San Ignacio del Babacomari: Living History

Reaching back into the 1800s for my last two books opened semi-hidden doorways and let me follow paths into the past, where much of the Old West is still alive and touchable. Places like Tombstone, Bisbee, Tucson, mining camps, ghost towns, and ranches are rich in history and in many cases, not only have they preserved the bones and foundations of their origins, but enhanced and upheld them.

Southwestern Arizona is especially rich with such sites, and every time I visit a place where Doc Holliday, Nellie Cashman or Henry Hooker may have lived or touched the same doorknob that I still can, I get a thrill. I felt the same when I visited Westminster Abbey and walked on the same steps that Eleanor of Acquitaine did. While America can't claim the years that Europe can, or the same zeal for preserving its history, we're learning.

I was particularly fortunate to spend a week visiting the cattle ranch San Ignacio del Babacomari as a guest of the family. The Babacomari is one of the original Spanish land grant ranches and is still the largest continuous private land parcel in Arizona now at 28,000 acres. Only the third owner since the Spanish king, Frank C. Brophy bought it in 1935, and spent the rest of his life caring for and restoring this stupendously beautiful property, running cattle and breeding horses. He brought life back to the overgrazed and depleted land with new grass varieties, dams, dikes, furrows, new wells, drainage basins and most of all, a passion and love for this land. He wrote about it in an article for Arizona Highways in 1966, and his feelings were illustrated when, in reference to the Babacomari, he quoted the Song of Solomon as the ancient song of the land: "Arise my beautiful one and come. The winter is past. The flowers appear on the earth and the time of pruning is at hand. The dove is heard in our land. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come."  To have such love for a place is extraordinary, as he must have been, and the beautiful Babacomari reciprocated with its flowering. 


The scenic hallmarks of the ranch are the rolling hills, green with grass, studded with mesquite and agave, old oaks and cottonwoods, and the marshy cienegas with ponds that are home to an outstanding variety of wildlife, from pronghorn antelope and coyotes (who leap across the dirt roads with amazing suddenness) to jackrabbits, turkeys, ducks, and an occasional mountain lion. The old adobe headquarters house with its thick walls is beautifully restored and the home place, where my friend grew up, is the quintessential ranch house, a territorial adobe, with its wide porch and high open beam ceilings, the views from every window like a moveable feast painting you never tire of gazing at for hours. These houses would have been much the same in 1850 as they are now, (except for modern plumbing), and they echo the simplistic beauty of the place. Breezes flow through all day and night, and the heat of the day is dispelled in the quiet serenity of the night. The air is fragrant and clean, and the only noises heard are those of nature -- the birds and animals that belong here. It's like another world, removed from the cities and voices, sirens, traffic, exhaust, violence, stress or strife that are a part of most of our lives, sadly. 

Many of the old big ranches have been sold off to property developers, parceled out for suburban ranchettes, subdivisions, even shopping centers, and in some cases, vineyards, which is the best of the fates, this being an area where the soil can produce grapes and many winemakers are getting established in Arizona, although it's likely the French or even Napa Valley don't need to be concerned for a few years about competition. Some properties have been given to the BLM or turned into smaller dude ranches, or even museums, like the Slaughter Ranch near Douglas. The Babacomari has held on, and I hope they always do, against all odds. In a world that celebrates technology and progress above most other things, we need the history, beauty and peace of a place like this. The serenity and sheer beauty of it all was a gift I will treasure forever.