Parking the big black Dodge flatbed in its space between a jumble of farm vehicles and various metal parts, Tom Pryor walks under tall trees, past wild ducks and geese resting on his plush patch of shaded lawn, to descend into a shallow pit along a fence line. He throws the switch on an artesian well to move the steady flow of water from tree line drippers to the pond. When he runs out of chores to keep himself busy, he ambles into the impossibly cluttered garage to make things, fix things, or tinker with his collections of train horns and whistles and vintage toy heavy equipment.
This is the Hi Lo Country, the arid but beautiful northeastern corner of New Mexico between Clayton and Raton. Novelist Max Evans, who ranched the land across Pryor’s east fence, named it with his classic 1961 western novel, The Hi Lo Country, based on true events and people around the nearby village of Des Moines, elevation 6600’, population 150. From Tom and Jan Pryor’s old rock ranch house, the western landscape is dominated by Sierra Grande and Capulin volcanoes; the Pryors’ 200 head of Black Angus cattle are scattered the other direction across 4400 acres stretching toward the nearby Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.
Tom has lived here since December 18, 1947, the day Faye and Grover Pryor received a phone call from Dr. Donovan in the old Raton clinic at the downtown El Portal Hotel: he had a baby boy, just born, who needed a home. The Pryors brought Tom home that evening.
Grover’s parents had arrived in a land rush of homesteaders in 1907, building a dugout home and establishing a dairy farm, gradually expanding their initial 160 acres to ten times that size as neighboring homesteads failed. Each day’s cream was put on the noon passenger train that took it to Trinidad Creamery, across the Colorado line, where much of it was processed for Safeway stores.
Tom’s grandfather died 4 months before he and Jan married in 1968; his grandmother died 4 months after the wedding. But Tom’s father, Grover, didn’t last that long. Driving to Clayton for feed in February 1964, he timed the 90-mile round trip between a pair of blizzards. He didn’t make it home. The second blizzard slammed down from the north, driving cattle to the south fences. Grover couldn’t see through the blowing snow to his truck’s hood. He made it from the highway to the maze of dirt roads leading home, but bogged down and abandoned the truck to walk hand over hand along the barbed wire fence. Neighboring cowhands found him the next morning just a half-mile from his own father’s house, frozen in the snow along the fence, his gloves and hands cut by the wire.
Tom was 16, a junior at Des Moines School where “you made sure you sat on the side of the room that got sunshine,” he recalls. Though he stuck through graduation, he had to earn money right away. He sorted 2x4s at the lumberyard, painted “Emerald Carbonic Dry Ice” on a sign where the Des Moines dump sits today, and he drove bulldozers. “I learned how to cut ground to make water run where you wanted it,” he says. “Back then they didn’t have laser and all that.”
At the same time, the passenger train stopped coming through; Tom and his mom had to replace their dairy herd with Black Angus.
“In these parts, ideally you need 40 acres per cow. Of course, if we can give them 25 we’re lucky, and we run feed out to them. We have 2600 acres now and lease another 1800. We run 150 to 200 cows from year to year. After they harvest south of Sedan, which is 3000’ lower than here, I truck a few dozen calves down there to graze through the winter on harvested crop circles of corn and wheat. Then we sell all the calves and some of the old cows as pairs.”
It’s never been enough to support a family. Since its founding in 1952, Tom had attended the nearby Sierra Grande Cowboy Camp Meeting, an interdenominational Christian enclave still camped in the trees adjacent to Weatherly Lake for four days each July. In 1967 he met a young nursing student who had come from Iowa with her church group. When she returned the following summer, Jan and Tom married. Along with the cattle, they raised three daughters – Angie, Misty, and Nikki. Jan became the region’s only paramedic, training volunteer EMTs throughout a sparsely populated 3-county region and racing out into countless nights to tend wrecks on the highway and heart attacks in ranch houses.
Tom started driving cattle trucks for Buster Wiseman out of Clayton. “And that’s mostly what I’ve been doing ever since, hauling cattle and feed. That’s been most of the income,” he says. “That’s why the fences look like they do down on the east end: nobody’s been here to fix them.
“Union County Feedlot was built in the late 1960s, so I started hauling lots of cattle from there to packing houses in Amarillo and Dodge City. A long haul would be Kansas City or Omaha. The busy time was September to Thanksgiving, when you’d run every day. From the early ‘70s, you could stay busy year-round if you had the contacts.”
He bought a truck in 1967, the first of three Macks. He drove one Peterbilt 1,380,000 miles. The 1990 Kenworth T-600 parked out front today is 13,000 miles shy of its millionth mile. With miles came stories. He shares one, close to home, circa 1969. “I picked up a load of yearlings out at Sofia to deliver to Tucumcari. I was pulling my own new trailer behind a Diamond T that belonged to Farmers Feed & Seed in Clayton. A rain came hard enough to turn those dirt roads at Sofia into sludge. We slid right off into the bar ditch and rolled over, bent my trailer. The cows were none too happy, and neither was Farmers Feed & Seed.”
With millions of miles behind him, Tom mostly stays home now, tending to endless chores and tinkering on projects, followed by his dogs Killer and Patches and the pair of coyote dogs Rip and Snort. There are 5 chickens that yield 5 eggs each day, though Tom is allergic to eggs. Jan grows flowers and a summer vegetable garden of corn, tomatoes, beans, turnips, onions, peas, squash, lettuce, and lots of New Mexico’s state vegetable – green chile.
Wild ducks and Canadian geese are ever-present, attracted by Weatherly Lake and the Pryors’ pond. “Well, that, and I feed them,” Tom grins. At any one time, the ducks number from 8 to 75, the geese up to a dozen. “You get some hanging around and others will stop in just to see what’s goin’ on. They ain’t any different than people. And the geese want to know everything. If they don’t get some feed by 7:30, why they’re up lookin’ in the windows to see what’s up.
“Granddad had the pond forever, with a windmill and an overhead tank. It ran year-round. But by the early ‘90s, we just didn’t have enough water for a ranch and a houseful of girls. There was a drilling outfit working nearby and I got a good deal in getting them to come over here. Back then you didn’t need to get the government’s permission – I’ve sunk about 5 wells on this land over the years.
“But this outfit struck an artesian well. You can’t turn it off. It’s flowing 5-6 gallons a minute all the time. I built a system to put all that water to use. It keeps the pond and the stock tanks full, keeps the birds happy, and waters the trees. Then it just goes back into the ground and starts all over again.” The two-story rock house is surrounded by pines, cedars, lilacs, apples, peaches, cherries, elms, a walnut tree over the corral, and a massive cottonwood at the pond. “Cripes, I don’t have a clue when that cottonwood started,” Tom ponders. “My granddad planted it. I thought it was big and old when I was a kid.”
This is the only place Tom has ever lived. “Where else would I want to go? I’ve been everywhere else in that truck. I’ve loaded cattle at the base of Hoover Dam, been to Montana, been to Florida. I’ve been in Kansas where the mosquitoes carry guns. I’ve loaded cattle at 41° below zero in Alamosa, Colorado, and at 119° in Yuma, Arizona.
“Around here it gets cold, but not too cold, and not too hot. Besides, my grandsons are here. And my dogs are here. An old man once told me, “You’ll get along real good if you keep your dogs at home and your girlfriends in town.” Tom smiles. “I like it here just right.”
Tim Keller is a New Mexico photographer, writer, and high school teacher. See more at www.TimKellerArts.com.
©2010 Tim Keller