The Boys of the Dipper Ranch

On 50,000 acres that they have mostly to themselves (not including their hounds, mules, horses, cattle, chickens, piglets, and parents), Jasper, Trevor, and Tanner Klein live a life almost untouched by the modern world.
The boys take a break at the stock tank.
Photograph by James Evans

The sun is not yet up as June’s voice floats over the draws and craggy canyons of the Dipper Ranch. Her owner, fifteen-year-old Jasper Klein, sits on a gray mule and listens. June is the strike hound for the pack of hunting dogs Jasper runs with his brothers, thirteen-year-old Trevor and eleven-year-old Tanner. She is black, white, and tan, long-bodied and droop-eared. She moves over rocks in a loose, swinging trot with her nose skimming the earth, her white-tipped tail waving. The other hounds work the boulders at the base of the rocky hilltop where the boys wait. They are waiting for June to catch the scent of a mountain lion. “She’s looking,” says Tanner. “She’ll find it,” says Jasper. The dogs huff and their tongues loll. June bays every time she catches a whiff of the scent. Her bay is two syllables, the first note pitched lower than the second: aahh-oooo. And again: aahh-oooo. She sounds like a bell tolling.

Presidio County’s wilderness unfurls below. The Dipper is 50,000 tumbling acres, grass growing amid the towering rocks, ocotillo forests, stands of Thompson’s yucca, fields of catclaw, and occasional cottonwoods growing in creek beds. The wind groans in the saddle of the mountains.

The Klein boys run their dogs a couple of times a week, now that homeschooling is done for the summer. Their parents, Walter and Brenda, go along too. Although the whole family hunts, this is really Jasper’s passion. “I’ve always liked dogs, and I’ve always wanted to chase lions,” he says. “My main goal is to have a set of dogs that is really good.”

June’s baying grows more frequent. An old orange-and-white hound, Jewel, catches the scent too and yips. The dogs take hold and follow the scent up the mountainside until they meet a fence line. Jasper dismounts and hoists the dogs through a gap in the fence. They race to the mountaintop, tails held stiff and high. There’s no quarry in sight, but the erratic trail means they’re after a bobcat. 

At the top of the peak, the boys and Walter park their mules, clamor around a cliff side with the dogs, and slip out of sight. Brenda waits with the mules. The mountain drops steeply to the left, the rock streaked with veins of dark red and black. Half an hour or more passes in the pleasant sunshine, punctuated occasionally by the sounds of the boys or Walter whooping to one another. Eventually they reappear. 

Well, the bobcat won today,” Walter says as he unties his mule. “There’s no scent on the bottom of a bobcat’s feet. If it gets on the rocks, it jumps from rock to rock and the dogs will lose the scent.”

Trevor and Tanner climb out of the canyon. Jasper whistles up his dogs. 

You lazy thing,” he scolds June, who gazes at him. He’s not truly mad, and the dog knows it. She smiles her dog smile at him and wags. 

Brenda watches the exchange.

This is what they’ll remember,” she says softly, pointing her mule toward home. “When I worry about schooling or the house or how we’re going to manage this or that little thing, I have to think that, really, I just have to be here with these boys, be present with them. Because this is what they’ll remember always.”

In the early years of their marriage, Walter and Brenda scrapped together a life in and around the Big Bend. He day-worked at ranches or welded or worked as a mechanic; she coached and taught at various schools. For a while, they both taught at a prison in Fort Stockton. When the boys were young, the family lived on a five-acre plot in Alpine, but Walter grew weary of his long hours in the mechanic’s shop, where he often stayed until midnight. Despite the heavy workload, the family’s financial pressures seemed to mount instead of subside. They longed to set their own schedule and to simplify. Seven years ago, an opportunity opened up to live at the Dipper, where they now look after the landowner’s property and cattle. They also run their own cattle on the ranch and pursue their own projects: hunting lions, for instance, or building a roping arena or raising colts. The nearest town is Marfa, forty minutes away. Moving to the Dipper changed everything. The family is together all day, every day. “We’re better off in this place than we have been in our whole lives,” Walter says. 

The notion of living on a ruggedly beautiful ranch, dependent on no one but your own family, working with dogs and horses and cattle, is deeply alluring, a timeless idyll that is peculiarly Texan. The Kleins aren’t recluses who shun modernity—they’ve got cellphones and watch YouTube like anyone else—but there are long stretches of their days where the outside world and its trappings of technology and mechanization are simply absent, their time untouched by a morning commute, Facebook, Starbucks, deadlines. Riding out to gather cattle, the boys could be living in 1912 instead of 2012, their squeaking saddles making music as their horses long-trot to mama cows and calves in distant pastures.

Practically speaking, though, it’s also a hell of a lot of ceaseless, sweaty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work. Mornings at the Dipper start about six o’clock. The boys head to the barn and kennels to feed horses, dogs, and chickens and return to the house for breakfast. During the school year, they study at the kitchen table, overseen by Brenda. She carefully pieces together curricula from different sources and drives the boys to Alpine or Marfa for tutoring, 4-H meetings, and soccer. School lasts for several hours every day, but this is flexible; if something comes up or Walter needs help, school is suspended temporarily. If the boys miss school during the week, they make up the time on the weekend.

In summer, the Klein boys run dogs or practice team roping while it’s still cool in the morning. Chores vary from day to day. The ranch’s remote

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