It felt as strange flying west—not south, not east—from Salt Lake City as if the earth had reversed its rotation and were spinning in the opposite direction. Basin and range, range and basin: the long barrier mountains were heavy with snow, but now in early March the desert separating them lay bare, dramatizing the topographical disjunctions. The skies were clear and the view unbroken until we crossed into Nevada over Wendover (a gambling town, where recently my friend Brad Willford of Kemmerer was misidentified as Joe Waldholtz by a female drunk who demanded that he be arrested and sent to jail), and snowclouds piled above the mountains. The mountains, where they were visible between the vapor masses, closed up to form deep trenches and high basins, a moiling confusion of dark rock and bright snow. The clouds vanished abruptly, and we were flying above an expanse of forested wilderness broken by the high peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, open snow fields, and the southern end of Lake Tahoe passing directly beneath the body of the plane. The high mountains ended, and roads and houses appeared in the foothills. The plane banked steeply to the south, the Sacramento Valley—wide, green, and humid—rose to meet us, and I saw the geometrically neat farms, the water-courses running high and brown, stands of drowned trees amid the newly planted fields, and the towers of Sacramento gleaming through the haze. Billie Jean Redemeyer waited for me at the gate. She was a tall redhead in jeans, boots, a patterned vest over a pink blouse, and looked reassuringly like the cowgirls back home in Wyoming.

I had been hearing about Billie Redemeyer from Jim Catron for the past year, but I had first heard from her three weeks before when a fax message came in, handwritten on stationery decorated with a drawing of seven cows making a cow pyramid to allow the topmost one to chainsaw a tree branch supporting a spotted owl on its nest. “Greetings Chilton,” the message began, “My dear friend Jim Catron asked me to send this article to you.” From Jim, I knew that Billie had had an urban upbringing in San Francisco where she was employed as a fashion model before moving to the Sacramento Valley. Eventually she went to work for the Roney Land and Cattle Company, eight miles north of Chico, becoming not only a rancher herself but an activist on behalf of the cattle ranching industry. Between us, Billie and I burned up the fax lines for days before I put an end to the business by inviting myself to Chico to witness at firsthand ranching California style. Now, 50 feet above sea level and 100 miles east from the Pacific coast, palm trees soared above gardens in spring flower, and the air was warm and soft. We drove north through Marysville, Yuba City, and Oroville, Mexicanized communities supplying labor to the wilderness of fruit orchards stretching on either side of the highway. At Chico Billie stopped to purchase groceries and show me this pleasant university town of 80,000 people with its handsome Victorian business and residential districts, its overstory of palm and oak trees, and its pervasive sense—characteristic of all university towns, as of the novels of Hemingway—of physical wellbeing coexisting with existential despair.

Wally Roney’s great-great-grandparents homesteaded the upper Sacramento Valley, wedged between the Sierras converging from the southeast to meet the Cascade Mountains and the coastal range lying between the Sacramento River and the Pacific Ocean, on land acquired from the Stanford Land Grant. The open pasture between Wally’s house and that of his parents’, stretching as far as the foothills rising to the Lassen National Forest, was good to see after the tens of thousands of acres of almond, walnut, pistachio, and plum trees, interspersed by kiwi vines, I had looked at on the drive from Sacramento. Wally, Billie, and I sat up late that first night, drinking California wines and saying unkind and subversive things about the U.S. Forest Service, and the next morning it was raining. The weather was too wet for branding, so we spent the day driving on muddy back roads through orchards along the swollen Sacramento River in sheets of the warm spring rain. The trees were black with the rain except for the whitewashed stumps to which the walnut shoots had been grafted. Some of the orchards had been cut over for replacement, and the bucked trunks and branches were stacked in black dripping piles beside the roads. Stands of blossoming trees alternated with budded ones, waiting to be pollinated by bees from the beehives set at intervals through the orchards. Much of the property we looked at was owned by Wally’s relations, although some of it had become alienated over the years by family who had ignored the Roney tradition of never mortgaging the land. Wally is a knowledgeable orchardist, but what interested me more was his work as a progressive cattle rancher.

A graduate of the state university at San Luis Obispo, familiar with the work of Dr. Wayne J. Burkhardt (retired associate professor of range management at the University of Nevada, Reno) and of the late Professor Jan Bonsma (a specialist in livestock ecology and climatology), Wally Roney believes that grazers are part of the natural economy of landscapes, and that scientists and livestock breeders are capable of breeding adaptable livestock totally in harmony with their environment. Suspecting that cattlemen who emphasize the number of their animals over the number of pounds of beef they produce annually are self-eliminating, Wally is careful to adapt his management practices to changing conditions, in order to sustain a high level of productivity. “Poor management,” he says, “will hurt your cattle before you hurt the land.” Having convinced his father, Elwin Roney, that Roney Land and Cattle should experiment with Barzona Cross cattle, Wally found himself laid up in the hospital when it came time to buy. “Those are awfully funny looking cows,” Elwin said. “Are you sure you want me to do this?” “Go ahead and do it,” Wally told him, “while I don’t have to look at them while making the decision.” Barzona Cross, or “commercial cattle,” are actually a heavier animal than the ubiquitous Hereford, though to my eye they appear lighter, being longer and more delicate in the leg: a feature that not only improves their appearance but allows them to cover long distances in search of graze and water. In the 12-month cycle, the Roney herds graze across valleys, foothills, timbered high country, and highland desert. They are a nonriparian-dependent breed—meaning they do not spend their lives mucking about along water courses, trampling banks, and destroying the vegetation that impedes erosion and siltation. Since siltation and erosion are among environmentalists’ chief objections to cattle-grazing on the public lands, you might suppose that the Roneys enjoy the gratitude and encouragement of the green police in the pay of the federal government. Of course, Roney Land and Cattle has as much to suffer from the Forest Service as any other leasor on the national forests does.

In the morning the sky had cleared but the branding pens were muddy, and Wally decided that, rather than brand, we should move part of the herd from the ranch to the edge of the foothills. Elwin had the horses saddled when we reached the senior Roneys’, and Billie and I rode out across the pasture while Wally and Elwin, on four-wheelers, drove back the stragglers and got the animals moving toward the hills. Billie had instructed mc to keep back several hundred yards from the herd or they would yaw, spread, and cut back on us. I obeyed her, and, somewhat to my surprise, the cattle eased forward as though guided by remote control. We put them through a gate and across the old homestead, a grassy park grown with oak trees and the long-needled digger pines, to Pine Creek, where we sat the horses at a distance as we watched the cows cross. Beyond the creek was a pasture spread with pink volcanic rock. The horses plugged along and the cattle proceeded as surely as if the trip were their own idea. “You’re not bored?” Billie asked. “I was afraid you would be.” I said that I was not bored. While there had been none of the galloping away on tangents and in circles, the ki-yiing and ssshing, the barking dogs, and the bitter dust, the insides of my knees were unchafed and my vocal cords retained their heldentenor strength. “Wally hates what he calls farmerized cattle,” Billie explained. “He doesn’t like cows that are domesticated —dependent on man for their thinking, their survival, for calving.”

It rained again the following day when Wally had a meeting with the Forest Service in Susanville, across the mountains on the Nevada border, and a heavy snow was falling as we crossed the pass, the great trees pressing in upon the road and closing it over. Recently the Service had built a bicycle path over the cattle and wildlife trail around Eagle Lake where the Roney herd summers, and the cattle, having recognized the trail in its altered condition, had used it to gain access to a campground that the Forest Service preferred they didn’t use. Debatably, the cows had precedence, but the feds, showing almost as little respect for them as if they had been white European males, intended to ignore their rights if they could. While Wally was closeted with the enemy, Billie and I drove back into the mountains where the storm had begun to clear out. Since the road to Eagle Lake lay under several feet of snow, she took me instead to see the headquarters of the Roneys’ summer operation, an open park entirely surrounded by forest. Owing to the snow rising 12 and 15 feet on either side of the highway, little of the park was visible but only the trees, which seemed to stretch forever across the high plateau. It seemed impossible that graze existed on the forest floor, or, if it did, that anyone could gather cattle from what looked like impenetrable darkness. But Billie assured me that there was plenty of grass for them to eat and that Wally was adept at driving his cows through the trees, often dismounting to track on foot as he led the horse behind.

At last the pens were dry enough to brand. Wally and Elwin herded up the calves and slaughter steers on four-wheelers, which on modern-day ranches have substantially replaced the cowpony, and we began running them through the chutes. With his penknife Wally notched ears, then threw the lever operating the calf table that laid each calf on its side, when he tied its heels with a rope. While he set the brand on the hip, I vaccinated; finally, using the penknife again, he slit the young bulls’ scrota and removed the testes. Wally said that Billie’s reaction to her first branding had been predictable, but that she got over it soon enough. When her sister Patty, visiting from San Francisco, showed up at branding time dressed like a rodeo queen, Wally thought it prudent to joke her a little beforehand, to take the edge off the hoots and wisecracks from the cowboys. He did, and she got mad. But later it spoiled the boys’ fun a little.

Emily Roney gave us a good dinner at the house and afterward Wally and I loaded the one-ton CMC flatbed with salt and drove in compound low, at four and five miles an hour, into the foothills to leave the salt for the cattle when they arrived there. The foothills were volcanic, steep and knobby, thickly covered with oak and the digger pine. Cut by canyons and deep, partially wooded basins, the country looked to be ideal deer habitat, yet we saw only a single doe and her two fawns, cropping the new grass on the sharp summit of a hill. Wally said that when he was a boy the foothills had been full of deer, but that since the state of California declared the mountain lion a protected species in the 1970’s, the exploding cougar population had wiped out the deer. Several years ago a lion killed a horse he had left snubbed to a tree up here, and he and Billie were considering carrying sidearms now when they rode into the foothills. Proposition 197, which would have revoked the cougars’ protected status and permitted them to be taken by licensed hunters, was bitterly opposed by environmentalists and finally defeated in the primary in late March, after death threats had been made against its supporters.

This was lovely country, very green in spring but with some of the starkness and barrenness of the interior West, and also of the British Isles; I remarked to Wally, a fellow Celt, that there must indeed be such a thing as racial memory, at least where an instinct for landscape is concerned. Billie awaited us at home with supper almost ready and a videotape of Braveheart she had rented from a video store in town. We watched it after eating, drinking wine in Celtic solidarity, and applauding especially the scene in which the Irish mercenaries embrace their Scots cousins on the battlefield, and another where Longshanks hurls the Prince of Wales’ male lover through the castle window.