“God Save the Cowboy”

By Jim Chamberlain

The White Mountains of Arizona are a combination of rolling hills, green mountains, and aspen groves among ponderosa pines.  Fall in these mountains allowed me to gaze at golden groves of trees, falling snow, and cattle grazing in a serene vista of what makes Arizona so unique.  Here history, culture, and astounding beauty combined to allow an experience of what it must be like to be a cowboy working the range of a sprawling cattle ranch.

The cattle ranch is a shrinking livelihood that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.  There is no better place to absorb the lifestyle than the X Diamond Ranch of Greer, Arizona.  This over a hundred-year-old cattle ranch operates today as both a cattle and guest ranch.  It sits in a canyon along the south fork of the Little Colorado River among the cottonwoods and pines.

I stayed in the Butler Cabin which was more of a log house than a cabin and named after the Butler family who founded the X Diamond. Their descendants still run both the X Diamond and the South Fork ranches.

One of those descendants is a truly unique individual who works to preserve the family business.  Wink Crigler is over 70 years young, and she will look you in the eye before she checks you in.  She manages both operations and still keeps reservations on a paper schedule.  Wink is an Arizona legend.

She is the granddaughter of Molly Butler.  Molly was one of the first Mormon settlers to the Lee Valley in the 1870s.  The famous Molly Butler Lodge in Greer, a few miles down the road from the X Diamond, stands on the original homestead and boasts some of the best food in Eastern Arizona. Wink has an interesting museum at the Ranch which allows you to wander through the history of her family over the last hundred plus years.  Other artifacts such as saddles, spurs, a player piano, a buggy, and original Thomas Edison records dot the various buildings on the Ranch. There is a small market where you can buy X Diamond beef and even beef bacon.  Wink even knew John Wayne who had a ranch nearby.

Wink has dedicated her life to preserving the ranching legacy.  She will give you a lecture on Ranching Science that will allow you to understand how complicated running a modern ranch can be.  You will learn what Arizona Fescue is, how many acres a cow needs a year to graze and how long you can let a cow graze a pasture before moving them to preserve the pasture for the next season.  It is really science.

Wink was quoted as saying:   “I don’t think the roots of the cowboy legacy will ever be plowed under, but the ranchers who survive are going to have to diversify. I think the cowboy legacy has to be perpetuated. If it isn’t, we’re going to lose what made the West.”  I think she is right. Photography is one way to help preserve that legacy.

I was at the ranch on a PhotoScapes workshop to learn how to photograph this disappearing legacy and the working cowboys who live it every day.  My instructor was Scott Baxter, another person who is dedicated to preserving our western heritage.  Scott lived at the X Diamond for several years while capturing his well-known “100 Ranchers, 100 years”  photographic essay on the ranching families of Arizona.  He recently opened an exhibit called “The Gather” in Scottsdale, Arizona where he displays his stunning large format portraits of the people who live the modern western saga.

Under Scott’s instruction, I was able to capture images of cowboys riding the fence line, working the wire, roping calves, herding horses, and posing among a grove of aspens.  Scott knows these men well and his familiarity with their work allows you to appreciate their efforts to show it you and your camera.  I especially liked the cattle herding and calf roping shoot at the Wonderland pasture outside Greer.

One cowboy, J Brad Miller, even posed with his Winchester rifle to allow me to capture a great image of the classic cowboy.  I was also able to photograph a horse roundup, hayride, and cowboys riding the range with wonderful fall colors painting the landscape.

Scott is well known for his portraiture. His work focuses on cowboy culture, especially the ranching families of Arizona. “Living on a ranch that has actual familial and working connections to John Wayne influences me from the historical context that allows me to create authentic imagery,”  he was quoted as saying.  He would set up a shoot of both male and female cowboys in a hay barn as well as at the historic Vogt cabin that allowed me and my fellow photographers to capture images of these amazing self-reliant people and the place they call home.  The cabin nestled among the aspens sits at 9000 feet and before we left snow had begun to fall.  However, the portrait of Rancher Mackie Trickey I got was worth the slippery drive back to the ranch.

Meeting the cowboys and talking with them during the workshop was a bonus that allowed me to know these men and women as real people who live the ranching life for real.   We all sat down to dinner at the Molly Butler Lodge where history meets modern reality in a place that is uniquely Arizona.  I hope Scott, Wink, and the cowboys continue to preserve our western heritage.  It would be a great loss if we don’t help “God save the Cowboy”.

Arizona Highways PhotoScapes is going back to the X Diamond Ranch again this year in October.  Scott Baxter and Wink Crigler will be there to help you learn about the American Cowboy and the disappearing ranching lifestyle that help make Arizona great. Don’t miss out before it is gone.

Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes