Much has been published about Kokernot o6 Ranch, established between Alpine and Fort Davis in 1912, and spanning two West Texas counties. It’s been featured in articles, photographs and even film. It’s famed for its cattle roundups, which recall historic ranching days when horseback cowboys traversed open country in search of herds scattered across hundreds of thousands of acres of unfenced land, chuckwagon and cowboy cook in tow. The ranch represents to the public, as much as to members of the diverse group of heirs that own it, life in mythic cowboy proportions— nearly gone and all but forgotten. No matter what the future holds, the o6 has staked its claim in ranching heritage as a place with real western pride.
That romance is not lost on James Winn VI, a Kokernot heir and o6 co-manager.
James grew up in Baltimore hearing his mother Elizabeth Lacy Winn, herself a Kokernot heir, reminisce about childhood on the family ranch. Eventually, she left Texas to attend college, fell in love, got married and started a family in Maryland. The family visited far West Texas during holidays for up to a few weeks each year.
But James didn’t give ranch life much thought until after graduating from college. That’s when his father and namesake set him down to have a “what’s next” conversation. “What can you see yourself doing for the long term?” his father wanted to know. The answer bubbled up with a familial nostalgia. James answered that he could see himself working on o6 ranching enterprises.
In 2011, not entirely sure where it would lead, James embarked on a journey to live in Alpine and immerse himself in all things ranch related. “We decided I would try it out and see if I liked it. And I liked it,” he said with a sly grin.
He attended spring and fall cattle working out on the range and got a taste of the old cowboy ways (“It’s hard,” he conceded). He trained with professional horsemen, learned to brew beer with Alpine craft beer royalty, and enrolled in range management courses at Sul Ross State University, eventually earning a master’s degree from that program. Highlights included a trip to Brazil to tour modernized ranches. Some of the techniques he saw stuck with him, and he still wonders if any could be utilized here.
As a northeasterner, James had a lot to prove to his West Texas kin, some of whom are also co-managers of various o6 enterprises. Culture clashes have not always made it easy. But James has stuck it out, as much for himself as for his mother, whose ranch shares he was elected to represent. For the past ten years, he’s looked for ways to bring value to the ranch and its stakeholders. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff out there that’s never been tried. We haven’t allowed ourselves to open up to new ideas,” he suggested.
An avid hiker, James spends a lot of time getting to know the ranch’s nooks and crannies. His Sul Ross botany connections have spurred him to look for plants with scant records. He’s found species on the Kokernot that were not previously identified in the region or that only had one or two records.
As the family wrestles with how to carry the cattle business forward in increasingly difficult times, James has found solace in soaking up the ranch’s wilder corners. Little pieces of it— a shaded canyon that leads to a spring-fed pond— have remained off limits to cattle grazing and offer glimpses of pristine habitat. “I appreciate being able to see these special places,” James softly noted.
He happily shares his passion for exploration and has hosted some of Texas’s top botanists in search of rare plants and new data for the academic canon. He has even co-authored articles published in the scientific literature.
His curiosity has driven him to learn about the geology of the land and he continues to drop in on science classes at Sul Ross. Additionally, James has hosted classes in both agrostology (the study of grasses) and geology on the ranch.
The Trans Pecos Magmatic Province, the geologic context in which the ranch resides, is known for producing beautiful agates in pockets here and there. Agate is a translucent to transparent microcrystalline quartz (think: chalcedony), imbued with stripes, colorful banding, plumes, and other variegation. It forms over millions of years in the rich quartz slurry of volcanically active regions. Volcanic activity in the Trans Pecos began during the Eocene epoch, many, many millions of years ago. Different varieties of agate are found in clusters from Terlingua to Balmorhea. Marfa is known for blue and bouquet agates. Areas near Alpine have red plume, crayon, and peanut agate, among some of the colloquially named types. The catch is that the agates are exclusively found on private land. Some ranches have opened to the public over the years, allowing limited paid hunts, but the Kokernot o6 never branched out in that direction. Management was focused on more traditional cattle and hunting operations. “They’ve stepped over the rocks for years,” James noted. Until recently.
In 2019, James connected with geologist Aaron Thomas, who had moved to Alpine with his family to open the Tri-Lo-Bite food truck as a reprieve from the oil patch.
Aaron had been rockhounding in West Texas for decades and cultivated a knack for mapping his way to sites rich in agates. He amassed a huge collection of cut and polished show pieces in his private rock shop, many of which can be seen on his Facebook group page Texas Rockhounds.
Aaron is the kind of rockhound with an insatiable excitement for finding and sharing pretty rocks. Part of the fun for him is making sure others are also having fun as they experience the wonders of the natural world. Upon relocating to Alpine, he began helping guide rock hunts on lands where he had access. James welcomed Aaron’s insight to the o6, and together they, along with rockhound cohort Roy Saffel, set out to find the most promising locations for agate deposits on the Kokernot.
Their search was not in vain, as they discovered site after site of agate. Some places have scattered nodules, or “biscuits”—another locally coined term—littering the ground. Other sites invite rockhounds to dig in with rock hammers to investigate what lies beneath the surface.
The trio struck a complimentary chord, and a new business venture was soon formed: Take-A-Hike, a team of West Texas professional outdoor guides who lead hikes and rock hunts on the o6.
It launched the summer of 2020, and despite being in the throes of a pandemic, the idea took off faster than a buck in deer season. Daylong outings saw groups of up to 30 people in attendance, with several outings taking place each week. Day adventures turned into three-day camping events as the buzz quickly spread throughout the rockhounding community that a new place opened its doors.
The excursions have attracted seasoned second- and third-generation rockhounds, globetrotters in search of new agates, folks from the gem and mineral show circuit as well as casual rock collectors looking for good company and a nice hike. Kokernot agates have been described as the most diverse in color and pattern to be found anywhere.
It’s given the ranch new life with a steady stream of interest and a modest revenue.
The draw for rockhounds is more than the prospect of a good find. It’s also the assurance that they will meet likeminded people to enjoy the great outdoors. And the outdoors of the o6 really are great.
There’s something special about driving slowly on rough, unpaved ranch roads in a dusty caravan of excited rockhounds across land that’s seen few human visitors during the past century and a half. It’s a place to really get lost in. The only recognizable landmarks are distant landforms like Mitre Peak, the Glass Mountains, or Mount Locke on a clear day.
Other than the dirt road and occasional fence line, things look the same now as they did hundreds of years ago. The land bears undeniable signs of indigenous activity; flakes of worked flint and other lithic scatters are hints of past inhabitants.
“We’re not the first rockhounds hunting for these rocks,” Aaron postured. “There is evidence everywhere. Ancestors point us in the right direction,” he said.
The hiking can be quite challenging for those who are game. A mesa top offers incredible views of distant mountains and a creek in the valley far below. Fresh mountain air and the privilege to access this private land create a bonding experience. But the campfires during the overnight trips really bring folks together.
The camping trips feature decadent menus that leave tired hikers happy and satisfied, spinning rockhound yarns around the campfire, and stargazing until they can’t stay awake any longer. The campsite is located at one of the historic round-up sites, and guests might be surprised to find plumbed restrooms and a fully equipped cowboy kitchen. The restful evenings are not unlike what the cowboys must have experienced after a long day gathering cattle on the range, grateful for a well-stocked chuckwagon, comfy bedroll and crisp night air.
Rockhounding and guided hikes signal a new era of ecotourism on the Kokernot. After dedicating a decade to ranch endeavors, James is hopeful about where Take-A-Hike is going. “I’m still excited to be here,” he said.
To find out more about hiking, camping, and rockhounding on the Kokernot o6, visit TakeAHikeTexas.com. To see more examples of cut and polished o6 agates, visit the Texas RockhoundsFacebook page.
By Shawna Graves