Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Don Madison and Otis. “I haven’t really trained Otis to do that. It’s in his blood."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Patches of week-old snow glisten in the shady spots of Don Madison's front yard. Totem poles and wood carvings stand in various states of completion. Madison, a stout man of 45 with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, emerges from the front door of the plank-sided cabin. Dressed in black jeans, a blue-and-red pendleton, and a green baseball cap, he offers a firm handshake and directs me to the passenger seat of his white Chevy pickup. Otis, his six-month-old German wire hair, takes his place in the truck’s bed.
"They needed somebody to run the ranch. I said I thought I could do it, so they gave me the job six years ago.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Madison manages the 10,000-acre Rutherford Ranch, which stretches from Julian to the desert. If the word ranch makes you think of endless flat land covered with tumbleweeds and cows, it’s not the Rutherford you’re thinking about. Elevation ranges from 5500 feet at the peak of Volcan Mountain to 2900 feet in the San Felipe Creek valley. Pines and cedars at the higher elevations of the ranch give way to black oaks in the medium heights, which in turn give way to mesquite trees and sagebrush in the valley. And any cows on the ranch have wandered in from neighboring ranches or the adjacent Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation.
The caretaker’s cabin in which Madison lives sits on the mountain side of the ranch, three miles outside Julian on Farmer Road. Across the road from the cabin, an electric gate opens when Madison punches in a combination, opening the way to Volcan Mountain. A big part of Madison’s job is running off people who climb over, walk around, or sometimes drive right through this gate and 13 others on the ranch.
“They take a gate as a challenge, I think,” says Madison, who speaks with a friendly ease. “A lot of people see it and they turn around and drive away. Other guys try to figure out how to open it. So I see them out there all the time, fiddling around. When I drive up or walk up, I just kind of smile and let them do the talking. I ask them what they are doing, and I’ll just observe. If I do the talking, they start getting suspicious. If they do the talking, I can tell in three to five seconds if they belong here or not, by their actions or words.”
Do you tell them to get lost?
“No, I’m usually pretty good with them. Some people in the community here, they have business up here doing electrical or something. They’ll come straight out and say, ‘Hey, look, I need a key. I’ve got to get up there and do about four hours of work. I’ll drop the key back off.’ They don’t fool around. But people from the city that want to come up here have no idea how to get in here or how the gates work.”
What brings them up here?
“Well,” Madison extends his hand and starts ticking off the reasons on his fingers, “this time of year, pine cones fall on the roads and people want them. Then we have Christmas trees up a little higher. Or, it’s deer hunters, it’s hikers, it’s firewood, it’s mistletoe, shooting stars at night, hang gliders, bird-watchers who have been tracking a bird from off the ranch. I’ll catch mountain bikers up here too. They seem to sneak through the gates, I don’t know how. It’s always, ‘We’re not hurting anything.’ I tell them, ‘It’s not a matter of you hurting anything; you’re trespassing on private property, and I can’t let you be up here.’ I guess the most trouble I have is with hunters, but the hikers, it seems, are darn near as bad."
What kind of trouble?
“I’ll get people who want to put up a fight or want to talk to the owner. Most everybody else, it’s ‘Sorry, we knew we were trespassing and we’re caught so we’ll leave.’ But some people get angry. They think so much land can’t belong to one person. They say stuff like, ‘If he’s got so much, why can’t he share some of it with us?’ For some reason, when people hit the backcountry, they feel like there are no laws. They can pick apples off anybody’s trees, they can cross the gate, and if they see mistletoe, they can pick it. I’ve got a couple of bow hunters that are just terrible. They’ll call me up and ask me where I’m going to be, and I’ll say, ‘We’ll, I’ve got to stay up here today, why?’ ‘Well, I was going to come by and see you.’ And if they know I’m up here, they’ll go down to the other side of the property and hunt.”
Madison stops talking to concentrate on driving the truck over a long patch of ice on a steep part of the road. We make it through the ice — barely — and he continues. “These hunters want access so bad, and I can understand that. I’m a hunter too. But you see, we have a hunting organization already on the ranch. The members pay almost $2000 a year for the privilege of having this 10,000 acres for hunting and fishing and recreational activities. I can’t open it up to anybody else because of that. It’s a very private deal, and that’s the way the owners want it. They’ve instructed me as of late to kind of shut it down a little farther. ‘Be more vigilant,’ those were their words.”
The road stops at the flat crest of Volcan Mountain upon which stand several AT&T microwave towers, their manmade ugliness clashing with the splendor of God’s creation all around them. The mountain drops away here, affording a view of a desert valley 2500 feet below and foothills beyond. “The ranch goes all the way down through that valley,” Madison tells me, “and about a third of the way up the mountain on the far side. After that, it’s BLM [Bureau of Land Management] land.”
We drink in the view for a while and then head back down the road. On the way, Madison tells me how he got this job. “I met the old caretaker, who just passed away, Elden Yost, while I was hunting on the ranch when I was 16 or 17 years old. It was down on the desert side where there was no fence. My dad and I were down there one day, and Elden Yost comes up and says, 'Son, you’re trespassing.’ So we asked, ‘How do we get permission?’ ‘You can’t get permission to hunt here.’ Another time, I was down there quail hunting and another caretaker caught me, ‘Hey, boy! You’d better get the heck out of here.’ So I started meeting all the caretakers by not knowing where I was, by being one of the trespassers. Like I said, I was 16, it was just after I got my license. By 21, they had me pretty well figured out, and I would go to public land or ask permission. Finally, I just asked the guy one day. I said, ‘ I want to hunt here, and I’ll do anything it takes. I’ll open your gates for you. I’ll cut your firewood, I’ll do anything.' He said, ‘I could use a cord of wood.’
"I didn’t know how to cut firewood, but I started out little by little, and pretty soon I was cutting all the firewood for the ranch. Then, I started opening gates. Pretty soon, I was feeding 62 horses on this ranch and doing all sorts of errands and not being paid a nickel to do it. I was just up here for the hunting. When the opportunity came along for this job, they called me and said they needed somebody to run the ranch. I said I thought I could do it, so they gave me the job six years ago. It was supposed to last two to five years and I’ve been here six. So any day after today I’m happy to be here. I really am.”
Halfway down the hill, Madison stops to inspect some tracks in the snow. He thinks they’re from a mountain lion. We get out for a closer look. The morning sun has melted the tracks a bit, so he can’t tell for sure. “Could be deer tracks.”
Madison often sees mountain lions on the ranch, but the only time he’s felt threatened by one was when he didn’t see it. “A few years back,” he recalls “there was a lion in the area that killed seven steers and an old horse. One day, I could only find 61 of the horses. Then Elden said, ‘Hey, Don, Old Toby’s missing.’ Well, I went up to cut firewood that afternoon and — it was one of those fate things — right where I went, there was Old Toby lying there, fresh-eaten. When I saw what that lion had done to him, an 850- to 1000-pound animal, I felt threatened. Although I never saw the lion, being in the presence of his kill made me scared to death. That was some sort of an animal that took that horse down."
Back at the gate, we turn right and take Farmer Road to Wynola Road and take another right. We’re heading for the desert side of the ranch. Normally, Madison would get gas in Julian, take Highway 78 east down Banner Grade to the east, then San Felipe Road northwest to the desert side of the ranch. But the Julian gas station is closed for renovation, so we take Wynola road to 78 west, which carries us down the evergreen-covered mountain to the grasslands and valley oaks of the Santa Ysabel Valley. In the town of Santa Ysabel, we get gas and some buffalo jerky and head north on Highway 79. Passing Lake Henshaw on the left, we take a right on San Felipe Road. Two minutes after turning, Madison stops the truck in the middle of the road, throws it in reverse for a few seconds, and stops again. “I thought I saw a black mountain lion cub out there, but it’s just a city kitty,” he says, pointing toward the field to the right of the road. I can’t see it.
“Out there, by that pole.”
Finally, I spot a lone black cat, 250 yards from the road, stalking field mice. I’m amazed that Madison spotted it while cruising by at 60 miles per hour. “My eyes have become trained to seeing long distances,” he explains, “because so much of this job is just sitting and watching over the ranch. During hunting season, I’ll park the truck down on the lower part of the ranch we’re heading to right now, and I’ll just watch for hunters. Everything is so silent and motionless that anything that moves is easy to spot. The problem is, if they get there before I do, they see me first. They’ll sit up there and watch me, waiting for me to go by. Then they’ll call their buddy on their cell phone or walkie-talkie to come pick them up."
About ten miles down San Felipe Road, past the minuscule town of the same name, we come to a cattle guard in the road that marks the entrance to the Rutherford Ranch. Volcan Mountain looms to the right, covered with pines and snow. Down here in the valley, it’s mesquite trees, sage-brush, and cactus. As we cross the cattle guard, Madison tells me, “This is good deer-hunting territory here, and all the hunters know it because of this.” He points to a yellow, diamond-shaped warning sign at the side of the road with no words on it, only the silhouette of a leaping, six-point buck. “They see that and think, ‘Here’s the place to go, right here.’ Problem is, both sides of the road here are ranch land, so they’re trespassing if they hunt here and poaching if they shoot a deer on the ranch.”
How serious a problem is it?
“It’s very serious. If the Fish and Game catch you at it, they make an example out of you. But I usually catch them before they even get a deer. And the really serious poachers come at night. They’ve got a big spotlight, and they go up into one of these canyons where they know there are deer, then they turn it on. The deer kind of freeze when they see the light, and you can shoot them real easily. Then they’ll take the hindquarters and the back strap, and they’ll leave the rest of the deer just sitting there.”
Past the cattle guard a few yards we come to a gate in the fence to the right. Madison pulls up to it, gets out, and unlocks it. “See this new chain?" he asks. “Someone was nice enough — after they cut the chain to open the gate — to leave the lock there. Usually, they take it and fling it and I never find it. But this time, I was able put a new piece of chain on and use the old lock. See any signs on this fence?”
I see one, 50 feet down from the gate.
“I put 14 signs up around this gate, and they’re all gone but that one down there. They take my signs off and they throw them like a Frisbee as far as they can. They used to just take them off and throw them on the ground face down and say, ‘I didn’t see it.’ Now, they take them and fling them off as far as they can.”
Inside the gate, a tire-track road leads up the gradual slope toward the mountain. The truck bounces up and down and the mesquite trees scratch against the side making a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. Half , a mile in from the gate, the road stops in an area where the trees are a little bigger and the ground between them is moist and covered with bright green, new grass on which a few cows are nibbling. Madison and I get out and walk around a bit. “Water just comes right out of the ground here from hundreds of springs,” he explains, “so the deer flock in here. The cows do too. You can see we’re getting a little bit of green grass and that attracts them. What the deer do is they migrate over the mountain, eat the acorns, eat the apples, eat everything up there they can. Then, they come down here in the rut season, and they mate.”
Despite the fact that it’s on private land, Madison says many deer hunters know about this spot and will disregard the law to hunt here, and they’re not all habitual law-breakers. “I remember one guy,” he tells me. “From up above, I watched him pull in, and I drove all the way from the other side up there. I got here just as they were walking away, I said, ‘You guys can’t hunt up here, it’s private property.’ He says, ‘I know it is. I’m sorry, I’m guilty. I drove past your sign. Sorry.’ We didn’t have a gate back then. You could just drive right in. He tells me. This is my only day to hunt. I took a day off work. The season’s over next weekend, and this is my son’s first hunt. He’s 16 years old.’ I could tell he was a law-abiding citizen. I said, ‘Tell you what. You guys have a great hunt. The deer are up in there; I’ll keep everybody else out of here for you.’ He goes, ‘Hey, here, let me give you some money.’ I said, ‘I don’t want your money, or I’d have charged you to begin with. I just want you to have a good hunt with your son. Have fun and be careful. If anybody says anything, here’s my card.’ They couldn’t have been more appreciative. They never got a deer, but they send me a Christmas card every year."
Some of the other trespassing hunters — Madison says he kicks out two to five per day during hunting season — aren’t so nice. Back in the truck now, Madison recalls, “One day, I came up to one of the gates, and it was standing open. I drove up a ways and there was a mini truck parked there. The back window was shot out. I walked up and looked in it. Nobody was in it, but I remember seeing an empty potato chip bag on the floor on the passenger side. I knew whoever owned the thing was up in here hunting, so I drove back down the road and waited for them. When they came back out, I pulled the truck out across the road. I got out and went up to the driver’s side and said, 'Hey, how you doing? You know, this is private property, you guys really shouldn’t be hunting in here.’ The driver said, 'We hunt where we want to hunt,' and I heard a click. I've been around guns long enough to recognize the sound of a gun being cocked. I looked and the guy in the passenger seat had the potato chip bag on his lap and his hand was inside of it, holding a gun. I said, I wouldn’t make any sudden moves. The guy behind the bush over there’s got a 12-gauge on you right now.’ When they heard that, they blasted their truck through a big clump of cactus to get around my truck and shot off down the road. Never saw them again. But I had taken down their license plate.
“That’s usually what I’ll do when I come up to guys who shouldn’t be here. I’ll pretend like I’m a hunter — 'Hey, how ya doin’? This is good huntin’ back in here...’ — then, I can get any information in a matter of minutes. I’ll say something like, ‘Hey, I’ll see you guys later. I've got to go down and talk to the sheriff and the game warden,’’ and when I get to the truck, I write down their license number. When I get back, they’re usually gone. Sometimes they're gone before I am. They start moving when I say, game warden' or 'sheriff.' Rarely do I have to call them, but sometimes I do.” We’re back in the truck rambling down the road toward the gate when a flock of quail scares up in front of us, flying off into the sagebrush on the right. “Mind if I do a little quail hunting?” Madison asks.
I don’t mind at all. Madison stops the truck, gets out, and pulls on a camouflage vest, which he finds behind the seat. Grabbing a small shotgun, which has been riding on the seat between us, he says, “Come on, Otis” and walks in the direction the quail flew. Otis and I follow. After 100 yards, we flush six or seven quail, which fly off to our left, hugging the bushtops. Madison levels his gun. POP! He fires the little shotgun, and one quail drops to the brush. Otis snaps into action. Guided by his nose, which he holds an inch from the ground, he zig-zags his way to the fallen bird, which he picks up gently and brings to Madison’s out-stretched hand. “That’s all instinct,” Madison tells me. “I haven’t really trained Otis to do that. It’s in his blood." We continue hunting for another 20 minutes. We scare up a few quail, but they always seem to fly in the direction Madison’s back is facing so he can’t get the gun around in time for a decent shot. But just when we give up and start heading for the truck, one jumps up from a sagebush right in front of us. Madison levels his gun, aims for a split second… POP! The bird falls into a thick manzanita bush 30 yards down the hill in front of us. We walk down there and poke around but can't find it. Otis, who had been off in the other direction when Madison shot the bird, comes walking up and burrows his way into the bush. Though the thick foliage hides him from our sight, we can hear him sniffing around under the bush. After five minutes, he emerges with the dead bird in his mouth. Madison takes it and pats the young dog on the back. “Good boy, Otis.”
Back at the truck, Madison flips down the tailgate and lays the two quail on it, chests up. Placing his thumbs together on the left quail’s chest, he pushes down and out and the skin peels away, revealing deep pink flesh underneath. He repeats the process on the other bird and, throwing the skins in the bushes, then puts both birds in an ice chest in the bed of truck. We hop in the cab and continue down the road.
The deer-hunting season ended a few weeks ago and it’s about noon now — a little late in the day for deer hunting — so we don’t see any trespassers or poachers today, though, as Madison says, “We could be driving by 60 of them right now. They could be hiding right in these bushes, and you’d never see them. And, believe me, guys do hide from me. I caught this one guy who was at least 70. As I was driving through here, I saw a movement. As I went one way, he went the other around to the back of the bush he was hiding behind. So I threw it in reverse and backed up, and he was standing on the other side of the bush. I said, ‘Hey, you’re kind of old to be playing hide and seek. How ya doin’?’ He says, ‘Oh, you caught me,’ I said, ‘I saw you from the get go.’ He says, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go. Sorry.’ And he turned around and walked away.
“I saw where he crawled in under the fence, and he went back to the same spot and crawled out again. I went and put a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on the fence right there. That’s about all you can do. Some ranchers are gung-ho to get them prosecuted and keep them off their land. But unless they’re shooting your cows or something like that, to just patrol and keep them off is your best defense, as opposed to trying to hang them every time you catch them, because there are court costs and everything else. Probably 60 percent of the people don’t know what they’re doing to begin with anyway. They just say, 'Hey, the sign says deer, let’s hunt right here.' "