AN INTRODUCTION TO ELEVATED PASTURES
It appears that the cows in this part of the West must be related to mountain goats since the terrain they have to tread upon is often vertical. The fact that they manage to carve circular paths around the perimeter of the hills is proof that they aren’t the least bit phased about it. I, however, am not a goat and even though my surname hints at a bovine former life, I have not cloven hooves nor is my constitution made for ascending and descending craggy heights. So I should have been forewarned when Farm & Ranch Living magazine sent me on assignment to the Grieb Ranch just west of Lopez Lake on the outskirts of the Village of Arroyo Grande in California.
The back roads way to Lopez Lake starts at the end of the city of San Luis Obispo when one reaches Orcutt Road from Johnson Avenue. Then you are swinging through dips and curves past the wineries of Edna Valley. Any other time I would have loved to stop at Baileyanna Winery and relax with a glass of chardonnay or viognier. The old one-room Edna schoolhouse built in the early 1900s now sports a bright yellow façade and serves as their tasting room. Set on a slight rise, it is a pleasant afternoon sitting in the chairs on the patio overlooking miles and miles of green vineyards. But time was wasting and I was due to meet with Carl and Barbara Grieb for a tour of their ranch.
Rounding the bend onto the road that leads to the lake I slowed and kept a look out for the sign to their place. Just past Biddle County Park I saw it and it was my first hint that this was going to be a very different experience. That feeling grew when I saw the little yellow road crossing sign tacked onto the entryway post showing Mickey Mouse being chased by Goofy and Donald Duck. At least, I thought, they have a sense of humor.
I found Barbara in her kitchen at the ranch house after I spent a little time looking around what turned out to be the bunkhouse just beyond the entranceway. Here too was evidence of someone’s humor as a cute little cow figurine plaque asking “Got Milk?” was affixed to the doorway. Three old trunks that looked like they had recently arrived on a stagecoach were placed on the wooden porch up against the outside walls of the bunkhouse.
Across the yard was some kind of processing area and beyond that I could hear the baying of a herd of goats although I couldn’t see them. I proceeded up the steep drive to the ranch house.
Barbara was busy icing a large cake. She greeted me and explained that today was her grandson’s ninth birthday and a family gathering would take place later on this evening to celebrate.
“Carl is taking his nap,” she said, and she offered me some homemade lemonade tasting better than any lemonade I had ever had. “The lemons came from our orchard,” she said, “You probably passed the trees on the way in.”
“It’s hilly here,” I commented rather stupidly. She just laughed. I told her I had stopped down below at the gate and the bunkhouse and that I appreciated the two little humorous signs. Suddenly a voice reached me from behind.
“You have to have a sense of humor when you are ranching on land that rises up 2000 feet!”
Carl was up from his nap.
IN LAND THERE IS HISTORY
I sat at their dining room table with my lemonade and listened as the Griebs told me a bit of their history.
Barbara grew up in Los Angeles and says she was a city girl with a country heart. I could relate to that having been raised in New York. I’m a city girl with a country heart too.
“I didn’t see a cow until I was four on a trip to Iowa,” she said laughing. After she married Carl they bought a dairy in Templeton where all their children were born.
“We bought this ranch from Carl’s parents in 1969,” Barbara said, “and Carl’s family roots in this area go back to his grandfather, Konrad, who emigrated here in the 1870s and bought property in what is now Arroyo Grande.”
Carl, who had just turned 80, sold his cattle five years ago to his grandson Daniel, although the cows are still kept at the ranch, and went into the goat business. He doesn’t exactly raise goats even though he keeps them at the ranch, but buys them from goat ranchers in Oregon and other areas in California and one by one sells them to the Philippine and Hispanic communities on the Central Coast. “They like to eat them,” he explains.
That processing spot I saw near the bunkhouse is actually a slaughter area. People come, select the goats they want, and butcher the animals. All Carl does is purchase the goats and house and feed them. I think about that as he tells me how it all works. Certainly this is easier than tending to a cattle ranch at his age.
COWS UP THE HILL
“Are you ready?” Carl asked.
“Sure,” I said with a little trepidation, not knowing what to expect.
Carl took me out to the barn where he proceeded to load the bed of a little red RTV with bales of hay. Two young cows stared at us from the rear of the barn while a fat pig busied himself rooting into the corners and crevices of the building. Several barn kitties jumped on and off the hay bales. Outside of the building an assortment of halters and ropes hung on a cattle gate.
Grandson Daniel was away at college in Iowa so Carl is back taking over all the livestock chores. He explains that at one time he kept the goats out on pasture up in the hills in what he referred to as “goat camp canyon.”
“The dogs took pretty good care of them,” he said. The Griebs have several dogs; among them are Scooter, a Shepherd, and two Great Pyrenees and an Akbash. “The dogs did their best to protect the goats,” Carl said, “but we have a lot of mountain lions here so I moved the goats down here closer to the house.” He pointed in the direction of a large Quonset hutch building near to the slaughtering area.
“Well, let’s go,” Carl said and indicated for me to climb into the passenger seat of the RTV while Scooter jumped up into the bed next to the hay. “I thought we were going to see the goats,” I said. “Later,” Carl answered, “we’re going to feed the cattle and horses.”
Carl took off with me holding onto the side post of the vehicle. Since there were no doors on the RTV I could picture me tumbling out of it on the bumpy dirt path he took heading straight up the hill. Up, up, up we went higher and higher. While the view was incredible my heart rate was increasing as the winding trail got more and more narrow. At times we rode only inches from the edge of the precipice.
It occurred to me that if Carl suddenly had a fatal heart attack we would careen off the trail, shooting out over space, and then plummet all the way down the 2000 foot height. It didn’t help my confidence any when Carl told me that all of his land contains steep hills except for one acre. I yearned for that flat one acre.
Finally we reached a level spot and Carl stopped the RTV. Immediately two rusty colored horses came trotting up to us. Carl had placed a bucket of tortillas alongside the hay bales and he began handing some of them to the horses that seemed to relish them.
I was so grateful to be out of the vehicle and standing on level ground, I barely heard his explanation that a friend from church was a truck driver hauling baked goods and often gave him leftover bread, cookies, croutons, and tortillas to use as feed.
We finished with the horses and I had to shoo Scooter out of my seat and back into the RTV bed.
Carl started the motor and we were off again going higher still until reaching another level spot where two large Black Angus bulls were standing behind a ranch gate. I opened the gate for Carl and he backed the RTV inside and then proceeded to dump out a bale of hay and spread some tortillas on the ground. The animals lumbered right up heading straight for the tortillas. “They love those tortillas,” Carl laughingly said.
A long fence separated the bulls from a herd of cows who were anxiously awaiting their share of the hay and tortillas, and after moving the RTV over to their side, Carl obligingly spread out their feed. Then we were back on the trail climbing higher still while I held my breath and sometimes closed my eyes as we careened along the edge again. We stopped and Carl pointed off to my right. “There’s the lake,” he told me.
Yes, there it was, beautiful Lopez Lake, or at least one arm of it. The lake is a large reservoir and has 22 miles of shoreline. It is man-made, created in 1969 as a water source for the Five Cities area of the Central Coast. Water sports are the main attraction here as well as camping, hiking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, bird watching, wind surfing, water skiing, and more. It’s a great place to see wild turkeys up close as they parade around even down onto the parking lots.
I wanted a photo so Carl decided to continue down a side trail to a spot with a more extensive view for me to get my shot. If we wanted to, we could have continued all the way down to the shoreline of the lake thus avoiding paying any fee for access. But we had places to go and things to see so it was back in the RTV and up, up, and away.
Our next stop was in an open area next to a forest glade where more cows were grazing. “Round-up must be interesting here,” I said to Carl. “Oh, yes, we do it on horseback and we take them down the mountain the back way,” he said, “we can go back to the house that way.” I kept hoping it would be on a more luxurious and wider trail.
Across the meadow from the cattle was a small wooden building and out behind it an outhouse near to a huge old oak tree.
“This cabin was built in 1920,” Carl explained, “by my Dad. He liked to take the family back up here for a kind of vacation to get away from ranch chores. We used to swim in the pond,” he said pointing off a ways to a depression in the ground where water collected.
The cabin was rustic, had no electricity at that time but now did thanks to a generator out back. “During hunting season we would stay up here and hunt deer,” Carl said, “we still use it that way.” I not only could imagine them staying here but also pictured in my mind the early settlers of the area who homesteaded in these hills living in little shacks just like this one. It is a tranquil spot and well worth the terror of the ride up the mountain to get there.
THE ROAD HOME AND GOATS
As promised, Carl took me down the mountain the back way with Scooter running fast ahead of us.
While the trail here was a bit larger, at one point after a turn, the vista opened up before us. There way below us was the ranch house and the paved road to the lake. I could see the view all the way to the ocean. There was no doubt about it, mountain ranching has its superlatives.
We reached the bottom right where the goats were penned and even though I felt I had experienced all I needed to, I had to go see them. They were delighted to have a visitor and jumped around baying and bahing. One or two of them would climb up on a stack of pallets and stare at me. I had to wonder if every time someone showed up at their gate that they didn’t suspect what fate awaited them. But I was not here to slaughter goats, only to take their picture.
As I drove out past the ranch gate I smiled at the Disney road crossing sign, turned onto Lopez Drive and slowed a bit, looked back up the steep hill to see four horses staring down at me.
Mountain horses. Mountain cows. Mountain ranching.
Photos published in Farm & Ranch Living Magazine-December/January 2010