Meridian Star

April 19, 2013

A Life Lived to Full Measure

By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
Otha Barham

MERIDIAN —     Editor's Note: Readers will recall stories on this page about hunts and the people of Northwest Colorado. Here is a late report from there.

    Wanda Alma Ramsey was born in southwestern Wyoming when Calvin Coolidge was president and before the years of the Great Depression. Before she was 20, a rugged cowboy from the infamous Brown's Hole in nearby northwest Colorado proposed marriage and they wed the year World War II ended and Wanda was 19. Boyd Walker, her new husband, wanted her to live in Brown's Hole and work cattle with him and the cowgirl life was to be her entire future on earth.

    They raised one daughter, Dawn, who attended a boarding school in Utah because there were no schools in what is now called Brown's Park.

    It is difficult to convey here how remote this land of Butch and Sundance and the Wild Bunch in northwest Colorado actually is, even today. The county is about the size of half a dozen Mississippi or Alabama counties and the county seat is about 100 miles from Wanda's ranch. This is where the nearest doctor, hospital and shopping exists. The nearest gasoline is some 45 miles distant.

    They have no public electricity at the ranch, but the only new home Wanda ever had was built there when she was over 80 and she had a generator installed so the house has power when the generator is running.

    The ranch house is at the foot of Douglas Mountain and a spring is nearby; one near the corrals furnished water for families that lived there and the outlaws who were always visiting around the turn of last century, especially around meal time, or when they needed to trade for fresh horses after hours of fleeing from the scenes of train robberies.

    When Wanda came to Brown's Park, she and Boyd eventually settled on Vermillion Creek. This writer got to know the family when they lived there. I hired Dawn and her horse to scout the mountains for early hatches of rangeland pests.

    Wanda spent the short summers tending a herd of several hundred brood cows and their calves in the high country and fixing fences pushed down by elk. (Just this week two big bulls were hanging around the ranch house, they with the big knobs of new antler growth.) Her work week was seven days and she never used ATVs, saddling her horse daily. She never skipped church because there were no churches in Brown's Park, a valley some 45 miles long.

    At roundup time, the herd is moved off the mountain top down to more sheltered pastures near the ranch where winter snows are less harsh. I hunted elk there about roundup time, September, and saw strings of cattle over a mile long sometimes being herded largely by cowgirls after Boyd died in 1993. Men were curiously scarce in Brown's Park. Friends came to help roundup, mainly because they were so fond of Wanda and knew it took a lot of help to gather all her cattle from thousands of acres of mountain range.

    Yes, if you ever met Wanda Walker you liked her, you admired her and you were friends of a real cowgirl who worked cattle the same as had been done for more than a hundred years; roping and branding with irons heated in open fires. She was as tough as they come, yet there never lived a kinder, more soft spoken lady anywhere.

    Back when she lived on Vermillion and her land line phone worked about one time out of five, I called to check on her. “Well I was roping a bull and it pulled me off my horse and I broke my shoulder,”she said. “The doctor is supposed to take a tuck in it,” she interestingly continued. But she never had it fixed. Another time her horse threw her and she broke both wrists. This time Boyd had to take her to town to have the wrists set.

    Then last September, in her 87th year, she and Dawn were searching out strays at roundup time. They were working the top of Douglas Mountain. Dawn dropped down into Zenobia Basin where John Wesley Powell passed through on the Green River during his exploration in 1869, leaving her mother on top to work the draws and ridges. When Dawn turned her horse back up top, she had trouble locating Wanda. Eventually she came upon a scene that told this story.

    Wanda's borrowed horse, Blue, was standing with an empty saddle. Apparently he had tangled his legs in some abandoned wire, panicked and threw Wanda, who was lying nearby with a broken neck. This time she wouldn't get up and shrug off another injury. Dawn said it appeared she died instantly, with no suffering; out there on the mountain where Boyd's ashes had been scattered in 1993.

    Her death came just two years after the Denver Post did a special story on this iconic lady. Earlier a prominent western magazine published a story about the special cowgirl who had seen and done it all from mountain lions in her yard to the night when a bear got her cow dog off her front porch to the night when she climbed a mountain on foot in deep snow to get this writer off the edge of a canyon cliff. But she was never happier than when she and her favorite horse, Lucky, were finding lost calves and broken fences together. She did what she loved until the last seconds of her long and colorful life.

    They had to go to Craig to find a place large enough to have her funeral. People who knew Wanda Walker came from across the land; from coast to coast, and from ranches far and wide. Dawn is carrying on of course. She has learned by the sterling example set by her mother just how it's done out there in the sagebrush and the juniper ridges of the old West.