“You need to expect anything out here.”
It takes a cowhand on horseback a full day to ride from one end of the Lazy B ranch to the other, across rock-strewn hills and through cactus-filled draws, over land primeval in its stony wildness. The ranch, which occupies about 250 square miles along the Arizona–New Mexico border, has its own mountain, a perfect cone visible from the chaise longue in her parents’ bedroom, where Sandra Day liked to curl up to read. As a girl, Sandra would climb Round Mountain with her father, careful to avoid the rattlesnakes. The future justice could stand at the peak and see and feel the vastness and ancientness, as well as the forbidding desolation and living wonder, of her family’s domain. “We thought of it as our own country,” Sandra Day O’Connor recalled of the ranch that had been in the Day family for more than a century.
Far-distant mountain ranges ring a swelling and undulating mesa. If the rains come in the winter, the land blooms with yellow and purple wildflowers in the spring. In the summer, a searing sun scorches the precious grass in the pastures. Volcanic hills are littered with boulders, “angry black and dark red,” as O’Connor vividly described in her memoir of the Lazy B—molten lava suddenly cooled as it burst forth from earth’s core. In the flatlands to the east, yucca plants stand as “sentinels” that are “weirdly beautiful.” Their stalks, when dry, “make good cattle prods, or fine lances for children’s war games.” No river runs through the Lazy B, but the Gila River, a tepid stream most of the year, a torrent in storms, skirts the northern edge. Canyons with chalky cliffs and cottonwood trees shelter fine picnic grounds. As a girl, Sandra would climb into the dark caves of prehistoric Indians or, hair flying, gallop her horse across the open range. On clear nights, she would stand with her family “in silent awe,” looking at the glittering constellations, past the sweep of the diaphanous Milky Way, into the universe beyond. Returning home from an all-day roundup in the pitch black of a moonless, cloudy night, she was guided by the tiny sparks, struck by horseshoe on rock, thrown off by the rider ahead.
Sandra Day was born on March 26, 1930, in the city of El Paso, Texas, the only city close enough—four hours by train—to have a proper hospital. The Arizona ranch house to which she was brought a couple of weeks later, after the two-hundred-mile trip, was a square, four-room adobe structure. Known as Headquarters, it stood eight miles from the main road. Visitors were announced by the cloud of dust they raised. The house had no running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. Coal gas lamps lit the rooms; the bathroom was a wooden privy 75 yards downwind from the house. Harry and Ada Mae Day and their baby daughter, Sandra, slept in the house; the ranch’s four or five cowboys slept on the screened porch. Flies were everywhere. On still summer nights, when it was too hot to sleep, Sandra’s parents soaked her bedsheets in cool water. “It was no country for sissies,” O’Connor recalled. “We saw a lot of life and death there.”
Until she was nine years old, Sandra grew up as an only child. She had no neighboring playmates but also no shortage of fascinating and fearsome living creatures—animals, insects, and birds, including antelopes, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, scorpions, and all manner of spiders. Most of them had teeth, horns, or poison, but Sandra tried to make some of them into pets. Until she was about four years old, Sandra liked to play with a bobcat named Bob, who would arch his back and growl around fresh meat but was otherwise reasonably domesticated, until he disappeared one night after raiding the chicken coop.
Over the years, Sandra collected various critters, including a sparrow hawk named Sylvester, who perched watchfully in the eaves and would splatter hawk droppings in her hair, and a desert tortoise that learned to wait by the icebox for food. “We tried keeping a baby coyote as a pet but learned that what the cowboys said was true: you cannot make a pet of a coyote,” Sandra recalled.
Aside from the cattle, the animals that mattered most were the horses. The cowboys gave them colorful names: Hysterectomy (“a great horse. She would carry a cowboy all day,” Sandra remembered), Scarhead, Swastika, Idiot, Hemorrhoid (“After riding him all day, you felt tired and bruised”), and Hell Bitch, who turned out to be a gentle horse, once broken. Sandra’s favorite was Chico. Unlike most horses, Chico would not run away after his rider was thrown or fell off, but rather wait patiently for Sandra to climb back on. In Lazy B, Sandra described what it was like to ride Chico as a young girl:
We moved together. I felt the horse’s every move. I was aware of his breath, his sweat. When he stopped to pee, the strong smell of urine enveloped us, and drops of liquid splattered my boots. When he expelled gas, I heard and felt it. I often talked to my horse while riding.
Often, during the heat of the day, Sandra would lie on the chaise in her parents’ bedroom, a book in her hands. Reading was the Day family pastime. Hungry for news of the world beyond his domain, Harry Day pored over week-old copies of the Los Angeles Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune. His wife, Ada Mae, read Vogue, The New Yorker, House Beautiful, The Saturday Evening Post. Copies of National Geographic were stacked in piles in the corner or stuffed under the beds. As a girl, Sandra read The Book of Knowledge, Black Beauty, Mary Poppins. Her favorite books were the Nancy Drew series, about a girl detective who wore skirts, was confident and curious, and adored her powerful lawyer father.
One day, while she was reading a Nancy Drew mystery, her father interrupted her, saying, “Sandra, you’d better get your nose out of that book and come with me. I want to show you something.”
Sandra grumbled, but she dutifully put aside the book and climbed into her father’s Chevy pickup. They drove down a dirt road, to a place where vultures were circling. A small calf lay in the road, bleeding and groaning. Its rear end had been mostly chewed off by a coyote. “Let’s help it,” said Sandra, who was about ten years old at the time. “We can’t help this calf,” replied her father. He took the rifle off the gun rack behind the pickup’s front seat. “Oh, don’t shoot it,” protested Sandra. Her father aimed between the calf’s eyes and fired. The calf’s head jerked and he was still.
“DA, how could you?” Sandra asked. She called her father DA, pronounced Dee-Ay, like the letters. “It was the only kind thing we could do,” her father replied. “The calf was too far gone to live. Now we have to send Rastus out to find the mother cow.”
Rastus, whose real name was Rafael Estrada, was one of the Lazy B’s cowboys. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, he had arrived on the ranch as a chore boy and never left. He was small and crippled, he could not read or write, and he had no wife. But he was good at what he did—handling horses and livestock—and he had high standards. If you met them, you had his respect.
The next day, Rastus rode out to the pasture, took out his pocketknife, and sliced off most of the hide of the young dead calf. The mother cow was nearby, bawling for her dead calf, her udder swelling with unused milk. Rastus drove the cow back to headquarters and into the corral.
There he found a young calf, a “dogie,” who had lost its own mother. Rastus tied the dead calf’s hide over the dogie’s back and put the dogie into a holding pen along with the cow with the bursting udder. The calf bawled and tried to suckle the cow. The cow kicked the calf away—but then sniffed at it, recognizing the familiar smell of her own calf. After about an hour, the cow was suckling the calf. He had found a new mother. Sandra, watching, had learned another lesson about death, renewal, and moving on.
“DA” was a patient teacher. He always spoke to Sandra as an adult. He took his daughter everywhere around the ranch. He taught her how to brand a calf and how to fire a rifle (before she was ten). He taught her how to drive a truck as soon as she could see over the dashboard. He taught her how to paint a screen door. He was exacting—he always made her redo slipshod work—but, with Sandra at least, he was gentle.
Copyright © 2019 by Evan Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.