The Last Desert Cowboy is a photoessay of a charismatic ranching family in the high desert that struggles to find meaning and moments of grace in a hostile environment. Less than a decade ago there were 16 ranching families in Lucerne Valley. The Mitchell family at Rattlesnake Ranch are one of a handful left. Billy Mitchell has brought up four daughters on the ranch, all but one have now left. There are constant changes in policy for grazing rights and leases have to be renegotiated every 10 years as well as the 8-year drought blighting California.
There is a resilience forged by life in a merciless clime that is not nearly as empty as it looks. The Mojave desert is a paradox demonstrating an intensity and delicateness, isolation and accessibility, fragile and contrary landscape.
On branding day at Billy’s ranch, everyone is given a job. The women cook, the children ride, round up, rope or feed the strays. Billy can no longer do many of the physical tasks. He sits upon his horse and oversees the action like a well-seasoned director. As hard as ranching is, Billy rarely complains. “My life is blessed,” he says. When all the cattle are branded, everyone gathers by the house. Homegrown beef is barbecued; someone brought salsa, guacamole, and beans. There is plenty of beer and even a private bottle of whiskey. Billy says a prayer before they eat. He thanks God for the cattle, his family, friends, the land and the animals.
Text: Hilary Sloane