West Texans Give Back to the Land They Love

“I’ve been to the top of all of these mountains,” Carl Ryan softly exclaimed. And so began his tale of falling in love with West Texas lands.

Carl Ryan fell long and hard for the Davis Mountains when he was just 10 years old. Decades later, that part of West Texas remains close to his heart. After reflecting on all the time his family has spent immersed in the best the region has to offer, he and wife Suzi Davidoff decided to honor those connections by giving back to Sul Ross State University—the place that ties it all together.

A trip down memory lane

Carl was only ten when his grandfather, Robert H. Kelley, sent him to the Prude Ranch Summer Camp for Boys and Girls for the first time. The Prude Ranch is a historic working ranch, still in operation, located in the West Texas mountains just outside of Fort Davis. It has a long history of inviting the public to learn the cowboy trades firsthand, or at least to get a taste of it all.

Carl’s grandfather was the first of his family to make ties in West Texas. He was a Houston lawyer when he heard about a western oasis tucked away deep in the mountains—a mythical place by most of the state’s standards—a place that was cool in the summertime with low humidity year-round—and wasn’t flat.

“He packed up his family and in 1928 drove west across the low water ford of the Pecos and made a big trip of it,” Carl said, relaying the family lore.

Carl treasures this photo of his mother sitting on the porch of the historic Hotel Limpia in Fort Davis during one of the many family vacations there when she was young.

Fort Davis, along with the neighboring town of Alpine, soon became favorite family getaways. Seeing the value of a true western experience, granddad Kelley enrolled 12 of his grandchildren in the Prude Ranch summer camps as they came of age.

For Carl, the experience formed a core memory, so much so that he was the only one of the bunch that longed to return year after year.

And return he did, every summer throughout his secondary education. He quickly advanced to camp counselor and was soon leading horseback expeditions.

The cowboy lifestyle and the epic landscapes enchanted him.

As the question of a college education loomed near, Carl could not imagine going anywhere other than to Sul Ross State College (renamed Sul Ross State University in 1969), located in Alpine, amidst the mountains he so loved.

So in 1964, at 17 years old, Carl stepped off the train in Alpine to begin his college career. He settled into campus life and quickly bonded with dorm roommate, Richard G. Duncan, a member of the famous Sul Ross Rodeo Club.

Carl still has his college roommate’s belt with the Sul Ross Rodeo Club buckles, a reminder of a life that could have been.

Sul Ross has an interesting history in college rodeo. The first meeting to organize the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association was held there in 1948, just 16 years before the two young men were enrolled there. The University’s rodeo fame grew as its competitors found success in the sport.

Richard longed to join the roster of names that got their start in the little arena at Sul Ross.

Tragically, he would never get the chance. Richard’s dreams were cut short when he and Carl were struck in a vehicle accident. For Richard, it was fatal. Somehow, Carl walked away. He had his life but was deeply wounded. It was another defining moment—one that imbued a profound sense of meaning in everything he would do from that day on.

Back to the mountains he goes

Scenes like these are unique to the sky islands of the Davis Mountains.

It was in the Davis Mountains, working as a hired hand for the Prude Ranch, that Carl found solace. Every weekend during college, he caught a ride from Alpine to Fort Davis with John G. Prude, a professor at Sul Ross and also owner of Prude Ranch. Carl cowboyed, moving livestock from pasture to pasture. He experienced incredible solitude and humility inspired by the unfathomable beauty of nature all around.

It was a healing experience.

One of the pastures where he worked was called Nations Ranch. The Nations sits in a craggy nook of the Davis Mountains and boasts one of the most remote and dramatic landscapes in all of the state. Densely packed canyons cut through steep mountains with elevation gains of 1200 feet or more. It’s a verdant world, lofted high above the region’s desert floor, thereby benefitting from a greater measure of rainfall. Springs flow year-round in deep tinajas from the headwaters of Madera Creek, which winds its way through narrow valleys at the base of the mountains. A pine and oak forest freshens the air. For Carl, it was magnificent, but involved challenging work, as he and other cowboys pushed horses out of their wintering grounds each spring.

A few of Carl Ryan’s college yearbook photos (from The Brand, 1965, 1967, 1968, courtesy of the Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University).

In due time, Carl graduated with a Bachelor of Science in History and a minor in Government.

“The community I met here opened so many doors for me,” Carl said of his college years.

Unsure of what to do with himself next, the young graduate fell back on the family trade. He enrolled in law school at the University of Houston to become a third-generation lawyer in the Ryan line.

After passing the bar, he—again—couldn’t imagine being anywhere but in the western part of the state. So, when he was offered a job in the trust department of El Paso National Bank, he jumped at the chance.

The view from the porch of Carl’s and Suzi’s adobe home in the Davis Mountains.

In 1972, Carl had the opportunity to buy some land adjacent to the Nations Ranch, where he used to roam as a young college student. He bought it and began considering his own private getaway in the Davis Mountains.

In the early 1980s, Carl met Suzi Davidoff, an artist and his future wife, and hired her to design an adobe home in Madera Canyon and another one for Jerry Duncan. Jerry was Richard’s father, and he and Carl became very close after Richard died.

Anytime Carl and his family visited the Davis Mountains, so would Jerry, and they all made many wonderful memories there.

In total, Suzi and Carl were able to piece together 1600 acres and place all of it under a conservation easement, forever protecting the land they love.

Carl has helped others in the surrounding mountains do the same, and is proud that an extended stretch of Madera Creek watershed is now covered under similar protections.

“The conservation easement is nonpolitical,” Carl observed.

With a conservation easement on their land, Carl and Suzi hope to help prevent land fragmentation from happening.

“Leave it like it is now—keep the present uses and appearances so future generations can look out and see the same landscapes that you see now,” he implored.

Giving back

Suzi and Carl are avid conservationists and share an appreciation for the beauty of West Texas landscapes.

A longtime volunteer in West Texas, Carl has maintained active roles on boards including The Nature Conservancy and the Judd Foundation.

At his alma mater, Carl is an active board member of the Borderlands Research Foundation, the charitable arm of Borderlands Research Institute, which focuses on wildlife and conservation research.

“We share the same conservation goals. And it’s important to be able to rely on someone who can give us information about the challenges we face. The Borderlands Research Institute is important to Trans-Pecos landowners and to all the people who will inherit the Trans-Pecos,” Carl said.

In honor of his 50-year anniversary of graduating from Sul Ross, Suzi and Carl pledged $50,000 to the Borderlands Research Institute. The gift represents their faith that Sul Ross State University is in a position to do great things for the West Texas region.

“We are so appreciative of Carl’s and Suzi’s support to Borderlands Research Institute and Sul Ross State University,” said Dr. Louis A. Harveson, who is the Dan Allen Hughes, Jr., Endowed Director of Borderlands Research Institute. “They have inspired us all with their commitment to conserving the land they love, and this major gift will help ensure that BRI’s focus on wildlife and conservation research will remain strong in the years and decades to come.”