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


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