Author Alan Day offers lessons from ranch life
It’s not every day the country’s first female supreme court justice asks you to cowrite a book with her. But then, it’s not every person who shares a history with said justice.
A request from his sister, Sandra Day O’Connor, sent H. Alan Day down the writer’s path.
“Here I’m sitting on a ranch, thinking, what do I have to add to something she might want to do? Her answer to that was, ‘Well, we were both raised on the ranch,’” Day said. “The question she most got asked in all the world when she was traveling around was how could somebody from a humble, rural, agricultural background and being a woman achieve what you’ve achieved? In the rest of the world, the political, the sociological issues would just not allow that to happen.”
The Days were raised on Lazy B, a 200,000-acre cattle ranch in southern Arizona and New Mexico. After college, Alan Day managed the ranch for 40 years. The siblings’ book, “Lazy B,” was a New York Times bestseller.
Day has continued to write since, and Tuesday he’ll autograph copies of his latest memoir at Ann Korologos Gallery in Basalt. “Cowboy Up! Life Lessons From Lazy B” details more stories from Day’s ranch life, and Lynn Wiese Sneyd was his cowriter.
Visit postindependent.com for an excerpt from “Cowboy Up!”
Post Independent: I understand you’re retired from ranching. Do you remain connected to the land?
Alan Day: No, I was too old and couldn’t do the real active work all my life. I decided to turn a complete corner and do other things, explore the rest of the world.
I miss the ranch—it’s my heritage. But I also have done some really fun things that I was interested in. … Let me put it this way, if you’re a rancher, you’re pretty one-dimensional because the ranch takes all of your energy and all of your time. When you’re not having to handle all of that, you can broaden who you are.
PI: I assume writing is one of those endeavors.
AD: I discovered that I really enjoyed the process of trying to write. It did not make me a good writer, but I did that (with “Lazy B”) because Sandra took all my incomplete writing and put her spin on it and made it into a very readable book. It intrigued me to be able to do that.
We have pretty strong genes in our family, so it immediately appeared to me: My challenge to myself was, if you can write half a book, you can write a whole book.
I sat down to write a complete book and struggled with it for several years, but finally got it published. I always set a bar for myself: The book needs to be good enough that a publisher will pay me for it. I won’t do self-publishing. I set that as my benchmark. If it wasn’t good enough that they’d buy it, I needed to edit it and make it better.
I wrote the book “The Horse Lover,” that was about the wild horse sanctuary I had on my ranch in South Dakota. That was a fun experience and a successful book. I followed that with “Cowboy Up!,” which is a book of short stories about ranching.
PI: What motivates you to continue telling these stories?
AH: Genetics, and then my dad was quite a storyteller. Everybody loved to sit and listen to his stories, and maybe that’s some of my heredity. I don’t know. I do know that when I sit down to write the stories the anecdotes just spring up, and there they are. I never have to sit and think, ‘Well, what kind of a good story can I tell?’ I’ve lived a really big life.
PI: Sometimes people talk about storytelling as a way of life, often with reference to Southern front-porch conversations. But I wonder if it’s something that’s especially common in rural communities because there are fewer distractions?
AH: Good point. When Sandra and I grew up on the ranch, and our other sister, Ann, we didn’t have television. We had radio, we had an AM station that had a lot of static. We had to entertain ourselves because we really didn’t have what all of us take for granted now. So we told stories and played cards.
PI: What do you read when you’re in the middle of a writing project?
AH: I really believe in reading to young children, and my mother read to me endless hours. The happiest times of my young life were next to her, listening to her read stories.
What I discovered was in my efforts (to write), it made me a far better reader. I used to read to get to the conclusion, get to the action, get to the final part of the book. Now I enjoy thoroughly, sometimes I’ll reread a paragraph two or three times and think, what a way to express that. The act of trying to write has made me a better reader.
I read everything I can put my hands on but my favorite genre is historical genres. I used to love all of Stephen Ambrose’s books, and my favorite of those is the Lewis and Clark book “Undaunted Courage.” It’s history but it’s also his spin on what it was like.
PI: Have you started or do you have ideas for your next project? What will it be?
AH: I’ve actually completed my first novel. I had never tried a novel before, and boy oh boy is that different from memoir writing. (Laugh) It’s been a real struggle, let me put it that way.
I woke up with this completed story in my mind one day that had very little to do with ranching. It was this adventure story love story, and I just woke up one day and there it was. I thought, golly, I better sit down and put this on paper.
So I struggled with that for about four years. It’s 85,000 words and I have just finished my final self-edit on the book.
I’ve sent it off, shall we say, into the stratosphere, where books go. Lord knows where it’s going to end up, but I’ve sent it off to see where the next level is. If it gets a reception, will it warrant an agent, will it warrant a publisher, I don’t know.
An excerpt from “Cowboy Up! Life Lessons from Lazy B” by H. Alan Day
I’m a third generation Arizonan. Back in 1880, my granddad settled the Lazy B ranch in the Duncan Valley of what would later become eastern Arizona. At the time, Geronimo was running around getting his kicks terrorizing the locals. Family lore has it that Granddad had a brush up with Geronimo while moving some horses from Animus, New Mexico to our ranch headquarters. While camped out overnight, he heard Indians start rustling his horses. He didn’t want to confront them because he wanted to live another day, so he hunkered down in his bedroll. The Indians took all the horses and left him his life. When Granddad died, my dad took over managing Lazy B. Under his guidance, it became a 200,000-acre, high desert ranch straddling the Arizona and New Mexico territories. When my dad retired, I took over managing the ranch. Lazy B is so much a part of me that I swear its soil still runs through my blood.
Growing up, I probably had the greatest young life of anybody I know. I had a huge playground and it was all mine, meaning that I had access to every inch of the ranch. I was never bored. An adventure awaited me around every bend. Back then, the deal was if you thought you were big enough to do something, and I don’t care if it was swim across the river or ride a horse or climb a windmill, if you thought you were big enough, then just help yourself. Go ahead and do it. And if you weren’t big enough, you’d fail and learn something in the process. The only ranch rule: Be home by supper.
By the time I came along, my parents—I won’t say they didn’t care—they just didn’t pay a lot of attention to what I was doing. I was the youngest of three kids. DA and MO, which was what my sisters and I called my parents, were spending their energy getting my oldest sister Sandra through Stanford University and launching her career. As they should have been. Sandra was ten years older than I and was a superstar from day one. I tell people I have the best job in the world and that’s being Sandra Day O’Connor’s brother. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest, and biggest people you could ever meet, and always has been someone you could look up to and be inspired by. Well, I came along and didn’t quite have those superstar qualities. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining one bit. Some kids would feel left out, but I felt that the world was my oyster, and I could do whatever I wanted. Talk about a wild child! I was that. Once in a while I’d go a little too far, but I’d get reined back pretty quick.
I attended the local high school in Duncan, Arizona, but managed to get kicked out during junior year. I graduated from high school in El Paso while living with my grandmother. My parents didn’t come to my graduation, but then again they hadn’t come to any of my football games in Duncan or other activities in any grade. After graduation, I went home to the ranch and went to work. I never really thought about doing anything else. I loved the ranch. I got about halfway through that summer after high school graduation when my mother got a hold of me one day.
“Have you thought about college?” she asked.
I said, “No, not really.”
“Well, would you be interested in college?”
“I don’t know. Never thought about it. Yeah. Okay. I guess so.”
She wanted to know where I’d like to go.
“Well, I dunno,” I said. “Hadn’t even thought about it. Where should I go?”
“Would you consider the University of Arizona?” She had graduated from there in 1925, so she liked the idea.
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds all right to me.”
She said she’d get the papers and get me registered. And so she did.
About the first of August, MO told me it was almost time to go to college, and I needed to go down to the store and buy some new Levis and a couple of shirts. So I went down to Duncan and bought some new clothes.
Pretty soon, she rounded me up and said, “It’s time to go to college.”
I looked at her. “Where is the University of Arizona?” I didn’t know.
“It’s in Tucson,” she replied.
I had never been to Tucson. “Where’s Tucson?”
She said, “Get in your car, go to Lordsburg, and turn right.”
And that’s how I went to college.
I was on campus for about ten minutes and decided it was the neatest place I had ever been. So many people and more pretty girls than I even knew existed in the world. My dad gave me two hundred dollars per month with the understanding that I never was to ask for more. I supplemented the windfall by scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, playing bridge and poker, and working on the ranch during breaks. I made the dean’s list and was scheduled to graduate on time, but I was having so much fun, I applied to law school and was accepted. I sure as hell didn’t want to be a lawyer; I’d always planned to go back to the ranch. I just wanted three more years at the University of Arizona.
Much to my surprise, my parents came to my college graduation. I had my degree for all of two minutes when my mother grabbed my arm and said, “Young man, your father’s sick. The ranch is going to hell. Now get over there and go to work.”
I said, “ Yes ma’ am. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
I managed Lazy B for the next forty years. With no upcoming generations interested in taking it over, I sold the ranch in 1994. During my years on Lazy B, I had more adventures than I ever could have imagined. You can’t do something that long and in the big way that ranching requires without learning quite a little about life. So here I am to share those adventures, lessons, and wisdom with you. There are teachers, some two-footed, some four-legged, even some with feathers. There are adventures set on the ranch, a few in the city, and some in the air. There are mistakes, victories, and everything in between. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you do, at some point in life, you have to face what’s in front of you, and the only way to do that is with a little bit of luck, lots of guts, and hopefully a handful of hard-earned wisdom. So take what appeals to you and pack it in your saddlebag. Maybe there’ll be a spot along the trail where you can use it. Maybe not. Either way, enjoy the ride.
Reprinted with permission. The book is available for pre-order on Amazon. Learn more about the author at alandayauthor.com.
Edited July 10 to correct the name of Hunt’s other sister.
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