Through the dust, I watch 46-year-old optometrist John Bender of Enterprise, Alabama, phone in an appointment with his chiropractor to take place as soon as Bender returns home from vacation.
This is work. Hard trots. Chaffed thighs. Bruised hindquarters. Eating dust. Whipping winds. Baking sun. Rough country. Stubborn cattle. And the meanest trail boss this side of Red River’s Tom Dunson.
I’m kidding about the latter statement. Kim Chesser’s a prince of a guy.
Since the fall of 2003, Chesser and his wife Patricia have been giving guests a bona fide true Western experience at Burnt Well Guest Ranch outside Roswell, New Mexico. Guest ranch is a bit of a misnomer. This is a working cattle ranch, and guests here work.
“We just wanted some sort of income that wasn’t dependent on the rain,” Patricia says.
That’s well and good, but we’re moving 156 head of Angus-cross cattle from the rugged Bonney Canyon Ranch in Lincoln County to Burnt Well’s winter grazing pastures. The Chessers are putting their cattle—their livelihood—in the hands of: an actuarial associate from Blaine, Minnesota; a service manager for a Carlisle, Iowa, management company; two retirees from Soper, Oklahoma; a paralegal from Dunedin, Florida; a retired Forest Service employee from Santa Fe, New Mexico; a Minter, Alabama, construction worker and his wife, a mental health manager; a state corrections officer from Warwick, Rhode Island; a Kernels popcorn franchise owner from Ontario, Canada; that optometrist with a backache; and me, a hack writer and photographer. No offense, but this isn’t exactly the Culpepper Cattle Co. crew.
“It’s different with guests,” Chesser says. “We expose people to the way of life as real as we can show them. Safety is at the top of the list, but you can’t plan everything. This is real life. You’re dealing with horses and livestock. Things happen.”
Sometimes, those things that happen can be painful. On the day before a spring drive in 2009, Chesser was bucked off a horse, cracking his collarbone in three places and breaking four ribs. Patricia had to lead the drive. “I couldn’t do this without Patricia,” he admits.
She’s on this fall drive too. She helps cook Jerri Sparks with meals and sets up camp and fiddles—if sweet-talked into it—at night. Local cowboy Tim Ballard serves as the Chessers’ segundo. He knows what he’s doing.
For two days, we rounded up cattle in a couple of pastures. “The first wasn’t over a couple of sections,” Chesser says, “and the other pastures not over five.”
Seven sections! That’s 4,480 acres. “It’s not that big,” Chesser says, “but it seems real big.” Well, it dwarfs my 1.65-acre homestead.
When the Chessers started taking guests, they never expected the ranch to be known for cattle drives (which are held each spring and fall), yet Burnt Well has earned a reputation for authentic, and somewhat grueling, working drives.
After rounding up them dogies, we spent four more days on the trail, rising with the cattle before the sun, then headin’ ’em up and movin’ ’em out. The beer is B.Y.O.B., and ’til we reach the bunkhouse at trail’s end, none of us will have taken any showers—unless it happens to rain. The Chessers like rain.
They even like people. They get paid, and not just in money to help make the bills. Guests “bring their part of the world,” Chesser says, “and we can see wherever they come from.”
And the guests? They get a working vacation they’ll remember long after their chaffed backsides have healed, and their chiropractor has been paid.