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Originally published as “The Last Place to Go”
June 21, 1987
This World Section – San Francisco Chronicle
San Bernardino County
I heard about Gary Overson from Connie Swain, a pretty, dark-eyed woman behind the counter at the Goffs cafe and store. I was working my way west on the back roads, up out of the valley of the Colorado and across the high desert, with the vague notion of finding a rancher who would talk about the proposed Mojave National Park. On the map, Goffs looked like a good place to start, although the town turned out to be little more than the cafe and a house or two beside a graded railroad crossing. When Connie Swain learned what I wanted, she poured me a cup of coffee and dug out fat folders of maps and handouts from the California Desert Coalition, a group working against the park. Then she took me outside and pointed out the road to Overson’s place. “I’m sure he’ll see you,” she said. “He’s had all kinds of people up there asking questions over the last few months.”
In fact, Gary Overson tells me when I arrive, he is busy, just on the way out, and kind of tired of talking. For a few minutes, it’s a standoff. He sits in the cab of his idling pickup in the small dusty yard of the OX Ranch, while I shout at him from outside the gate, trying to make myself heard over a spring wind that tears across the desert like an express train. After driving 23 miles from Goffs, the last 10 of them over kidney-numbing dirt roads, I am inclined to be persistent. “Well, all right, then,” he finally says, “you’d better climb in here and I’ll talk to you for a few minutes.”
Once he gets heated up about the park, however, he seems perfectly willing to talk the morning away, leaning out the window occasionally to arch a stream of tobacco juice out past the shiny door of the pickup and onto the thirsty ground. He is got up completely in cowboy gear. His Stetson is white, his boots black. A pale green bandanna is knotted around his neck. He says he is 47, but his lean body appears 10 years younger and his face looks 10 years older, battered as it is by the wind and sun. His eyes are the pale blue of a sun-washed desert sky. When he smiles (which isn’t often at first) he reveals a wall of bad teeth chinked with gold. The cab of the truck is subtly scented with the aroma of his aftershave.
“Look at it,” he says sweeping his hand across the windshield of the pickup. “It’s a desert. Everybody thought you was crazy to be here when I was a kid.”
To those with an eye for sparse terrain, this chunk of the high Mojave is some of the most beautiful land in the state. The OX Ranch sits in the Lanfair Valley—green country, for desert, studded with clumps of native grama and gayata grasses and decorated with yuccas of ungainly stance. This is two-season land, Overson says. Rain filters in over the Tehachapis during the winter, and on summer afternoons great gray clouds will sometimes pout up on the horizon, spread to fill the sky with a fearsome light, and finally dump torrents on the thirsty ground.
The first stock to graze this valley may have been the horses of Francisco Garces, who passed through in 1776 on an Indian path between the Colorado River and the country then known as Alta California. You can still see the ruts of the old Mojave Trail where it crosses the road just south of the ranch. It is the fragile nature of the country that allows these tracks to remain after 100 years. It is the fragile nature of the country that furrows the brows of Sierra Clubbers when they catch on the desert breeze the high whine of off-road cycles running through their gears.
Most of the land in the California desert is owned by the federal government and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The railroads also own some land, which they received in exchange for pushing the tracks through here in the mid-1800s. Overson grazes 3,000 head of cattle on nearly 900,000 acres of leased BLM and railroad land and on 7,000 heavily mortgaged acres he owns himself. Taken together, this land represents nearly two-thirds of the proposed 1.5-million-acre park, part of a mammoth California desert conservation bill now pending in the U.S. Senate. The bill would also upgrade Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments to national parks and set aside nearly 8.5 million acres of park and BLM land as new wilderness.
Senator Alan Cranston, the Sierra Club and and other environmentalists believe the park is needed to protect the desert from off-road vehicle enthusiasts who cut broad paths in the fragile soils bursting the eardrums of kangaroo rats with the roar of their engines. The desert also needs protection, park proponents say, from those who would vandalize important archeological artifacts, or uproot native vegetation.
“As California’s population continues to grow and tourism increases,” Senator Cranston wrote in a recent issue of Sierra magazine, “more and more demands will be made on this fragile environment.”
Gary Overson puts the matter more bluntly. “People is the most destructive sons of bitches in the world,” he says. “What it boils down to is, you have to control people just like I control my cattle. The government thinks a park is the only way they can do that.”
Nothing in Gary Overson’s background has prepared him to think of the desert as either preserve or playground, and he readily admits he’s no authority on parks, never having seen one. He went to work on the OX Ranch at 14 after his father was killed under a train down at Goffs. He left the eighth grade with what the school told him were third-grade skills, signing on at the ranch for $100 a month. “I started out with a pickup and a bedroll,” he says, “and just kept buying cows.” Thirty-three years later, he owns that ranch, plus two others, and figures he’s got $5 million tied up in the operation, which supports six families in all, including that of his son.
Overson has few interests outside of his family, horses, cows and these million or so acres of California desert. While he once drove to Texas to pick up a horse trailer, he has never been to San Francisco, and only once to Los Angeles, years ago on a grammar school field trip. He sometimes goes to Las Vegas on business, although he’d just as soon not (“I spend all my time in that town sitting at stoplights,” he says), and he has never taken a vacation. When asked if he might not be able to swap his stock and fixtures for a modest retirement, he replies with a scoff: “What would I do? I don’t swim. I don’t fish. The only thing I do is get drunk once in a while. I couldn’t stay drunk all the time—that’s too hard on the carcass.”
All of which makes Overson understandably impatient with the whole concept of recreation. “Recreation’s not real,” he says. “Recreation is just recycling money. You can’t eat it. You can’t build with it. It’s just a good time because you’ve got the money to do it.”
He is also unprepared to understand why some environmentalists might want the cattle off the land. Haven’t the cows been here for a hundred years? he wants to know. Haven’t the ranchers developed all the water out here? Hasn’t he alone laid more than 200 miles of water line, bringing the desert’s most precious resource to stock and wildlife alike? And hasn’t he lived in the desert all his life, hanging in through the 110 degrees days and the skin-stripping wind? The OX Ranch is not some high-class tax dodge or corporate money shuffle, like many operations these days. “You take a rancher that really lives on the land, they love this country,” Overson says. “They don’t want to hurt it. This is their home.”
It’s unclear exactly what the new park might mean to cattle ranching. Despite Overson’s assertion that livestock is good for the range—reseeding and improving the nutritional quality of the grasses —many environmentalists disagree, believing dry desert lands to be particularly sensitive to the fat hooves and ceaseless munching of cattle. If there is to be grazing in a national park, they say, let deer and antelope do it.
As currently drafted, the Senate bill would eliminate grazing on BLM land when current leases expire. This would essentially put Overson out of business. His private and railroad land would not fatten enough cows to pay his mortgages. Alternatively, the law may be amended to allow grazing within the park, in which case Overson’s afraid the accompanying regulations might kill him. He knows about regulations because much of his grazing land is already part of the California Desert Conservation Area, a program administered by the BLM to manage and balance competing interests in the desert.
Environmentalists welcome the BLM regulations, but want the stronger controls and increased protection a park would provide. Stronger controls are exactly what Overson is afraid of. “You got to be able to run your own business,” he says with a shrug.
It is past noon by the time I’m zigzagging on the back roads south and west toward the interstate. The wind is still up with a vengeance and the van drives like a flag. It is the height of the desert season, the week after Easter, yet this road through what would be the heart of Mojave National Park is mine alone. I wonder if such peace can last. I have been in Death Valley National Monument at this time of year—and have walked out into the desert night and thrown my sleeping bag beneath a blooming creosote to escape the crush of RVs and the boom of radios in the dusty campground at Stovepipe Wells.
Whether we call this place a park or not, it probably won’t be long before it needs all of the refuse collection, law enforcement and traffic management the other national parks have learned to provide.
Coming down Ivanpah Road, I stop the van and step out in the dust to put the binoculars on a golden eagle riding the gale. Then I swing them out over the Lanfair Valley and to the north, toward the dry slopes of the New York Mountains. Gary Overson doesn’t think this country should even be part of California. “It should have went with Arizona or Nevada,” he told me wistfully, undoubtedly thinking he wouldn’t be having these problems if it weren’t for the great pressure of the cities along the coast. Overson talks of the state as if it were another planet. “That land over in California was real good cattle country,” he said. “Now, it’s all covered with houses and people. It’s the same old story. They’ve ate up every place you can go, people have. This is one of the last big places of open ranches there is in California. If they want to preserve something, why in hell wouldn’t they want to preserve that?”
But whether he likes it or not, Gary Overson has no inherent right to graze cattle on the public range. What happens to the public lands in the California desert is ultimately for the public to decide. The great press of flesh that is California in the 1980s has its own agenda, its own need for physical and emotional elbow room. The desert is caught in a tug-of-war between those who would tear across it in search of an illusory sense of freedom and those who would have it wild, as an emotional buffer against an increasingly plastic-coated world.
In the middle is Gary Overson. Living here, he knows better than anyone that frustrated urban cowboys from all over the Southland think of the desert as a kind of vast sandlot open for public play. He has seen the motorcycles roaring down his ranch roads. He has heard the gunfire and found the spent cartridges from endless rounds of target practice around his stock tanks. But his fear of a park has forced him into an uneasy alliance with the gun-toting gas-burners who form the backbone of opposition to the Cranston bill. Like many of the residents of the high desert, what he really wants is for everybody to go away and leave him alone. But that’s just not going to happen.
Someday there may be an exhibit here, over in the Lanfair Valley on the OX Ranch. “Old-Time Desert Cattle Ranch of the 1980s,” the sign will say. Visitors will be able to tour the barn and go in groups through the little ranch house, as neat and spartan as a monk’s cell. There they will see the fieldstone fireplace, a scattering of easy chairs and a kitchen with three enormous refrigerators. “At roundup time the rancher had many mouths to feed,” some blond-haired, squeaky-clean seasonal ranger will tell the tour. Then the tourists will get into their air-conditioned motor homes and motor home—or, if it’s not yet time to motor home, they will motor over to the visitors’ center or to the next point along the Lanfair Valley Scenic Loop.
I know where I stand in this great desert debate. The desert looks too much like waste to too many people, it is too easily abused to be safe for much longer without protection. But I would also be sad to see Overson go. Not because I like cows (the finest of which strike me as stupid, inelegant animals) but because I like this cow man. If and when there is a park here, at least some of the visitors will come fleeing the city in search of a rare rootedness in the natural world that comes only with digging in and getting to know a place over the long haul. Gary Overson could tell them about that, but he probably won’t be around to ask.
© text and photos 2017 William Poole. All rights reserved.
William Poole’s Detour’s feature appeared between June 1987 and December 1990 in the This World section of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday edition.