Jane Porter: The Cowboys of Cholame Valley

IMG_3768When I first submitted my cowboy romances to Harlequin—back in the early 1990’s—I was told that my setting of a California ranch wouldn’t work, that California was not known for its cowboys and ranchers.

This was news to me. I’d grown up in Central California and my high school was a school with a strong Ag program. One of my best friends lived on her family’s ranch twenty minutes outside town. Everyone I knew drove a truck of some sort and half the football team had little cans of SKOAL in the back pocket of their Wranglers.

And then there was the family ranch. My grandfather’s ranch.

This last Fall I shared that my Texas grandfather, William M Lyles, once had three cattle ranches in California, his favorite being the Lazy L Ranch in Parkfield, California.

Just where is Parkfield?

IMG_3626It’s in the middle of the Central California, 40 miles east of Paso Robles. The land is beautiful—rolling hills, gold fields and green pastures, ancient oak trees, cattle, wildlife.

My grandfather died in 1965 in a ranching accident on the Parkfield property when I was just a year old.

In fact, the picture of me in a red romper as an 11 month old with my brother Thom on Dixie, was one of the last times I was with him. We were all at the ranch and Grandpa had put his four grandkids on Dixie for the picture, but the saddle slipped and we all went down. There was much crying following the fall, but Grandpa wouldn’t have any of it. He told my mom to put us back on the horse and that’s what she did (to be fair, she doesn’t look very happy in the pic, either) but Grandpa was tough, and we were raised to be tough, too.

Baby Jane on Dixie
Baby Jane on Dixie

After he died, my grandmother sold the other two ranches but kept the Lazy L and continued to run grandpa’s Black Angus cattle until later she leased the grazing rights to a neighbor. We always spent a lot of time on the ranch. Some families would visit Pismo Beach or even exotic Hawaii, but we went to the ranch, visiting every year for the entire Easter week.

Kat, Jane Rob on Sunny
Jane with sister Kat and brother Rob on Sunny

Growing up the population of Parkfield was small. Really small. 21 People. Imagine my shock when as an adult I discovered it had shrunk to 18.   Not a bustling place, unless you happen to be in Parkfield for its annual Bluegrass Festival or the Memorial Day weekend rodeo.

Cooling off in Horse Trough
Cooling off in Horse Trough
Jane Rob on Unbroken Horse
Jane with brother Rob and Mom

Today Parkfield’s population might be smaller than when I was growing up in the 70’s, but our neighbors in Cholame Valley, the owners of the big V-6 ranch, have turned Parkfield into a very appealing western destination with activities for the whole family year round.   Interested in a stay on a dude ranch? Feel like participating in a cattle drive or attending a rodeo? Check out some of the activites in charming little Parkfield http://www.parkfield.com.

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Son Jake at the San Andrea fault

I only knew a couple things about our ranch when I was growing up. The turnoff for our ranch is where James Dean crashed his car and died. At twilight you’d go driving and see deer everywhere. And then there was the little fact that Parkfield is the self-proclaimed “earthquake capital of the world.”Where-the-old-west-still-hangs-around

It wasn’t until I read WHERE THE OLD WEST STILL HANGS AROUND last year that I discovered there is a lot more to Parkfield’s history than earthquakes and cattle. Robert Flood grew up in Parkfield and writes of a California few people know. My favorite stories were those set in and around Parkfield, including the influence of the Jack Ranch and the William Hearst families, as well as the outlaws who spent time in Cholame Valley: Jesse James and the Dalton gang.

The only outlaws causing trouble in the rolling hills around Parkfield now are probably my boys when I take them for a long weekend to spend time in our little ranch house. There isn’t a lot to do at the Lazy L but relax, build puzzles, ride horses, go out looking for deer at dusk, and then drive another ten miles to the Parkfield Café for some great beef brisket and BBQ.

Son Mac and his first ride at the ranch

Have you spent time on a ranch?  Leave a comment for a chance to win a $15 giftcard from Amazon!  Contest ends Friday with winner announced on Saturday!

PS  There is a funny story about one of the pictures above.  Did you see the picture of me sitting on a dark brown horse with my little brother Rob?  In the photo, my mom is holding the lead.   You see, my mom is a very determined woman.  There is nothing she can’t do once she puts her mind to it, and whenever we visited the ranch, she’d chase down the horses, saddle them, help us ride…in general, she was pretty confident that she could handle her kids, and the horses.   My mom had so much confidence that one Easter when we reached the ranch, the horses weren’t in the corral by the ranch house, but below the cattle crossing guard in a lower pasture.  Mom marched down to the lower pasture and  spent considerable time cornering a most unwilling dark brown horse, but she did it.  She got a lead on him, then bridled him, and saddled him, too.  And then finally, she put my toddler brother and me on “Sunny’s” back.  The horse was not happy.  He was really unhappy.  But my mom wasn’t having it, determined to show us kids how it was done.  We had just finished taking the picture you see above when the neighbor came careening up the road in his truck, all upset because that wasn’t Sunny.  That wasn’t our horse at all, but a wild horse that wasn’t yet broken.  He couldn’t believe Mom had got a bridle and saddle on him.  Personally, I wasn’t that surprised.  My mom is a woman who knows how to get things done.  Thanks, Mom, for teaching me that anything is possible! 



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73 thoughts on “Jane Porter: The Cowboys of Cholame Valley”

  1. Love the story of the wild horse! Your mom is awesome!
    I’ve never been on a ranch but I have had horses growing up but not now though.
    jennydtipton at gmail dot com

  2. Interesting. I have never been on a ranch. I’ve been on a farm with cows. I’ve never been close enough to pet a horse but would love to ride one.

  3. Aren’t mom’s great? I’m jealous–I grew up in a small town, but no horses, even when we moved out into the country. Just cows and bean fields. Lol. Great post, Jane.

  4. Love it! That would be something crazy I would do. I love horses and my dream has always been to live on a ranch. Growing up I lived in small rural areas. Someday I hope to go back to simplicity.

  5. I really enjoyed this post and learning more about your family ranch. Your mom was one tough lady to chase down a wild horse. Living in Texas, you would think that I have at least visited a ranch once in my life. But the fact is, I have never set foot on one. I don’t know anyone who has one around here. But I would love to visit one day. I do drive by some cattle farms and just park my car on the road and look at them some times. We also have some longhorns just up the road from us.

  6. Oh my goodness, the wild horse story! I absolutely love the country and live in it still. It is so peaceful. Thanks for sharing, it sounds like a place I would love!

  7. Jane, reading about your family’s ranch was so interesting and of course I loved the story of your mother and the wild horse. That’s what I love about California. It is so diverse. In less than an hour I can be on a cattle ranch, a llama farm, the ocean, the mountains, the desert or even a city. I had my own problems with Harlequin and other publishers with stories of California. I once set a story in the seaside town of Santa Barbara during the 1800s. So what did they want to put on the cover? A desert scene complete with saguaro cacti.

  8. I sure enjoyed your post today, Jane! And I agree with Margaret about California and its wonderful variety in landscapes. The cattle business was alive and well in southern California all the way back to Two Years Before the Mast written in the early 1840 I believe.

    Your mom was a terrific role model! Determination and perseverance to the “n-th” degree!

  9. Love the wild wheat and California oaks – my dad lived in Mariposa for years, near Yosemite. I did get to visit my Uncle Al’s ranch in Wyoming one summer and rode one of their horses. Being a girl from the suburbs of southern California, horses were magical creatures. Kudos to your mom for her tenacity with the wild horse. That is a killer story for the generations yet to be.

  10. Jane, what a wonderful glimpse into your past! I love seeing how authors grew up and the values instilled in them then are still in them today. The pictures you posted are amazing. I’d sure love to visit Parkfield some day. I think your mom and I would be very good friends if we could meet. She’s the kind of woman I love to write about. One who can do anything she sets her mind to.

    Happy New Year! I hope it brings you much success.

  11. Cattle ranch. Went out with them to get all the dead calves in the winter. My first husbands cousin ran it and the family owns it too. Was very interesting and sad at the same time had a blast. Back in the early 1980’s calves were created the old fashion way. Now my understanding is that invetro is used so calves are not born in the harsh winters in the midwest.

  12. Hi Jane, what a fabulous post! And I admit to being a tad jealous of your California ranch roots. I feel supremely lucky, having grown up in a Los Angeles suburb (ick), that I’ve been blessed to live in west Ventura County for 40 years…yeah, it’s a regular cul-de-sac but the town is surrounded by strawberry fields and lemon grows. We still have a rural feel. And of course I get my “ranch on” at the horse rescue in the hills.

    I loved learning about Parkfield! Wow. I know Paso Robles in terms of wineries and vineyards…but always see tons of cows relaxing on those brown hills under the shade of Cali live oaks. Good stuff!

    …my actual time on a ranch was awesome…a few years ago the publisher had a retreat at a guest ranch in the Texas Hill Country. It was great. Horse back riding, hay rides, wagon-wheel headboards, rodeo and gun range, downhome grub and best of all, real cowboys! Happy New Year!

  13. Oh, I love that story with your mom! I no nothing about ranches but then maybe that is why I’m fascinated by the stories.

  14. Great post! That is awesome about your mom and the horse, what a great lesson to learn. I did not grow up around ranches, but I did grow up spending a lot time on farms in So Indiana with relatives.

  15. Your stories and this post is so precious and special. Completely fascinating. I haven’t had any ranch experiences as I grew up in a large city.

  16. I’ve never lived on a ranch or been around horses much. I do love to read books centered around ranches though and dream 🙂 Great post, thanks for sharing!

  17. What precious pictures you have! I have never spent time on a ranch, but it looks like you have wonderful memories of your time spent there.

  18. Hi Jane,
    Oh, I love this post today. Wonderful and adorable pics of you as a child. My FIL lives in Texas and one of his cousins has a really cool ranch with horses and cattle on a big spread. What I loved most, was that his ranch house looked out over a small lake and there was a bridge that lead to a play area for the kids. They had volleyball and all sorts of things for kids to do. I would imagine growing up there was really cool. Happy New Year!

  19. I loved your story, your mom is fantastic, I grew up on a farm in Missouri, my dad broke and trained horses, we always had and rode horses.

  20. Been on several and love every minute.! I have a very small one myself running brangus and horses..with all of my other animals. I honestly cannot imagine living with neighbors in big cities. It’s a small, spread out community that comes together when needed. Not fancy but just home:)

  21. Hi Jane. Your post appeared on my page and I’m so glad that it did. Very much enjoyed reading about your family and seeing your pictures. Big grin on your mom’s story! And yes, I’ve spent time on a ranch. My favorite being in the Gallatin, Montana. Love the mountains. Love the scent of sage and wildflowers. Love to ride! Wishing you well!

  22. Of all the stories I have read about you, this is one of my favorites. My dad was caretaker of a ranch in Santa Rosa. Every summer I would take my daughter there…and then when I had another girl, she got to know Dad, too. We have tons of stories. Like the time we couldn’t get out of the ranch house because of a giant rattler blocking our way. My dad died 4 years ago and I really hope that somehow I can take the family there one more time.

  23. Love it!! Thanks for sharing this with us! Unfortunately, I have never spent time on a ranch. Hopefully that will change someday soon!

  24. I love that last story about the horse not being “Sunny”! Good thing y’all didn’t get bucked off! Never been on a ranch but would love to go sometime. I did get to horse back ride up some mountains in Spain though… that was pretty awesome!

  25. I have a love for horses and riding..it would be a dream come true to live on a ranch. Thanks Jane for this great story.

  26. I currently live on a small ranch 🙂 It is the perfect place for my boys, I have 4 of them! Two of my boys have special needs and on the ranch, with all the critters they can do as they like without restrictions (within reason anyway!) Now I gotta visit Parkfield! 🙂

  27. i have never been to a ranch before. sounds like it is something i should visit. been to different types of farms, though. love the pics you shared along with your stories!

  28. Yes! I had the best time staying at a ranch in Montana one summer. I went to visit my lifelong pen pal whom I had never met in person! We had so much fun!

  29. What great memories. Your family is lucky to still have your ranch to spend time at. I haven’t been to s ranch but I think I would love it!

  30. Your mom, the original horse whisperer! What a fantastic memory!! The real Sunny (LOL) looked like our horse Lickety Split. Other than helping out on my cousin’s family farm, I have not spent time on a ranch. My bucket list does include spending a week on a dude ranch BUT no one is willing to come with me. My hubby and son do not feel a vacation should be a working one. ?

  31. I’ve never been on a ranch but we owned a barn at one point, then sold it, and I guess my dad and step-mom own a barn again. They’ve always owned horses though, ever since I was a kid. At one point they had 6. Now, I’m not sure how many they have but its only one or two (I think). I do remember last year my step-mom’s horse she’d had forever died. I was sad when I heard that. He was 20 something I believe. Love your pictures! I may have to see if I have any of myself riding from when I was a kid.

  32. What a wonderful way to have spent time as a child!

    My mom had a lot of uncles who were dairy farmers in Pennsylvania. My dad’s family were tobacco farmers in Tennessee and SW Virginia. More farm life than anything. Dad has an apiary now on that land. I have been on a horse.

    Love the story of your mom “taming” the wild horse.

  33. I have been on ranches and horseback most of my life. I am a cattle rancher raising grass fed beef. Today we ride horse power instead of an actual horse but the hard work and love for the land hasn’t changed.

  34. My brother worked at a dude ranch in Colorado for a summer. We have ridden horses off and on but I have not stayed at a horse ranch.

  35. I’ve never been on a ranch and have only ridden a horse twice in my life. I love that you’ve shared some of your life and early pictures with us. Thank you!

  36. Spent plenty of time with my horses, feeder cattle and breed horses! Loved every minute of it, except when the knacker came for the cattle…I had to leave until they were attended to and off the property. I remember one of my claves matured and the neighbor had an unmannerly bull who leapt the fence and you know what happened! I wound up helping her calve in the middle of a thunderstorm at midnight,pouring rain, along side the creek….nothing like trying to get hold of a newborn calf still in placenta, sliding into the creek with a freaking out mama none too happy about any of it! I did it, though and mother and 65 lb bull calf were fine! 🙂

  37. I spent many a summer vacation at one of my cousin’s ranch. It wasn’t very large, but I had it in my blood. Everything from tending to the kitchen garden, slopping the sows, pulling calves, barrel racing, and dressage. I was taught to sit a fence rail with a beach ball between my knees for an hour each day until I learned how to hold my posture before I was put in the saddle on a 16h tall stallion at 3 years old.
    In my teens I owned a 15 y old sorrel quarter horse and a yearling bay mustang which I adopted from a BLM roundup. By the time I’d finished training the colt, he was gentle as a kitten with anyone he felt comfortable with and he loved belly runs and butt scratches.

    I miss that life and my dream is to one day have the finances and home to be capable of owning horses and a vegetable garden again.

  38. After I read this, I feel like I’ve visited the ranch. There are no ranches in Wisconsin, just dairy and some cattle farms. Thank you for the chance to win!

  39. Love the story about your mother and the wild horse! Even a ‘tame’ horse can have a mind of it’s own and cause lots of trouble. I’m impressed she wrangled the wild one so well. We recently donated our horse to a therapy center since our daughter is away at college now. No more wrangling for us.

  40. We have visited ranches, but most have been historical ones or for show. We lived in dairy country and I did spend time helping a neighbor at their farm. There were several farmers that ran strictly beef cattle which you could con side ranch like, but no cowboys were involved. It was northern New York on the Canadian border, after all.
    It seems unbelievable that your mom was able to deal with that wild horse. It was probably so shocked by her actions it didn’t know how to react.
    Thanks for the peace into your childhood.

  41. I love that story! Growing up, all I wanted was a horse. My obsession was a little more than the usual little girl’s dream. I didn’t want to go to overnight camp, I went to horse camp. I learned to ride, groom and care for my horse, was very good at both Western and English riding – and cried my eyes out when the week was over and I had to leave “my” horse. I did this every summer that I could. A vacation on a ranch still sounds like heaven to me. I ride whenever there are horses available on vacation, though it’s now been several years since I last rode. And I still want a horse.

  42. I loved the whole piece and the pictures. I have never been on a ranch but grew up on a fruit farm, we had a few cows and pigs and chickens,which I hated? oh how I wished for a horse, I did get to ride one a couple of times.Oh and I loved the James Dean part, our farm was sold where the state needed it for a school and they built a new High School on it, it was the the High School where Foot Loose was filmed.

  43. Never spent time on a ranch, I’m from the Midwest… corn and soybean country. But it is always amazing to learn that people have such interesting ideas about your home state. As if California was only…. Malibu and LA!!!

  44. When I was in middle school and then well into high school, my family would fly out every spring break to stay at a ranch in Tucson, AZ. I loved our daily horseback rides, the landscape that was so fascinating and different from Pennsylvania and the food! Oh my goodness I’ve never had better biscuits than at the ranch. As I got older I became very aware of just how handsome and heroic the ranch owner’s teenage son was and he knew it too. Sigh…My first cowboy crush. What great memories! Thanks for this wonderful post!

  45. Love it ! I haven’t been on a ranch but lots of farms . Rode a horse once for about 5 minutes . Ok really sat on a horse for five minutes, he wouldn’t move . He found a clover patch. Oh well., they are beautiful animals .

  46. I have never spent time on a ranch. I did grow up on a small farm but we didn’t have any horses. We had a few pigs and a cow or two for the meat from them. We did have a large garden we had to work in and canned a lot of foods. I do think horses are beautiful animals but I am getting to old now to ride one.

  47. Loved your pictures. I’ve never been exposed to a ranch or ranch life. Sounds like a fun place to visit but a hard place to work daily.

  48. Absolutely loved the part about your Mom roping and saddling the wild horse. I grew up on a farm in South Dakota and loved it, except the bad winters with tons of snow. 1 year my dad had to tunnel to the barn to feed and milk the dairy cows. Drifts to the tops of the trees, my sister and I went exploring in these tree tops. God was watching out for us as we didn’t fall thru. Living in TX now, I’m surrounded by ranches.

  49. I live on a family farm and we raise cattle. So we’re probably not technically considered a ranch, and we haven’t had horses since 2009. We round up our cattle with four-wheelers. That can be some fun rodeo action.

  50. What an interesting post. All not too far from where I live now in Antioch. I love cowboy stories, and married and Indiana cowboy!

  51. I’ve never spend time on a ranch, but when I was 4 I had a horse name Major. I read a lot of books about ranches and have a friend who owns a ranch called Heart of Horse Therapy. I would love to win.

  52. I was in a foster home in Woodside and we had a farm/ranch but we would be on our paper route and the announcer for NBC at the time worked with my dad we delivered papers to them. Well we would always stay and feed the horses the ends of the vegis that we would take out of the refrig as we were so hungry . It wasn’t much but the horses loved seeing us and so one day we decided that we could ride i mean how hard would it be to deliver papers horseback riding. Well his wife loved us and she was agreeable and just the day before they were filming “Easy Rider” on Skyline and passed us many times so we also thought well if they passed us today on horses maybe we would get into the movie. Well about 1 mile later we were on Skyline and my horse got spooked as it had never had cars passing him before and he bucked me off. Needless to say I got back up not on the horse and took them home. We got our bikes and rode off into the sunset no sign of them filming us. Thank goodness!

  53. Great post! We actually have a ranch with horses and cattle and I absolutely love the wide open spaces.

  54. Spent lots of time on ranches, not ours but my friends..Texas is full of ranches and TCU has a great ranch management program (and thus good looking cowboys to date and go dancing with)

  55. I’ve never spent time on a ranch, but I grew up in Norco in Southern California, where there are supposed to be more horses than people. I never had one of my one, but it is still my dream to own one. I took riding lessons as a kid – my favorite horse was a flea bitten grey named Monty that hated most people, but we got along well.

  56. I grew up with my dad running a cattle ranch in Central Florida. Eventually he turned it into growing hay with leased areas for cattle. My dad gave up being a Border Patrol agent to become a rancher.

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