By Bonnie Rottier Felix
I was 12 years old when I first set foot on Tejon Ranch. It was a Sunday in 1953 during wildflower season. My mother and I had been invited to have lunch with the cowboys out at the old Ranch headquarters.
We had recently moved to Bakersfield from Los Angeles with the rest of the executive staff of the Ranch. My mother was secretary to Bill Moore, vice president of Tejon Ranch at that time. The drive out to the ranch took us along beautiful backroads into the heart of the Ranch.
We arrived about noon, and began to take in where we were. White-washed buildings from the 1800s clustered in a grove of old, old oaks. It felt like we had stepped back in time. Outside the air was warming up, and fragrant. We walked across the unpaved parking area, and up a couple of steps to where the dining room was.
We filed in slowly, through the screen door, along with all the cowboys, and found places at one of the long wooden tables that filled the room. I remember big, white, heavy-looking pitchers filled with milk brought in early that morning from the Tejon dairy cows. I also remember the enticing smell of the food being passed on big platters. We felt welcome amid friendly talk and hungry cowboy clatter. Sunday lunch grew into something we did regularly. Over time, we got to know some of the cowboys well.
Bonnie on Tony Araujo's horse named Tejon
Tony Araujo, one of the older veteran cowboys, took time after lunch to teach me how to ride. Soon my mother and I began to take long, late afternoon rides out on the land. Much of the territory became familiar, but we were regularly surprised by a beautiful new place.
In 1956 the Tejon Ranch Company moved its headquarters from Bakersfield to Tejon. Houses were built for the executive staff and their families, including my mother and me. This move began a vivid chapter in my growing connection with the land at Tejon.
We soon got to know the Wilbanks family, who lived just up the road toward Lebec. Charlie Wilbanks was the foreman of the purebred cattle division. His son Billy was 14, and already a good cowboy. His father and my mother arranged for me to join Billy, moving cows that summer. I was now 15, and had become a pretty good rider.
There were two or three canyons back in between Lebec and Fort Tejon where some of the Tejon cows were being grazed. The cows depended on water from spring boxes—concrete boxes meant to collect spring water from deep underground. In the summer heat, the spring boxes at lower elevations dried out, and the cows needed to be moved to higher ground where the boxes still had water.
Bonnie with Tony Araujo on Tejon Ranch
Summer began, and I started my days early. I walked down from my house to a little pasture near the school, saddled up one of the horses the Ranch was grazing there, and rode up the trail to the Wilbanks’ house. Billy would meet me outside his back door, and we would take off up into one of the canyons where the cows were grazing.
Lanky, and relaxed, Billy looked like he belonged on the back of a horse. Slowly and steadily we began to herd the cows up the canyon.
In addition to moving the cows, we had to watch for any pink eye and treat it. Billy taught me how to do it, and gave me the medicine to keep in my pocket. He knew the routine well. When one of us spotted a cow with pink eye, Billy—a first class roper already—would rope it, and I would jump down to doctor the cow’s infected eye.
We continued to slowly climb up, then down, the sides of the canyon, separating to collect stray cows. When we went as far up the canyon as we’d planned for the day, we were ready for lunch.
We looked for an old oak with lots of shade. Leaving our horses to graze, we got our lunches and found a comfy place to sit. I remember the stillness up there. The only sound was the far-off hum of insects in the summer heat.
Leaning up against the trunk of the old tree, we stretched out our legs and dug into whatever was in our paper bags. We didn’t talk much as a rule, but once Billy told me that his dad started putting him up on a horse before he could walk.
After lunch, we both took a nap. Legs stretched out, ankles crossed, we tipped our hats down to shade our eyes. After a bit, it was time to move on again. Somehow, Billy always knew when it was time to go. Making our way slowly back down the canyon, we checked for any cows we might have missed. We parted at the bottom of the canyon and headed home.
We spent most of three summers like this. Slow and easy time with the animals—coming to know the shapes of those canyons and of the trees, and the changing color of the sky. Those were life-changing days. Summers moving cows with Billy ended when I left for college.
Lunchtimes with the cowboys, the long afternoons exploring the Ranch on horseback, and moving cows with Billy forged in me a deep connection with the land at Tejon. That connection became an essential part of me.
In 2008, when I learned of the creation of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with gratitude for all those who imagined the possibility, and worked together for so long to make the Conservancy a reality.
I thank everyone at the Conservancy today for all you do as you continue to sustain and protect this precious land.