“In April, Mr. Maxwell and I concluded to make a settlement on the Rayado. We had been leading a roving life long enough and now was the time, if ever, to make a home for ourselves and our children. We were getting old and could not expect to remain any length of time able to gain a livelihood as we had been such a number of years. Arrived at Rayado, commenced building and making improvements, and were in a way of becoming prosperous.” – Kit Carson, 1845, Brigadier General, trapper, mountain man, Indian agent
A solitary lamp on the Buffalo Soldier barracks is lonely and dim in the vast darkness, not quite enough to illuminate the baring branches that claw and scratch at the chilly night. Sunset has long disappeared on the alpine tundra as the Sangre de Cristo mountain sub-ranges of the Taos and Cimarron close us off from any remnants of western light. Clouds that tumbled in at dusk over the juniper foothills and the flat-top mesas and cattle pastures keep the moon and stars at bay. Except for the dim shreds of light from the barracks, my eyes become useless in a black night that stretches 30 miles in several directions from the epicenter of the Express UU Bar Ranch.
For the next three nights I will sleep in the old creek house whose age and weathered structure tilt her slightly to the north. I love her straying boundaries. Her sloping and spotless wood floors are cold against my bare feet. On this fall evening I peer through the paned window looking east and see no sign of light from the cowboy bunkhouse. It means that I am the last of the crew still awake. After my shower, the hot water heater crackles and pops as it replenishes itself through painted-over pipes while I slide into bed to face the challenge of shutting off a mind that continues to marvel at my surroundings.
I’m up at 5:30. It’s pitch black when I brew coffee in the Old West-era kitchen, the aroma of which joins smells detained for nearly 100 years by the floors and ceilings and painted window sills. Over my first sips I see that morning begins to slay away the night by painting brilliant splotches of orange and pink against a deep, blue-purple sky. Something else is watching. I’m unaware of their presence until they begin moving quietly from the front porch–those 20 to 30 enormous birds whose company I slept through; wild turkeys that blend into the yet-grey morning, heading up the driveway to merge with a herd of mule deer who search for their day beds. I grab my camera and dash outside in my pajamas to watch the morning traffic. The bucks are mostly five-by-fives and six-by-sixes, staring, wondering who I am in my colorful flannel versus their expectation of camouflage. Convinced I’m harmless (and clearly crazy), they allow me to enter their midst as two of them lower their heads and engage in a challenge. As my shutter clicks in the monochrome morning, the turkeys heckle the revue before wandering off into the sage for something better.
In June of 1821, a salt maker named William Becknell opened the Santa Fe trade when he advertised in the Missouri Intelligencer for “a company of men destined to the westward for the purpose of trading horses and mules, and catching wild animals of every description.” Intending to trade with the Comanches and to trap for furs in the Rocky Mountains, Becknell and a handful of companions crossed the Missouri River in Arrow Rock and embarked on what would become the Santa Fe Trail. Some 800 miles long, the trail’s legacy spans 60 years as the singular commerce transit that supplied goods to New Mexico and the surrounding Southwest. It was also a lively conduit for ideas and cultural exchange such as introducing Mexicans and Southwest Indians to the Yankee overlanders. Foot and wagon travel would eventually succumb to the iconic iron horse, but even so, the trail’s historic remnants were reclaimed by the western migration of the train heads. During the Santa Fe Trail’s endurance and perseverance, she paused long enough to leave her celebrated autograph on the 180,000-acre Express UU Bar Ranch.
At 7:00 a.m. on our first morning, I stand in place with my gear as the stagecoach and Clydesdales approach for the morning shots. The crew has been up since I hate-to-imagine-when, evidenced by the glistening presentation of horses and coach as the sun breaks over the mesa. They emerge from the barn about a quarter-mile from the main lodge whose kitchen staff is busy preparing breakfast for our crew, the ranch staff and for the hunters and anglers who have booked fishing cabins and guided elk hunts. The fall turkey season is another two weeks out, something the turkeys seem to know.
After the morning photos are captured I share a breakfast table with former Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) Chairman, John Caid, who now oversees the Express UU Bar Ranch as its wildlife biologist and ranch foreman. Prior to coming on board with the UU Bar, Caid spent 35 years with the White Mountain Apache Game and Fish Department. He begins his mornings at 4:30 a.m. every day of the year, a schedule he keeps due to the volume of responsibility in overseeing a ranch the size of a small country, one also merited by the National Cattlemen’s Association as the nation’s largest seed stock operation. I strongly sense, however, that in the midst of its secluded beauty, history and prolific cattle production, that John keeps those hours because he doesn’t want to miss anything.
“Would you like to see the high country before you leave?” he asks me. “You probably won’t see any cats, but we have a lot of bear and the elk herds are quite active.“ He explains that it requires considerable time to ascend the 9,500-foot mark of that high country which we can do in a vehicle, but to reach the ranch’s 11,500-foot summit, we must hike. We leisure over breakfast and discuss his responsibilities on the biodiversity front. “The short answer is we work hard to successfully balance livestock with native wildlife. We are extremely progressive in habitat stability and improvement. I oversee controlled burns, selective logging–which opens the canopy for more forage with improved nutrition–and upgrading water catchments for the deer, elk and antelope.” John pauses for the pleasant jingle of spurs as the cow punchers shuffle in for breakfast while their saddled horses wait in stock trailers below the lodge. “We analyze a lot of data to monitor the health of the elk herds. For every elk harvested at the UU Bar, we weigh them, evaluate tooth wear and extract the two lower incisors to send to the lab for aging.”
The trophy potential for the UU Bar’s elk are beyond impressive, evidenced by the stately mounts that decorate the lodge walls. John explains that elk retain their antlers through winter and shed them in the spring. The body determines when those antlers will fall; when one side comes off, the other follows within 24 to 48 hours. In a week or two, the new ones are on their way. The UU Bar collects any shed antlers they can find, but most are consumed by rodents for their potent source of calcium.
When owner Bob Funk and his lovely companion, Janine Regier, join us at the table, I ask Bob what fueled his decision to acquire the ranch. “I love to hunt elk,” he smiled. “I hunted elk in Montana and Colorado, and I wanted a way to do it better.” It was a prudent decision that couples well with the cattle portfolio for which Bob is well known. Express Ranches boasts numbers of nearly 6,000 head of cattle of Limousin, Angus and Lim-Flex pedigrees. The high mountain ranch currently hosts a commercial cow-calf production unit, a bred heifer development program and 1,000 yearling steers every summer. Express Ranches uses their bulls on the commercial cows, which facilitates testing of Express genetics in the semi-arid and high altitude area. Additionally, hundreds of yearling bulls are conditioned on the UU Bar before transport back to Oklahoma for sale.
Originally part of the Maxwell Land Grant, the UU Bar was embedded in one of the most substantial land grants in history. Lucien Maxwell at one time was the largest single landowner in the western hemisphere. In 1848 and 1849, Maxwell partnered with famed mountain man and Army General Kit Carson to establish the ranch township of Rayado. The land was also home to factions of the U.S. Cavalry including the largest western camp, Fort Union, which provided protection to Santa Fe Trail travelers. In 1927, Waite Phillips (Phillips 66 Petroleum) bought 500,000 acres, eventually gifting 37,000 of them to the Boy Scouts of America, which became the Philmont Scout Ranch that borders the UU Bar today. The side-byside landowners of UU Bar and Philmont now hold 317,000 of those original Waite Phillips acres.
The treasures of this place encompass troves of crystal lakes and trophy wildlife, the sunsets and even woolly mammoth remains, yet one beguiling prize can be found inside the lodge, hanging over the stairwell that leads to the upstairs gathering room. Bob Funk points to a cowboy sketch. “We found that in one of the mountain log cabins, sketched on the wall.” Upon closer inspection and professional evaluation, it is believed to be an authentic Will James.
The afternoon comes calling and it’s time to utilize the daylight before the Sangre de Cristos begin pulling the sun behind their peaks. We mobilize with the Clydesdales and conclude another shoot before returning to the lodge for dinner. On my walk back to the creek house for the evening, I come face-to-face with the Buffalo Soldier barracks. In 1866, several black companies of the 125th Infantry marched into New Mexico to serve in seven territory forts. Mind you, this was only a year following the end of the Civil War. They provided escort to all walks of life along the Santa Fe Trail, protected citizens against lawlessness and cattle rustling and defended the area against regular raids from the Apache Indians who weren’t too keen on the white travelers or the Army. For all troops, the quest for apprehending marauding Apaches proved arduous and slow against the quick-moving Indians who knew the territory far better than the military.
Buffalo Soldiers were originally members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, formed on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The term “Buffalo” is said to have been applied to the black troops by the Indians because of their courage and fortitude which are much-admired traits of the buffalo. The soldiers regarded it as a sincere compliment and adopted the buffalo as the regiment’s crest. It’s a fitting tribute as nearly 180,000 blacks served in the Civil War, which amounts to 10% of the Union Army.
When morning comes for us, we begin the day with a shoot on the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. To get there, we pass the house of Kit Carson which sits across the road from the creek house. Army officer, mountain man, wilderness guide and Indian agent for the Jicarilla Apaches, Carson would arrive years earlier than the Union Army, trekking across the UU Bar by way of the Santa Fe Trail. The dime novel hero, though brevetted an Army General, lived in and among the Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples, taking Indian women from these tribes as wives for his three marriages that produced ten children. In spite of his rather surprising integration into Native American culture, his regard for the Indians was, at best, ambivalent. He had strong ties to some and others, he vehemently persecuted. In 1863 when bands of Navaho refused reservation confinement, Carson, after destroying villages and decimating crops and livestock, marched 8,000 Navajo people 300 miles from their homes for imprisonment on the Bosque Redondo Reservation.
The most fascinating relic when it comes to the UU Bar Ranch is its uncontested crown jewel, the Express St. James Hotel which Bob Funk restored with 19th century accuracy. Since Cimarron was a reviving spot along the Santa Fe Trail for exhausted mavericks on both sides of the law, it’s no surprise that the A-list rebels who registered as guests include Jesse James, William McCarty (Billy the Kid), Doc Holliday and Black Jack Ketchum. Reminding ourselves that Cimarron is Spanish for wild or unbroken, Bob Funk and I share an exciting conversation about the original guest register that came with the hotel that was built in 1872 by Henry Lambert. After years of remaining empty and passing from owner to owner, Bob acquired the UU Bar and St. James Hotel and promptly tasked the hotel’s authentic restoration. “The names on the register are amazing,” he tells me. “Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, William McCarty, Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Annie Oakley–a bunch of them. During the renovation process we counted 27 bullet holes in the ceiling.”
It is widely held that Henry Lambert’s inspiration for building Lambert’s Saloon and Billiard Hall, eventually renamed the St. James Hotel, began with Ulysses S. Grant who appointed the French-trained culinary talent as President Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef. Though it cannot be validated, the theory certainly fits well with the non-conformist style of the southwest, and what we know for certain is that Henry Lambert’s brainchild spawned the most notoriously violent stopover of the era. Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Lambert departed the east and landed on the Santa Fe Trail’s leg at the UU Bar, becoming Lucien Maxwell’s chef. Impressed with Lambert’s knack for great food, Maxwell encouraged him to put down roots in Cimarron, and shortly thereafter, he began building. The completed saloon and billiard hall became so famed and popular that in 1880 Lambert added 30 guest rooms, and the St. James Hotel–regarded as the most elegant and fashionable west of the Mississippi–was born.
On their way to Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and his brother, Morgan, stayed at the St. James with their wives. Wyatt’s good friend and sidekick, Doc Holliday, was a guest, as was Bat Masterson. Buffalo Bill Cody actually met Annie Oakley in Cimarron and they rehearsed their Wild West Show while staying at the hotel. Davy Crockett, the outlaw nephew of the original Davy Crockett, registered as a guest. Author Zane Grey began writing his novel, Fighting Caravans, while staying in Room 2. Notorious train robber Thomas Edward “Black Jack” Ketchum stayed at the hotel. He was executed in a widely publicized “botched” hanging on April 26, 1901. Jesse James always signed in with his alias, RH Howard, and always stayed in Room 14. In satirical style, his would-be assassin, Bob Ford, also stayed at the St. James. Billy the Kid stayed there, as did his would-be killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett. Though proprietor Lambert did have the forethought to reinforce the ceiling with a thick barrier of lumber to protect upstairs guests from bullets coming through the floor, at least 26 men died in gunfights at the hotel.
Entering the hotel today, one is instantly impressed with the preservation of the era. Nearly all furniture is original – from the chandeliers that hung over the din of gambling and whiskey and sometimes murder, to the beds and dressers in the guestrooms. There are no phones or televisions in these rooms, and when passing Room 18, you can’t overlook the padlock that has barred entrance since the 1980s. No one is allowed into the room and it will never again be booked for guests. On March 31, 1882, Thomas James Wright won the rights to the hotel in a high stakes poker game. As he reached the door of his room, he was shot in the back. He entered his room, collapsed on the floor and bled to death. Nearly a hundred years after the murder, a subsequent hotel owner padlocked the door after a frightening experience of being “pushed down” after entering Room 18. Guests tell stories of a cowboy ghost watching them and grinning, appearing suddenly in mirrors and actually being videotaped peeking around the corner. To this day, Room 18 remains a hotbed of paranormal activity at the St. James.
Visiting the hotel, your attention is abruptly snagged by the sign, “No Ouija Boards.” And they mean it. Three paranormal research film crews have taped episodes at the famed landmark, so before you wave off these haunting accounts as rubbish, check out Episode 43 of “My Ghost Story” on the Biography Channel (October 5, 2012); “Haunted Collector–Burning Spirits Ghosts of the of the West” on the Syfy Channel (June 16, 2011); and “Ghost Prophecies” on the A&E Biography Channel (November 28, 2010). The hotel web site informs the public that resident ghosts share the hotel with transient spirits from the Santa Fe Trail, but that not all of these visitors are “nice.”
Today the Express UU Bar Ranch and Express St. James Hotel are lively tourist attractions steeped in the Old West and set in a haven of unspoiled wilderness. After an 11-year hiatus, January marked the fifth time since 2009 that the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish conducted a 125-head pronghorn capture-relocation on the UU Bar using the lowstress wing trap method. Relocation programs are necessary when certain species whose numbers get too high put stress on an area. Since pronghorn are extremely sensitive to stress and heat, animals are driven into a corral and secured with hidden gate systems that close quickly behind them and before they realize they’re in a trap. They are allowed to calm down before being guided into a darkened, padded chute. Two crew members catch each of the pronghorn and carry them to inspecting veterinarians, but to keep them calm and quiet, their hooves are not allowed to touch the ground until they are placed in transport trailers.
Celebrity big game hunter, Kristy Titus, a regular on the television series “It’s in Your Nature” and “RMEF Team Elk” is a big fan of the Express UU Bar Ranch where she loves hunting elk. Kristy praises the UU Bar as being “an elk hunter’s dream come true and a place where I found myself absolutely awe-struck. This is my version of heaven on earth.”
As for the St. James Hotel, the ghosts continue with their antics. Or so I’m told. Regarding the paranormal element of my trip, I’m continually asked if I saw any ghosts. I have to laugh because the answer is yes–but, not the way you think. I saw them in the mesa sunrises. They were there in the star-pierced black nights that blanketed the old creek house. The stairs and floors of the St. James utter the same creaks and groans as when the scuffed boots of Old West legends walked her planed timbers and opened her doors; when they gambled at her faro tables and drank her warm whiskey from shot glasses that rapped against the bar; and when they retired in upstairs rooms over the bullet-riddled ceiling. When you close your eyes in those narrow halls, you can smell the cigars and hear the spurs; and from within the rooms the dressers and chairs echo with sounds of pistols placed and gun belts slung, of the tired sighs that came before sleep. The Sangre de Cristos loom with the same splendor as when the Buffalo Soldiers from the 125th Infantry looked upon them, and the cold, refreshing tumble of the Cimarron River and Rayado Creek whisper the same greeting as when the Apache warriors and Union soldiers stopped to water their parched horses. I think about Doc and Wyatt and Bat, and wonder, if when their eyes rested on this place, were their hearts seduced as quickly as mine by a beauty too deep for words?
As I snap the last images of the Clydesdales with their Scotches kicking up a sunset dust like the mules and horses of the Santa Fe Trail some 190 years ago, I believe the answer is, most certainly, yes.