About 10 years ago I had the unusual task of writing a lengthy poem about Al Vail. It was an occasional poem to be read at a barbecue he was giving on the San Lucas Ranch. I had met Al before, but in truth I hardly knew him. I had to interview him to get some of his personal and family history for the poem, so I drove to the dingy and dusty Vail & Vickers office on Padre Street. There wasn't much in the office except for filing cabinets, photos of cattle work on the ranch, various chairs, and an old black telephone. Beneath the glass on a central table was a big aerial photo of Santa Rosa Island, with all the pastures, springs, and roads marked out on it. Al asked me if I wanted some coffee. It was early in the morning, and I said, "Sure." Al got up and disappeared into another room. I remained seated, thinking he was going to bring me a cup. Suddenly he hollered from the back room, "Come get your own goddam coffee!" There was no standard, polite office protocol for visitors in this outfit. "Come get your own goddam coffee!"
When I heard Al say that, suddenly a sense of relief came over me. Now I knew that Al was no Hope Ranch gentleman rancher who whacked golf balls around the lake. I suddenly felt as if I had gone home again, back to a home I had known years ago. Al Vail, Vail & Vickers, and Santa Rosa Island all reminded me of what the cattle business was when I was a kid in the '50s and early '60s. Al brought to mind men like Raymond and Glen Cornelius, my own father and grandfather, Pida Pedotti, Bill Cooper II, Jerry Griffith, Bun Burnside, and others, still older, like Ed Vail, Fred Bixby, and Senator Hollister, about whom I had grown up hearing many stories.
Nearly all of these men had died already, some 40 years or more before Al. But here I was, in the presence of a much younger man who was still clearly out of the same mold. Perhaps the mold hadn't been broken after all. In Al's presence, I returned to that era when the term "cattle business" was not an oxymoron, and savvy men knew how to make an honest living at it. Like Al, they lived their business. It was a way of life and any other life was simply unthinkable.
Al and I had a good visit. It was the year of the March Miracle, when eight inches of rain fell late in the season after a long, mid-winter dry spell. Al was glad of the rain, but, true to form with cattlemen, there was always something to complain about. He grumbled that every fence that crossed a creek on Santa Rosa had been washed out by flood waters, and it would be a lot of work rebuilding them all over the 54,000 acre island. The year we talked was one of plentiful feed and sky-high cattle prices, and Al said, "A guy would have to be a damn fool not to make any money in the cattle business." I stayed quiet and didn't mention that I had panicked and already sold my unbranded calves, having given up just before the big rains came. A good cattleman really knows how to stick it out, against all odds, and I could tell that Al had that ingrained knack, something you just can't learn from a textbook on animal husbandry.
One of my neighbors, Pida Pedotti, once praised Ed Vail, Al's uncle, as having had that knack. Ed ran Vail & Vickers before Al took over. Pida told me that Ed Vail had forgotten more about the cattle business than the rest of us would ever be able to learn. For me, that was certainly true of Al Vail as well. I wish that I'd known Al earlier in my life; I could have learned a lot from him. Not only do cattlemen have to know how long to stick it out through a dry spell, they also have to know when to fold and throw in their hand to cut their losses. A man may not gain enough knowledge in a lifetime to do well in the cattle business, but Al had the advantage of the accumulated, hard-learned wisdom of his father, Russell, and his uncle, Ed Vail. They, before him, had acquired the knowledge of Walter L. Vail, Al's grandfather.
The Vail family's land and cattle interests started in the 19th century when, as a kid, Walter Vail drove a big flock of turkeys from San Francisco to the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada. Now if a man could make money doing that, he could make money at anything, and he did. He eventually built up the Empire Ranch south of Tucson, Arizona. It was bordered by four mountain ranges and occupied a thousand square miles of range land. Once during a railroad strike Walter Vail drove his cattle from Tucson all the way to the Warner Ranch in Riverside County, across one of the bleakest deserts in the world. Later, Walter established the 107,000 acre Pauba Ranch in Riverside County. It was so large that there were two headquarters, and they were over 10 miles apart.
When the Pauba Ranch was finally sold in the 1960s, my grandfather, who had been in the cattle business near the Vail's Empire Ranch in Arizona, lamented, "Now the big Pauba Ranch is gone. Will there be anything left?" He was a hard-boiled Arizona desert cowman, not sentimental at all, but I distinctly remember his deep sense of loss and sadness when I showed him the L.A. Times article. It announced that the Pauba Ranch would become "Rancho California," a huge planned residential and business development for four or five distinct cities. My grandfather 's eyes almost teared up as he read about the last ranching remnants of his own era disappearing. Today, I feel a similar deep sense of loss as I write these words. The Santa Rosa Island cattle operation was closed down in late 1998. It was one of the last fully intact Mexican land grants in California run as a cattle ranch, and was certainly the biggest cattle operation in Santa Barbara County.
During his career, Al continued the 98 year old Vail & Vickers operation, probably changing it very little, continuing to stock the island with yearling steers and selling them when they reached an optimum weight. He kept the lighter ones for another year on grass. Once, I asked Al what kind of season he had had on the island, and he replied, "Oh, every year's different, and every year's the same." I'm still puzzling over Al's cryptic utterance, and, damn, the more I think about it, the truer it gets. Heraclitus himself could not have coined a better paradoxical aphorism to explain the cattle business.
Al cared deeply about Santa Rosa Island and his livestock. Once a cattle buyer negligently shipped Vail & Vickers a big lot of steers whose tails and bellies were covered with cockleburs, the seeds of which might have infested the whole island. Al and his vaqueros meticulously combed the cockleburs off of every yearling steer before turning the cattle out onto the island's grasslands. "Don't ever do that to me again!" Al warned the agent. As for the cattle Al sent off the island to market, his only criterion was quality. Al knew that in the long run, and he was definitely in it for the long haul, delivering quality cattle would be more profitable over time than selling junk or unconditioned cattle for short-term profit.
As for his herd of some 200 ranch horses, Al displayed the same high level of integrity. Once a cattle buyer eyed some of the older, broken down horses, and suggested that Al sell them for slaughter in order to generate more profit that year. Al quickly dismissed the idea, saying, "Those old horses have carried my big ass all over this Island. There's no way in hell I'm going to sell them for dog food!" Al's philosophy was to turn retired horses out and allow them to die on the island where they had been raised.
I don't know the economics of ranching on Santa Rosa Island. However, hauling cattle boatload by boatload across 30 miles of ocean, maintaining a sizable horse herd, and feeding and housing a crew of vaqueros surely ate into Vail & Vickers' profit margin each year. Part of Al's ethos, the principles he guided himself by, would have demanded that the cattle operation stay in the black and show a profit each year.
But there was also something deeper at work, something to do quite simply with who he was and the deep values he held and knew to be true. When the great Matador Land and Cattle Company in the Texas Panhandle went out of business in 1951 after some 81 years in the business, Henry Drought, who had been on its board of directors, wrote a letter to a friend. Perhaps the eloquent conclusion of his letter seems to speak not only for Al, but for the rest of his family as well:
"And so the . . . company is going into . . . liquidation. I consider myself very fortunate to have been a part of its fine organization. Regardless of how advantageous to the shareholders the sale may have been, there are many heartaches caused by this conclusion. The company, however, will live forever in the history of the Southwest. We were connected with a cattle empire and our pride in it outweighed our desire for profits."
That last sentence seems to say it all. Al took great pride in Santa Rosa Island and the long history of the Vail & Vickers cattle operation, as well as his own role in that epic. His life as a maritime cattleman and the Santa Rosa Island ranch were each one of a kind, utterly unique, unrepeatable.
Today, the powerful winter winds in the Channel blow across Santa Rosa Island and through its vast, rolling grasslands awaiting the first good winter rainstorm. The wind relentlessly howls through the parallel boards of the old corrals and cattle pens, rattling the big wooden gates against their chains. It whistles through the vacant barns and empty tack room, stirring up in swirling eddies the slow gathering dust.