Like others who have had the chance to rub shoulders with him at various property rights conferences, we thought we knew Ronnie Merritt. We knew that he was a rancher, a man who loved his country, and a staunch defender of the principles of freedom.
But it wasn’t until we had the privilege of spending a few memorable days with him and his wife Beverly on their magnificent land in Lincoln County, New Mexico, that we really got to know who Ronnie Merritt is, and get a peek into the heart of this, and surely many other pillars of the property rights movement.
Getting a feel for the Merritts and their way-of-life doesn’t begin when you roll down the dirt driveway to their home. It begins when you turn south off of I-40 at Clines Corner, come over the ridge, and have your breath taken away by the vast, enormous vista that stretches as far as the eye can see. This isn’t like the land we are used to seeing back East where, on a clear day, you can see a good ways out, over to the next hill or highway or apartment building. Here, the only thing closing in your view any which way you look is the place where the sky meets the horizon, and you wonder if that next mountain over there is 10 miles off, or 20, or maybe 500.
We did pretty well following the directions we were given. After traveling for a very pleasant hour or so, we came through a couple of small, and we mean small, towns where a gas station, a diner, and maybe another business or two are the only reasons to bring down our speed from 75 to the posted 40.
Thirty or so miles later, we found the road that leads to the Merritt Ranches without much problem, although we did turn down the wrong driveway and travel for about 3 or 4 miles down a dirt road, before realizing maybe we weren’t in the right place. Any hope of using a cell phone if we broke down was instantly dismissed by the lack of even a single coverage bar on the indicator. We felt about as disoriented as the space aliens that were alleged to have landed very nearby during the famous Roswell Incident of 1947, said either ESP, or a long, long walk in the dark might have to do. But all was well, and the Merritt’s were only too glad to put a delicious warm supper on the table, even if we were a bit late.
That drive to the ranch, along with the deafening silence you hear when you stand outside that can only be compared to what it sounds like back home after a big snowstorm, told us loud and clear that we weren’t in Washington anymore, Dorothy. And it wonderfully conveyed to us the reality that in this place, we, and any other souls out there, were but a small speck upon this vast, timeless land.
You could tell that the Merritts know that. And while many like to talk about living “in harmony” with the earth, we saw a people for whom those are not just words, but the reality of everyday life.
As you might expect, the day starts early on the Merritt Ranches. Ronnie telling us he’ll been back “after awhile” since he has to go put out some feed for the young calves. Beverly joyfully serving up some bacon and eggs and coffee and toast and homemade jam because you don’t want to begin a day at the ranch on an empty stomach. This day, there’s rain falling off and on, which is fantastic news to those in the area who haven’t seen much in recent years. Beverly and Ronnie keep talking about how they hope the rain won’t miss their ranch, and are glad we brought some with us, having come from the drenched East, where one hurricane after another has been working its way up the coast. We might have liked some clearer days, to see the vista, and marvel at a night sky lit up by ten thousand times ten thousand stars. But they need the rain more than we need the view, so we’re only too happy to make the trade.
After getting his early chores done, Ronnie wants to take us for a tour of the ranches. How long can this possibly take, we ask ourselves? Maybe an hour or so, tops? Well the three of us cram into the pickup, and set off on a bumpy ride that takes us through the better part of the day, with only a break for lunch in-between. Apparently, it does take a while if you’re going to see the high points of 40,000 acres.
Aside from the obvious pride and love that Ronnie has for his land, we are struck by the fact that he seems to know every hill, rock, tree, cactus, and cave across this wide expanse. They are old friends to him. And whether he’s taking us up through the beautiful Red Bluff on the northern section of the ranch; showing us the caves and crevices he used to hide in for a nap as a teenager when he was supposed to be out fixing a fence; pointing out some dens where the rattlers make their home; bringing us to the “Merritt National Forest” where he says he has personally counted every one of the 93 trees that grace its sides; showing us the natural rock arch which he says is one of the largest of its kind in the country; or being able to spook out two Great Horned owls with one perfectly aimed rock into a wide sink hole, this is a ride to remember for a lifetime (with a few big surprises thrown in ).
Ronnie’s caring concern and admiration for the animals on his ranch is also plainly evident. He can spot a mule deer, or porcupine, or red tail hawk while four-wheeling down some of the rockiest terrain. He’s constantly making sure the right gates are closed, and that his cattle are moved around at the right time to ensure they have adequate grazing. He talks of having rescued not a few calves and lambs from hungry cayotes and bobcats, or deep crevices in which they’ve gotten themselves into a tight fix. The Merritts have even taken in as pets everything from orphaned crows to a young skunk, and their two friendly dogs, Prissy and Ruger, happily wag their tales all through the day.
Perhaps the most striking thing about a visit to the Merritt Ranch is the sense of continuity that exists there. Along the way, Ronnie points out to us the house in which he grew up that his father built when he brought the family to these parts. Although it is currently unoccupied, one gets a strong feeling of the generational stream that runs through this land — that Ronnie is merely carrying on the legacy of what he was taught by his dad, and what he is passing along to the next line of Merritts. Indeed, Ronnie and Beverly’s son Ron and wife Sandra live on the adjoining ranch, and their teenage grandchildren, Stacy and Lance, are already accomplished horse trainers and competition ropers.
For many people, the fight to protect property rights and America’s rural Western lifestyle are something to read about in newspapers and magazines. But for Ronnie Merritt and his family, this is a matter of preserving what they have always known, what they have always loved, and frankly, a part of what makes America a truly great nation.
While on the ranch tour, we learned about how a wiley cowboy might sit in the middle seat of the pickup, so he doesn’t have to drive or get out to open any gates. But in the battle for fairness and freedom throughout the West, never expect to see Ronnie sitting in the middle seat.