You’re not likely to find the Baca Float on an Arizona state map, and it’s not mentioned in the various guidebooks either. That’s because the surrounding ORO ranch swallowed it up whole long ago. The formal name of this 12-mile perfectly-square parcel of land is the Luis Maria Baca Float #5. (There is a total of five Baca floats, including another one in Arizona, near Tumacacori, two in New Mexico, and one in Colorado.) Baca claimed to be a descendant of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who in the 1530s became the first European to walk across North America (Castaways is an excellent first-hand account of his trip). In 1821, partly on account of Don Luis Maria’s illustrious lineage, the State of Durango, then under Spain, quite generously granted him half a million acres in the vicinity of what is now Las Vegas, New Mexico. This was the original float. Forty years later, and now under U.S. ownership, this land was given to encroaching settlers in exchange for which his heirs (17 sons by three wives) were allowed to select five 100,000-acre undeveloped tracts, known as floats. Being shepherds, they chose land that was the best for raising sheep, in or near mountains. A float is defined as a government grant “not yet located by survey out of a larger specific tract of land… that will be later located with certainty in accordance with law.” Some 140 years later, according to the Yavapai County Assessor, the float has still not been “located with certainty.” A float is synonymous with a “Location.” Today, we know that No. 5 lies somewhere between Prescott (“PRESS-kit”) and Kingman, though its exact coordinates are somewhat irrelevant, seeing as it exists “purely for historical reasons,” according to state librarian Michael Wurtz. Back to the story line, the Baca heirs promptly sold float #5 to a San Francisco bank, which in turn unloaded it to a speculator for $19,000 and change. Over the ensuing fifty years, a succession of owners tried to farm it, drill for oil, harvest timber, and mine for copper, gold and even diamonds – all to no avail. Things finally settled down for awhile in 1913 when cattleman Charles E. Wiswall bought the property and turned it into a ranch. In ’36, he sold it to the Greene family, who began branding their Herefords with an “O” on the left shoulder and “RO” on the hip – ORO, Spanish for gold. A couple of years later, after gobbling up the adjacent Mahon ranch, the quarter-million-acre ORO ranch became one of the state’s largest, extending all the way west to the Big Sandy River in Mohave County. Then in the early 1970s, the Greenes sold the ranch to its current owner, John N. Irwin III, a Connecticut-based, Princeton-educated venture capitalist who dabbles in everything from synthetic sausage casings to intimate apparel fasteners (bra straps). In all fairness, Irwin does have Arizona roots – one of his grandfathers was Arizona's ninth territorial governor. Another of his ancestors is IBM founder Thomas Watson, which explains where he came up with the dough. At any rate, the original “owners” were the Pai (pronounced “Pie”) people, who used the land first for hunting and gathering, and then for shepherding. This era came to a close when Anglos began to build roads and tracks across northern Arizona, gradually forcing the Indians off of their tribal homelands. Following the Hualapai War, they were moved west and eventually ended up in the Grand Canyon area. In 1853, Army surveyor Amiel Whipple got lost trying to plot the 35th parallel. “In this country,” he wrote, “the rivers do not indicate the true route of either roads or railroads, they having worn and cut their way through mesas in cañons until it is dangerous to follow them on a mule.” A decade later, Lt. Edward Beale built a wagon road along which the government tested the feasibility of using camels in the desert Southwest, but the experiment failed. At around the same time, the Prescott-Fort Mohave Toll Road was built, accommodating several thousand miners and emigrants per month. In later years, the Santa Fe railroad and Interstate 40 bypassed the float, both running well to the north.
The float is located on a high plateau of buttes, canyons, and creeks dotted with alligator juniper, scrub oak, manzanita, and Mexican daggers. The volcanic Mt. Hope (elev. 7,200 feet) anchors the center. To the south is Burro Canyon, where more than a few cattle have stumbled off the cliffs to their death. The nearest store, in Seligman (pop. 500), is roughly 30 miles northeast by dirt road. When you get to the ranch, you will be greeted with locked gates – the ORO is closed to the public. From the southwestern corner of the ranch, it’s a five-mile hike to Nothing, Arizona (where there’s a gas station), which is just down the road from Wikieup. A few years back, my dentist visited the ORO along with members of the Scottsdale Charros Club, one of whom knows Irwin. “Consider yourselves very privileged to be riding on this Ranch,” said the group’s welcoming handout. “We are the only group to ever do so.” A neighboring rancher at the Cross U sent me an e-mail explaining that the Irwins eschew publicity or attention “because they prefer to live in a ‘horseback culture’ with wide open spaces, free of gawking tourists.” The ORO’s manager, Wayne Word, asked his boss if I could visit, but my request was denied. Out of curiosity, I decided to go ahead and visit anyway. Driving through the Prescott National Forest to the eastern boundary, my mother and I got there just in time to see a few ranch employees checking the gate. They were wearing black hats and colorful ascots, and drove away in a new, shiny blue truck – unbespattered with mud. Some cowboys!