Posted on Jan 30, 2005

If students had any doubts that their mini-term at the Double E Ranch in arid southwestern New Mexico would be a new adventure, these surely must have vanished when it came time to hold down a hollering calf for branding and castration.

At the gate of the Double E Ranch in Gila, NM

And if that wasn't enough, there was the “traditional” cowboy meal that followed.

“No sooner had I stepped up to find out why my classmates were huddled around a fire, than I had a small spongy lump resting hesitantly on the back of my tongue,” Rebecca Carlisle '05 wrote in her journal. “I stood shocked by the knowledge that, not only had I just eaten a testicle, but it hadn't even been that bad.”

Prof. Bonney MacDonald and ten students became buckaroos in the culmination of a course last fall that covered the journals of Lewis and Clark, some John Wayne films, and writings by Wallace Stegner, Mark Spragg and Annie Proulx.

Beauty and 'Inhuman Scale'

“You have to get over the color green,” wrote Stegner in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. “You have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.”

Students recalled the author's words at the 30,000-acre ranch of high desert mesas dotted with juniper, piñon pine and cactus.

“When have you ever seen a night sky that made you feel as though you were in a planetarium?” asked Lauren Lohman '05. “When have you ever seen the entirety of a 200-car freight train, unobscured by trees or a bend in the track, stretched out on flat, endless land, so dwarfed by the mountains and sky that it looks like a toy? There is a point where silence is your only reaction to this amazing and breathtaking scenery, simply because you're tired of saying, 'wow'.”

Non-Union schedule

Students got into the heavy lifting of running a ranch, following what MacDonald calls a “very non-Union schedule”: chores at 7 a.m.; a massive breakfast at 8:30 a.m.; class until noon; lunch; an afternoon of trail riding, cattle herding, fence mending and roping lessons; an evening meal of ranch-raised beef or buffalo followed by reading and talking in the ranch's Cantina. Lights-out was 11 p.m., long after most students were asleep, MacDonald said.

“There was hardly a moment when we weren't thinking about Western issues and hardly a moment when we weren't socially engaged,” MacDonald said. “I had hoped to set up a seamless experience, off the beaten path, where intellectual rigor, manual labor and new friendships could all happen at once. It's testament to these ten students and to the folks at the Double E that it did.”

“It's one thing to deconstruct poetry and chase after Kerouac with a highlighter,” wrote Zack Lazovic '07. “It's an entirely different experience to read nature writing in the morning and hike rugged canyons and majestic trails by noon. New Mexico provides the opportunity to live the adventure, ride after the myth on horseback, and retell the tale over a buffalo meat and cornbread dinner. I dove deep into Southwest culture at the Double E Ranch and will never look at dry earth, a soft orange sunset, or the tail of a bay mare the same way again.”

“The history of Western settlement describes processes of continuous adaptation and rebirth-telling of adjustments to an arid geography, newly created social structures, hard work and new ideas born of that adaptive experience,” MacDonald wrote. “With pen and pitchfork, 10 students relived that memorable and complicated Western story of adaptation and renewal. I offer thanks and tip my Stetson to each and every one of them.”