New Life for an Old Ranch : New Mexico's Chama Land and Cattle Co. . . a home where the elk roam and a place for would-be cowpokes to hang up their spurs and sit a spell.

Times Staff Writer

Six elk cheeseburgers sizzled in a huge battered frying pan that looked as if it might be in its second century. Flames leaped from spruce logs in the fire pit to several inches over the pan's edges.

As wrangler/cook Jim Town laid thick slices of Cheddar cheese on the elk patties, the darkening sky above Sugarloaf Lake, 50 feet away, began to talk. A distant rumble of thunder was first, then, like a bomb, came a blast from directly overhead. The thunderclap rolled across the lake and echoed off spruce and fir hillsides.

The first drops were huge, the kind that go "plop!" on dry ground and raise tiny dust clouds. One hit Town on his cowboy hat, which looked as old as his frying pan.

"OK, everybody get under the awning and I'll try to pull this off without getting anyone's cheeseburger wet," Town said.

Half a dozen guests and staff people from the Chama Land and Cattle Co. lodge in northern New Mexico were on a midday picnic outing to 10,500-foot-high Sugarloaf Lake, one of 14 lakes on Chama's 32,000 forested acres. While Town cooked, they sat on a picnic table under a tarp, drinking champagne and applauding the thunderclaps.

It was a picnic of a memorable kind. The elk cheeseburgers were sensational, and so was the sound and light show.

The rain grew in volume until it raised the lake's surface to a froth. Town picked up the pace, too. He served the cheeseburgers, then dropped fresh, breaded cutthroat trout fillets into his old black frying pan.

And at that moment, after five minutes of driving pellets, the rain turned to pea-size hailstones, setting off a loud clatter on the tarp overhang. After a few minutes the storm subsided as quickly as it had begun. The dark clouds began to fracture. Rapidly widening bright beams of sunlight, like curtains, poured through the cloud seams and illuminated the lake and the forest.

That evening, at Chama's 13,500-square-foot lodge, it was more of the same: another short-lived thunder and lightning show, while guests sat outside under an overhang, drinking cocktails. They watched lightning flashes 40 miles away dance on peaks in Rio Grande and Carson national forests.

In the kitchen, fast-moving people were creating something that would top the elk cheeseburgers. Stay tuned.

As quickly as it had arrived, interrupting the quiet twilight, the day's second mini-storm passed. It left behind only a few small puddles and a trace of humidity.

"That's typical, this time of year," said Chama foreman Leo Smith. "Usually, though, it's only late afternoon or evening--not like what we had at lunch today. Big, black clouds blow in here almost every day, and we get thunder, lightning and rain for 10 minutes, and a couple of minutes later there's not a cloud in sight."

Guests filed inside for dinner.

One look inside the massive main room of the Chama Land and Cattle Co. tips anyone off that these folks are no longer in the cattle business. They're in the elk business. From October through December, Chama's 11 guest rooms are mostly full of elk hunters. But in spring and summer, Chama is just the ticket for someone looking for a few days of:

--Nightly thunder and lightning shows . . . big-tumbler, make-your-own cocktails . . . five-star food . . . solitude . . . wildlife viewing tours . . . doing absolutely nothing but be left alone to eat, sleep, drink or to sink deeply into one of the big leather chairs near the fireplace and snooze.

If you insist on some sort of activity, there are nature hikes for bird watchers and botany fans. One is an easy, flat trail; a tougher one is called the "aerobic" trail. Or you can go into the town of Chama and take the six-hour (including a lunch stop) train ride on the narrow-gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to Antonito, Colo.

The train climbs to 10,000 feet and crosses the Colorado-New Mexico line 11 times during its 19th-Century route through the San Juan Mountains.

Now, back to that fireplace. We're talking world-class fireplace here. Chama's core, its heart, is its fireplace--a mammoth, 18-foot-wide structure made of 200-pound stones. Above the fire pit and high on the walls are numerous head mountings of six-point Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer buck and Rocky Mountain bighorn ram.

On a shelf of the fireplace, a full-body mountain lion mount peers silently through pine boughs.

Hot-Burning Gambel Oak

The favored fireplace fuel is hot-burning gambel oak, the heat of which backs guests up to the rear row of chairs.

The favored fuel on the menu calendar is Mexican night, a treat that will not encourage you to back up from the table. Nor did the fork-tender barbecued prime rib, which I'd had the previous night.

"Here, these are all native New Mexican foods. I hope you like them," said the cook, Connie Candelaria. She placed before me a 14-inch-wide platter covered with open-faced green chili and Cheddar cheese enchiladas, two soft-shell chicken tacos and beans. That was after the teaser, a bowl of Gypsy stew, a sort of Mexican chicken soup. It was all superb.

Dessert: white chocolate mousse. At that point I should have begged for mercy, but I didn't. I kept eating. Not only that, but as I waddled back outside for my post-dinner Courvoisier, I knew I'd plummeted all the way into gluttony because I caught myself wondering what breakfast would be like.

In 1948 a 28-year-old Dallas oilman, Grady H. Vaughn Jr., sent his driller, Newt McCain, on the road in search of a dream piece of property--". . . at least 30,000 acres of cattle country, with wildlife and trout streams," as he once described the dream.

McCain, Vaughn said years later, wore out two cars traveling the Rocky Mountain states before learning that he'd missed by days the sale of a northern New Mexico ranch that fit Vaughn's description. Then three days later he learned that one of the partners in the purchase had died in a small plane crash, and that the remaining partner wanted to sell.

Vaughn bought the Chama Land and Cattle Co. in May, 1950. It was 32,000 acres ranging from 8,000 to 11,500 feet. The ranch is about five miles south of the Colorado line, just off U.S. 84 at the little town of Chama, N.M., about a three-hour drive north of Albuquerque.

Rich in Elk and Deer

The land was rich in elk and deer when it was home to Jicarilla Apaches, but the animals had been shot out by white settlers by the early 1900s.

Vaughn ran several thousand head of cattle on the ranch throughout the 1950s. In 1954 he brought in 50 surplus Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park. Today about 2,200 sleek, healthy elk roam the ranch's woodlands and meadows, all descendants of those first Yellowstone animals.

In 1967 Vaughn died unexpectedly at 47. Ownership passed to his 25-year-old son, Grady Vaughn III, who still owns the ranch in addition to running his oil business in Dallas.

By the late 1960s the cattle business had been in a slump for several years, but the ranch was well on its way to having a near-legendary population of fine elk.

With the ranch's high elevation offering a short growing season for cattle, Vaughn and Smith took a long look at the growing interest on the part of hunters in Chama. They decided the ranch's future lay in wildlife management.

A small feed-lot cattle operation continues, but a tour of the ranch leaves no doubt what the favored livestock is. About 1,500 flat acres of old oak lands have been cleared for elk feed.

Tour of Back Country

Smith took me on a wildlife tour during my two-day stay. In a four-wheel-drive recreational vehicle we began a dirt road tour of the back country. Less than a mile from the lodge we passed several hayfields.

"These used to be old meadows, with gambel oaks," he said. "Now we grow grasses for elk--timothy, brome, fescues, bluegrass . . . we raise about 2,000 tons of grasses a year and only three men are involved in the operation. In winter evenings, in these meadows, you might see a hundred elk in here."

We gained elevation through the oak-ponderosa belt, then higher into bands of Douglas fir and glades of aspens, where elk calves are born in May and June.

Smith, who was a New Mexico state game warden before he joined the Chama staff in 1958, arrived at 11-acre Charlie's Lake, where a pair of fishermen were casting dry flies.

Fenner Weller of Kingwood, Tex., using an orange surface fly, said he'd caught and released nine cutthroat trout of up to 14 inches in two hours. He pointed to his partner, Terry Robinson of Dallas, who stood in thigh-deep water 75 yards away and, with bent rod, battled a cutthroat.

"This is typical of the lakes we've built over the years," Smith said, pointing to the earthen dam. "Once this was a swampy meadow with a lot of tree stumps--trees the beavers had chewed down. It's one of our best fishing lakes. We're starting a catch-and-release policy now, and next year we'll probably go to a zero limit.

"For now, we're asking all our fishing guests to pinch down their barbs, if they don't have barbless hooks."

Many Streams Rehabilitated

Acting on recommendations from fisheries biologists, Chama staffers have rehabilitated many of the streams (there are 100 miles of -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

streams on the property), and natural stream reproduction occurs for cutthroat, brown, rainbow and brook trout.

All across the lake, fish were rising to the surface, softly snatching insects. The lake is in a mountain bowl, rimmed by dead gray timber and high green grasses. A quiet, peaceful place.

"You can stand here in early September and hear (elk) bulls bugling from all directions," Smith said. "It's enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck."

Later, shortly after the sun had set, from a high ridge we witnessed a spectacular wildlife show, the best Chama has to offer.

Smith looked through binoculars across a canyon to a hillside.

At first, in the gathering darkness, we saw a couple of dozen elk cows and their calves, cautiously emerging from aspen stands, heading toward water. Then, looking closer, I saw many more. I stopped counting at 100.

And on the ride back to the lodge, in lower meadows, we saw about 25 browsing mule deer, including six- and four-point bucks.

At last, breakfast.

"This is an authentic New Mexico green chili and Swiss cheese omelet," Connie Candelaria told me, setting my plate before me.

Beside the hefty omelet were several thick slices of bacon and homemade wheat toast. And there was a breakfast tray of homemade pastries.

The chokecherry jelly, Candelaria explained, was made in the Chama kitchen from wild-growing ranch chokeberries.

The omelet was magnificent. I happen to be an expert on omelets. I figure I've eaten close to 2,000 of them.

Connie Candelaria's green chili and Swiss cheese omelet is now No. 2 on my all-time list, behind only the ham and cheese omelets at the Pantry Cafe in Los Angeles.

There are decades-old secrets deep inside Candelaria's omelets, she told me, winking. She says they were taught to her by her mother, Margaret Jirron.

"It's one of the first things my mother taught me to make," she said. "The secret is in preparing the chilies; that has to be done just right. And if I told you how to do it, you'd make them at home and never come back to Chama."

That's not true, of course. I'll go back some day, for Mexican Night. And prime rib night . . . and the Sugarloaf picnic. . . .

Chama Land and Cattle Co. has 11 spacious, comfortable guest rooms. Daily rates are $155 per person, meals and cocktails included. The lodge has a large meeting room, available for executive or board of directors meetings. Elk season is Oct. 1 through late December. All guests are welcome during the remainder of the year. For more information, contact Leo Smith, Chama Land and Cattle Co., P.O. Box 746, Chama, N.M. 87520, phone (505) 756-2133.

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