When the wind is calm on the high, empty desert of northwestern Nevada and the only sound is a Hereford bawling for water, a profound aloneness clamps a dry hand on most who venture very far from the normal dirt roads.
But not on Denny Ellerman. Having never lived in a city, having never worked at anything but being a cowboy, he is forever a man who prefers to work alone and ride 15 miles on a day that may begin at 3 a.m. He sometimes must drive his pickup and horse trailer two hours to reach his starting point, and that, he says, is more tiring than riding a horse.
Ellerman is a range rider--the only one--for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Surprise Valley Resource Area headquartered in Cedarville, in remote eastern Modoc County. His official title is range technician, an anachronistic label for one who spends as little time as possible behind a desk.
His job is simply to count cattle, check fences, ride where four-wheel-drive pickups can’t go and assess the condition of 1 1/2 million acres of public grazing land in northeastern California and northwestern Nevada.
Some 20,000 cows and 4,000 sheep graze sporadically on the land from spring to fall. They’d destroy what little grass grows in the arid climate if they weren’t regularly moved to different pastures. Windmills that pump well water into tanks provide the only source of surface moisture during the summer in this dry, wind-gusted country of dust devils and alkali flats.
Working out of Eagle Lake and Alturas, Ellerman meets with dozens of ranchers who use BLM lands, learning firsthand about their complaints and needs, while keeping a close eye on how the grass grows. When cattlemen round up their stock in the spring and fall, Ellerman is there.
“You got to get there early for your biscuits and gravy. They just don’t wait for you,” he said.
Ellerman, who has never smoked tobacco but has chewed a little and dipped Copenhagen “snoose,” today sits on his horse, named Old Yeller, with a slight stoop in his shoulders, perhaps the result of the better part of his 62 years spent in the saddle, the last nine for the BLM.
“I’ve been buckarooin’ all my life,” he said on a day spent riding through sagebrush 40 miles east of Cedarville. “I read all those Will James books as a kid, about cowboys riding all the way from Arizona to the Canadian line.”
He said with a laugh about his early attempts at rodeoing, “I tried for years to ride buckin’ horses, ‘til it finally dawned on me, I didn’t have any ability.”
But he’s lived his life the way he dreamed it, riding “young” horses that hadn’t been ridden before and working ranches from Arizona to Montana, often from dawn to dusk but always outdoors and on his own and on horseback.
He still rides in rodeos as a pickup man--the one who rides alongside a bucking horse and grabs the rider to safety after the whistle blows.
Ellerman traveled with his schoolteacher wife of 32 years until the first of their five children began attending school.
Four went on to college with the help of their parents, who taught them to be trick horseback riders at national rodeos and such prestigious events as the Belmont Stakes under the name, The Flying Cossacks. They’ve performed as far away as Kuwait, on the Persian Gulf.
Ellerman’s only son, Troy, is a bull rider with an eye on national competition. “The cowboy lawyer,” Ellerman calls him, because he’s studying law at UC Davis.
Ellerman moved to Alturas from Elk Creek, Glenn County, in 1980, when he went to work for the BLM. “I never knew what an eight-hour day was ‘til I went to work for the government,” he cracked.
Ellerman and his wife, Carmel, live in an expanded mobile home on 56 acres outside Alturas, sharing the land with 14 horses. Ellerman shoes all his own mounts, because he doesn’t trust anyone else.
His hands are hard and calloused, and his legs are bowed a bit after an uncomplicated life of hard physical work. But when he mounts his horse after two attempts at getting his left foot in the stirrup, he grasps lightly at his bridle reins, which are made of horsehair.
“I suppose I’ll do this as long as I can climb onto a horse,” he said.
“You get a little independent after a while. If you can’t do it on a horse, then you don’t do it.”
He wears his sweat-brimmed hat pulled low over dark glasses, and a bushy, gray drooping mustache gives him the look of a highwayman. He walks with a limp because he lost half a foot, amputated after it was caught under a pickup truck that rolled over him.