End of the Trail
The Big Wind
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By Brigid Schulte
Frank Ellis's old red-and-white Dodge Power Ram 250 -- known as a VEE-hicle in these parts of Wyoming -- turned off the asphalt of Highway 20/26 just outside Casper and bumped past the Last Chance Ranch. To the southwest, a haze smoldered in the unending sky as thousands of acres burned in heat-lightning fires. To the north, the Bighorn Mountains, his destination, hung faded and blue on the horizon.
Frank's hair, once so red as to earn him the nickname Pinky, was completely white. A blue baseball cap pulled low and a dusty red bandanna around his neck offered little protection. His face was sun- and wind-burned, the skin of his arms leather. Just weeks before, he'd been hospitalized for blood clots. The doctor put him on blood thinner -- "rat poison," Frank called it -- and warned him to wear gloves or risk heavy bleeding from any cut. Sometimes Frank wore gloves. Most times he didn't.
He passed the small white rectangular sign shot through with bullet holes: Ellis Sheep Co. Frank didn't blink. He was in no mood to talk. Coyote dens, gone from the range for years, were reappearing on the pasture where Frank did his spring lambing. The coyotes had eaten a quarter of the new lambs.
It was just one more reason why, after eight decades, the ranch my grandfather built out of the utter poverty of Ireland in the wide-open emptiness of central Wyoming, the ranch that bought solid, middle-class homes and helped send children and grandchildren to college, was, reluctantly, for sale.
So, on a June morning -- achingly blue and gone forever -- my maternal uncles Frank, now 73, and T.J. Ellis, 61, and Frank's son, Brendan, 43, were about to drive 2,000 sheep from the exhausted grass of their winter range 100 miles to fresh grass in the Bighorn Mountains. It was a trip Frank had made for 58 springs. And would never make again.
Within months, Ellis Sheep Co., a three-generation family business that had weathered fires and freak storms, divorce and the death of my grandfather, would be no more. And my uncles -- ranchers and cowboys, with their work-callused hands and sunburned faces, who squint at the sky to read the mysteries of rain and do business on a handshake -- would become mere men.
It was the 1950s, but it was still the Old West in many ways, and ranching was a man's job. It was understood that my mother, though she loved it, had no place. She married my father, a town man whose Casper family ran the car dealerships, hardware stores and movie theaters. He never cared for the harsh Wyoming wind, left after high school and took a job in Oregon as a college professor.
I grew up in Portland under gray clouds, constant drizzle and the slick shine of wet city streets. I knew nothing about sheep ranching. I hated Westerns, where everyone seemed so hot and dirty. In fact, I hated going to Wyoming every summer. After a cramped two-day drive in our yellow station wagon, my three sisters and I would be parked at our grandmother's house to watch TV. Instead of breathing in wide-open spaces, we'd be dragged "visiting" to sit in fusty rooms of impossibly old gossiping relatives.
Then one summer, Uncle Frank loaded us in the back of his pickup and took us up to the Bighorn Mountains. We were 7,700 feet above sea level. And for the first time, I thought I could see forever.
The road, then just two tire ruts in the open country, wound through a forest of sandstone spires that, over eons, the wind had whipped into castles, faces, sprites.
At night, peering out the tiny back window of the sheep wagon that I shared with my sisters, an explosion of stars seemed to press down on the dark outline of the mountains, on my heart.
I tried to live in Wyoming once, drawn to this searing and elemental place. I tried to write about it once. Both were failures.
So when, two years ago, I found out from my mother that my uncles were selling the ranch, I knew I had to be there for the end.
The twice-a-year sheep drive is a long, hot and slow two-week journey from water to water in this arid high plains desert. My uncles just call it "the trail." The land is stark, impassive, but the names are poetry: Twin Reservoirs. Fifty-Mile Flat. Bar C Creek. Powder River. At one point the earth turns pink, then brilliant red. A flat-topped mass -- the Red Wall -- rises up and splits the country in two from horizon to horizon. Along it, there are rocks with the imprint of fan-shaped shells, millions of years old. Remnants of sea life in a place that is now lucky to get 11 inches of rain a year. This is the country where Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall Gang hid out in the 1890s and where, during the Battle of Dull Knife in 1876, the U.S. Cavalry ended the free-roaming days of the Northern Cheyenne.
On the trail, we would cross the old "deadline" at First Water, where, until 1909, cattle ranchers killed anyone with sheep who dared venture north. We would pass places like Ellis Draw and Jack Ellis Gate, named for two great uncles. Some days we would move the sheep less than four miles.
We would be tracing a path that was first carved centuries ago by bison and other wild game. They followed the cycle of grass. When it finished greening in the spring on the flats, they moved up into the mountains. The animals, in turn, were followed by the Native Americans who once lived here. Shoshone. Sioux. Northern Cheyenne. To the Indians, the trek was an annual pilgrimage. Frank calls it pasture rotation.
Frank stopped the truck on a small rise, called the Thirty-Three-Mile Divide, and set camp for the night. Once, not so long ago, that would have meant canvas-covered sheep wagons with wide, wooden spokes and a wood-burning stove. This year, Frank and T.J. were hauling a Wilderness RV with a fridge, propane stove that lit with a hiss and enough water to afford the luxury of one or two showers on the dusty journey.
In my grandfather's time, as many as a quarter-million sheep would bed here at the Thirty-Three Mile Divide, waiting for their turn in massive shearing sheds. A nearby monument declares that in the 1920s, when the trail was called the Irish Highway for the immigrants who trod it, more sheep congregated along here than in any other place in the world.
The sheds are gone, long ago burned up in campfires or worked into barbed wire fence posts. Still, nearly a century later, the meadows of the divide are russet-tinged, filled with an inedible weed called cheatgrass, which grows when the stomping of thousands of hooves tramples native grasses. This time, there was no danger of that. Frank and T.J.'s 2,000 sheep, and another 2,000 two days ahead with Frank's grandson Seano, 17, and Brendan, were the only ones on the trail.
A storm threatened as we nooned up at the Blue Hills reservoir a few days later. Just across a barbed wire fence was the land my grandfather homesteaded to get his start. Thunder boomed low to the southwest and a hot, restless wind rustled papers and whistled through the trailer vents. Frank, the "camp tender" on this trail, making the usual breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, doughnuts and boiled camp coffee, waved his spatula. "Ah, the kind of day that makes you love the trail," he said sarcastically, the trailer rocking with each blast of wind. T.J., the "herder," his half-glasses perched on his nose, was outside, tinkering with the spark plugs on his red Polaris Xplorer 400, the four-wheeler that a few years ago all but replaced horses for herding.
The Blue Hills are not really blue. They are brown and, at first glance, almost lunar. When Frank said, "Set camp to the left of that tree," you knew which one he meant. It was the only one on the horizon. But after a while, the sameness dissolved into infinite variations on a theme: Grass. Western wheat grass. Crested wheat grass. Gamma grass. Bunch grass. Needle-and-thread grass. Indian rice grass. Twenty-seven varieties of sagebrush. Buckbrush. Mahogany brush. Yellow sweet clover. Greasewood, thick with moisture and smooth, like aloe. "If sheep aren't used to it, it'll kill 'em like flies," Frank said. "They bloat."
Just as the concept of grass expands, the word "baa" becomes inadequate when you're living among 2,000 sheep. Some young lambs, calling for their mothers, warble "meeeehhee." Some older ewes make low, almost cow-like moans. "Heeeeey. Ohhhhhhh." As if the woe of the world were theirs. The unforgiving land is exact, specific. It demands attention or pays out in peril.
After breakfast, I brought my tape recorder to Frank's trailer. I knew only the vague outline of how my family came to this land to raise sheep, how they endured, and I knew this might be my last chance to learn.
In 1914, my grandfather, Frank Ellis Sr., like hundreds of thousands of the destitute hopeful, landed in America. He was 21.
He had traveled steerage, the cheapest way across the sea, bringing his own food and tea, and barely seeing the light above deck. He never spoke of what he left behind: the unfortunate marriage of his parents, a small, rocky farm outside the village of Kilcrohane in the west of Ireland that plunged steeply into the churning waters of Bantry Bay, chancy mackerel fishing off Glanalincoosh, and 12 brothers and sisters crammed into what could only be called a pile of rocks.
Like five of his brothers, my grandfather came with the promise of a job, land for the taking. Two uncles, John and Tim Mahoney, had come before him, in the 1870s.
John happened upon the Red Wall country when he was in the Army's cavalry division. When he got out, he remembered the place, and a Rawlins shopkeeper grubstaked him to a herd of sheep based on nothing more than "his word and the other man's judgment of his character." The range was wide open. And soon John had built four large sheep ranches. He helped Tim get his start nearby. Tim sent for his nephews one by one.
One of them was Frank Sr., my grandfather. He broke horses in bogs. Fought refinery workers till his knuckles were worn smooth. And worked. Hard. He walked the trail. He hauled 50-pound bags of salt for the sheep up an impossibly steep ravine every day for a month. Uncle Frank once showed me a 1916 letter from Tim Mahoney admonishing his nephew (my grandfather) for spending too much of his $600 annual wage. "Of course you have given over half of it to your family and I suppose they expected it," Tim allowed.
In 1930 my grandfather staked his own claim to land near the Blue Hills. He had to hire a lawyer to fight a brother and a cousin for the claim. He spent weeks out in the country, even in winter, living in a sheep wagon. My mother remembers him coming home for an occasional Sunday Mass and gambling at the Knights of Columbus hall. But his work paid off. He raised Rambouillet sheep for their fine wool. During World War II and the Korean War, when the Pentagon paid a premium for wool for uniforms, he paid off all debts on the ranch.
Frank Jr., my uncle, worked on the ranch from the time he was a boy, went on his first trail at 12. He missed a lot of school, dances and basketball games because he was out in the country, sleeping sometimes in his father's truck. It was only through my grandmother's intervention that Frank went to college -- my grandfather had no use for the idea, having reached only fourth grade himself. At the University of Wyoming, Frank studied history and agriculture and was offered jobs in Chicago and elsewhere. Instead, he came home. I asked him if he had any choice. "Oh, I think I did," was all he said.
In September 1955, when Uncle Frank was 26, everything changed. My mother has saved the old yellowed news clipping from the Casper Morning Star. "Train Crash Kills Rancher." A Burlington work train hurled my grandfather's one-ton flatbed truck 93 feet through the air before it smashed, cab first, into the ground.
My grandfather, 62, was killed instantly. Young Frank was knocked unconscious, his face badly lacerated and his neck broken. My mother remembers Frank, delirious in his hospital bed, calling out, "Jump, Dad, jump. The sons of bitches aren't stopping." But it's not something anyone in the family ever talks about.
It was late afternoon when Frank declared it was time to break camp and move again. As we pulled the heavy iron horse pickets out of the ground, I asked Frank what had happened to my grandfather's brothers who had also come out to Wyoming. Two lost their spreads in the Depression and ever after worked for others. Another, the gentlest, was killed in a barroom brawl. Two of them, Mike and Jack, were successful ranchers like Frank. Mike's and Jack's lands are still in their families.
He pursed his lips. "And Frank's will be sold."
Sheep-moving begins early. The herd was often gone up the trail by the time T.J. rose at 4:30 a.m. for the cup of boiled Folger's Frank had soaking overnight. Mornings were cold, so T.J. wore a flannel shirt under his camouflage jacket. He pulled a baseball cap low to his sunglasses and tuned his Walkman to whatever radio station he could find, then motored the four-wheeler slowly at the tail end of the herd while he sent his black-and-white border collies to tend what he called the "independent thinkers." Sometimes he raised his arms and whistled or made noises like "shhh chh chh" and "hup hup hup." Sometimes he'd throw rocks. Or simply wait. Frank -- who clung to the old ways -- often saddled his brown gelding, Gabby, to saunter out ahead and just park himself. While he waited for the sheep to pass, he sucked on his ever-present cigar and read a paperback thriller.
On the Fourth of July, Frank and T.J. hit Alkali Creek. Around 8 a.m., we set camp under an amphitheater-like wall striated in gray and black. It was medicine time. Frank took Coumadin for his blood clots and Celebrex for his arthritis. T.J. downed four different meds for his high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.
The day yawned, hot and dusty, with nothing to do until we broke camp in the late afternoon to move the sheep in the cool of the evening. T.J. turned in for a nap and Frank lay on his bunk reading from his magazine cache, a year's worth of Smithsonian, Farm Journal and National Geographic.
Then came the sound, a low, buzzing whine, breaking what had been days of muffled wind and stillness. It was earsplitting by the time a parade of five shiny new four-wheelers blasted around the corner of the dirt road just above camp. A black Chevy Suburban with tinted windows rolled up, blasting AC, followed behind. There were no sheep, or cattle. This was a recreational caravan.
The procession turned off the road and swarmed directly into our camp. The man in the lead peeled off tinted ski goggles and took off his helmet. He was short and square, with a round face and thinning sandy hair.
It was George Shumate, a prosperous sawmill owner from Lexington, Va., who had bought up a cattle ranch adjacent to my uncles' land the year before, hired people to work it and came to visit every now and then. Now he was sightseeing.
"How much farther to the Middle Fork?" he asked. "We must be almost there by now."
"Oh, it's still another 25, 30 miles," said T.J., who had been awakened by the noise, looking startled that someone would ride a four-wheeler all the way from Casper for fun.
"Guess we're not going to make it today," Shumate said and giggled.
Then he held out some papers. "Oh, I almost forgot. I have a copy of the appraisal."
The appraisal that would tell my uncles in dollars and cents how much their lives had been worth.
True to the stoic rancher ethic, my uncles had not advertised that their land was for sale. They did not hire a ranch broker. "You want to tell everyone at church on Sunday that you sold your ranch," one broker explained, "but you don't ever want to say it's for sale."
But Shumate had sussed out that the ranch was available, and he was eager to buy it.
Ask my uncles why they were selling, and they could tell you, down to the price per pound of lamb, that the numbers weren't adding up. Haven't added up in years. Even after Frank stopped taking a salary. "Hell, we did good last year, we only lost $30,000," my cousin Brendan explained. "We were doing pretty good selling sheep for taco meat in Mexico."
The beginning of the end, they said, came in 1984, when a freak blizzard hit late in April, just one day after they had shorn all 2,800 of their sheep. When the snow stopped, they poked at snowdrifts with sheep hooks and shot the dying until they ran out of bullets. They had lost all but 1,000 sheep. To rebuild the herd, they took out loans they could never repay. By 1999, they were still half a million dollars in debt, and the bank finally told them something had to change.
Why they couldn't repay the loans is where the story gets complicated. Some might say it's because the whole sheep ranching business is dying. Cheap New Zealand imports have flooded the market, and, outside of Easter and the occasional lamb chop, Americans simply don't eat much lamb.
The story is the same for wool. It took 11 months to sell their wool "clip" in 1999, and when they did, the price was so low -- 28 cents per pound -- that they paid their shearing costs and not much else. Tastes and technology have changed. "They've got this new stuff. Microfibers?" Frank said. "And I've got to say, it works pretty darn good."
In 1954, the Pentagon declared wool a "strategic material" and the government began paying an annual wool and mohair subsidy -- ranchers called it an "incentive" -- to encourage production.
But even with that subsidy, wool production had been in a free fall. By 1993, with wool no longer on the strategic list, production dwindled to less than a third of what it had been in 1955. The wool and mohair subsidy had become infamous, along with the tea tasters and the helium reserve, a symbol of flagrant government excess. The New York Times dubbed it the "Mohair Toilet Seat."
Critics railed that most of the $923 million that was projected to be spent from 1995 to 1999 would go to the top 1 percent of producers, and some of them would collect as much as $150,000 a year. It was true. But the subsidy, from a tariff on imported wool and distributed based on the amount of production, was also what kept small operators like my uncles in business in bad years.
When the subsidy evaporated in 1995, a quarter of the nation's sheep ranchers either switched to cattle or went under. In the stark Wyoming economy, ending the subsidy put half the sheep ranchers out of business.
But the larger question is, why subsidize a way of life? Even the mythic cowboy way that lives so powerfully in the American imagination.
Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association -- where a recording on the phone encoourages, "Don't forget the lamb cubes, they're great in stew and kebabs" -- has a ready answer. It's all about choice. And numbers. And politics. "They don't pick on corn," he said. "Payments in support of other crops amount to more than $20 billion a year. Compared to that, the wool program barely shows up on the graph."
Subsidized or not, the ranching life is changing. Some family ranches with breathtaking views lease their land to filmmakers for Marlboro commercials or Western movies like "The Horse Whisperer." Real estate agents call my uncles' scrubby land "basic Wyoming," and it falls short of the Hollywood ideal. Other ranchers sell easements to the Nature Conservancy and, in return for cash, promise that the land will never become a condo subdivision. Ellis Sheep Co. land wasn't big enough to be of interest. Some charge thousands for hunting privileges -- my uncles require only a handwritten note. And others hang on by outfitting city slickers and charging $1,000 a week and more to ride the trail.
On its Web site, the famous Willow Creek Ranch near Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall, promises singing round the campfire and single-action shootouts. Willow Creek dude operators wear wool chaps, Stetsons and holstered six-shooters. "I won't cook for people," was all Frank said on that subject.
Range economists say the average age of a Western rancher is more than 60, like my uncles. The economists predict that 70 percent of all Western ranches will change hands in the next decade. The people who are buying must have three things: a penchant for open space, a dream of being John Wayne -- and money.
In some parts of the West, ranching is becoming a romantic hobby for the gilded class. Ted Turner, Harrison Ford, David Letterman, Sam Donaldson, Wal-Mart heirs, the Mormon Church. Movie stars and dot-comers when they had millions. They're the ones who have paid top dollar for what ranch brokers call "the Pretties."
My uncles' spread wasn't pretty, but it had caught George Shumate's eye. While we were on the trail, he'd been calling T.J.'s cell phone for days.
Once, I asked Shumate why he was so eager to buy my uncles' land.
"Some people play golf," he said. "I play ranching."
As the trail continued north, it climbed into the mountains. This was rugged country. For my uncles, every stop evoked a memory of a harsher year, of heartache so commonplace as to be almost banal. Near Twin Reservoirs: "That's where Patsy Murphy was struck by lightning. Drilled both him and his horse." At First Bench: "I saw a big black cloud coming one year. We rushed the sheep into the narrows down in the canyon. First the snow came. Then the hail. We lost 100 sheep that day." Tales of losses. Of years of deerfly, grasshopper and moth infestations. A matter-of-fact recitation of plagues.
One morning, Frank stopped his truck on the road. I looked out through binoculars at what appeared to be a white boulder poking from a mucky basin. Frank got out. "I'm going to need my rifle," was all he said, pulling his 40-year-old Winchester from behind the seat of the cab. T.J.'s dog Tootsie galloped alongside as we got to a rise over the basin. The boulder turned out to be a mother ewe, stuck to her chest in muck. Her tiny white lamb beside her jumped and jerked but the muck only oozed and slapped and sucked and held him firmly in place.
"So we can't get them out?" I asked, sick over how much life was left in the lamb.
"No," Frank said. "If we tied a rope around her and tried to pull her out with the truck, we'd break her neck."
A pop rang out in the empty country. The horses stamped and whinnied in their trailer. Tootsie raced back to the caravan and hid behind a stack of tires in the truck bed. Frank pulled the trigger a second time and shot the lamb through the head. Blood, bright red, oozed out and spread across the muck. The lamb struggled briefly, then lay still.
Frank cursed, then walked back to the truck in silence. He knew better than most that some things just can't be saved.
That fall, my uncles brought the sheep back down the mountain and sold them all. If it was hard, they didn't let on. "Oh, some of those old gals, you know their first and second names," was all T.J. said.
George Shumate led my uncles through on-and-off negotiations before finally inking the deal. He paid $1 million for 14,120 acres and leases on about 1,500 more. Frank, T.J. and Brendan held onto a small piece of range just outside town and all 2,500 acres in the mountains. Not that they plan to do anything with it. They just couldn't let it go. About half the sale proceeds have gone to the bank to clear their debts. T.J. got half of the rest and Frank split his half with Brendan.
Brendan has spent the year clearing the land of ranch detritus, things like hundreds of old railroad ties and aluminum sheep corrals. Now, he'll start work for the highway crews, like he did in high school. He hopes to study nursing at Casper College in the fall.
T.J. spent the summer mowing lawns at the Casper Country Club for $7 an hour and nursing his wife, Sally, through chemotherapy. She found she had breast cancer soon after the sale. He talks of refurbishing the three old sheep wagons they still own. "Some people'll pay $30,000 for the thing to just sit in their back yard." He hasn't ridden a horse in more than a year. And if he goes to the country, it's just to let the dogs run. If he tries to keep them cooped up in town, they dig under the fence to roam free.
And Frank has traveled. To Peru. To Ireland.
Four times, lightning has struck Shumate's ranch. Each time, the fire department has called Frank first. He says he doesn't miss it, the rhythm of the year marked by the birth of spring lambs, branding on Memorial Day, the hot summer of the trail and the quiet waiting of winter. He says it's time to slow down.
Even so, there is a time, at the end of August, that is most lonely. The family used to gather for the birthday of my aunt and my sister, and the faintest hint of autumn in the evening breeze always reminded Frank that the fall trail down the mountain was about to begin. My aunt is gone. My sister is gone. There is no reason to gather in August. And the coming autumn wind portends nothing more than that it will soon be cold.
Yet, there are times in my mind's eye when it is still 5 a.m. on the last day of the last trail. T.J. is saddling his horse in the fresh morning light, every inch the cowboy. There is Frank, still silent and sure after the sheep pass through the barbed wire gate and into their mountain land for the last time.
There were no grand pronouncements. No taking of a final measure. Just work to be done. Frank put the horses to pasture on the steep slopes above Sullivan Creek, where his father herded as a young man. T.J. turned up the radio as he stowed the four-wheeler in the horse trailer and packed up his gear.
"I love this song," he said. And he started to sing.
"I shoulda been a cowboy. I shoulda learned to rope and ride. Wearing my six-shooter. Ridin' my pony on a cattle drive."
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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