BLOG 4: VAQUEROS OF BAJA’S WINE COUNTRY

Seventeen vaqueros set off from the village, followed by nineteen dogs.  All are experienced at tracking and flushing cattle; and all will be pushed to their limits before the day is over.  This is rugged country in the northern reaches of Baja California, Mexico, where I’ve been invited to accompany these Mexican cattlemen.  Steep hillsides pocked with large boulders and clogging brush make for great hiding places for the wild cattle that range the area, and the dogs’ tenacity will prove invaluable; as well as the athleticism of the well-trained horses and excellent horsemanship of the riders.  All have developed their talents over generations chasing cattle in rough country, in harsh conditions.  The cattle, too, have developed their own wiles, and it shocks me the first time we give chase how athletic they are on these steeps slopes.  I find it nearly impossible to keep up, galloping at full speed downhill one moment and uphill the next, dodging and leaping over large rocks, ducking brush, head-high to the horses, with branches thick enough to pull you out of the saddle.

Thankfully this southernmost flank of el Desierto de Anza-Borrego, named after the bighorn sheep of the area, doesn’t have many spiny plants or cactus.  Instead, the topography of the Sierra de Juarez, the southern tip of the Great Basin Divide, is strewn with massive boulders the size of houses, oak, mequite and giant yucca, which still can poke you if you get too close. The cows love to dine on the flowering stalks and I took a liking to them myself. To lessen the chance of getting stabbed in the legs, the vaqueros here have tapaderos for the stirrup, and wear very thick, batwing chaps made out of bull hide to protect their legs. They teased me about my short, soft leather chinks, saying they were better suited for an arena or a parade. If you want to hang with cowboys anywhere, you have to take some ribbing.

Soon I’m left in the dust but it is exhilarating watching from an ever-increasing distance as the vaqueros give full chase, whooping and hollering and whistling encouragement to each other and their animals.  The cattle scatter in every direction, pursued by horse and rider.  It feels like a game of Cat and Mouse, where the mice are just as big but have horns.  The cattle make for pockets of dense brush or boulders the size of semi-trailers, tucking in and hoping the vaqueros will blow on by.  This is where the dogs show their usefulness: one, because they are small, mostly heeler types with great speed, agility and courage; and two, they have great noses and know the games the cattle play.  Soon they’ve sniffed out their quarry and their barking alerts the cowboys to the cattle’s whereabouts.  Trying to lasso a sprinting cow among the trees has its challenges but the vaqueros’ roping skills are well-honed, and more often they’re successful.  Then the struggle begins as the large animals do their best to weave through the brush and break free.  They, too, are successful and the chase begins anew, generally with another cowboy in hot pursuit.

Operating out of the village of San Antonio Necua, in the verdant Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s famous wine growing region of northern Baja, the landscape is framed in by the Pacific Ocean at Ensenada to the south and west, and the border wall of the United States 40 miles to the north and east at Tecate, which is more famous for its beer.  The area has grown into the largest wine producing region of all of Mexico, and is becoming known as the Napa Valley of Lower California.  Before the Mexican-American War of 1848, all of California, both Alta (Upper) and Baja (Lower), was once a part of Mexico.  So it is for the people of Necua, who are an indigenous population of an ancient Navajo tribe, the Kumiai, that nomadically ranged into that part of Arizona and California (long before their current geopolitical names, by several thousand years), following the growing seasons of the area.  My friends, the Dominguez-Sandoval family, have a quasi-dual citizenship due to these circumstances, where historically half of their family are U.S. citizens but their half are Mexican.  They are allowed greater freedom to travel between the two countrys than are their counterparts. They, like many Mexicans, live on an ejido (pronounced “eh-hido”) system of circumscribed land much like the Indian reservations in the United States.  

Jepte Dominguez-Sandoval, known by his nickname TeTe, and his family are part of the small network of ranchers who still run cattle in northern Baja.  Altogether, in this arid environment, his family gathers almost 1,000 head of cattle, a Charolais/Angus cross, over 15,000 hectares, or almost 40,000 acres within their three different ranchos.  It’s a chunk of ground, very little of it is developed, and there is not much water, which is somewhat of an advantage to the vaquero who knows where the cows will be gathering to stay hydrated.  Historically, before the land dryed out so severely over the last 100 years, cattlemen ran ten times as many cattle in Baja than present day, according to ranchers I talked with.  Market forces and drought play a big part in how many head are raised and sold every year.  This family prefers to sell to buyers who cater to the naturally raised, grass-fed beef consumers in the USA, where they can get almost three times the price than if they sold domestically.  In a country where the legal minimum wage is equivalent to ten dollars a day, every peso counts. The margins are not in favor of the ranchers, and a small monopoly of buyers controls commodity prices on both sides of the border.  Put this way, no one on the back of the horse is getting rich – but they love what they do.  

The Mexicans I rode with take great pride in their skills as cowboys, and roping cattle. However, I learned you never call a vaquero a caballero, which literally translates as horseman but actually means a dandy, a city slicker or one who rides but has no cow sense: all hat and no cattle, in other words.

Many times the vaqueros would get diverted from looking for cows when they spyed a herd of mustangs from afar; chasing after the small mustango herds scattered about the area provided great fun. They would strategically advantage themselfs in a line several hundred yards apart in relay form. One horseman would sneak up on the herd and try to drive them to his compadres, and they would swing into staggered formation and give chase. Like cowboys everywhere, it’s in their blood to pit their skills against a wild animal’s.  In all their attempts, even galloping at full speed, I never saw the cowboys get close: the mustangs are so strong and agile and suited to their rough environment. And attuned to survival. The wild horses would generally see their pursuer from far off, even when the cowboys would approach from a hiding place. I asked TeTe if they were trying to improve their herd by catching mustangs, and he informed he didn’t work with animals that were wild; only ones they had raised and bred, because he knew their temperament. This was purely recreation and sport for the vaqueros, a highlight to their weeks from herding cows.

One day, TeTe gave chase alone for several miles just to see if he could catch the herd, after the other cowboys had given up. He did, and it took me half an hour of galloping the cañadas and ridgelines, following their tracks and the unsettled dust, to catch up with him. You could see the boyish glint of joy in his eyes and smile. He claimed the whole time, racing in the wind, he was looking for stray cattle. The true vaquero, always paying attention to every detail.

TeTe and his six siblings are third generation ranchers in Necua, and have done this their entire lifes. They own the cattle herd together as a family, although it is the four brothers who tend to the cattle. Some of the villagers work in the nearby vineyards to support their familys, where jobs are scarce but a growing tourism industry is spurring job opportunitys.  Fancy boutique lodging and restaurants are popping up everywhere in this 30 mile long, five mile wide Valle de Guadalupe, what is called La Ruta de Vino: the wine route.  There are now over 150 winerys in Baja, with over 100 just in this area, and a fancy new wine museum dedicated to explaining this phenomenal growth, especially of the last ten years.  The valley and its growing amenitys have been written up in culinary, wine, and travel periodicals the world over, and international tourism is catching on.  How that will change the lifes of the vaquero, time will tell.

I stayed over two months altogether living with the vaqueros.  TeTe and his family welcomed me as one of their own immediately and I attempted to prove myself useful where my cowboying skills were lacking, by doing construction projects and helping out where I could.  While I was there, they worked on my roping skills and taught me the basics of horse shoeing, and even castrating a stallion – which they perform only during the full moon cycle, to preserve its spirit and vitality, according to their lore.

They doctor their own animals with both modern and old medicine using native plants, even snake oil from the many cascabeles or rattlesnakes they regularly catch. I even tried the same smelly, viscous oil on a sore elbow, that they rub on saddle sores and whatnot, and admittedly felt relief – snake oil, or not . Several times I watched them treat horses with bad coughs by lighting a pair of denim jeans on fire (Levis 501s preferred, they tell me), and holding the smoking pants in the horse’s face, after running him hard to get him to breathe deeply. Several of the horses developed coughs, I think from the mold in the hay they feed; but at $10/bale usd it’s too expensive to waste. Almost all of the hay is trucked in from Mexicali, Mexico, is coarse and lacking leafy protein, and costs more than better hay we get in the United States. Doctoring their own animals is based on need and saving money, as well as knowing what to do. They must be doing it right, however, as their horses improved, were strong and work hard every day, as I found out from the miles of strenuous riding we did.

The whole reason I lucked into this experience is because I had embarked on a three-year around-the-world motorcycle trip fall of 2018, whereby I am looking for opportunitys to gain greater horsemanship knowledge in varyous parts of the world.  That I found it in Baja from the outset of my trip was a surprise, and my good fortune.  I had expected to get further south in my travels before locating a ranching community.  I knew Baja California, had a cowboy culture having purchased the dvd “Corazon Vaquero” by Gary McClintock years ago and reading several books about this area of Mexico; and that the vaquero lived close to the land and followed timeless practices since the first conquistadors and Jesuit priests had brought horses to the region, over 300 years ago. Back then, Baja was an unpopulated peninsula, except by very small groups of native tribes like the Kumiai who subsisted on very little.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Mexican government wanted to populate the area, hoping it held mineral riches of gold and silver, and to prevent the United States of America from taking it over in another war, so they gave out large land grants to friends and influential people.  They also advertised free land to anyone who wanted to become citizens and prove up and settle farms and ranches, which many Americans and Europeans took up the opportunity.  One of the more famous familys to settle in northern Baja actually originated from Norway, where they started the Meling Ranch, or Rancho Meling as is it is known today. Five generations later, they are still running cattle, although not in the same large numbers.  David Lang, an American who is marryed to one of the great-grandaughters, and helps manage the ranch, told me they historically had 10,000 cattle that ranged the high mountains east of their two ranches, in the Sierra San Pedro Martir, which rises from sea level to over 10,000 feet in just 30 miles, as the crow flys.  From that vantage, people claim you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulfo de California (also known as the Sea of Cortez), the peninsula is that narrow east to west. The Melings have scaled back to a tenth of that herd and are now taking advantage of the interest in eco-tourism that is growing in popularity in Mexico, by operating a restaurant and lodge, where I stayed one night as a guest several years ago on a different motorcycle trip.  David says it is hard to find good cowboys these days, with the skills of the old vaqueros.

 With a growing middle-class, most of their clients are Mexican nationals, and their rancho is also part of the ejido system that governs the shared use of all Baja California.  This system came about from the class struggles of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, when Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and their ilk raided the countryside in the attempt to make things more equitable for the poor, taking back feudal land grants and distributing them to working familys who lived there.  The Melings had to defend their homes and cattle from the roving bands of marauders during that time period, as well.  Once in power, the Zapatistas began to reward their friends in the same manner as the old ruling class.  Corruption has a long history in Mexico.  

TeTe and his family are the beneficiarys of that land “reallocation”, in addition to being part of the Kumiai Tribe, raising cattle on the reservation ejido.  Their connection to the land and their cultural heritage runs deep in their community and several family members operate the indigenous museum in Necua, showcasing the ancient ways of living off the land.  Several times a month, cruise ship passengers from Ensenada are bussed to the wine country for tastings and cultural tours; San Antonio Necua is one of the stops.  Anselmo Dominguez-Sandoval, TeTe’s younger brother, known as the “Professor” because of his background and education, is the local historian and gives talks about the traditional skills and values of Kumiai culture.  He works collaboratively with university programs in the United States and in Mexico, to give anthropology students the opportunity to study that region’s history and the Kumiai language.  He is also one of the coordinators of the Indigenous Games held at a different town every year in Baja, as well as the rodeo competitions in Necua.

Two of TeTe’s nephews are champion ropers within the greater northern Mexico region, spanning from Tijuana to Chihuahua, and they have the winning trophy saddles to prove it.  Always a humble family, they acknowledge their skills but say their uncle TeTe is much better than they are, and I feel lucky to be learning from such talented cowboys.  

From the time he was little boy, his mother Guadalupe tells me, TeTe lived to be in the saddle.  Every year since he was 12 he would spend months at a time alone, watching over and caring for the cattle.  Some years, he would load his sawbuck aparejo pack saddles onto mules and lead the packstring into the high country, not to be seen for a month or more at a time, sleeping out in the open under a light blanket or plastic sheet if it was raining, cooking his food over an open fire.  Now approaching his fiftys, he is marryed and has a son who is the same age as when he became a full-fledged vaquero.  Young Abraham wants to emulate his father and has little interest in school work but his parents use the privilege of herding cattle as the incentive for him to finish high school.  Education is revered in their family, and TeTe’s other brother Abraham has worked hard ranching to afford his three children a college education.  Two of them are large animal veterinarians and the other runs the growing schedule at one of the larger winerys, as an agricultural engineer.  They, and their many cousins, understand education will help them make a living in ways not afforded their parents.  They also grew up as cowboys and help when they can during cattle drives and brandings, when they are not competing in rodeos.

Still, despite the emphasis of a formal education, animal husbandry is a big part of their livelihood.  The Dominguez-Sandoval family make up about a quarter of the village’s 175 people.  Each household raises chickens, sheep, pigs and horses, vegetable gardens and citrus orchards,  as well as being part owners in the cattle herd.  Some have a dairy cow for milking and for making cheese, which is legendary in this area.  (While we were camped with the cattle at one of their backcountry ranches, we made cheese daily, getting about two pounds of a firm ricotta from each milking. It was delicious.) The family members all help eachother and interact daily, sharing what they have and celebrating together.  Every week there is a birthday, holiday or family remembrance it seems, and to feed 30-100 people at a time takes a lot of organization.  

Depending on the occasion, an animal will be selected for slaughter and the whole family chips in to help.  While I was there I learned to butcher all the different kinds of creatures they raise, which was new for me being a principiante (novice), aka caballero (city slicker).  Sparing me my lack of know-how they did not; instead handing me a knife with instructions – or an ax or a handsaw. Good thing I’m a carpenter and know how to handle sharp tools. Everything either gets eaten or has a use – nothing is wasted… from the hoofs to the hide, even the eyeballs, which TeTe assured me are sweet and delicious.  To learn to how to harvest and cook so many different kinds of meat, as well as giant pots of frijoles or refryed beans over an open fire, was a joy, and a real learning experience.  But the best treats were the homemade flour tortillas made fresh for every meal and cooked over a wood fired stove, eventhough I never quite got the knack of rolling them out with a piece of PVC pipe, despite the women’s best efforts at improving my cooking skills.  

The gender roles are pretty delineated, with the women doing most of the food preparation and the men doing the outside chores.  The men are also the ones who get the pleasure of working with the horses, and unlike mainland Mexican charras and American cowgirl lifestyles, I didn’t see a single woman on horseback in the four months I was in Baja.  It’s not equitable and I had no problem pointing out to both the men and women that’s not how it is in other parts of the world.  Hopefully that will change as traditions change.  Mexico is a macho culture, and for my feminist views they teased me about being a “mandilón” or an apron wearer.  I told them, where I was from I was the president of the Mandilón Society and was here recruiting in Mexico, which always got them to laugh, including the women who loved the idea of men helping more around the house.

These men stay true to their vaquero heritage and make much of their horse tack by hand, using everything from bailing twine to cured leather from their cattle.  The style of saddle popular in northern Baja has the controversial “bear trap” swell or pommel, that locks your legs in, which is good for a bucking bronc and the steep terrain, as long as the animal doesn’t fall over with you stuck in the saddle.  But some Baja cowboys are converting to a Texas or Visalia style lately, especially the competitive ropers.  They were very curious of my Wade designed roping saddle, which has a larger horn wrapped in mule hide, while theirs have bare metal necks for dallying their lasso, also called a chavinda.  Their saddles are nothing like the large wooden horn and slick fork of their counterparts in mainland Mexico, whose charreada style of competitive roping is popular, but when asked, these Baja cowboys claim isn’t any good for roping cattle out on the range, which obviously is not true.  Everyone likes what they like.  They were also shocked by the price of my saddle, which comes from a custom saddle maker in Colorado.  Theirs in turn, cost less than $500/usd but despite the myth of poorly made saddles coming from Mexico, lasts them ten plus years of daily use, with hard riding and roping.  I had brought my blankets and saddle down from the USA since it fit me well, was comfortable for the long days we had, and I was familiar with it.  

The first several weeks in April we worked out of the village of Necua, and the local vaqueros joined us, riding into the hills to look for cattle.  We were a sight, and you could tell the group was proud to ride the dusty streets through town, where fewer people these days know the cowboy culture. Folks would come outside to watch us walk by and wave hello, the dogs creating a commotion, picking fights and defending their territory.  The horses were non-plussed from all the action and didn’t mind the dogs weaving underfoot.  In all my time there I never saw a horse act out maliciously toward another animal, even other horses they didn’t know.  They understood they had a job to do and the cowboys weren’t going to tolerate any misbehavior.  Some of the guys had a heavy hand but for the most part, there were very few instances of harsh discipline.  These horses were hard working, well-mannered and well-trained, especially those in TeTe’s remuda.

 We would ride straight into the hills, along well-worn paths to ascend over 1,000 feet in elevation.  The horses were well-conditioned and used to the topography.  Spring wildflowers were in full bloom from the heavy rains of winter.  The last few years have been dry and TeTe was grateful for the extra grass in the mountains for his cattle.  It also meant the canyons would hold more water for drinking later.  The hillsides were green and lush, with huge swaths of colorful flowers, orange and purple.  Mix in large granite boulders and pockets of oak trees, willows and cottonwoods, and I could see why everyone so enjoyed being up in the mountains with the cattle.  

After about an hour, we would reach a central point and break into separate groups to cover more ground.  Instructions were given to meet at a known location hours later, with news of what they had seen, or animals they had gathered.  After almost 40 years of riding these hills, TeTe knew every inch of the landscape, and was ever alert for fresh signs of movement along our chosen route for the day.  He would stop and read the tracks in the dust, determining their age and direction.  Often he would pause to scan the hillsides.  Even with binoculars, I had a hard time picking out the cattle scattered among the rocks and trees that he could see with the naked eye from far away.

Every day TeTe patiently answered all of my questions, in a dialect of Español that was difficult for me to understand from what I’d learned in high school almost four decades prior. Fortunately, I’m conversant in Spanish from traveling in other countrys, and can read it because I didn’t speak English the entire two months I was with the vaqueros. TeTe also explained that cowboys have their own use of language that is different than city folk, like using hop instead of jump. Together, at night, we pored over translation books I had brought, and I wrote down many of the new words I was learning, including some in Kumaia. He was fond of learning American slang and loved telling me to “Take it easy, man” when I was pressuring a cow too much, and “See you later, dude”. The slang I learned from the vaqueros I always checked with the women to make sure I wasn’t learning bad words. I gauged this by how hard they laughed.

 Many days it seemed we moved in random fashion, taking serpentine routes the cows followed, or going in a straight line over a mountain, making our own path, stopping to take in the view and scan the valleys for animals, then plunging down the steep backside, ploughing through brush over our head.  After about a week of riding, I began to see there was a pattern to his searching, and that he had actually gridded off the area, trying to discern the cattle’s movements and where they may be hiding.  They proved elusive and some days we didn’t see a single cow, which isn’t surprising on 40,000 acres of mostly unfenced landscape.  And the animals roam a good bit daily as they forage and hunt for water. Calfing season was mostly over by this time in April and early May but TeTe knew where the mama cows liked to hole up, safe from predators, like coyote and mountain lion, which we saw tracks of regularly. We rode for hours every day, covering 20-30 miles in the saddle.

About noon everyone would meet at the designated site, usually with nearby water, pushing along any cattle they had found.  The cowboys would drink first, filling their canteens or dropping down prone and kissing the water’s surface.  I wouldn’t say the water was safe or clean to drink, filled as it was with moss and algae, and polywogs swimming about; and lots of cattle activity.  Everyone but me quenched their thirst, as I drank from the water bottle I had filled back in town.  They smiled, knowing I’d likely get sick from the water they had grown up drinking, and their bodys were accustomed to.  They good naturedly teased me, saying I couldn’t be a true vaquero until I drank from the seeps and pools like they did, but I wasn’t going to risk it.  I was still a caballero, afterall.

We would loosen the saddles and drop the reins to “ground tie” the horses, then pull out fresh burritos from the saddle bags, made that morning.  Someone would gather a few sticks to light a fire and a metal grill would mysteriously appear, which we used to heat up lunch wrapped in aluminum foil.  After a few days, I realized these were their usual resting areas, where there was shade, water, a fire pit and grill, and level ground for a nap, which dogs, cowboys and steeds took advantage of, in the cool of the trees. Any cattle that had gathered would mill about or wander away but not far.   For an hour nobody moved, not dogs, horses or men.  Siesta time.  The cattle would still be where we needed to look for them.

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