When most people in the U.S. think of Nevada, they usually think of the casino culture and the bright neon lights of Las Vegas and Reno. But Nevada has a rich ranching history that is often unknown to outsiders, and even to some Nevadans. Many ranches in Nevada have been in operation for more than 100 years and the cowboys that ride the range have fascinating stories to tell.
Big Jim Sage is one of those old-time Nevada cowboys that everyone should know. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife and spends most of his time riding and doing projects for his local Back Country Horsemen chapter. For 25 years he has operated Cowboy Trail Rides in Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas, but he has a much longer history in the Silver State. Jim is a native Nevadan who spent most of his life cowboying for ranches around the state. At age 70, he has seen it all and has stories for days. I spent an afternoon picking his brain on the cowboy life and the changing landscape of Nevada.
Q: How did your family end up in Nevada?
A: “My folks came here in 1932. Mom was from Nebraska. My dad was from Wyoming. Mom grew up on a farm. My dad ran a horse and mule drawn combine and that’s how he met my mother, he would come through their ranch every year. They came out here during the Great Depression. Most of where I grew up was out by the lake on Pabco Mountain. There was the Pabco Land and Cattle Company and Pabco Mining – they had the leases to run the cattle there and we lived up in a little line shack up there on the mountain by the mine and dad cowboyed and he also mechanic’d for the mine.”
Q: How did you end up cowboying?
A: “Dad knew a lot of the ranchers so they would come and get me as a kid and take me. I got to ride all over McCulloughs, all over Searchlight area down there. The Chief of Police for the city of Henderson – him and his brother had cattle back in Lovell Canyon and my dad knew the guy that had the cattle back in the Coal Creek, and then the neighbor there had the cattle up in the Sheep Range, so I got to go with them every time there was a minute. They’d come get me and we’d go take off. So I just grew up with that – the love of it.”
Q: So it was kind of a family tradition?
A: “My dad didn’t want me to be a cowboy. He said there wouldn’t be any cowboys. My dad was born at the turn of the century so he had seen so much transpire from 40 and 50 horse and mule teams to tractors that made it obsolete. He honestly believed that there wouldn’t be a need for cowboys. He told me there would be helicopters doing our work and motor bikes – and of course they do a little of that. But my mother told me I could be anything I wanted so that’s what I did. I became a cowboy.”
Q: You worked for the Howard Hughes ranch?
A: “I didn’t know it was the Howard Hughes ranch at the time. I don’t think he ever came around. I heard they were hiring cowboys and I went up. He asked me what I knew and I didn’t know a lot, so he says ‘Do you got a bedroll?’ and I says ‘Yeah I got a bedroll,’ and he says, ‘Okay there’s that 2.5 ton truck and some colts there. They’re all halter broke.’ They had halters on, in other words, with the lead rope, and he said, ‘That one’s had a saddle on him. Get your gear, load them up, put enough hay on, grain, and stop in Mesquite at the store’ – it was the only store in Mesquite, sawdust still on the floor back then – and he sat and drew in the dirt all these springs and showed me where I was going to go out in Gold Butte. He says ‘You got it?’ and I said ‘I think so,’ and he took his foot and wiped it all out.”
Q: What is the relationship between a cowboy and his horse?
A: “I always said I wasn’t cowboy… I was a horse and mule guy. I always felt I was better with a horse and mule, and I always got to run the remudas, I always got to break the horses, get the best colts. I always had an affinity for the horses and the mules. I always thought I could talk to them. I couldn’t tell you their names. I never did care about names or numbers or which breeding they were, but I could tell you what they were like. Because that meant more to me, what kind of foals they threw, how cowy were they, or how easy to break, or what their temperament, how they were built. Most of the cowboys I worked with, horses were pickup trucks – they were a way to get a job done. Had no emotion to it. If they had to ride them extra hard, they rode them extra hard. I was emotional about my animals – I had a practicality, I still have a practicality side of me – but I just always wanted to be a better rider, a better hand.”
Q: I would imagine that ranching has changed a lot since your early days?
A: “It’s changed drastically in southern Nevada. There isn’t one ranch I worked on that’s still here. A lot of the ranchers, the older ranchers, the kids didn’t want to continue because it was really hard work. Desert ranches are really tough just because of the number of miles. In a lot of places you say how many cattle can I get on an acre, well the average here in southern Nevada is 128 acres per cow. So when you look at Hughes, we had a million acres down here on this end of the ranch, a million and a half on the other end. Two and a half million acres! The hours, the miles… Most [ranchers] didn’t live that good money wise. The kids grew up under a lot of hardships going to school, you know. When I lived on the [Grand Canyon] West Rim, the kids – and they still do to this day – they only go to school four days a week because the travel times to school, the amount of time they spend on the bus. I think kids grow up like that and say I don’t want to do it. It’s too hard.”
Q: Why do you think public lands are such a hot topic?
A: “I think that in the west what’s happened with cattle, the ranching, with the BLM and the Forest Service… people from the east or from cities, who have no knowledge of what’s going on, they feel like ranchers and cattlemen and farmers and hunters and whoever that use the land, pillaged and raped it and didn’t care. There might have been a few of those, but what I found is we had to really take care of the range because the next year if we overgrazed it we couldn’t run our cattle on it. That’s the last thing you ever wanted to do. If you didn’t have a good year you started selling cattle or finding another range to run them to so you could continue to eat, make a living, pay your payments. Did we make some mistakes? Sure. Because the science wasn’t there like it is today.”
Q: Your trail riding business has been in Red Rock for a long time. How has that area changed over the years?
A: “When I first come out here they were lucky to get 20,000 people a year. Last year I think the number was four million visitors to Red Rock. So when you look at the traffic on any given day, it’s not uncommon to see it backed up getting in. I remember back when you wouldn’t see a car for days. The only people that went through Red Rock were people going home from Pahrump or took the backroad to save time. Now, the traffic is phenomenal. The number of cars a day is just mind boggling.”
Q: So clearly there’s a growing desire for people to get into nature. Is that why you are so involved with the Back Country Horsemen of Nevada?
A: “What I find is as we start educating more people how to ride in the backcountry, how to find where you are at, how to stay safe, then we get more people involved. You can lead pack animals, here’s how you do it. Come up and we’ll show you. By educating people we’re getting more and more people into the backcountry. I think southern Nevada Bristlecone Chapter has done so much good for Nevada because of our education of people.”
You can find Big Jim Sage at Cowboy Trail Rides in Red Rock most days. Sign up for a ride at cowboytrailrides.com. Jim is also a director of the Bristlecone Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Nevada. See what they are up to at www.bchnvb.com.
Story by Samantha Szesciorka