Mixed-media exhibit captures area’s rich ranching
| 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
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
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”
“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,”
| 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
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,”
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
“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
“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,”
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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