Our Search For The Perfect Property
Black Mesa Ranch (BMR) is the name we have given to our 280-acre property nestled into a crook of "the other" Black Mesa, at the northern edges of the White Mountain area in NE Arizona. We purchased the bulk (240-acres) in late 2000 after taking an early retirement (we're both in our forties) from a series of self-employment ventures in Tucson AZ and added an adjacent 40 acres a few months later.
When we found it, the property had been abandoned for more than 10 years and in the harsh climate of this area everything from the land improvements to the buildings and basic infrastructure components had suffered greatly, but we knew as soon as we saw it that it was the place for us.
We have made numerous improvements in our short time here but the list of things we want to accomplish is long and the work will go on for the foreseeable future. This is the story of our dream, our search and our on-going work here.
Almost as long as Kathryn and I had been together (since 1982) we had often, when frustrated with people or a job, or a situation or with the world in general had said to one or the other “Let’s run away and be hermits together”. It got to be a running line of discussion and over the years the more we thought and talked about it the better it sounded. Eventually the joke evolved into a plan, not to be real hermits, of course, but to work hard toward trying to get onto a nice piece of country land and get away from the rat race.
We did work hard. At first as employees for other people primarily in the restaurant business, then for ourselves restoring historic properties and selling them or fixing up small apartment buildings and keeping them for rentals, and finally, again for ourselves designing and implementing, technical systems for very short term position trading stocks over the internet.
All the while we worked we continued to revise and develop our goals for the future, always with our “piece of the country” a motivating factor. Sometimes we would think of it as a business and talk about ways of maximizing production off whatever land we ended up with. Sometimes we would think REAL BIG; of a spread so large and diverse that we would hire a ranch manager to take care of the daily business and to free us up when we wanted to travel. Sometimes we would think very small planning around a tiny plot of green where we could enjoy our hobbies when we could get away.
Whenever we planned a trip we would try to drive through a different part of the country en route to see what they really looked like, always thinking about where our ideal spot might be. We found that it was pretty easy to eliminate some substantial sections of the USA because of our developing criteria. We just knew, for example, that there was no where in Minnesota that would work for us because of its climate.
Eventually we realized that we had been talking about what we liked and disliked about so many areas for so long that we actually had some fairly firm guidelines within which to work and we set about writing them down and prioritizing them as best as we could. We started by saying that we wanted to stay in the continental USA. From there our criteria divided roughly into Climate Considerations, Economic Considerations, and Political Considerations. Each of these criteria had many sub-categories. Under the Climate Category for example, we said we didn’t want anyplace too cold or too snowy in the winter, or where hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes were common, or that got so little rain it was not green at least part of the year, or that had lots of pest bugs to deal with, or that got too humid. Most of the Climatic conditions were pass-fail for our site; if any of them were wrong then the site was out. Economic Considerations included things like tax structure of the locality, cost of living, potential growth of the area (for future resale if desired) as well as access to services and shopping, medical facilities and utilities. These criteria were less crucial but could sway one site over another if there was a difference. The Political Considerations were also less crucial than the Climatic ones but still important to us. We wanted to be in a fairly conservative environment where there was minimal government interference with individuals but not a “redneck” place. We value our right to keep and bear arms so fair gun control regulations in the area was an important consideration. One other major consideration we had that didn’t really fit into any category was our need for the land to be "interesting". This is a very subjective condition and while there are surely people who find the great plains interesting, or vast deserts interesting we are not among them. We wanted a place that was topographically interesting. Maybe some craggy rocks, or a river, or a huge gully, or some fantastic rock formations, or a mountain, or something. This was going to be a tough one to describe to a realtor, but we’d know it when we saw it.
Our next step was the purchase of numerous maps and books to help us eliminate large sections of the country that did not meet our criteria. We took huge laminated USA maps and marked out whole sections; The deep south because of humidity, The far north because of their winters, large parts of the East Coast and California too because of the economic and/or political climates, a big chunk out of the center of the country known as “Tornado Alley”, etc., etc. Some of the areas we ended up marking off were very disappointing to us, areas we had liked in our travels that now didn’t really fit what we were trying to find. We vowed that if we didn’t find our place we would have to loosen our criteria and re-examine those areas.
One of the things we found was that the country’s Southwest seemed pretty good based on most of our conditions. We were living in Tucson, AZ at this time and really liked the state for many reasons, not the least of which was that we were already familiar with much about it. We decided that we would like to stay in Arizona if at all possible but we knew that the biggest challenge to our search would be to find an acceptable climactic area. AZ is a big state with an incredibly diverse set of regional climates. One of the things we found is that much can be told about the weather in an area in AZ by the elevation of that area. This prompted us to get yet another map. This one a large laminated topographical map just of the state. We proceded to mark the map along topographical lines, calling all places above 6000’ too high (too cold) and below 4500’ too low (too hot). This eliminated a good portion of the state. We next eliminated all public and Indian lands and some sections that were obviously topographically uninteresting. Most of the state was now hatched out, leaving a rough diagonal band across the middle along the Mogollon Rim, a section in the extreme southeast of the state around the Chiricahua Mountains, and a few isolated islands of highlands, mostly across the center of the state.
We now began planning trips around the State and began researching the real estate offerings in earnest on the Internet. We traveled in our small RV with 3 dogs (and later 4 dogs) on routes that came the closest to passing through the areas our map told us were possibilities. Sometimes there would be potential sites on the routes we took that had been offered for sale and we would try to visit as many as possible to see what they were like, even if we had already dismissed the area for one reason or another.
One important thing seemed clear: as technological advances continued we became more and more convinced that we might actually be able to get our little piece of the country, out in the middle of practically nowhere and continue to make a living via the internet (we were actively trading stocks online at this time).
Eliminating Some Possibilities
One area of the state seemed to have a great potential for us... There was a stretch of Arizona near Williams between Flagstaff and Kingman that according to the maps and books had just what we were looking for.
A search of the Internet came up with a property for sale by the owner that sounded just right. It was a square mile (640 acres) of juniper-pinion forest with a working well, generator for power, some developed roads on the property and even an unfinished house (4000 sq. ft.!), a guest house, and a large machine shed. The pictures on the Internet were wonderful looking, this really sounded like something we could work with.
We contacted the owner who really sounded like he wanted to get rid of the property and he sent us some keys to get into the buildings. We spoke at length on the phone discussing the weather there, the neighbors, the roads, why he had move out (5 years previously) and not gone back etc. One of our chief concerns (aside that his asking price was well above what we had planned on spending, but if it were PERFECT???…) was that there was no phone service there. The owner said that cell phones worked fine, but our concern was that we were currently stock trading full time using 2 DSL (very fast) internet connections to get the job done. How the heck could we continue to make a living without phones? He said that it had been a while since he had checked but phone service was planned for the area, even gave us his old contacts at the phone company to talk to.
A week or two later we arranged to go up to look at the property. Unfortunately it was in much rougher condition than we had been lead to believe. The property was inaccessible because a 30’ deep gully was where the driveway should have been, the well was pumped into an above-ground kiddie pool which had collapsed, and the generator-pump house had been ransacked and all the equipment gone. We probably could have worked with all that (at a greatly reduced price!) but the real problem was that the house and all the work we saw seemed very poorly done. In our opinion, based on years of construction experience the house was a mishmash of cobbled together components in a weird plan that we couldn’t trust to stand through the next major storm.
Things only got more dismal the next day when we went into Kingman to talk with the phone people. They called the area “extreme rural” and had no plans at all for extending service out that way for the foreseeable future. They said they could possibly hook up a radio phone to the site with a couple of repeaters (cost $20,000) but a decent Internet hook-up was out of the question. Totally scratch one property. As a matter of fact scratch another whole section of the search map. “Extreme rural” locations without the possibility of good phone service now became another crossed-out segment on our maps.
The next section we began to pay special attention to was the area in the far south and east of the state. We had visited the Chiricahua National Monument and had camped along the Pinery Creek there several times and really liked the area. The Portal area on the other side of the mountain was also very special.
Through the Internet we found a realtor, Amy, who seemed very on the ball and who not only knew the area but lived there herself. We traded emails regularly and described to her what we were looking for. She said she knew of several properties that might work for us and that we should plan a trip down to meet and get to see the area. We agreed and made arrangements to even set down our RV on a corner of her property for the night. The next day she met with us and we talked at length, then she took us around to a couple of parcels she had listed.
One of the problems with the area was that it was very carved up into little 40-acre parcels. Every parcel had an easement around every side and most were separately owned so putting together a larger parcel was difficult. Another concern was that there were really just two types of property, long, skinny (1/8 x 1/2 mile) mountainous parcels which abutted the National Monument, or ¼ x ¼ mile squares, mostly in the valley. The valley properties were generally uninteresting and the mountain properties were half unusable.
On the plus side the mountain and valley views were stunning, there was water at a reasonably accessible level (at least for the valley properties) and there was fast new phone service being put in everywhere with DSL or similar speed connections likely. Grid power was located sporadically throughout the area but possibly available and shopping in Douglas (a major border town with Mexico) an acceptable 45 minutes away.
Another concern was with the proximity to the border there were regular problems with illegal aliens, drug traffickers, and the like. A recent flair-up between local ranchers and illegals made national headlines and the Border Patrol was in the process of dramatically increasing their presence in the area.
As for the properties, even with the limitations in types of parcels generally available, there were some larger pieces, often odd-shaped around. Amy show us one 140-acre piece that actually looked pretty interesting. Although a very strange shape, it had a very nice architect-built stone house with a functioning well and generator and a large barn structure. Again the asking price was more than we thought we could work with but more to the point the owner had just died and the son was still in the process of working through probate.
We went home without following up on the property but found ourselves thinking and talking about it quite a bit. We had taken a couple of pictures of it and got to looking at them and now it seemed like it might be worth doing something on. We re-contacted Amy to find out the actual status of the place. After a couple of days she told us she had been in touch with the son who was stationed in Italy. He was definitely interested in selling the property and though probate was slow he and we could construct a purchase if we wanted to. We made another appointment to go down and get into the house.
It was nicer than we had thought and, though much of the land was kind-of scrubby, there were some great and interesting features on the land. We didn’t really like the idea of running a generator all the time and after investigating having grid power run to the property (EXPENSIVE!!) we met with a local man who designed PV solar electric systems and sold the components at 10% above wholesale cost. We got a lot of very good information from him and felt comfortable that we could make the power end of things work for us. We decided to try to structure an offer to buy the property.
One purchase complication for us was that we still had several pieces of property (a small apartment building, a rental house and our own house) to sell before we would have any significant cash we could put toward the property as the bulk of our funds were being used for making a living for us stock trading. To make a long story shorter, we made several attempts over quite a while at creatively structuring a deal with the owners including a very generous lease/purchase agreement but we were not able to come to an agreement in the end.
A bit later in time we scheduled another trip down to have Amy show us a series of 4 contiguous lots located up against the mountains which she had assembled for sale but were forced to cancel the trip. As it turned out, as time went on we became less and less comfortable with some of the border issues in the area. We also came to find out that there were many on-going problems between area landowners and the county revolving around the easements and that there were a growing number of litigations between various neighbors for a multitude of harms, real or imagined. In retrospect I don’t think we would have been as comfortable in that area as we had first thought or hoped.
A Trip To Snowflake
After our disappointments with the properties near Williams and in the Chiricahuas, once again it was back to the Internet search. I found an on-line ad for a piece of property between Holbrook and Show Low. It was technically just out of the area we had marked on our maps as OK to look in (we had it marked as "too high in elevation and uninteresting") but this isn’t an exact science and the description sounded pretty good.
I contacted the owner and he sent a video tape he had shot of the property. Despite his best efforts to show off the place’s best features it most definitely was uninteresting (to us), a high plains mesa location with a few rolling hills, no trees to speak of and a couple of very peculiar structures. We knew this property wasn’t for us but there did seem to be some potential for interesting “micro areas” within that part of the map we had discounted outright. We started doing some concentrated research on that part of Arizona. There were amazing differences in the weather reported by towns geographically nearby. Towns as close a 18 miles apart reported as much as 24” difference in monthly snowfall on average.
Further Internet research found another interesting property. The pictures were, again, very nice and interesting showing a picturesque windmill with a mesa close in the background, a newer looking metal barn, and an old corral. I contacted the realtor, Bea, who worked out of an office in Show Low. She said the property was 240 acres and also had a couple of houses. She gave us map grids and directions (it was within a few dozen miles of the property we had just seen the video of - not a good sign). She said that there were several other properties up there that we might be interested in too. We figured “What the heck” and decided to go up and look at the two properties plus some others on a day the following week and made an appointment with Bea.
Before going up we used the information Bea had given us to locate the property as best as we could on some topography mapping software I had purchased expressly for property hunting. It incorporates every 7 ½ USGS map for an area seamlessly with GPS interfacing (a very cool tool for finding property corners and the like). If we had figured out the right place, it looked, if anything, even more interesting on the topo map. Nuzzled in the crook of an arm of Black Mesa the map even showed what could have been 2 houses and a barn just up off the valley floor looking out past a very large wash. Again, if we had it right, the topography looked stunning. As best as we could figure, a 240 acre parcel that included the structures we saw should also include a big part of the wash, a cattle tank and might even go well up the side of the mesa! We had been disappointed before and tried to withhold our excitement but my hopes were getting high once again.
The route we chose to come up from Tucson took us through Payson, Heber and into Snowflake where we picked up on the directions to both properties. Hope faded as we passed mile after mile of high desert nothingness. The closer we got to Snowflake all we could think of was that video of the first area property - situated so it could have just as easily been in southeast Colorado as Arizona (boring-boring!).
Snowflake itself was a very pretty little town with much obvious civic pride and reinvestment but as we left town on Concho “Highway” the cuteness faded quickly and the desert plains look returned. We decided to go to the video property first just to see if it was as hopeless as we feared. Following the convoluted directions (we later figured out they were to keep prospective buyers as far from the local pig farms as possible) we found the property. Film may, on occasion, lie but this time it was starkly realistic. We drove onto the property briefly and just far enough to quickly turn around and leave, not wanting to have to endure a “showing” of the property by the resident.
Our appointment with Bea was for the next morning but we were making very good time (since there was nothing to look at) so had time to find the other property (and maybe cross it off our list too) before finding a place to camp for the night.
We headed back toward Snowflake on Concho Hwy for a little way before finding the turn-off onto the dirt road she had described. The road was very rough and the little RV did not handle it particularly well. At one point at the base of a short but very steep section (we later learned this was "Calamity Hill") we had to stop and get out to reconnoiter the other side of the hill, not knowing if it just dropped off or what (it turned out to be a flat mesa top) before going on. 4 miles on that road we found the turnoff onto the secondary dirt road as she had directed. We were going about 10 mph but the last miles seemed to go even slower. When we had asked Bea if we could get to the property in our small RV she had hesitated but said “Yes I think so…" but then amended it with a "Well maybe not all the way, there’s a pretty big wash you may have trouble with”. We found the wash alright and she was correct. We WOULD have had trouble with it if we’d decided to try it. We pulled the RV off to the side of the road which didn’t look as though anybody had driven on it in ages and took our first real look at the property…It was magnificent!
Our First Impressions Of the Ranch
After maneuvering the RV as close to the property's entrance as possible (still 1/4 mile away) we took in the vista. From our vantage point on the far side of the wash from the mesa we could see a large metal building, a windmill turning high on a tower near a couple of metal storage tanks and could just make out 2 small gray buildings, one with the glint of a vehicle windshield in front of it. The wash (we later learned it was named “Hay Hollow Draw”) was really big, maybe 30 or 40 feet across. It was dry but very sandy at the road crossing that looked unused for some time and it had some pretty steep banks. The barbed wire fence where we had pulled off was down for the 50 feet to the big wash and for at least that far on the other side. There were numerous cattle to be seen in the vicinity.
We decided to take the dogs for a brief walk along the side of the draw away from the houses that were still a good ¾ of a mile away. The dogs had other ideas. They immediately dashed into the wash and found a big mud hole left from a recent rain and proceeded to have a great time while making a huge mess of themselves. We joined them in the draw and took a long walk down the bed, stopping periodically to let the dogs romp in the numerous puddles and small swimming holes they found. The wash runs quite deep through here with banks up to 15 feet high on both sides.
After a while we decided to climb the house-side bank to get our bearings. We found that we were nearly due West of the houses, and maybe ¼ mile away, and we could see them much clearer now. They looked pretty much abandoned and it seemed like maybe the car had a couple of flat tires.
Chancing that there was nobody home we walked toward the houses eventually joining in with a long-unused and un-maintained road that was the driveway which we followed to the South house. As we approached it became very clear that no one had lived here for quite some time. Aside from the fact that the road was virtually impassable and unused, many of the windows in the houses were broken out and the obviously abandoned orchards were filled with acres of the dead skeletons of trees large enough to have been beginning to bear fruit before they had died.
The light was fading fast so we headed back to the RV without too much exploration and made camp right were we had parked. The evening was marvelously cool for mid-summer and we sat out for hours talking about possibilities.
After a quick walk on the property the next morning we headed off to meet with the realtor, Bea, who was to show us this property and some others. She showed up with husband Ernie and another couple who were interested in seeing the ranch. Over the course of our conversations with Bea and Ernie we learned that the property had been on the market with a series of realtors for over 10 years. Ernie, who used to be a realtor, had it listed first and said that there had been one or two offers to purchase it while he had it. One had gotten as far as almost closing but the buyers had not been able to come up with the cash they needed and had forfeited their earnest money and walked away. Another couple of realtors had had the property for a while and Ernie thought there might have been another offer during that time but nothing came of it for some reason. Bea had gotten the listing fairly recently, just a few months ago and it was currently listed at a lower price than what the contract had been for when Ernie had the listing. We also learned that there were several owners all of whom lived in the Phoenix area who had tried to do a communal development or make some kind of co-op venture in the 1980’s. No one seemed to be able to tell us why they had given up on the property.
Our viewing of the property that day and further investigations revealed the following:
The best structure on the property was the barn. Actually a 40x50’ steel machine shed with 2 overhead garage doors and decent wiring for a shop. It used to have solar panels and an inverter and batteries to supply power but the panels and controls had been stolen and the batteries were long gone due to neglect. It is about chock-full of general crap including a bunch of nasty furniture.
The two houses were 2 story (the 1st level was 2/3 underground) basic rectangle in shape and of concrete block construction with no ornamentation. Kathryn called it “Soviet Block Construction”. In fact neither house had ever been finished, each being at some stage of the sheet-rocking phase of construction, though it was clear that both had been lived in from the horrid furniture still there. The North house was somewhat less finished than the South but both had a very similar floor plan with some minor variations.
The Power House was empty of its equipment and the overhead wires from it to the houses had fallen to the ground. There was also a Chicken Coop in serious need of repair and a concrete slab near the North end of the property with some fencing that may have been the site for a hay barn or stable at one time.
The well, windmill, and pump house were located up the hill from the barn. An old pump jack with a newer looking gasoline engine was in evidence. The 2 steel tanks (we were told they are 2500 gallons) were high on an I-beam and railroad tie tower maybe 30’ up and looked pretty rough and rusty.
The land itself was most interesting. The 240 acres is 6, 40-acre+/- parcels irregularly arranged. Imagine 5 squares making a plus sign then fill the bottom left open corner with a 6th square. With North being up that is roughly the shape of the property, though none of the parcels are actually square. All of the surveyed parcels in this area have angled sides making them more like parallelograms. Anyway if you look at your augmented plus sign both the top square and the far right square are parcels that on this property climb steeply up the sides of Black Mesa as it wraps itself around the property.
Hay Hollow Draw, the big wash, runs in a rough arc from the lowest edge of the bottom square in the plus sign through the center square and out through the top of the left square of the plus.
Generally speaking, the land is flat, grassy pasture to the South and West of the wash and slopes up gently, thickly dotted with Juniper and Cedar trees, to the base of the mesa to the North and East of the wash. The slope up the mesa sides (which are covered with gorgeous black lava rocks) is generally quite steep and takes up about 1/3 of the squares described above.
The property is almost completely fenced (though some is in need of repair) with the exception of the steepest and highest parts of the perimeter of the parcel that is the right side square of the plus sign.
There was also the remnant of a 5-acre orchard behind the barn. All the fruit trees were long dead but there is a complex irrigation system in place with lots of dials, filters, gauges and valves leading to bubbler heads for each tree. There are many internal fenced areas and sections of fencing that will take a significant amount of time to decipher the uses of and/or needs for. There were a couple of apparent garden areas, the largest is about an acre, fenced with a variety of fencing, and located between the 2 houses.
There are several good-sized washes (aside from Hay Hollow Draw) on the property, mostly channeling rainfall off the mesa to the Draw. Some of them would likely prove a challenge to plan roads around. The property was offered with a permit to dam one of the washes to create a 1-acre pond for livestock use. Aside from the main well (with the windmill and tanks) there are supposed to be 2 other very old wells on the property somewhere. There is also a dirt cattle tank on the property but even in the hardest rains we have not seen it with water in it.
Unfortunately much of the acreage around the barn and houses was positively strewn with refuse and garbage. Much of it is metal debris from heaven-knows-what, though one can sometimes identify various parts of machinery or vehicles. There were also so many pieces of loose wire thrown everywhere on the property Kathryn and I now, half jokingly, tell our friends that we spend so much time picking it up we consider our new occupation to be “Wire Wranglers”. K says that if the people who lived here had hired a full time guy to do nothing but cut up spools of wire and throw the pieces around the job couldn’t have been done more thoroughly.
As for vehicles, there were three abandoned cars on the property in various states of dismantlement. There was also what we call “The RV Park” which is a grouping of: a beat-upon silver Air Stream-style travel trailer (“The Diner”), a single-wide mobile home with many doors and windows missing and a large and completely dilapidated 20'-square steel outbuilding. The area is completed by assorted strings of electric wiring and mysterious plumbing stub-ups, some PVC hose bibs and a couple of very large and ancient LP gas tanks (one says it was built in 1944, both have gauges that are registering almost full) which we call “The Bombs”. The first photos we took of the “RV Park” look exactly like those newspaper pictures of the aftermath of a bad hurricane in Florida.
We later purchased an adjacent 40 acres to the north and east. A beautiful piece of land.
So that’s how it all began. Years and untold hours of cleaning, fixing, and hauling later – we’ve made the place our own and have developed the property into a good, hard-working ranch and dairy. “It ain’t South Fork”, as one of our open-house visitors said to his wife a few years ago, but it is a solid, neat, and well run homestead with an interesting and profitable business.