Apache Junction News Note: Tom Kollenborn worked on the Barkley Cattle Ranch during its twilight years in the mid and late 1950s. Many interesting accounts occurred during these years. This is the first portion of a two-part story which reveals some of those special moments on horseback.
One early Spring morning I saddled up one of Barkley’s cow ponies preparing to check stock along the eastern perimeter of the ranch’s boundary. The day’s plan included a ride to the Horse Camp area at the head of Trap Canyon. My father had told me many interesting and intriguing stories about Trap Canyon and the prospectors who believed there was buried gold in the area. For this ride I [chose] Scooter, a strong bay horse standing sixteen hands high. He probably tipped the scales around eleven hundred pounds.
Riding to Upper Trap Canyon and Horse Camp Ridge would require a strong horse and chaps to protect my legs while busting through thorns and thick brush. In those days the only thing that cleared trails were cattle.
Barkley had told me to be on the lookout for young calves and mother cows, and reminded me that the old Brahma bull that frequented the area would probably be hanging around Horse Camp Springs. He warned me to use caution when in the old bull’s company. The old bull was easy to agitate and could be very dangerous.
Finally I pulled the cinch up tight, climbed into the saddle and started my long ride into the mountains. The clink of my mount’s metal shoes against the many rocks on the trail sort of mesmerized my thoughts as I watched the sun slowly rise over Coffee Flat Mountain.
The ride up Miner’s Needle Canyon was steep and rough. The present trail was constructed in 1963, but in the 1950s there was no super highway like there is today. As I rode eastward through Miner’s Summit I could feel a cool gentle breeze blowing against my back. The beauty of early morning was spectacular.
I reined Scooter and followed the trail to the headwaters of Whiskey Springs Canyon. Scooter slowly picked his way down through the rocks into the bottom of the canyon. We soon passed the site of an old biplane that had rested on the canyon floor for more than twenty years. Barkley said two Canadian Army aviators from Falcon Field crashed there in 1942. “They were lucky to walk away,” I thought as I perused the old crash site.
The towering cliffs which form the eastern edge of La Barge Canyon overwhelm a horse and rider. We rode into the “box” of Upper La Barge Canyon and for the next forty-five minutes Scooter used all his energy to get us safely through. Crystal clear water trickled down the canyon on solid rock, occasionally forming a beautiful blue pool [of] water [where] the rock had been hollowed out by erosion. Once through the “box” I [breathed] a sigh of relief. Each ride through the “box” was a risk to life and limb, but risk came with the territory.
The upper reaches of La Barge Canyon were much greener. The vegetation was lush and the area didn’t look anything like the dry desert around the headquarters ranch on Padre Canyon. As I rode out of the “box” and past old man Bradford’s diggings, I thought of what a lonely and isolated life he must have lived here.
As I rode toward the headwaters of Trap Canyon, silence filled the air except for the occasional call of a Blue Jay or Raven. A covey of Gambel quail startled Scooter momentarily and at the same time five large Mule deer sprang from hiding and ran up a distant slope.
The sky was a deep dark blue accented by a burning ball of fire as the sun rose higher in the sky. I soon reached the low divide that separated the drainage of La Barge and Trap Canyon. I stopped for a few minutes and rested.
[Part II – October 20, 1998]
A small group of crossed Brahma-White Faced calves stood near a large Alligator juniper while the mother cows grazed nearby. As I rode across the basin which formed the headwaters of Trap Canyon, I found several more calves and their mothers. All the cattle I spotted looked in good shape. I circled the basin then rode up on Horse Camp Ridge. From this vantage point I could see the entire basin below me. I counted seventeen calves and some twenty cows. Three calves were missing or some of the cows were barren.
The ride to the basin had begun at first light, so I turned Scooter back toward La Barge Canyon and the trail home. The rays of light from the afternoon sun bounced off the yellow rock formations creating a color palette only an artist could appreciate. The canyon danced with a variety of colors ranging from red through brown to yellow caused by the brilliant rays of the sun. As I consumed [continued through?] the spectacular beauty of the area, my mind returned to tales of lost gold. The tales my father had told me about Mexican prospectors from along the Gila River who died here searching for lost gold.
He said they had a map that showed a cave shaped like a human head. As I rode down La Barge Canyon through the “box” I soon spotted the cave Dad had talked about. It was on the right side of the canyon about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the canyon. “Just another tale and an unusual landmark,” I thought.
As I turned Scooter up Whiskey Springs Canyon I [noticed] a large Red-Tailed hawk circling on the thermals in search of food. It wasn’t long before he swooped down and grabbed a ground squirrel and then settled on top of a giant Saguaro cactus to eat his catch.
It was late afternoon by the time I was back to Miner’s Summit. I sure didn’t want to ride Scooter down Miner’s Summit in the dark – daylight was bad enough. The big, strong bay worked his way down the canyon arriving safely at the bottom. Once at the bottom of the canyon it was a forty-five minute ride back to the ranch. As we rode briskly across the desert floor the sun was falling rapidly from the sky. I wanted to be in the home corral and have all the stock fed by dark. This was another typical day on the Barkley Ranch.
I tallied the cows and calves I had seen and reported their condition to Bill Barkley. He looked at me with a very sober eye and said, “Slim, half of those cows and calves you checked on belonged to Stone (another rancher). I hope he plans on paying for half your salary.”
I thought for a moment and replied, “Bill it was a beautiful ride. Oh, by the way, I did close the gate at the summit.”
I had ridden about twenty-two miles solo in some really rugged country and survived. Old Gus Barkley always said everything in these mountains either bites, stings, sticks or eats meat.
Once inside the ranch house and eating my supper I had to agree with old Gus, but the beauty and pure solitude of this cattle range would be something I would never forget. Hard work, long hours and little pay is not what keeps a cowboy on the range. It is the beauty of his surroundings, isolation and the stock he works with. This is the spirit of the cowboy.
That day’s work on the Quarter Circle U Ranch was more than forty years ago, yet it is still vivid in my mind. The Quarter Circle U Ranch (old Bark Ranch) is located in Pinal County near the southeastern end of Superstition Mountain.