Sixty square miles of hard-packed dirt and caliche, filled with rocks, greasewood, cactus and more rocks. Twenty-six miles from the sleepy town of Wickenburg, straddling Highway 93 and Date Creek. That’s Date Creek Ranch.
Now you’re probably thinking, sixty square miles? What is that, like a million acres? (Actually, it’s about 38,000.) That’s freakin’ huge!
And you’re right. It’s a lot of land. Most of us would feel pretty lucky to have an acre of our own. Such acreage would be unthinkable somewhere crowded like Europe. There’s cities of hundreds of thousands of people living in areas that size.
So let me clarify a bit. Only one section of that land, 640 acres, is privately-owned. The rest is leased from state and federal governments. And this isn’t what you’d call lush land by any means. The ranch sits in the transition zone where the Sonoran and Mojave deserts meet. Much of it is volcanic, steep and rocky. It’s covered with mesquite, palo verde, catclaw, prickly pear, cholla, ocotillo, joshua trees, saguaros and a startling array of assorted flora and fauna designed to prick, pierce, poke and puncture you. There’s an old saying in the desert: “Everything here will either stick you, sting you or bite you.” That pretty much sums it up.
It’s not an easy place to raise anything other than lizards and jackrabbits.
My parents bought the place in 1966. It was a big jump for my mom. Her family was pretty well settled in the Globe-Miami area. They’d been ranching there since the 1870s, when great-great-someone-or-other decided Colorado had, darn it, become just too civilized and so they packed everything into wagons and headed for the Arizona Territory (Arizona wouldn’t even be a state for about forty more years). They owned the Pinal Ranch for the next hundred years until selling it in 1973. (My siblings and I are actually fifth-generation ranchers in Arizona, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe we should get a trophy or something.)
It was an even bigger jump for my dad, who’d grown up in Phoenix, a typical city kid. He and my mom met while they were students at the University of Arizona. It started out normal enough. He got a geology degree and went to work for a mining company. But then, somewhere along the way he thought, I’ve got a bunch of schooling in rocks, I’m from the city, all I know about cows is how good they taste on hamburger buns, and hmmm, think I’ll go into ranching. How hard can it be?
But that was my father. For all his faults, he was not a man to shy away from a challenge nor was he a man to give up. He lived on the ranch from 1966 until his death in 2007.
I was about one when we moved there and the place was pretty rough. There was a tiny, badly crumbling house (painted battleship gray on the outside and pink on the inside), a wooden barn and workshop—both on the verge of falling down—and some rotten corrals—actually falling down. I honestly can’t imagine what drew them to the place except that it is a long way from pretty much everything. Also, it’s hot. And it hardly ever rains there. So basically, Disneyland.
The closest town is Congress, about 16 miles away, four miles of which is our dirt road. Congress has grown somewhat, but in the 1960s it was as close to nothing as you could get without actually disappearing. The metropolis in the area was Wickenburg, 26 miles away, a sleepy hamlet of a couple thousand people that wouldn’t receive its first stoplight until the 1980s, the sort of place where you only needed to dial four numbers to make a phone call.
An hour-plus beyond Wickenburg was Phoenix, which had not yet begun the explosion that would turn it into the behemoth it is today. If you turned right at the end of the dirt road instead of left, you were on your way, literally, to Nothing. As in, there was a “town” called Nothing about a half hour down the road that was just a gas station and a single trailer. Beyond that, the grand city of Kingman and past that the city of Las Vegas.
Highway 93, the highway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, was so empty back then you could take a nap on it in the middle of the day, except that you’d cook on the asphalt. (Now they’re talking about needing a freeway there.)
You have, now, the humble beginnings of the Knight family and the saga of Date Creek Ranch.