You have to be pretty inept to get yourself lost in Eastern New Mexico. Highways run perpendicular to cardinal directions, landmarks distinguish themselves readily against stick-straight horizons, and mile markers function as street signs.
But despite having followed my directions to the letter, when I pull into the driveway of the Muncy family's two-story ranch house, I wonder if I'm in the right place. The air is as quiet as I've ever heard it-not even a breeze ruffles the piñons and juniper-and there doesn't appear to be a soul around. Just a couple of dogs and even they are silent. In lieu of barking, a fluff-furred mix flops obsequiously to the ground and gives me his belly, while his stilt-legged, wary-eyed companion heads for my left front tire and defiantly lifts his leg against the wheel well.
Trailing dogs, I make it halfway up the front porch steps when the door swings open and out steps a tall, lanky teen with opal-colored eyes and patches of strawberry blonde hair peeking out from under his cowboy hat.
I recognize him from photographs as Taos Muncy, but ask anyway, "Is this the Muncy place?"
"Yes, ma'am," he says, politely.
Next comes his sister, Jordan, a blonder version of her older sibling, but with the same guileless blue-green eyes. She, too, addresses me as "ma'am."
I'm impressed. The last time a teenager called me "ma'am" it wasn't with respect, but with that world-weary derision so typical to today's youth. But, as I'm about to discover, there's not much that's typical about Taos and Jordan Muncy.
If there is such a thing as cowboy royalty in New Mexico today, the Muncys are probably it. Renowned western photographer, Gene Peach, echoes the sentiments of many in the ranching community when he says, "Each generation has a legendary cowboy family and the Muncys are this generation's. The family completely challenges the whole stupid myth of the dying cowboy."
Seventeen-year-old Taos and fourteen-year-old Jordan Muncy were born into that legacy. As fourth generation cowboys, from their very first days on earth, their identities have been intricately laced with that of their immediate family's, and with the larger, extended family that is the western ranching community.
Their father, Blaine, is an ex rodeo star and current working rancher who hails from a long line of working ranchers in both Oklahoma and New Mexico. Their mother, Johnnie, was also born into a New Mexico ranching family who homesteaded down the road in Ancho. Today, she sells real estate part time and helps her husband run their two ranches-a 64,000-acre, 3,000-head operation they oversee for an absentee owner and their own 34,000-acre, 400-cow spread, both located in the vicinity of Corona, New Mexico. Or, as she put it, "two hours from a gallon of milk and a fountain coke." They employ no outside help, other than their two children, who they have raised since toddlers not just to help, but also to work.
Peach, who has literally and figuratively followed the Muncys since he first met them in 1998, can't say enough about Blaine and Johnnie's parenting philosophy. In fact, he credits the kids as the single greatest influence on his upcoming book Making a Hand: Growing up Cowboy in New Mexico. "What most impressed me when I first started shooting the cowboy community was the children," says Peach. "Their focus, their need for work. Taos and Jordan have that same connection to the land and to early, meaningful work."
And work they do. Up in the early mornings, they have a list of chores to finish before heading off to school. Once home, they perform another set of chores before dinner and then homework to keep up their straight A grades. Spare moments are given over to various ranching tasks, from branding calves to readying the herd for market.
Taos and Jordan also manage their own small cattle businesses-ten head each that they tend on land leased from their parents. So far, Jordan's made enough of a profit to buy a horse, Taos a new pick up truck.
Not that the kids don't complain on occasion. "They're always hungry or thirsty," says Blaine, laughing. But on the whole, there's little else they'd rather do. "My dad likes, it. I like it, too. It's something we do as a family," says Taos. There's also the sense of accomplishment and the personal freedom the lifestyle allows. "You get to do it by yourself, individually. There's no set time to it."
Then there's rodeo. Following in a long line of rodeo athletes, including their parents, several uncles, and a bull-riding grandmother-for six months out of the year, Taos and Jordan spend their weekends competing in high school rodeos throughout the state. Jordan, who started practicing when she was about three years old, is now one of the top female rodeo athletes in her class. Hard to believe it, looking at her willowy frame and waist-length blonde hair, but Jordan is as tough as any boy, ranking in the top ten of her main events-barrel racing, goat tying and breakaway.
Speaking of boys, when asked if girls are treated the same in rodeo; she nods her head without hesitation. "Yes, ma'am. Just as many girls as boys do this and they're treated the same. They just don't compete against them."
Taos has also been competing since he was small and today he's ranked number one in three out of his four events-bare back riding, saddle back riding and calf roping, with bronc riding the thing that gives him the biggest thrill. Having made it to nationals twice, Taos is the number one all around cowboy in the state of New Mexico today.
Naturally, the college scholarship offers started pouring in last year, ten of them in all. After careful consideration, Taos finally settled on Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, the top cowboy college in the country.
There, he'll compete at the collegiate level in rodeo as well as study agricultural business. "I know it's not a big money-making deal," he says, "but I'd like to get involved with it, with feedlots and cattle nutrition." And of course, he wants to continue competing in rodeo, at the national, professional level.
Isn't he afraid of getting hurt? Taos shrugs. "Aw, naw. If you worry about it, then that's usually what happens. You get hurt."
Blaine is similarly pragmatic: "It's not much different from letting your kids play football." Besides, he continues, he and Johnnie don't believe you can protect your kids from everything. "If you know what you're doing you don't get hurt and we have this down to a science. We're two hours from a hospital so we have to be safety minded when we practice."
Given the intricate emotional, social and economic ties Taos and Jordan have with their parents, their ranch and their way of life, one has to wonder: what's going to happen when they finally leave home?
"It's going to be very hard," says Johnnie. "We've always done everything together." Then again, she points out, they didn't raise their kids the way they did so they could languish.
"The work ethic is what we've tried to instill in them from day one," says Blaine. "You have kids and you don't make "em work, they're not going to excel in anything. But we've given them every opportunity to do whatever they've wanted to. We've shown them this, and they can go see what's out there and they can choose what they want, but whatever they choose, they'll be a success and we'll support them."
When asked what makes their upbringing unique from that of other kids, Taos's answer is modest and understated: "We've had a lot of responsibility put on us," he says. "We do a lot of things alone, by ourselves, and we've had to learn how to do and handle a lot of things that come up."
Both kids report they'd like to stay in the family business, despite the fact that it's not the easiest of industries in which to succeed. According to Blaine, you need at least 400 head of cattle to support a family of four. But if New Mexico's ranching legacy is to continue and thrive, it will be because kids like Taos and Jordan Muncy stick with it. They may be too young to know it now, but something vital to our collective American identity is lost if we allow our rural cultures to die out.
Says Johnnie, "When you look at, say, the W.W. II servicemen who are going, well it's the same with the ranching communities. If we leave, we lose the same kind of thing."
Peach, for one, has faith in the Muncy kids. "They're the heart and soul of a genuine ranching culture," he says, "and I think kids like Taos and Jordan Muncy give their generation courage."
Courage to their peers, who should know it is possible to cut through the junk of today's materialistic culture and carve out their own unique path towards a purposeful, meaningful life. And, courage to parents, who should know it's okay to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, if not in actuality, then most certainly in spirit.