There are few places on this earth “that never change, the trees just get taller”. So says Bill Rankin, the patriarch of the Rankin family and the dearest cowboy I know. He and his equally endearing wife, Glenda, along with 4th,5th and 6th generation Rankins live and work on their historic California cattle ranch, continuing a tradition of cattle ranching that began in 1863.
Bill’s father, Leroy Rankin, died in 1954 leaving Bill’s mother, Helen, in charge of making the decisions on behalf of the family’s ranch. A precarious position for a woman of that era. Nonetheless, her “frontier” heritage and considerable fortitude allowed her to not only maintain the ranch, but pilot her family’s future with a strong and confident hand. In 1965, in an effort to diversify her agriculture business and ensure her family would be able to continue to live and work on the ranch, she added the guest ranch to her cattle operation. The Rankin’s beloved Helen passed away in 2003, but her legacy lives on. Rankin Ranch and the wonderful family that runs it and the guest ranch, now in it’s 44th year, is a place where others now come to make their own history…cowboy style.
My “history” at Rankin Ranch started in September of 1993. A two hour drive brought me, my friend, Robin, and her young son, Adam, to the small farming town of Arvin, at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains in Kern County. From there it’s a half hour drive up the mountain, under the curious scrutiny of small herds of white faced Herefords, and then down into Walker Basin, the parcel of land where Rankin Ranch was founded by Walker and Lavinia Rankin in 1863.
Very little has changed since 1863, except that now guest cabins, built in the 60’s, can be seen along the driveway lined with giant lilac bushes. In fact, very little has changed since 1993, providing me on each of my subsequent visits with the familiar and comforting feeling that I have “come home”. The first indication that perhaps Rankin Ranch is some kind of portal to the past happens as you drive down the dirt road past the cabins, and there on the right is the large old barn, still standing and very much a part of Rankin’s charm and identity. Countless pictures adorn the walls of the dining room and activities building featuring that barn with various gatherings of Rankins, old and new, posed outside its tall doors on one occasion or another. Only the garb of the people in those images indicates the passing of time, the barn never changes.
As you walk onto the guest ranch property, serene and quiet, past the activities building, the ranch gift shop/office and Lightner Square where guests gather before dinner, you see the original home of Walker and Lavinia that was built in the 1870’s. Helen Rankin occupied this home until her death, and now I believe it is being readied for 5th generation Rankins to move in to. The dinner bell still stands in the square, just the trees have grown and now hide the uppermost portion. Continuing the stroll past the tree shaded pool and the expansive lawn, down a few steps….and there it is in all its cowboy glory. Confirmation that indeed you have traveled back to a time when cattle was king, ranches were vast, and cowboys were the real action heroes. The meadow stretches on until it reaches the surrounding mountains. The corral where guests gather to start their trail rides is in the foreground, and cattle graze lazily on grass and yellow sage. The air smells of dirt and grass and Robin inhales deeply and smiles. What you won’t see is a cell phone tower, vetoed by Bill years ago. As he put it, “would you want to see that thing every day on our mountain top?” Indeed, as the sun sets slowly over the meadow, and darkness encroaches, there is an unobstructed 360′ view of the mountain ridge with stars making their appearance on cue, until the sky is a dazzling display of pinpoints of light.
The Rankin family is like our family, warm, glad to see us, and welcoming us home on our most recent visit. Besides the Rankins there are the smiling familiar faces of the cowboys, the cooks, (Rudy has been head cook for over 30 years),even the gardener – all happy to have us with them once again. We get caught up on the news of who’s gotten married, who’s had children, and who has passed on. We were sad to learn of the passing of the square dance caller and his wife who had been coming up to the Ranch every Saturday night during guest season for the last 42 years.
Loyalty, family and history – that is the legacy of Rankin Ranch – a legacy that is passed down not only to the family members themselves, but to the guests who visit the ranch to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, family reunions and myriad other of life’s milestones. On this particular trip there were two couples who have celebrated every one of their 42 wedding anniversaries together – each year going somewhere new. In honor of this occasion, the traditional Rankin Ranch cake was made and presented to them after dinner and we all sang and shared in their special day.
Another couple and their grown son, who had visited the ranch many times when the boy was younger, were their after a number of years away. They were celebrating life. She had just finished chemotherapy and her son had suggested a family trip to a place that had brought them so many good times together as a family in the past. Robin and I couldn’t remember how many times we had visited the ranch, but we spent hours recalling happy times spent there with so many of the people we love. There were multiple girlfriend trips, trips with mom, trips with kids, and the most memorable trip of all when we celebrated Robin’s 40th birthday there with a surprise party like no other.
For Robin, however, this trip held special significance. It was at Rankin Ranch so many years ago that the seed for her non-profit organization, El Dustberry Ranch, was first planted in her heart. Her dream of owning horses and a ranch and helping sick kids with those horses did become a reality, but 9 years later, it was time to move on and fulfill the next dream. For Robin, this trip brought her full circle. She would be moving on from her beloved El Dustberry to a new venture in helping children.
So many traditions have been started at Rankin Ranch, inspired by the many traditions that are Rankin Ranch. Besides the people, the meadow and the cabins, the food holds much familiarity to those who re-visit. Three hearty meals a day to satiate the hungry appetites of the cowboys and the guests who have been hiking or riding in all that fresh air. Beef, obviously, is a mainstay and the tri-tip barbeque in the meadow is always a highlight. Guests cozy themselves in the back of a trailer full of hay and are driven out into the meadow where the cooks have prepared a lavish spread of tri tip with amazing bbq sauce, beans, corn, rolls and gingerbread. After dinner and lively conversation, the guests are put into teams and a game of horseshoes is played until the sun sets. Then the relaxing ride under the blanket of stars back to the ranch for an evening of fun and games in the activities building. The walls inside the cozy wood paneled building hold testament to the many celebrations held at the ranch, and looking at all the photographs connects you to those that came before.
As final photos are taken, e-mail addresses exchanged, and good-byes made all around, I get my final good bye and giant bear hug from Bill along with a quick bit of philisophical advice. I feel that bond strengthen once again, and I just know that when it’s time for me to return, everything will be the same – the trees will just be taller.
RANKIN RANCH- www.rankinranch.com – (661) 867-2511
I’LL DRINK TO THAT!
Rosenblum Napa Valley Reserve Syrah – Holbrook Mitchell Vineyard – 2005
Some friends shared this bottle with us last night. “Wow” was my exclamation as the inky colored wine poured into my glass. This wine tastes like luxury in a glass. Smooth and voluptuous, velvetty and perfectly balanced. Black currants, blueberries and vanilla flavors. This wine is a hedonistic pleasure and lovely to drink.
2006 currently available at $45.00