A way of life slips out of range
The highway is jammed with people who wanted to live in the country inching their way toward jobs in the city. A few miles and a universe away, the last cowboy is making a living in what’s left of that country.
Steve Tellam is bent over in a foul patch of mud and cow dung stroking a calf and feeding it milk from a bottle. He is wearing a straw Bangora hat, checkered shirt, Wranglers and a belt buckle the size of a salad plate. His hands are misshapen by decades of labor, hard as ax handles and rough as an old baseball glove. Two bicyclists pedal past the corral in Day-Glo outfits and don’t even glance at Tellam and the starving newborn.
The calf was born overnight in a pasture Tellam leases from the local water treatment district. A dim bulb even by cow standards, the animal can’t figure out how to grasp hold of its mother’s distended udder.
Tellam has to teach the calf how to eat. Twice a day, he will milk the mother and toggle between the bottle and her udders until the calf gets the hang of it.
“They’re fragile just like little kids,” he says. “If they get sick one day, they could be dead the next. Coyote bait.”
Tellam, 54, is a fourth-generation cowboy working in a region where being a cowboy no longer makes sense.
A century ago, San Diego County was a cattleman’s paradise -- endless open range, plentiful water, tall grass and convenient transport to slaughterhouses and growing cities.
Tellam’s great-grandfather, George Sawday, was Southern California’s largest cattle baron. At a time when the Wright brothers were demonstrating that man could fly, Sawday ran vast herds on land stretching from the coast to the desert and from the Mexican border to Riverside.
A semblance of the Old West survived in the folds of the backcountry around Ramona and Julian well into the 20th century. Faded black-and-white photos of ranchers and their families line a wall in the small museum at the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission. The weathered faces look to be those of pioneers. In fact, the snapshots were taken in the 1930s and ‘40s, a time when old hands sensed an era was fading away.
The headline on a 1934 story in The Times about the area’s depleted range described the future bluntly: “It’s ‘Last Round-Up’ This Time!”
“Three score grim-faced men met here today,” the story begins. “They came minus the hopes of their youth -- minus the vision of mighty herds with which to feed the multitude of city dwellers, without the rollicking songs of men of desert and mountain. They brought instead a feeling of pathos and despair, for they came to plan the beginning of what may be the end of the great range cattle era in this county.”
Today, the range has been subdivided and developed, the water sucked away by cities, the grass thinned by years of drought. With the beef industry consolidated far from Southern California, raising cattle in these mountains is as viable a business as selling surfboards in Nebraska.
Tellam doesn’t need a full hand to count the number of full-time cowboys in the area.
“It’s not going to survive into the next generation,” he says.
Through the decades, much of Sawday’s land empire slipped through the fingers of Tellam’s branch of the family. What’s left is 500 acres near Julian -- valuable land, but in dry California not nearly enough to support a full-time cattle business
Tellam and his minority partners -- brother Mike and their 77-year-old father, Willie -- do all the work; they can’t afford hired help.
Willie, and later Steve, learned everything they know about cattle and horses from a man named Hans Starr, a stern stockman from the Dakotas. After Willie’s father was killed by a rattlesnake, Starr was hired as manager of the family ranch. He later married Willie’s mother.
Starr knew cows. But he didn’t understand that the value of the land lay in ranchettes, not ranches.
“He was a helluva cowboy but not a good businessman. . . . A lot of poor decisions were made,” Willie says. “What happened, happened. There’s no need dwelling on them.”
Steve Tellam possesses a century’s worth of accumulated knowledge about a way of life that is all but extinct in Southern California. Great wealth is not the goal. The singular passion and purpose he has for his work is its own reward.
“If we broke down what we make to hours worked -- that would be too depressing,” Tellam says. “But I still have the greatest job in the world. I ride horses every day. I’m out here with eagles, wild turkey, deer -- all this wildlife. I have freedom. It’s a great life and a tough business.”
The work begins before sunup and stretches to sundown nearly every day. It’s physical -- digging fence posts, stretching barbed wire, shoveling horse manure, hauling 125-pound bales of hay. It’s also extremely dangerous. Roping and wrestling 300-pound animals to the ground so they can be vaccinated, castrated or dehorned. Chasing down errant cows on horseback in rocky canyons. Separating testosterone-fueled bulls before they kill each other.
Steve Tellam has three screws and two plates in one knee and has broken his other kneecap three times. He has busted his collarbone, ankle and too many fingers to recall. He nearly lost a hand when his wrist got tangled in a rope tied to an angry cow.
“Haven’t broken my neck yet,” he says, not a joke but a statement of fact. Comprehensive health insurance is unattainable. The best he can do is a catastrophic policy for $1,000 a month.
Mike Tellam, who runs a firewood business on the side, nearly lost a thumb recently while building a fence; he was back at work with his one good arm a few days later. Willie, a stiff-walking textbook on arthritis, recently had knee replacement surgery; he was back on his horse in five weeks. There is no time for injuries, because being a cowboy takes a lot of time.
“With cows, every little thing that goes wrong can eat up half a day,” Steve Tellam says.
“What’s it like when it goes right?” Willie mutters to himself.
The starving calf his son has been teaching to eat isn’t the only animal in intensive care.
Steve Tellam bounces his Chevy pickup to another corral to give hay and water to a cow hobbled by a stillbirth. He was forced to extract the dead animal from its mother using a calf-puller -- a medieval-looking, hand-operated winch attached to a pipe that can apply up to 2,000 pounds of torque. Afterward, he needed to shower and change his clothes before going back to work.
“There’s nothing sadder than pulling out a dead baby calf,” he says.
And there’s nothing so miraculous as blowing down the nose of a seemingly dead calf and having it suddenly come to life.
When Tellam was a teenager in the early 1970s, grazing land was more abundant and his father ran 6,000 cattle a year.
Today, the business is narrower, as are the profits. Tellam raises and sells about 300 calves a year. He’ll wean and feed them for eight to 10 months until they weigh more than 700 pounds. Then he’ll truck them to Chino where they’ll be sold at auction and transported to feed lots in the Midwest or Texas. There, they’ll be fattened until slaughter.
A calf that dies is $500 to $700 out of Tellam’s pocket. Coyotes pick off some. But a predator these days will more likely be a dog that escaped its owner’s backyard or is allowed to run loose.
Tellam carries two Browning rifles in the front seat of his pickup. He has encountered packs of roaming dogs, as many as two dozen, and won’t hesitate to protect his cattle -- his investment and livelihood.
“To just shoot at them just to scare them off -- it doesn’t work. They’ll just come back later,” he says. “If I catch them with my calves, they’re my dogs. They’ll just never go home. I can’t afford it any other way.”
Tellam’s career path has never wavered far from horses and cattle. He went to college for a year and dropped out, bored with classrooms. He took a job with a pipeline construction company and lasted four days.
He makes a good living, in large part because he is a well-regarded horse trainer and a champion rodeo competitor, a weekend job that has earned him more than $50,000 in prize money some years.
Two of his brothers, though, wanted nothing to do with the family legacy. One is a commercial airline pilot, the other a building contractor.
“I couldn’t see how you could make a living doing this,” says John Tellam, 50, an expert horseman like his father and brother Steve. “When you pencil it out, I can build one house and make what they do in a year running around with these cows.”
And yet, to embrace this legacy -- even briefly -- tugs at the imagination.
The morning is crisp, the ground muddy. Dark clouds from the night’s rain hug the surrounding mountains like sooty cotton candy. Hawks circle overhead.
In the distance, six men and a woman on horseback push several dozen cattle across a shallow river. Their loud bawling fills the valley like a drunken horn section.
“C’mon! Get up here where the action is, please?” Steve Tellam shouts to one of his volunteer vaqueros, friends who relish the opportunity to use their quarter horses for a task they were bred to do. His brother the home builder is among them.
They herd the animals into a corral, separate the calves from their mothers and go to work.
“Want to get a big one while you’re still fresh?” Tellam asks the other men.
Willie Tellam snares a calf’s ankle with his lariat, snaps it tight and quickly wraps the rope around his saddle horn to remove the slack. Two men pounce and pile-drive the flailing animal to the dirt.
Each calf is vaccinated. The males are castrated with a blood-stained pocketknife Steve Tellam keeps clenched between his teeth when not in use. Horns are snipped off and the ends cauterized with a hot iron that fills the air with the smell of burning bone.
“As silly as it might sound, I always wanted to be a cowboy,” says Curtis Nelson, 50, a plumbing contractor from Vista who helps out Tellam whenever he calls. “But I couldn’t make a living at it.”
The roundup goes on as the sun moves from east to west. By the time it’s over, the highway a few miles and a universe away is jammed with people returning to the country from their jobs in the city.
In the corral under a towering eucalyptus tree, the men are dirty and tired and a couple are sure to be sore tomorrow after the beating they took, grateful for it.