Coming home
Sons and Daughters of La Plata County ranches gets back to their roots

Sidebar: Mixed-media exhibit captures area’s rich ranching history

Ted Compton stands next to a fenceline on his family’s ranch near Hesperus. Like many sons and daughters of ranching families, he left Durango after high school, encouraged by his parents to pursue interests outside ranching. Since then, Compton has returned to Durango, where he works as an engineer and helps out during crux times on the ranch./Photo by Dustin Bradford

Growing up alongside hundreds of acres of open space and riding horses in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains may be a dream for many urban children. Yet, skyscrapers and bustling city streets are often the very things that entice children who grew up breaking horses - rather than break dancing - to leave their roots.

In fact, by the time many ranch kids become teen-agers, the arid and rugged West doesn’t look nearly as golden as, say, California. And while many leave in search of greener pastures, they often discover life on the other side of the fence is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Jennifer James Wheeling, who grew up the eldest of five siblings on her parents’ James Ranch in the Animas Valley, remembers as a child feeling confined by her rural surroundings.

“I wanted freedom,” Wheeling says.

Wheeling left Durango right after high school, looking to satisfy her fiercely independent nature and escape what she called the “everybody-knows-who-you-are” syndrome.

“I wanted out to be my own person,” she says. “Dad cast a pretty tall shadow.”

Her sisters Cynthia and Julie Ott and brothers Justin and Dan all left as well.

Ted Compton, son of Hesperus ranchers Penni and Tom Compton, also left Durango right after high school. He landed in the San Francisco Bay Area, at Stanford University. Since his parents, who also are teachers, always motivated him academically, Compton says he chose Stanford more for what the school offered than what the city did. But Compton did admit that being near the city afforded him many things that were unavailable in Durango, including his first rock concert.

Interestingly, both the Compton and James families encouraged their children to leave, wanting them to experience something else and prepare themselves for careers outside of ranching – and Durango.

Alexandra Earl, another “ranch daughter,” was also coaxed by her parents, Connie and Jim, to pursue something other than the family trade after she returned to Durango with an English literature degree from CU Boulder. For a while, Earl worked as an intern at a law office and at the local television station, yet she says her parents saw it as a dead-end. As much as she loved the beauty and quality of life on the ranch, overlooking the Florida River, Earl left for San Francisco seeking more professional opportunity.

“It was the early ’80s, and I felt like $6 an hour was the best I could do here,” she says.

The James family, which owns the James Ranch, seen here in the north Animas Valley, has five children, four of whom have returned to Durango to work the ranch./Photo by Dustin Bradford

The trade-off

Once in San Francisco, Earl worked producing media and events for high-tech companies. While her career was quite lucrative, the trade-off, she decided, came at the expense of her physical and mental health.

“It was so competitive,” she says. “It wore me out.”

She eventually realized that what she left on the ranch outweighed material gain, and decided to move back.

For Wheeling, who lived in Pennsylvania and California before ending up in Dallas with her husband, Joe, and two daughters, the decision to move back was not so clear cut. Although she felt something was not quite right, she could not put her finger on it.

“Something was missing,” she says.

Wheeling, who now runs an organic vegetable business, Meadowbrook Farms, says a big part of it was her love of the land, something she never lost. In Dallas, Wheeling says she felt ostracized by her neighbors, who were difficult to get to know and not very receptive to things like truckloads of compost being dumped in her driveway.

“I was an odd bird in the midst of suburbia Texas,” she says.

Earl also found neighbors in the city more distant, despite the higher density and physical proximity.

“We survive here by being neighborly, while people in the city survive by keeping to themselves,” she observes. “When people talk to you in the city, usually it is because something is wrong.”

Despite a lack of neighborly rapport, Wheeling and her husband came back to Durango primarily because of their children, Olivia and Brooke. When it was time for the girls to start school, Wheeling says she took a long, hard look at her values and the different messages sent to kids in school.

“I didn’t want them to feel like they were nothing if they weren’t a cheerleader,” she says.

Yet, Wheeling and her husband still weren’t considering Durango, but looking instead at land farther north.

“In Durango, dad was boss,” she says, still clinging to memories of growing up in her father’s shadow. However, things were beginning to change back home. Wheeling’s father, David James, was beginning to take holistic management classes, exploring more creative ways to maintain their livelihood. James actually had initiated alternatives to cattle back in 1978, when he sold the lower 120 acres of his land for real estate development. This flexibility and less traditional “ranching” was the key to Wheeling’s and her three siblings’ return.

Along with Wheeling, each one has taken over a various aspect of the family operation, including organic gardening and dairy and tree farming.

“Holistic management is what gave us the tools to come back,” says Wheeling.

Wheeling is optimistic about the future, though she admits the move did not come without compromise. Her husband is still based in Dallas, flying into Durango on the weekends. But for Wheeling to be back home it’s worth it.

“I couldn’t have done it without my family,” she says.

And although Durango’s growth may be considered a negative by some who have grown up here, for Wheeling things like the Community Recreation Center and Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall gave her extra incentive to return.

“Now the girls are growing up not limited by anything,” says Wheeling, “Durango isn’t the deprived little community that I grew up in.”

Wheeling also says that the influx of newer residents from other parts of the country has made her business more profitable. The appreciation for organic gardening, Wheeling feels, wouldn’t be as strong if it weren’t for these people. Meanwhile, the James family has ideas to eventually expand their operation even further, perhaps with a lodge on the property.

Jennifer Wheeling and Brooke Wheeling, 7, tend to Jennifer’s mother Kay James’ chickens Wednesday at the James Ranch north of Durango. Jennifer grew up in Durango, moved away and has since returned./Photo by Dustin Bradford

Taking over the ranch

For Compton, returning to Durango after graduating from Stanford, while 80 percent of his classmates went to work for Arthur Anderson, was more of a given.

“It was comfortable here,” he says. “What makes it comfortable is the availability of all the things you need without having to chase them.”

Like Wheeling, Compton acknowledges that ranching has changed, becoming more flexible than it used to be. While earlier generations might have felt it necessary to raise a herd of cows, for instance, today “taking over the ranch” can mean many things. He subtly mentions raising Italian burros as something he’d like to do, but admits it’s a bit premature.

“I need to decide if ranching is something I want to tackle,” he says.

He and his wife, Moira, and their one-year-old daughter, Cecelia, live in town, where he is an engineer for Soundtraxx. While Ted knows his parents would like to stay involved and see the ranching lifestyle continue, he doesn’t feel pressure from them. Instead, the pressure comes from himself and, like Wheeling, from the values he wants Cecilia to grow up with. He feels contact with animals, in particular, provides unequivocal lessons.

“I want Cecilia to gain the same sense of respect for life,” Compton says. “You see so many problems with that in society today. You want to think you can teach your child that by talking about it, but it doesn’t always go that way.”

Compton admits he is fond of the more convenient and predictable lifestyle his family has in town, yet he is torn by the trade-off and realization that whatever choice he makes will be a final decision.

“If we go in the other direction, it’s not like you can go back,” he says. “It would be hard to see that life disappear.”

Earl also notes that although her parents never pressured her to come home and be involved with the ranch, she experiences the same “internal pressure.”

She says she wants to take a more active part in her family’s ranch now, whereas 10 years ago she was never in the ranching mindset. She is now helping her father execute some different ideas for using the land. Although the family is essentially out of the cow business, she says implementing a decision to move in a different direction will likely fall on her shoulders.

“If we do, it will be up to me,” Earl says.

As for the opportunities facing the new class of Durango ranching kids, it’s anyone’s guess. But if the generation ahead of it is any indication, the possibilities for ranching life could be limitless. And in the meantime, the rec center now offers break dancing classes.






News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index