “old-fashioned way,” with a team of horses and a sleigh (“He’s been doing that since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Tel said); how he should, under no circumstance, ever hit a girl; how to mend a fence; shoe a horse; and how to round up cattle and drive them back home to the ranch.
On a chilly, early October morning, Kip was all business. His smile was warm and his hello welcoming, but he was focused on the tasks at hand and the day ahead.
A group of family and friends, some new, some old, gathered together for a fall tradition: it was time to gather the cattle, which had been allowed to roam the White River National Forest bordering the ranch since the previous spring, and bring them back to the ranch for the winter.
Kip loaded his trailer with horses, leading each one kindly, but forcefully, up the ramp. He sternly laid out reminders (“don’t forget the lunches; girls, you’ve got to get a move on, we’ve got a long day ahead of us”) and urged the group to keep on task as he made his way between the house, the barns and the trailer.
The group left the ranch not long after sunrise to head further up Derby Mesa Road. The vehicles were parked on the side of the road, and within 10 minutes, Kip and the rest of the crew had the horses unloaded. When everyone was mounted and ready to get started, Kip reminded the group to keep up with him, to not be afraid to give the horses a few kicks to keep them moving. The horses fell into a line and the day began.
It’s a cattle drive, but more than that, it’s a microcosm. Four families came together on this appointed day in October to search out their elusive cattle, just as Kip has had to search out ways to keep his family’s ranch going.
“It’s a lifestyle, it’s a feeling that comes from the heart and soul,” Kip said. “Not everybody is cut out to be a cowboy. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades, be able to understand cattle and horses and how to work them and breed them. You can’t be afraid of work; it’s a hard lifestyle, there’s a lot of days when it’s not pleasant, when you’re tired and you’re cold.”
And no matter whose cow it is, it was brought back to an appointed spot. After all the cows were brought together, into a writhing, mooing, riled-up mass – the cowboys separated them.
After Kip’s herd was divided from the mass, the cattle were urged home, some 60 cows plus calves, with whoops and whistles, hollering and howls. The weary animals, not used to traveling such distances in one day, headed back to their fenced-in green pastures.
Development is stretching westward, eating up the ranches near Eagle and Gypsum. The new Brightwater development, a golf course community being built south of Gypsum, is being built on top of the former Albertson Ranch.
The project is located adjacent to Gerard’s nearly 500-acre ranch. Though he said that ranching has been good to his family, he also struggles to make things work. In light of all the new developments, he wonders if his ranch “fits in,” anymore.
“I’m dealing with $3.40 fuel prices and high taxes when my fellow ranchers don’t have quite that expense,” Gerard said. “You just want to throw up your hands because it seems like you’re constantly fighting with developers and the things that go with them – sewer lines going through your property, construction workers that back over part of your gate and don’t feel like it’s any big deal.”
Recently, Gerard has been talking to the Town of Gypsum about the possibility of a conservation easement, a legal agreement that forbids a land owner, current and future, from significantly developing the property in exchange for tax breaks. But it’s something Gerard is still unsure about.
“I don’t want to become another Bair Ranch because it seems like everybody hates him for what he did, but I don’t know. I don’t know what to do,” he said, referring to the large ranch near the Glenwood Canyon that was conserved using millions of public fund dollars. “Everyone wants to see open space, but I’m not sure they want to pay for it.”
He’s also hesitant to make such a permanent decision, one that will affect every generation that comes after him.
Ranching doesn’t always fit with those generations that come after. Kip’s oldest son, Ty, doesn’t have much to do with the ranchlife he grew up with, anymore, Tel said.
In the meantime, who will inherit the Gates Ranch eventually hasn’t been fully decided. The ranch’s fate is something that Tel guessed will be discussed in the near future.
“There’s been tough times for every generation where you’re busting your butt to keep things going,” Tel said. “It would be easy (to sell out), but it would beat everyone up. So many people put so many hours there, to turn around and say goodbye, it would never be worth it.”
Caramie Schnell can be reached at email@example.com.
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