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MOVIN’ ON : As His Home on the Range Disappears, a Cowboy Looks for Greener Pastures

Paula Voorhees is a free-lance writer who lives in Irvine. This is her second Orange County Life cover feature.

The hard work of many a year has taken Wes Kirkpatrick’s youth and put a hitch in his step. The eyes have been impaired, too, but not so much that he can’t see both his past and his future disappearing in a cloud of bulldozer dust.

Kirkpatrick is a cowboy--and not the type who comes home from the office, puts on his back-cut boa boots, Kenny Rogers jeans, feathered hat and motors to the Crazy Horse in his 4X4 pickup for a drink and some Texas two-steppin’.

The 62-year-old Kirkpatrick lives with his scuffed boots on and can hardly wait to get out of them at the end of a day, something he does in the yard because they’re generally covered with manure.

He is a working cowboy, one of the few left in Orange County and he knows that the time is near when he’ll have to be movin’ on.

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Moving on to where, of course, is the problem. “Oregon, maybe,” he says, “Texas . . . I don’t know.

“What I do know is that as long as there are cows, there’s going to be work for cowboys.

“So, hell, when this job runs out, I’ll just pack up my saddle and dogs and horses and head on down the road.”

And it looks as if Kirkpatrick’s job of bossing a herd on 9,000 acres of Irvine Co. land is indeed running out. The spread is leased by Kirkpatrick’s boss, a 72-year-old businessman from Beverly Hills who runs 700 head of crossbred beef cattle on the land. The lease is about up and the Irvine Co. recently reclaimed 3,000 acres of the oceanfront part of the land for development.

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The job is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week effort--and Kirkpatrick is the only hand.

But it is a job he loves. “Ever since I was a young man growing up in Colorado, my dream has been to manage a cattle ranch. I just love the stock,” says the cowman, cracked and weathered hand patting Powder, his big brown quarterhorse gelding.

“My dad had a small ranch northeast of Greeley, Colo.,” says Kirkpatrick, a grin showing tobacco-stained teeth. “I’d tell ya the name of the town, but it’s not there anymore.

“At that time, shoes were a luxury. My best friend came from a family of nine children. He told me that steppin’ in fresh cow patties was the only way he could warm his feet while doing his chores in winter. We weren’t quite so poor. We had about 300 head of cattle and farmed about 400 acres.”

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The cowboy nudged the half-ton of muscle with his spurs. The horse slowly walked toward a cow wandering from the herd. The animal saw the cowboy, flared her nostrils and rolled her startled eyes, then ambled back to join the bunch.

“I left home to join the Navy and worked on ship as an electrician for three years. After I got out, I worked on a few ranches in the high country of Colorado.”

By 1961, Kirkpatrick was fed up with cold weather and decided to try his ranching skills in the rodeo arena. He moved to Montebello, where he roped and wrestled steers on weekends and worked as a tile setter for five years.

“In those days, there wasn’t as much money in rodeos as there is nowadays,” says the 5-foot, 10-inch cowboy, whose weathered face once earned him consideration as a Marlboro Man. “We (rodeo riders) weren’t trained athletes, just a bunch of guys who’d worked stock and had a helluva good time competin’ against each other. Often enough I was champion bulldogger or roper, but most of the time I was just a blood donor,” he chuckles, green eyes twinkling.

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“In fact, I’m danged lucky to be all in one piece. A lot of ropers are missing some fingers, you know.” He proudly displays two large hands, digits gnarled and brown. “See? All in place!”

What about the five-inch strip of scar tissue adorning his forearm?

“Oh, I got that bulldogging about six years ago,” he says. “Danged bull stuck his horn right through my arm. They wanted to amputate and I told ‘em, ‘Go ahead!’ What’d I care if the bull had one less horn?”

His worst accident was recently.

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“Two weeks ago, I was ridin’ my 8-year-old gray gelding down Laguna Canyon looking for strays. He spooked at something and set off buckin’. I tried to pull his head up,” he says, lifting his hands in the telling, “but the reins broke. About that time, I was lookin’ for a soft place to land. The gray let out with one final gigantic buck--tried to break himself in two--that sent me flyin’ backwards over his haunches. I landed head first and was unconscious for almost 30 minutes. Two girls saw the horse running down the canyon and come looking for me.”

Kirkpatrick had a concussion and although bed rest for two weeks was prescribed, he was back in the saddle in two days.

The sun-weathered cowboy was lured back to the high country of Colorado in 1966. He was offered a job as foreman of a ranch running 3,000 head.

“I spent five more years ranching in that miserable weather before I finally decided California was where I wanted to grow roots,” Kirkpatrick says, adjusting his sweat-stained straw hat.

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In 1971, he was hired by the Irvine Co. to help build and manage the Irvine Equestrian Center, then located on the ocean side of Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. The horses were evicted and the center torn down in 1981. The land now is a state park for beachgoers . . . typical of transitions in Orange County.

“I had a lot of fun at that stable,” he says. “I bought and sold a lot of good horses, but I kinda got tired of working for someone else. I decided to run my own stable up in San Luis Obispo.” It was to be a bad move for the cowboy. Seasonal business turned lean in winter and insurance costs were high.

He was back in Orange County two years later, looking for work. Unfortunately, there were more cowboys than there were jobs, because raising houses had become much more profitable than raising cattle.

“I had a friend who imported English saddles and leather goods who was lookin’ for a sales representative. I figured I could sell anything if I put my mind to it, and shoot, there wasn’t nothin’ complicated to an English saddle. So I took the job.

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“I picked up some other lines and was on the road peddlin’ goods for eight years. I always tried to work in a few days of ridin’ and workin’ stock.

In 1985, the Irvine Co. shifted its business emphasis and closed down its cattle operation. At its peak, the company had approximately 7,000 head of cattle grazing 42,000 acres. Now it leases out the land in three parcels. Kirkpatrick was asked to manage one of the parcels of 12,000 acres.

“I was gettin’ tired of bein’ on the road. My eyesight was gettin’ bad and it was gettin’ harder and harder to read those road signs,” Kirkpatrick says. But the parcel leased by Fred Hendeles, the Beverly Hills businessman and Kirkpatrick’s boss, is the most desirable land for development. Visible from the San Diego Freeway, it stretches roughly from the San Diego Freeway to Coast Highway north of Laguna Canyon up almost to MacArthur Boulevard. The 3,000 acres taken back by the Irvine Co. for development is located on the east side of Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach.

Hendeles has a three-year lease, with a 30-day cancellation clause. The lease is up for renewal next June.

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Right now, Kirkpatrick is more concerned with a problem that has bothered ranchers throughout history: trespassers.

“Because of the scenic location of the land, I get a lot of joggers, bikers and four-wheelers. Awhile back, some four-wheelers got on the property. They were chased off by a police helicopter, but not before they drove right through seven fences.

“The judge just gave them a slap on the wrist. If it was up to me, I think a load of buckshot in the rear would be much more effective!”

When he needs help during branding, calving or moving the cattle to different pastures, he calls on cowboy friends who, because of the lack of ranch work, have drifted into other professions; a sea captain, a real estate agent, a horseshoer all willing to work for him for a few days just for the opportunity to get back in the saddle.

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“It’s real hard work, but these guys look forward to it. It’s kinda therapy for them.”

Kirkpatrick contends that his horse, Powder, and his two dogs can do the work of at least three men.

“Powder is kinda a lazy ol’ guy,” he says of the well-muscled gelding.

“He’s gotten real smart. He watches the herd real close. Sometimes I think he’s asleep. But if a cow starts to break from the herd, he’s right on top of her. He knows that if she breaks away, he’s gonna have to chase her for a quarter of a mile before he catches her, and he’s too lazy to want to put out that much effort!”

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Two Australian Heelers bounce up to the cowboy, stubby tails wagging. One is mottled blue, the other red and white. The blue dog nips at the brown gelding’s heels.

“That damn dog is gonna get me killed one day,” says Kirkpatrick with a threatening growl at the dog named Bo-Sue. “She hasn’t learned not to herd horses yet. She’s only 2 and she’s learnin’ how to work cattle from Traveler, the red dog.”

He motions for the dogs to go round up a stray. They dash off and, with precise teamwork, move the errant cow back to the herd. Then both dogs race for the water trough and jump in.

“That’s how they keep cool when we’re workin’ cattle all day. These dogs are bred to heel (herd) and are real intelligent. I’ve never really had to teach ‘em too much.

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“But I tell ya, I haven’t figured out a way yet to break Bo-Sue from nippin’ at horses. Sometimes I get home and their ankles are bleedin’. The horses start watching out for Bo-Sue instead of watchin’ cattle.”


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