The higher you go the tougher the trail becomes; each year is more rugged than the last. The cows are forced to go around trees that block the trail. Other times, such as this year for instance, a log was too large to go around, so it had to be cut by hand…..When you enter the gateway the world is so far away. Now a mile deep into the Latir Wilderness the views become breathtaking. With a pair of binoculars my grampo’s house can be seen at the bottom where the mountains form a V. This is the last view of civilization unless you’re going to the top. The air is thinner and you can feel the peace in the land….
This presentation was part of PechaKucha Taos, Volume 13, held in Questa in July, 2014. All presentations related to the “Thinking Wilderness” theme, marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness act. Read more about the event here.
I grew up with my brother Nathan on a farm in Urraca City, U.S.A. Like most farms, we had a variety of animals that required a great amount of food. So, we had to grow enough feed for the 6 months of winter! Our dad, Jose always said, “If you have to feed 1, you may as well feed 100; because they all require the same love and attention, and if you’re not willing to give that, then you shouldn’t have any.” The cows are our largest pets and each spring we practice the cultural and traditional way of branding and administering the one shot each calf will receive in its lifetime on the farm. Our children walk with this knowledge.
Speaking of walking; the cows knew their path by dark 5 miles south to my grampo Albert’s home. It must have been the sweet water grass they smelled that guided them. My grampo would always leave the gate open, and we would find them in the field. In all my lifetime of taking cows to the mountains, only twice have we had to go bring them back. On their won, they return via El Rito Rd, cross the highway, if the gate is open, and go back into my grampo’s field. They remain there until their hooves heal from the rough hike down. The wait is usually over when they break the fence and head north, back to the farm.
It is 2 miles due east from my grampo’s to the Latir Wilderness then about a quarter mile south the Rito Medio trail begins. By this time the cows are thirsty and can hear the water. You need good help to keep them turned east until the trail becomes steeper and the water further away. This is why my grampo always said, “Start early, because if the sun hits their eyes before the Peñasco, the cows are going to stop.”
Once the cows are established on the trail, the only obstacles left, are fallen trees; since this trail is not cleaned by the National Forest Service. Spring calves make the journey slow because they do not know the way and seem to enjoy wasting energy running from one side of the trail to the other.
The higher you go the tougher the trail becomes; each year is more rugged than the last. The cows are forced to go around trees that block the trail. Other times, such as this year for instance, a log was too large to go around, so it had to be cut by hand.
Other times, the cows are able to cross over, helping the trees to decay quicker by removing the bark. On our farm, the cows clean the fields so next year’s crop is free of residue. In the Sangre de Cristo they graze the valleys and mountain top helping with fire prevention. We have seen many trees struck by lightning that burned small areas around them and eventually died out due to a lack of fuel.
El Rito Medio begins from a spring on a mountain side that only has 2 large Ponderosa’s growing. There is a pile of logs at the bottom and the few trees you do find are 1 or 2 feet tall and 6-8 feet long. Yearly avalanches are the cause of this. The cows can’t get to the water soon enough and the Peñasco is where it’s at.
Peñasco means “Large Rock” or rocky area. As we approach it, the cows are required to walk single file because the trail narrows and the boulders become the size of houses. As a kid I would wonder how they got there or what I would do if they started moving; more so, what lie ahead.
The entrance to the Peñasco is like Massada (Hebrew for fortress); with only one way in. Here is where a tree fell preventing the cows from coming one time. A couple hundred feet after the passage, is the water where the cows regain their strength needed to finish the journey.
When you enter the gateway the world is so far away. Now a mile deep into the Latir Wilderness the views become breathtaking. With a pair of binoculars my grampo’s house can be seen at the bottom where the mountains form a V. This is the last view of civilization unless you’re going to the top. The air is thinner and you can feel the peace in the land.
Majestic towers of rock are in the formation of a bear that can be seen from the valley. Up close the rocks look like crumbling skyscrapers. The trail will take us to the very top of the Peñasco following switch-backs that elk created. When Nathan and I were boys, there was a myth that when you reached the switchbacks there was an escalator.
The terrain to get to these switch backs becomes even steeper and the trail almost solid rock. The cows now filled with water head for high country in a hurry. The even sweeter high mountain grass excites them; or it might be that they refuse to pull us up the switch backs. If you grab an animal by the tail while going uphill, the animal cannot kick you, thus a farmer’s escalator.
The work is over once you reach the summit. The cows have nowhere to go but up. Looking down the side, 30 foot trees start 20 feet down. If one of our cows fell here it would probably parish. The air is so thin that time seems to slow down. The smell of Aspens is everywhere. There is a tree that has the names of five generations of our family in it! This is one of our families’ greatest treasures.
The time shared together and lunch of course, are the highlight of the trip. While we sit and eat, each person shares their perspective and favorite part or parts of getting here. These stories last a lifetime and are also passed down to future generations. I asked my brother if he was ever scared when taking the cows; he said “No, because grampo said.”
Story By: Victor C. Mascareñas & Laura Mascareñas. Photos by: Jordan Mascareñas
I am a fifth generation American farmer, and forth generation on our family farm. Our farm has been certified organic since 1999. On it we grow dairy alfalfa, oats, barley, wheat, garlic, and beef. The cows are an important part of the organic cycle. Like an old fashion cattle drive, our cows must walk almost nine miles before reaching the mountain meadows, reaching 12,000 feet and higher. I am blessed that my four children have experienced this adventure and pray there will be many more generations to go.
Bio Photo from Taos News article