55. Lightning Struck Cottonwoods, Dugout Ranch, Utah.jpg

Lightning Struck Cottonwoods, Dugout Ranch, Utah

The lightning strike shattered bark, exploded wood, and the cottonwood grove caught fire. A day later, on my first evening visiting southeastern Utah’s Dugout Ranch, I slept outside, and was often awakened by the sounds and light of the burning trees. I arose before dawn to record the spectacle as flaming branches loudly fell onto the ashened ground. Posing no threat to spring's rain-soaked pasturelands, the smoldering trees were left to burn. Decades later, driving past the Ranch on my way to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, I glimpsed those blackened trunks silhouetted against the backdrop of red rock buttes, reminding me of this breathtaking scene.

Encompassing privately owned winter pastures and government-leased highland meadows, the Ranch was named for the excavated shelters 19th-century settlers built to take refuge from heat and snow. In 1990, during that first visit, I met Heidi Redd, who had recently bought out the cattle from her ex-husband and took over ranching operations. She also began to host artist retreats (my reason for visiting). In subsequent years, my love for the Ranch was shared with my wife, Laura, and our children, Luke and Grace. For a time, it became our annual Easter trip, where we spent long weekends with Heidi and her other invited friends.

As years passed, Heidi knew she had to sell the Ranch but wanted it to become something sustainable, and not an exurbia of vacation houses, shopping centers, and golf courses. Heidi, her ex-husband, and their adult children agreed to transfer ownership to the Nature Conservancy, which began to manage the property. It has continued operating as a cattle ranch while preserving and studying wildlife, natural habitats, and ancient native art and dwelling sites.

Location research and commentary by James Baker.