I attended college at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas from 1964 to 1968. During this time, I had many backcountry adventures in the Davis Mountains but an early one stands out in my mind. It was the spring of 1965 and I was working weekends at Prude Ranch. John Robert Prude needed to check on his cows in Madera Canyon and on the Nations Ranch, adjacent to Madera. This was north of the McDonald Observatory. He asked me to accompany him on that trip. We and Juan Rodriguez, the camp cook, trailered our horses to the Caldwell Ranch headquarters early one morning in March of 1965. The plan was for Juan to meet us on the other side of the mountains near the Boy Scout ranch that evening. So John Robert and I mounted up and rode in the general direction of Bear Cave mountain, to the east, a distance of 14 miles or so.
When we reached the cliffs of Madera, we split up. John Robert took the high route to check on the line shack by the Withers front gate and I descended a thousand feet to the bottom of Madera Canyon. Back then, the stock trails were relatively good because of the intensity of the grazing. While I had been to the Withers before, I had only ridden into the canyon once and then by an easier route. After a sharp descent into the canyon, I reached the bottom and pointed my horse downstream. This would have been approximately at the intersection of Madera and Dead Man’s Canyon. The canyon contained every possible variety of trees and vegetation imaginable: oaks, maple, madrone, pinon, ponderosa pine – as well as abundant whitebrush, buckbrush and of course catclaw. Fortunately, I was horseback, making it somewhat easier (at least for the rider) to work my way through the brush. The stream was flowing nicely and with every turn in the canyon, a new and even more exotic view unfolded. After an hour or so, I guess I was so taken by the scenery that John Robert had to hail me from across the canyon. He was waiting at Mr. Withers’ fishing shack about sixty feet or so above the creek.
From there, we took the eastside trail and headed for Bear Haven Canyon and the Hernandez Trail route to the Nations, over Bear Cave mountain. This involved summiting another fourteen hundred feet to reach the western fenceline of the Nations ranch where most of the Prude cattle could be found. We rode in relatively thick pinon, juniper and brush to a flat on the east side of Bear Cave known as Ezra’s Bedground. John Robert explained that it was named for Ezra Cook who was an old time cowboy working in Nations Canyon many years ago. The story was that Ezra came up a rough trail from the bottom of Nations canyon above Needle Rock, hunting cows. However, his work on Bear Cave mountain delayed his departure until after dark; he was unable to find the trail down. He made his camp at this spot and rode down in daylight the next morning. Hence the name “Ezra’s Bedground”.
We continued to circumnavigate one steep mountainous bluff or arroyo after another, riding into Wild Cow canyon and then over the saddle between Castle mountain and Timber mountain. John Robert explained that we needed to take this route to the bottom of Pigpen canyon to the east end in order to check on the cows on Timber mountain, at a place called Jose Tank. From the saddle, you could look down Pigpen Canyon and see Star mountain, approximately eight or so miles to the east. The deer in this country were thick! 30 to 40 in a herd. We then rode east to Jose tank and on to the east fenceline of the Nations ranch, bordering the Clay Espy lower ranch. From there, John Robert introduced me to a precipitous route directly to the bottom of Pigpen, past an old seep that they still then used as a water source for the livestock. We dropped another thousand feet or so to the bottom of Pigpen canyon, rode past the old corrals and out the main gate of the Nations to the Boy Scout ranch road. There in the setting sun stood Juan beside the pickup and trailer- were we happy to see him. We figured we rode about twenty-four miles in fourteen hours. It was one terrific introduction to the wonders of the rugged canyon country of the Davis Mountains. After that, whenever we made a similar trip, we always swore it was beautiful but we would never do it again, but inevitably we always came back for another look. Fifty-four years ago and I recall it as if it were yesterday!
- Carl Ryan, owner of Withers Ranch