Imagine a man sprawled out on his mantilla, or saddle blanket, in the sun, writing in his journal. Dust from his glove smudges the page as he goes on to write about the kingly elk that bounded away from his small expedition; of pretty green pieces of malachite and bright copper ore found on banks of creeks full of trout; and the bareback horse riders inviting them to their native village and effortlessly racing away through the mountains. As the first sight of California unfolds before Edward Fitzgerald Beale in 1853, he peers from beneath his hat to the vast mountains blanketed in clouds and looks back down to pen the words savage grandeur in his pages. Into a tumultuous West entered the bold man who built this place, Tejon Ranch—270,000 acres that comprise the oldest working ranch in California.

The story of Tejon Ranch seems to present itself in daguerreotypes, revolving in an old-fashioned photo carousel. In one image is a Native American village near a glittering lake. In the next, a Spanish captain discovers a tejon , a dead badger at the mouth of the canyon. Beale arrives here as California’s first Indian agent. On the back of a camel, he returns, exploring the land he patchworked together from four Mexican land grants. JJ Lopez, the longtime majordomo, herds cattle across the verdant San Joaquin Valley. 

Fast forward through 160 years of tintypes to the most current image; watch it change from sepia to Technicolor as head cowboy Seth Scribner whistles his stock dogs into action across the same verdant valley, roughly 100 miles from coastal Santa Barbara on the other side of the Los Padres National Forest. I am here, journaling my own visit to the mountains that made Beale pause in his saddle. A small team of black-jacketed cowboys ride across the wide green slopes on this three-day cattle drive. They are moving the herd to its summer ranges.

A thin line of obsidian on a distant rim soon turns into a rumbling locomotion of cattle bellowing toward El Paso Creek; small morteros dimple the surface of a nearby boulder, dark pebbles of coyote scat cupped inside their hollows. Kristy Pedotti, the statuesque wrangler with chapped hands who navigated the backroads to get us out here, tells me this land isn’t home to just the wily coyote. Tejon’s namesake badger, elk, bear, deer, wild pig, bobcat, pronghorn antelope, the California condor, fir forests, Joshua trees, and some of California’s largest oaks are just a portion of the extraordinary life wildly converging here between Sequoia National Forest, Angeles National Forest, and Los Padres National Forest. Up to 16,000 head of cattle graze this wild country, accompanied by this small team of modern-day vaqueros. 

Seven cowboys form the backbone of Centennial Livestock, the company that leases the lion’s share of Tejon Ranch’s open ranges. Each of its cowboys trains and cares for his own string of horses and stock dogs. They meet up before dawn at the Old Headquarters. The old barn still has signs of the Cross and Crescent brand stamped in its limestone floor and welded into its swinging gate. In true vaquero style, these cowboys spend most days on horseback. Cowgirls like the Pedotti sisters join them from time to time. Conditioned for up to 115 degrees of desert heat or up to five feet of high mountain snow in a spread where a person could walk for a day without reaching cell phone reception, they are all as self-reliant as badgers.

Big ranch, big tasks. Scribner says, “One week we might have to find and gather 1,000 cattle over 20,000 acres where there are no fences.” New seasons bring new tasks, none bigger than roundup and branding. Perhaps nothing conveys the historical weight of Tejon Ranch as well as its own cattle brand, the Cross and Crescent—the oldest working brand known today. 

The guardian of the brand, Barry Zoeller, says Tejon is a “microcosm of California history.” According to history, California vaquero traditions were passed down from the Spaniards as they trained Native Americans to herd mission cattle. Mounted vaqueros were skilled in the use of rawhide reatas—a necessary talent to work their cattle. These vaqueros were the West’s earliest working horsemen. 

 On this cattle drive, the cowboys have outfitted themselves and their horses in vaquero tradition. Spanish silver bits and spurs, rawhide and mecate reins, and rawhide hackamores give testament to a hundred-year-old way of life out here. The etiquette of the cowboys with each other, their horses, and their dogs, echoes the harmony and light touch of a longstanding vaquero technique. Whistle commands to the stock dogs sound across the air, as silvery and staccato as their Spanish spurs.

 From the Spaniards and Beale, to the coyote and the cattle, history—in sepia and color—swirls around the ranch like dust from a herd. Vast in every way, Tejon is a juggernaut of ranches, hanging like a ripe fruit on the California map, long hidden behind the foliage of private ownership and padlocked gates. 

“Why all the padlocks?” I ask the Vice President of Ranching Operations over chips and salsa at the local Mexican restaurant. Brian Grant may be the new blood at Tejon Ranch, but the waitress asks him if he wants the usual, as if he’s been here forever. He soon rubs the hard edge off those padlocks. 

“Five years ago, you might not have received a call back. We’re trying to change that image, to welcome people in.” He openly shares the lay of the land over the table and then over the highway that runs through it. “This is the largest one-fence ranch in California. There are places I’ll never see out here.” This juggernaut has been held together in one piece over the past 160 years and, perhaps even more unusual, is “still unsurveyed, rancho rights.” Shareholders and agreements have kept this working ranch intact. Two large cattle companies lease out the land: Mr. Matt Echeverria and Centennial Livestock. 

Once off the highway, Grant takes us into cowboy country; we end up on a dirt road overlooking Bear Trap Canyon. A rare circle of California condors spiral in the sky above us, wings spanning 10 feet. After near extinction, Tejon Ranch is helping these creatures reach a watershed moment in their recovery. We’ve just seen nine of them. Grant points to my son and tells me he’s seen these birds up close, as tall as my 10-year–old boy. Condors are cool , my son whispers in my ear, but when are we getting on a horse?

We get horseback for a ride through the rugged Bear Canyon with Scott Neill, the lanky New Zealander who runs the equestrian center on the ranch, which hosts events for nearly every riding discipline. Neill tells us about the Western and foxhunting events. Only the Hounds of Tejon don’t chase foxes—they chase coyotes. We see deer skirting through thick trees ahead and Neill pays high compliments, “This place is beautiful. The closest I’ve seen to New Zealand.” 

Tejon Ranch is surprisingly lush for the Southwest. A sentiment echoed by locals in Los Pinos Mexican cafe a few miles from our guest ranch house. Jacob and Lisa Wolff tell me the wildflower carpets are incredible to see, even from the highway. When their curiosity turns to those padlocks, I tell them how Tejon Ranch is opening up their arms. Plans include diverting the Pacific Crest Trail—the 2,650-mile hiking trail that spans from Mexico to Canada—through its property so backpackers can move off the hot Mojave Desert and back onto the crest of the Sierra Nevada. But this will take some time.

“We don’t change on a dime,” Grant says. “At the end of the day, we’re a ranch. We evaluate carefully. We are a slow-moving animal.” 

A beast this size trails a wide wake behind it with every move it makes. For miles along Interstate 5, the ranch has vineyards, almond and pistachio groves, oil fields, crops and has recently diversified to include the Tejon Ranch Outlets, boasting name brands like Coach and Starbucks, and factory industries like IKEA. Further, a mile-deep archive of reports reveals sustainable real estate plans, along with Tejon Ranch’s boldest move yet: An unprecedented agreement to conserve up to 240,000 acres of its land. 

 While the rancher and the conservationist are breaking bread, the cowboys are camping out high in the mountains. 

The kitchen window at the cowboy cabin is silhouetted with coffee mugs, a black tactical knife, and half-empty bourbon bottles. Bare mattresses, wool blankets, and camping gear stack up next to each other. An old map of Tejon Ranch hangs in the corner above the wood stove. The cowboys bend an elbow and bunk here together when herds need several days getting through the mountains. A small ring of stumps circle the fire pit outside. The cowboys on this team live on the ranch, cook at each other’s houses, and compete together in rodeos. One of the Pedotti sisters is wife to Scribner, the head cowboy, and soon they’ll be welcoming their son into this band of brothers. As we drive away from the cabin, I start to write tight knit in my notebook and a jostle turns my knit into knot . I leave it. 

 The jumbled ink in my journal clearly marks our remote rides in the ranch truck with Scribner. Unmarked, unpaved roads wind deep into the belly of wild country, and also to the site of the former Sebastian reservation. We visit the threadbare school and burial site, sacred places to the Tejon tribe, an amalgamation of several indigenous tribes with a history long before the first native vaqueros. Tejon Ranch allows tribe members special access to these places. Like the cow bones scattered through the grass, the bones of both sides of history lie here in Tejon Canyon.

At 5,800 feet, Cordon Ridge would have normally been choked with snow when I visited the ranch early in the year, but recent drought has made it possible for us to drive up to the higher mountain ranges. On this high trail, the cowboys bring cattle along edges that drop into rocky ravines below. It is unforgiving terrain out here. I think about the famous descent in Man from Snowy River and ask if the cowboys can do that gradient. Scribner says they wouldn’t be working this country if they couldn’t. In the understated confidence that I’ve quickly learned sums up the head cowboy, he tells me, “You can’t cheat the mountain.”

 We round the bend to a breathtaking view of the Tehachapi Mountains. Few footprints have been where I’m standing. Few have seen this deep into such unspoiled country. I see the Old West right before my eyes, like a living time capsule. This is what makes a bold man pause in his saddle. While Scribner and my son toss rocks down the mountainside, my eyes follow the ridges and slopes, undulating like green leviathans beneath the fog and beyond, where clouds turn them blue and string them out like long ropes of semi-precious Lapis in the sky. A line in Beale’s journal describes it as “the very backbone of the world.” My son sidles up to me and asks me how much of this is Tejon Ranch. All of it.

I stood on Beale’s backbone of the world and felt the weight of Tejon’s history, with pages thicker than its conservation agreement. Its carousel of photos will revolve long past the days we were here. The head cowboy will pass this legacy on to his own son. The principle that what is happening in color will eventually turn into sepia is not lost on the stewards of Tejon Ranch. Large footsteps are carefully taken, knowing its wake will cut a course for California. “We’re still here.” Grant says, “We’re doing something right. All things considered, all things are as they should be.”

 Perhaps History itself sits sprawled out on the mantilla of its saddle under the sun, surveying the world from some high mountain, journaling what it sees. Pages of savage grandeur, tumultuous and golden days, and bold moves. Bold moves have built the backbone of California, whether small and self–reliant as the badger, or as large and generous as the Tehachapi Mountains. And its legacy is still being written. 

 “Keep looking forward and keep some dirt in your hands,” mule packer and fourth-generation Californio, Tony Matthias says, smiling at my son.

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