Written by Samantha Alviani
Images by Levi Tijerina

Zapata Ranch is more than grazing grounds to cattle and bison. It’s a Nature Conservancy preserve managed by Ranchlands—a protector of western ranching tradition—and a place to witness a way of life that can often seem lost to us. From Spring to Fall, visitors come for an education on the conservation of the valley’s biodiversity, to marvel at herds of bison, and live out fantasies of loping across the wild, open space. It’s a place that finds a medium between heritage and the realities of protecting the lands that foster it.

Folded into over 100,000 diverse acres of the San Luis Valley, Zapata is settled in an expanse of southern Colorado that seamlessly edges from the silken peaks of the Great Sand Dunes to green forest and meadow, to wetlands and high desert grasslands. This strange landscape is a treasure within our state and one that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the country.

Kate Matheson, guest services and creative marketing director, made her way to Zapata from central London via Montana. Drawn by a love of horses and a romance with the West, she found a valuable balance in the variance of the two locales. Ranch Manager Brett Haas was driven by the opportunity to work for a livestock producer that was environmentally conscious—progressive while maintaining certain western traditions. They remain at the ranch year-round, long past the busy season, through the quiet and solitude of winter.

The dunes are twice as beautiful when they have snow on them,” says Kate. The valley becomes a cold and still place—beautiful, even as temperatures drop as low as 35 for days on end. When snow arrives, it's incredible in its isolation and quiet.” Cattle and bison still get moved, the team riding out bundled up with thermoses of hot coffee. Sometimes, Kate and the team stop at their destination and build a fire out in the sand to warm up before the long trot home. “Riding a horse can be hard when the snow is falling hard but that's also part of the magic of it. Your hands and feet can get cold riding miles out on the ranch to move livestock, but nothing beats lighting a little fire in the sand and drinking some coffee before beginning the trot home.”

“I can honestly say I have never felt lonely out here,” she explains. “I don't think any of us have. We have plenty of friends and family that come and visit on trips from far and wide and in the meantime, we are usually flat-out busy. I think if you've made the conscious decision to live remotely then you are the kind of person who enjoys the space, the quiet, the landscape, and are content having your own time when there's no one else around.”

Kate’s favorite time is the first hour of light and the last hour of light, any time of the year. “In the winter, we get to enjoy our home for ourselves. Jessie and I work together in the office, making marketing plans, hiring for the following year, working with potential new partners. We'll ride out with Brett and the interns brave enough to stay on in the colder months. Our chef Robe is busy butchering bison and beef for the following year, making jerky, sausage and canning goods for the food program and to sell in our Mercantile store. Isaac, our filmmaker, will be producing content for our blog and websites, and our COO Duke IV will be here overseeing the ranch operations.”

Brett echoes the embrace of these quiet months. “Winter becomes a time to catch up on projects that got put off during the busy season, like repairing fences and working on a grazing plan. The ranch seems ever-changing, whether it’s the snow on the mountains or the way the sun sets or rises,” Brett says. “There is always something new to notice about the mountains—the prairie in the valley is beautiful, whether blooming in the spring or changing colors in the fall. Lots of elk migrate to the valley in the winter. There are longer rides out that make you feel like you’re in a movie as long as you can feel your fingers and toes—the whole landscape is a humble reminder of how I am just a very small part of all this creation.”

On the coldest nights, there is mulled wine and a bison roast in the crock pot. “Maybe we’ll build a fire outside, but more often than not we’ll watch films,” says Kate. “Sometimes we'll sled on the dunes or make a trip to the hot springs.”

During the winter at Zapata, there are special things to be seen. Horses with icicles for eyelashes. Bobcats in the snow, mountain lion tracks, and porcupines perched at the top of trees catching midday rays. The thick breath of hundreds of bison as they’re moved through the snow from pasture to pasture, and bands of coyotes lurking in the woods around the scattered homes, howling in the very still evenings. The lessons of living with this land, and ensuring its health, are carried on with the small family of those who remain through the chill.

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