Former magazine editor turned stars and stripes ranch manager Kate Matheson shares a glimpse of the romance of her Wild West life and her insider guide to Colorado.
Long before the great city exodus began, East Sussex-born Kate Matheson had already swapped a desk chair on London’s Old Bond Street for a saddle and a pair of cowboy boots in Colorado. Where she once orchestrated editorials for Glamour magazine as a photo editor, a day at the office now might involve moving cows through wispy grass plains with the help of her Blue Heeler cross dogs, rounding up the last stragglers against blazing sunsets bouncing off the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Quite the career pivot, even by today’s lockdown standards, where so many have had to change tack.
As a member of the Ranchlands team, a progressive conservation and education-minded management company, Kate manages the US Nature Conservancy-owned Zapata ranch, which specialises in ecologically-sound ranching and tailor-made ranch holidays. Overseeing the day-to-day operations and PR, she is on hand to assist the team in everything from the busy guest program to hiring, maintenance projects (ditches don’t clear themselves!) and keeping an eye on the livestock that includes 2,000 wild bison.
“I love being a steward of the ranch, a role that I’ve been dedicated to for the last ten years. It’s a continual learning curve, sometimes steep, about the land, the people, the animals, myself. Ensuring a phenomenal team, which we have, makes anything possible,” Kate says. Is life on the ranch anything like the TV series Yellowstone? “Not too many murders and bombings here,” Kate comments with a big laugh, adding: “But it’s such good entertainment.”
So how did an Englishwoman in the fashion industry end up on a US ranch, you ask? Brought up on a steady diet of pony antics and local gymkhanas in the English South Downs, Kate applied for a sabbatical from her photo editor job when she found herself missing horses and the countryside terribly. Heading west to America, she was able to reconnect with nature on a giant scale, and a decade later she’s now fully assimilated into Wild West life, married to saddle maker Justin Hawks and expecting their second child imminently.
May and June are months of rebirth on the ranch, with running creeks from the snow melt, horses shedding their winter coats and wild bison babies being born. Spring is also when guests start to come from all over the world to experience the ranch beginning with the Sandhill Crane migration in March and the traditional branding in June. You can ride across the surreal Great Sand Dunes, hike to mountain lakes and join literature sessions, painting, yoga and horsemanship workshops. “We also have our first foraging and natural fabric dyeing workshop with [designer and botanical dyer] Edie Ure in July, personally one I am really looking forward to,” Kate notes.
“Life on the ranch is about adapting and living within nature’s rhythms, or at least trying to learn and understand what they are,” Kate says. The ranch motto is ‘working together to live with the land’, manifesting itself in carefully planned grazing to ensure the animals have enough forage all year round. The 100-year-old guest lodge kitchen team have established their own vegetable garden according to the ancient Three Sisters growing method that utilises companion planting for healthier crops. “The produce has been chosen for our altitude, dry climate and short growing season,” Kate explains of the garden that supplements the incredible valley produce delivered by their local food hub.
Despite the ongoing drought across the west, the team have managed to regenerate ancient cottonwood groves and through careful grazing, stabilised certain areas to encourage habitats for insects and bird populations. It’s something worth emulating regardless of whether you have a farm or an allotment: living according to your local climate.
“I can’t lie, the lush green of the English garden is definitely something I miss,” Kate admits. “My mum’s garden is full of all the classics – peonies, lavender, wisteria, hollyhocks, rambling roses, along with an apple tree, strawberry and raspberry bushes.” On the ranch, she adores the feathery beauty of the “whimsical” Apache Plume and the purple spectacle of the Rocky Mountain bee plant. “It’s from the mustard family and produces a green seed pod. Our chef Ivan makes a fabulous horseradish-type dip with it.”
What has ranch life taught Kate? “Resilience. I think you need some of that before you begin a journey like this anyway, but it builds it. Not dissimilar to the resilience required by all the plants and wildflowers found at 8,000ft on a high plains desert. It can be tough but the beauty is found every day in all seasons, no matter what is happening. That, along with valuing what you do each day and putting your best into a mission and landscape you believe in, makes for a good life.”
Kate Matheson’s Colorado:
- Chico Basin Ranch, our sister property, makes for a great contrast in landscape. It’s set on the eastern plains and stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s also home to our leather workshop that has a full-time team of artisans handmaking beautiful bags and belts. Visit the leather shop at Chico here.
- Lake City, a gorgeous dot of a town in the mountains. It’s an incredible drive that can include the continental divide and end with the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, stopping overnight in a simple little cabin or motel room in Lake City.
- Salida, a cute historical river town. Take a boat and enjoy excellent flyfishing on the Arkansas river courtesy of UpRiver Fly Fishing. Absolute heaven.
- Zapata is in southern Colorado and only 30 minutes from the New Mexico border so we love to venture south. First stop is the famous art colony town of Taos – make sure to visit Parsons Fine Art gallery.
Susanne Madsen is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Surrey. Susanne contributes to a range of international titles such as Re-Edition, Dazed, Another Man, Circle Zero Eight, Elle, Important, GQ Style and Port and has contributed to books published by Bloomsbury, Phaidon and teNeues. Susanne has a BA in Comparative Literature and Modern Culture from the University of Copenhagen and a BA (Hons) in Fashion Journalism from the University of the Arts London.