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  • Good Hands and True Grit: Making a Ranching Identity Work in the Altar Valley, Arizona
  • Lindsey Raisa Feldman (bio)

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Image 1.

A view of Baboquivari Peak from the southern end of the Altar Valley.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon on a late June day in the Altar Valley of Arizona, more than 600,000 acres of desert grasslands an hour’s drive southwest from Tucson. The monsoon rains had not yet arrived, and heat mirages hovered over the graded dirt road that stretched unrelentingly into the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains (see image 1). The road ended at the homestead of a family-owned guest ranch.

I stepped into the 110-degree heat and walked toward the horse corral, where I had planned to meet Wes, the cowboy in charge of training [End Page 97] and handling the horses on the ranch. A mourning dove cooed from the rafters of the shaded corral and the horses stomped and flicked their tails to keep the flies off. I found Wes kneeling down next to a gray mare, cowboy hat in hand, wiping his brow with a bandana. He sprang up as I approached, and after our brief introduction, he informed me that there was a reason he picked 3 p.m. to do our interview—at around this time each day, cowboys do whatever they can to stay out of the heat. He laughed as he said he’d rather be riding horses than “talkin’ to a city girl like you,” but when a day’s work lasts from sunup to sundown no matter the weather, making some time in the shade was crucial.

Opinions of modern-day cattle ranching in the western United States run the gamut from environmental groups deriding the toll ranching takes on the environment to travel and leisure magazines enticing tourists to taste a flavor of the ‘real Old West.’ What are conspicuously missing in most of these accounts, however, are the daily realities of ranchers themselves, those who not only conduct daily work on cattle ranches, but whose identities are formed around this work. What does the daily, monthly, and yearly work on a modern cattle ranch entail? What are the different roles on a modern cattle ranch, and how are these roles embodied? And, what happens to the identities of those working on cattle ranches when their lifestyle is increasingly challenged?

I argue that work, beyond its practical socioeconomic function, produces an understanding of the world—a continually emerging identity—for both individuals and working groups, one that is embodied, generative, and contextual. Specifically for individuals in the rural ranching community of the Altar Valley, work functions to accomplish the creation and maintenance of identity by the actions of those who embody the daily working roles of ranching life. Doing ranch work is inherently active and ongoing, generating an identity that is constantly reinforced. Ranch work is embodied and performed. It demands interaction with the landscape and with animals, both domestic and wild. This ranching identity is formed not just by conscious choice but by habitus, the embodied disposition honed every day on the range. Ranch work is often solitary, but individuals in the Altar Valley are not successful ranchers or cowboys in isolation from one another; they work within and to uphold a social system of ‘ranching,’ a mutually understood and perpetuated moral code. Ranch work occurs within a co-constitutive, gendered landscape largely populated by men; the objects and spaces of ranching parlay into a dialogic masculinity, as individuals consider themselves both masters and stewards of the land.

Each day for each individual in the ranching community of the Altar [End Page 98] Valley, physically challenging work is done. And by doing this work, all these facets of identity are expressed not just through one’s words but through one’s body. A ranching identity is thus formed and re-formed daily in the space where ranch work occurs. Therefore, it is necessary to resist defining a ranching identity as simply relational or oppositional—as an identity created in opposition to more economically viable, urban lifeways. As the forces of urbanism continue...


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pp. 97-133
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