Is that really Willie Nelson’s ranch?
By Randal B. Thatcher
Dec. 14, 2017
I like to keep an eye out whenever I go traveling around Sanpete Valley for those big, iconic ranch gates that dot this agricultural county. I love to read the names of these sprawling ranches on the big gate-signs that hang over the entrances—names like “Lazy 8 Ranch” or “Hill Top Ranch” or “The Double-D” or “Choice Acres.”
While spotting all these ranch gates and reading their respective gate-signs, however, one particular sign on one particular gate has always intrigued me more than all the others.
This gate can be seen along U.S. 89 at mile marker 298 as you pass through the tiny, unincorporated community of Birdseye, which is about 10 miles north of Indianola.
As ranch gates go, it’s pretty simple—lengths of pipe and wrought-iron welded together and painted white.
But it’s the ranch insignia that has always captured my attention and my imagination. Just two letters: W.N.
Not long after moving here, I was told those letters stood for the initials of the famous country music singer, Willie Nelson. Subsequent inquiries confirmed that this much of the local lore was true.
I then heard that this “WN” ranch was, in fact, owned by Willie himself. Also true.
I subsequently learned that Willie had been obliged to sell the ranch, some years ago, to raise money to pay some back taxes. An internet search quickly revealed the sad proof of this part of the story, as well. (Which means, I suppose, that I can finally stop looking for Willie’s trademark red bandanna at the local grocery store.)
But then came the most disappointing rumor of all—that Willie never even visited his ranch and that it was merely a financial transaction on paper, arranged by some clever money manager.
This part of the story was more difficult to resolve. No one seemed able to conclusively refute or confirm the claim.
But in my dogged desire to know, I finally discovered the one person who was able to persuasively settle the question.
I happened to ask my cowboy neighbor, recently, what he knew about the history of that fabled “WN” ranch, and he promptly introduced me to his longtime friend, Kal, a resident of Mt. Pleasant, who proceeded to give me the following firsthand account, which I paraphrase:
Kal had once been a horse trainer and occasional stunt double for the actor Robert Redford, who introduced him to a friend who was looking to buy some horses. Kal said this would-be buyer did not have the look of a traditional horseman, with his scruffy, white beard, and his dingy, red bandanna tied around a head of long, strawberry-blonde hair.
The buyer turned out to be none other than the famous singer, Willie Nelson.
They instantly hit it off, and before he knew it, Kal was looking for property for the famous singer somewhere in the Central Utah area, where Willie could keep his newly acquired horses and bring friends to visit.
Kal crisscrossed the state from St. George to Spanish Fork looking at over a dozen available properties before finally settling on the 95-acre ranch in Birdseye.
When Willie’s Learjet landed at the Salt Lake International Airport, Kal was there to meet him in his mud-spattered pickup truck, squiring him down I-15, along U.S. 6 (stopping for a cheeseburger at “Big-D’s,” which, sadly, is long gone), then turning onto U.S. 89 and down those few more miles to Birdseye.
Willie approved immediately, declaring the surrounding countryside to be every bit as scenic as that of his beloved Luck, Texas.
Kal took up permanent residence, as the caretaker of Willie’s new ranch, where he soon undertook to build the white-brick ranch house in 1983 you can still see on the property, and to assemble, paint and install that simple, white ranch gate with those two prominent letters—WN—at the top.
Willie owned the property for nine years, during which time he visited the ranch on three separate occasions, always aboard his signature tour bus and accompanied by various members of his band.
During one of these visits, my neighbor had stopped by the ranch to see Kal and wondered aloud, “Who is that old hippie standing out there in the stalls?”
I asked whether Willie had ever considered the prospect of actually living on his WN Ranch during part of the year, and Kal said he likely would have done so at some point if he hadn’t been forced to sell it and that he really had come to love this scenic mountain valley.
Willie’s old ranch gate has become such a significant local landmark for me that it would’ve been heartbreaking to learn he’d never actually been there.
But, as it turns out, I now watch even more eagerly for that familiar “WN” every time I drive through Birdseye.
And, in fond tribute, I never fail, as I pass, to belt out his most famous refrain: “On the road again!”
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