Remember when …

Cowboy Island

by Gretel Ehrlich

Between Water Canyon Beach and the Northwest Anchorage at Bechers Bay [on Santa Rosa Island], are the foreman’s house, a cookhouse, and bunkhouse, two large red barns, and the main ranch house. Made of white-painted pine, it is thought to be the oldest standing wood frame house in Santa Barbara County and was built in 1855. Two elegant cypress trees sway and push against the house’s front door.

January. Green. Very little else except the constantly changing planes of light on steep hills and deep arroyos, island ravens cawing, and wind scouring out mist made from rain clouds mixing with the spume of crashing waves. It’s January, the beginning of spring in California, and the septuagenarian twins, Al and Russ Vail, are driving in a clockwise direction around the entire island. Santa Rosa Island has been in the Vail and Vickers families and operated as a working ranch since 1901 — almost 100 years.

No one here remembers when the green started this time — neither the vaqueros, nor the cow foreman, nor Al and Russ. Maybe it was only three days ago, maybe a week when the filaree and cold-season native grasses speared their way through wind-laid grass that had been brown since May. “It’s so bright it puts your eyes out,” someone says, “and we didn’t even see it coming.”

At China Camp, once an abalone camp of Chinese fishermen, a lonely set of corrals stands next to a small, L-shaped cabin — a line camp the crew used during roundup. Russ Vail says Al built it. The exterior is board and batten, weathered to silver.

“Used to camp here when we were gathering. We ate a lot of wild pig. I’ve traveled around some and I guess this is one of the most beautiful spots in the world,” Russ Vail says quietly. Russ then looks west toward San Miguel Island. “The other one is next door,” he adds. Beyond are gentle slopes thick with grass, rocky bluffs, and endless ocean. The next landfall straight south from here is Antarctica.

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