Today, i unhitched the Woomobile from the u-haul and, with mapquest screens from my laptop, motored into the quickly setting sun, searching for some lost bit of my childhood. Across I-25, down state road 16, right on SR44, I found it: There was the dustblown, sunbleached sign: Rancho Alegre. Rancho Alegre, longtime home of my regionally famous cousin, J.W. Eaves and his family. I was overcome by a delight to return here, more than 20 years after my last visit.
Driving along the paved road (wasn't it dirt before?), I passed the house. I'm sure this was the house, right? A sprawling adobe manse, so foreign to these southern eyes, and so familiar to these childhood eyes. It sits low on a rise or desert red and brown, dozens of yards behind the running fence and the road. It looked unoccupied. That was the house. And down the road farther, on the left—there it was. The movie ranch. I was tingling at the sight of those fake buildings, that contrived western street, so well-situated out here among the dust and lizards, yet so absolutely anachronistic. this is a western town. No, this is not a western town. this is a movie set, a tribute to countless western towns on TV and in the movies for decades.
There seemed to be an "office" now, and fencing and a gate. Several signs claiming "set is closed" looked neglected as did a sunbleached sign warning of a guard dog. Since I could easily step through the ornamental gate, I decided that probably there wasn't a roaming attack dog.
Decades ago, I come here in a dune buggy, reeling in my good fortune. A dune buggy. JW's dune buggy, that he told me I could drive around. I was maybe 13 years old, and i had the keys to a dune buggy and permission to wander far and wide around a kingdom of scrubbrush and fake wild west buildings.
I can see two cars, but don't see any people. Is this what it's like "out west?" …You just wander around because everything is great big and nobody's really around anyway? I chew on that, as I amble as innocently as possible around the side of a building. Are there voices?Or is that the sound of movies by-gone taking a break between shots? No it's voices, I'm sure. As I come around the corner, I see a couple kicked back on a driftwood porch, drinking in the sunset. This has potential to be tense, so I send out a "hello there!" not too loud, but not too soft, either. They're actually so relaxed that they don't notice me, so I speak up a little: "HI THERE. Um, I know I'm trespassing, but…"—Such a story, how do I tell it?— Trying to get right to the point, I summarize: "I am a distant relative of JW and Ermalee's, and I used to come play here when I was a little kid. I've come all the way from Kentucky and couldn't be this close and not try to stop by." The guy on the porch seems to scoff and says: "Oh, we've never heard that story before!" I think he's giving me shit, but in fact, he means it. This leads to a sprawling conversation and recollection about JW and Ermalee, the Movie ranch, the house and more. Suddenly these things I've remembered, these near myths are made real, restored like a faded movie print. This guy, Thomas, knows everything I'm talking about. He knew the Eaves, he knows Mel, the grandson who inherited the ranch, he knows Trish, the daughter who was Miss Rodeo America in 1969 and he knows about the room that was full of nothing but her trophies. He even mentions The Cheyenne Social Club, a western that I only think of in terms of the Movie Ranch and may or may not have ever seen. Thomas is the first person I've ever talked to who knew these things other than my mom or my brother. It's a relief, a joy, kind of a dream, and it almost chokes me with emotion.
I remember JW took us on a tour of the property, a pickup truck on a rutted out road. He drove us down into a box canyon, telling us about how the just-released The Lone Ranger did some filming here. I want to see it immediately. In the bottom of the canyon, the walls rise up and JW hands me the keys. "Why don't you drive us out of here, Mickey?" he suggests with a sideways grin. The truck is a manual "column shifter" and they road out is about a 20 degree incline.
Thomas is as nice as he can be. He's a burly, shaggy headed cross between a cowboy and an actor. He's an actor who plays cowboys, but also seems to actually be a cowboy. He is the caretaker on the ranch, feeding the several horses, and doing I-don't-know-what. But he says he's quite busy and isn't especially tolerant of uninvited visitors, it seems. Luckily, I seem to be an exception. "A few weeks ago, on a Sunday morning at 8am, I hear a knock on my door…" he says, with obvious irritation. "I get up, open the door, and there's this man and this lady, and he grins and says 'We came ALL THE WAY DOWN from Santa Fe! I thought I'd show my wife the ranch!'" Thomas pauses, reliving his disbelief. "'All the way down from Santa Fe,' huh?" he snorts. "Santa Fe is 25 minutes away, if you drive slow!"
The sun goes down, and we talk and talk some more. I'm certainly not being hurried off, and in fact eventually excuse myself, after getting clearance from Thomas to come buy tomnorrow "for the morning light" to take some pictures. I drive off with the most remarkable warm feeling, as if I've been granted an audience with a beloved, but long-dead relative. Which I have.
Click here for some pictures of JW Eaves' Movie Ranch.