Gilbert rancher and poet celebrates a vanishing way of life - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Gilbert rancher and poet celebrates a vanishing way of life

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Posted: Sunday, July 22, 2007 2:00 pm | Updated: 6:20 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Under the blazing July sun, rancher Rolf Flake looks over his beloved Corriente cattle. It’s at least 117 degrees, a temperature seemingly unfit for any living thing to be outside, and beads of sweat drip from his forehead and glide along the lines of his weathered face to his neck.

Under the blazing July sun, rancher Rolf Flake looks over his beloved Corriente cattle. It’s at least 117 degrees, a temperature seemingly unfit for any living thing to be outside, and beads of sweat drip from his forehead and glide along the lines of his weathered face to his neck.

“They’re a tough old breed,” says Flake.

For a moment it’s unclear if the Gilbert man is talking about the Corrientes or cowboys like himself. At 76, Flake is the real deal, a true Arizona cowboy who lives his life on horseback tending cattle and watching the sky for rain. He’s also a poet who writes about life on the ranch (audio slideshow.

As National Cowboy Day approaches Saturday, Flake wants you to know that he and others like him are not a dying breed. To find men (and women) like Flake at work in the East Valley, you have to leave the pavement and venture into the desert dotted by mesquite and creosote.

“In this urban society you just don’t see them,” says Flake. “They’re off the road.”

Working the land

Riding his horse, Scooter — “Not a real dignified name for a horse,” Flake concedes, affectionately patting the horse’s neck — Flake deftly sorts the cattle with the help of family friend Joseph Kimball and Kimball’s daughters Rachel, 15, and Kaycee Jo, 5.

The four have been at Ironwood Corral — the ranch Flake’s brother, Keith, leases on state land — since the early morning. The air may be hot and suffocating, but there’s work to be done, and it isn’t glamorous. The cattle have to be fed and prepared for a journey in an air-conditioned truck to Texas. The truck — which Flake’s son, Reed, is driving down from Snowflake — has yet to arrive.

The girls follow their father’s and Flake’s lead, giving water to the horses and throwing hay into the stalls. They do it all without complaining.

“He’s raising these girls right,” says Flake of his friend, Kimball, as all four wait in the shade for the truck.

“Are you a cowboy?” Flake asks little Kaycee Jo.

“I’m a cowgirl,” she says.

Today’s cowboy is defined in different ways. There are the rodeo cowboys — Flake sees them as athletes — and the people who saddle a horse every weekend for trail rides. But they don’t work the land like Flake, and that’s the difference.

“A real cowboy is not out here saying, 'Hey I’m a cowboy,’ ” says Kimball, a Queen Creek resident. “He’s out here proving it by what he does.”

“He’s too busy doing it to talk about it,” says Flake, who from a distance looks like a taller version of the actor Wilford Brimley.

“I was up at the Taco Bell the other day and some gal says to me, 'Are you that oatmeal man?’ ” Flake says, laughing and raising his hands to his face in an exaggerated gesture of surprise.

Flake is dressed in the standard cowboy uniform — handlebar mustache, cowboy hat, long-sleeved plaid shirt, Wrangler jeans held up by suspenders, cowboy boots. On his hip he carries a cell phone that rings often. When it does, the voice of Willie Nelson singing “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” pierces the stillness. (“My grandson programmed that in for me,” he says.)

Technically, Flake is retired, but he continues to work the ranch for his brother because ranching is in his blood; his family has been in the cattle business since 1878. Flake’s great-grandfather and grandfather settled Snowflake and gave the town its name. U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake and state Sen. Jake Flake are cousins. At least 15 of the Flake families in Snowflake own and operate ranches.

“I’ve been at it in one form or another all my life,” says Flake, who rises every day at 5:30 a.m. and heads over to the Ironwood Corral to do his daily chores in triple-digit temperatures. Feeding cattle, checking fences occasionally vandalized by ATV riders, filling water troughs — the list is never-ending.

“I don’t know how he does it,” say Flake’s wife of 53 years, Jean, a self-described city girl who met the poet and rancher during an assembly at Brigham Young University. “Ranching has always been his life, and he doesn’t know what else to do.”

From appraiser to poet

Flake never imagined he would become a poet. He’s worked most of his adult life as a farm and ranch appraiser before putting verse on paper at the age of 52.

“It’s kind of hard to get a cowboy to come out of the woodwork and write a poem,” says Flake. “Until this cowboy poetry movement got going, there were a lot of cowboys who wrote verse and would never recite it to anyone. I was kind of that way.”

Flake had left his job as an appraiser for the Federal Land Bank, a federally chartered cooperative that lent money to farmers and ranchers at no profit, to start his own appraisal business.

“When we were first starting that little venture, time was heavy on my hands,” says Flake, who had himself enjoyed cowboy poetry. “One day I was sitting here in the old office just seeing if I could write a poem.”

The result was four poems about spring, summer, fall and winter in northern Arizona. Flake wrote them in one sitting.

“I was amazed,” says Jean Flake. “He just sat down and wrote them off the top of his head.”

Flake, who has appeared at gatherings across the country in the past 20 years and won awards for his work including the Will Rogers Medallion Award, writes about the simple things in a cowboy’s life, “simple enough that a cowboy could understand it,” he says with a laugh.

One might imagine what Flake would write about this day on the ranch. The truck is two hours late, and the sun sears the skin with each passing minute. When it does arrive, the temperature inside the truck is “only” 70 degrees — not cool enough to load the cattle. A trusted mechanic arrives to make the repairs on the spot.

If Flake were to write about this day, perhaps his pen (he hates to use a computer) would paint a portrait of perseverance and sweat, glory and pride in an honest day’s work.

“Rolf Flake is one of the state’s best-known cowboy poets,” says Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian. “He’s the real McCoy when it comes to knowing the business. He comes by his knowledge firsthand from long hours staring at a cow’s tail from the back of a horse. ... His credentials would fill the bed of a pickup truck.”

Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering

What: Rolf Flake and other cowboy poets will perform

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16, noon to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Aug. 17 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Aug. 18

Where: Daytime shows at Sharlot Hall Museum, 415 W. Gurley St., Prescott. Evening shows at the Yavapai College Performance Hall, 1100 E. Sheldon St., Prescott.

Cost: Daytime shows are free. Evening shows are $16 per person.

Information: (877) 928-4253 or

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