As he stares out the window of his Cadillac Escalade, there’s a hint of sadness in T. Boone Pickens’s eyes. The entrepreneur and financier still loves to show visitors around his sprawling, nearly 65,000-acre Mesa Vista Ranch in the Panhandle, but after 47 years of coming to the retreat most weekends, he knows his time here is limited.
For years, Pickens, who turned ninety in May, seemed to shrug off the effects of age. But recently he’s had several strokes, and he suffered a fall last summer that has prompted a desire to get his affairs in order, which includes selling his beloved Mesa Vista.
“I’m clearly in the fourth quarter, and time is not my friend,” he says. “I have to accept and even embrace my mortality.” After six decades of weathering the gyrations of the energy business—which took him from resounding success as an oilman to humiliating failure as a pioneering corporate raider and then, after he reinvented himself as an investor rather than an oil producer, to being back on top again—Pickens is nothing if not pragmatic. He knows selling the ranch is the right thing to do, especially if he wants to preserve a viable conservation and wildlife management effort.
Little by little, the enjoyment of the property is slipping away. The things he loves are still there: a two-hole golf course with nine tee boxes, a tennis court, and some of the best quail hunting in the country. But his vision has deteriorated. He often uses a walker and needs help getting in and out of the car. Despite his mounting ailments, he obviously cherishes his time at the ranch.
Few properties embody their owner more completely than Mesa Vista, whose name references both the scenic uplifts visible across the Canadian River and Pickens’s former company, Mesa Petroleum. On my recent visit, he tells me what he’s done, from painting oil storage tanks the colors of the surrounding landscape to building a string of lakes.
“This couldn’t be any more T. Boone Pickens,” says Chrysta Castañeda, who joins us on the tour. She’s an attorney who represented Pickens in a 2016 breach of contract lawsuit in which a jury awarded him $145.3 million. “It’s everything you love, in 110 square miles.”
The ranch, near Pampa, includes personal touches, like his childhood home, relocated here from Holdenville, Oklahoma, complete with a replica street sign and pieces of the original sidewalk, on which Pickens scrawled his name in fresh cement in 1939. Then there’s the land itself: a man-made waterway winds through the property. Mesa Vista is currently listed at $250 million, among the highest-priced pieces of real estate in the country, and there have been only a few nibbles so far.
Pickens became a household name in the eighties by joining a crowd of moneyed investors who introduced the concept of hostile takeovers into the American lexicon. He used Mesa Petroleum as a vehicle for threatening to buy a large number of shares in publicly traded companies and, essentially, take control. He did this with Gulf Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Unocal Corporation. He never successfully acquired control of the companies, but he did shake up corporate boards, and his tactics empowered shareholders. Today’s “activist investors,” who buy large blocks of stock to influence management decisions, were spawned by Pickens’s corporate raids. He made far more money running a hedge fund, BP Capital, which he launched in 1996 to focus on energy investments. In 2008, the year he turned eighty, his wealth peaked at nearly $4 billion. Since then, he’s given away at least $1 billion to charities, nonprofits, and his alma mater, Oklahoma State University. His gifts to the school total about $500 million, split between academics and athletics, including major renovation and expansion of the school’s football stadium, which bears his name. By the end of 2016 he had pared his net worth down to $500 million (half of which is the value of the ranch).
He has continued to make headlines, appearing frequently on CNBC for his financial expertise. In 2008 he unveiled the Pickens Plan, a multipronged campaign designed to promote an independent, cleaner energy future for the country. It has four components: use the abundant natural gas reserves unlocked with fracking to replace imported oil to fuel fleet vehicles and heavy trucks; develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power; improve the electrical grid, so it can handle these new energy sources; and increase the energy efficiency of homes and buildings. Promoted heavily on social media, the plan turned Pickens into a populist hero among environmentalists, most of whom would surely disagree with his right-wing politics (in 2007 Pickens offered to give $1 million to anyone who could disprove the assertions made by Swift Boat Veterans against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election). He also has 1.8 million followers on LinkedIn and 147,000 on Twitter. “Not bad for an old man who doesn’t do emails,” he quips.
As a tribute to Pickens, in February some of his former hedge fund managers (Pickens shuttered BP Capital’s two main investment funds last year) put together an exchange-traded fund to carry on his energy investment strategies. Pickens has no direct involvement with the fund, which began trading on the New York Stock Exchange later that month, under the symbol BOON. Pickens has made and lost several fortunes in his career, and he knows how commodities like oil and natural gas can take unpredictable turns. In the past couple of years, oil has traded between roughly $40 and $55 a barrel, about half of where it was four years ago. It finally broke $60 late last year. Given oil’s lackluster performance, he says he no longer finds trading exciting. It probably didn’t help that the two funds had lost money in two of the past three years, as had many other energy-focused funds. Pickens still goes into his Dallas office every weekday, where 42 magazine covers featuring him line the walls. “Where the hell else would I go?” he asks.
He heads to the ranch most weekends via plane, flying from Dallas Love Field to the private airstrip on the west side of the spread. As part of his downsizing, he sold his Gulfstream G550 jet in late 2016 for an undisclosed sum and now uses a turboprop.
In the middle section of the property, Pickens is actively drilling oil wells, 53 so far, that will transfer to the new owner, and he’s a frequent visitor to the drill sites. Pickens has drilled a lot of wells during his sixty-year career, but these are the first in which he’s been involved as a landowner. The most prolific one produces about 1,200 barrels of oil a day; the wells’ royalty income totaled $541,000 for the first nine months of last year. “I’m back now to what I always did,” he says. “I’ve gone clean back around the corner.”
A Water Park
Not satisfied with a standing waterway, Pickens placed wells around his man-made “Boone’s Creek” that recirculate the water, creating a current.
Pickens bought the first 2,900 acres of what would become Mesa Vista in 1971. He added to it over the years, and in the early 2000s, when his hedge fund was white-hot and his wealth was at its zenith, he added a $50 million, 11,500-square-foot “lake house”—the residence mimics a Tuscan-style architecture. The home was completed in 2006; its adjacent features took four years to build. It has 3,800 square feet of porches with brass railings overlooking the lakes and aqueducts that surround the house. The front door came from one of Bing Crosby’s houses, and inside, a spiral staircase (for those who don’t want to use the elevator) is made of imported French stone.
About five miles away is the more than 25,000-square-foot lodge, which includes two great rooms; a dining room that can seat forty; a massive boardroom for high-level meetings; and a movie theater with reclining seats. His original Western paintings include artists such as Frederic Remington, Howard Terpning, N. C. Wyeth, and Wilson Hurley. (The collection is being sold separately from the ranch.) An 11,000-square-foot kennel houses forty bird dogs—currently Labradors, English springer spaniels, and German shorthaired pointers. There’s also an area for processing and vacuum-packing venison and quail. Some two hundred miles of roads traverse the property, maintained by a staff of roughly twenty. Eight families live on the ranch, and Pickens has paid for more than a dozen of their children to attend Oklahoma State.
Much of Mesa Vista is a habitat for quail, pheasants, and wild turkeys. Pickens is proud of his quail conservation, and he has spent years cultivating and replenishing native grasses on the windswept plains that the birds use. Water lines have been buried to create wet areas for the coveys, and more than a thousand feeders dot the grounds. Ray Sasser, an outdoors writer for the Dallas Morning News and Pickens’s longtime friend, who died in late February, reportedly declared that Mesa Vista was “arguably the finest native quail hunting spot in the known universe.”
For Pickens, selling the ranch coincides with the growing physical limitations of age, which frustrate him. A pioneer of company fitness programs for employees, Pickens worked out faithfully five mornings a week for 26 years. (In 2014, at 86, he challenged President Barack Obama to a one-hour workout, tweeting, “My cardio is better,” accompanied by a video of Pickens running up a hill. Obama never took him up on the offer.)
Beyond the use of a walker, which he is working toward eliminating, he has speech therapy several times a week. His mobility is improving, but talking can still be difficult. “My frustration level is at 110 percent,” he says. “I work hard every day, trying to get everything back.”
He’s working, too, at coming to terms with letting go of Mesa Vista. He has five children, two sons and three daughters, one of whom is adopted. But part of his decision to sell the property rather than leave it to his estate goes back to his strong conservation philosophy and his desire to ensure that the buyer shares his environmental ethics as well as his commitment to wildlife management techniques.
“When the ranch gets sold, it will leave a big hole for me,” he says. “But it’s the right thing to do. Keeping it puts a burden on my estate. And I’d truly like to stick around to see someone enjoying it half as much as I have.”
Much of the sale proceeds will go to his philanthropic efforts. That will help him finally part with the property, but it won’t make it any less painful.