The Son of the Madam of Mustang Ranch. By Joe Leonard. Booklocker, Inc. Bradenton, FL, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63491-274-7
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All photos accompanying this review are copyright © by Joe Leonard and have been used by permission. For more information: Joe Leonard's photography website.
The title of this book certainly piques your interest. It’s a title that you might find spread across the cover of a novel giving you a clue to what’s inside: there’s a madam. There’s the madam’s son. And then there’s Mustang Ranch, the most famous of all of Nevada’s bordellos. It’s certainly enough of an enticement to take a second look.
But why would I be reviewing it here? This is, after all, a review site for outdoor books.
That’s because it is an outdoor book. Admittedly, it seems like an unlikely combination: the shadowy world of prostitution and the sunlit realm of the outdoors. It almost seems to be more suited to the stuff of fiction. But it is indeed true - and it is one of the most fascinating true stories that I’ve read in a long time.
The Son of the Madam is the autobiography of Joe Leonard, a pioneering climber, kayaker and backcountry skier.
Leonard is something of a legendary figure in the outdoor world. He started the first backcountry ski guiding service in the U.S. and was the first to use yurts as backcountry ski shelters. He was featured in National Geographic and Time Magazine and was the subject of a classic ski book published in the 1970’s.
I have to admit that when I first heard about the book that I wasn’t expecting a lot. Leonard, after all, is not a professional writer. Rather, he is a man of action – of the doing of things – and not the writing of them. But was I ever wrong. Leonard can write!
Where Leonard shines is in the telling of anecdotes, snippets of his life that reveal much about his character. Thankfully for our benefit somewhere along his eventful life, he has mastered the skill of story telling and he uses it to full effect in this book.
His own story begins on small ranch in the mountains of central Idaho. His father disappears from his life at an early age, and with no bread winner in the picture, his mother falls into the life of prostitution. She leaves him in his grandmother’s care on the family ranch, visiting him on rare occasions.
For the growing boy it was a source of joy when his mother would appear at Christmas with a car full of presents. The joy would quickly change to bewilderment and longing when she would disappear for months. His grandmother raised him, gave him the love lacking from his mother, and instilled in him the virtues of hard work. During his childhood on the ranch, Joe roamed the open fields and mountains of Idaho and developed an independent streak that in later life got him into an occasional scrape but mostly served him well.
As an adult, he had a variety of jobs: a landscaper, a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, a bar tender, a plumber, a card dealer, and security guard. The security guard position came in the early 1960’s during the high point of his mother’s career when she was the co-owner and madam of the Mustang Bridge Ranch (the name later shortened to Mustang Ranch). Her husband, was “Big” Jim Bennett whose past included small-time legal and illegal gambling operations.
His mother offered her son a job at the ranch. Leonard, however, was now married with two young boys. If he took the job, the family would live with him on the ranch. It was not exactly the kind of place suitable for a young family, but it was during a time when Leonard found himself unemployed in the Seattle area with few prospects.
The decision was made. With their possessions packed in a small U-haul trailer, they arrived and soon found themselves ensconced in the cluster of trailers that made up Mustang Ranch, a place later both celebrated and disparaged in books and films.
His job was to man a guard booth at the entrance of the ranch. A nearby competing brothel was run by Joe Conforte, an ex-con with connections to the mafia and who had designs on the profitable Mustang Ranch. It was a tense time. Hanging heavy in the air was the threat of a violent incursion by Conforte and his thugs. Things came to a head at a powwow arranged between Conforte and Bennett on a remote road in the desert. Leonard’s job was to stand guard nearby in the event something went wrong.
I won’t reveal what happens – you’ll have to read the book – but Leonard’s description of the meeting is spellbinding.
It wasn’t long after that Leonard had an epiphany, and he left what he called the “dark, violent and chaotic” life at the ranch, heading toward greener fields.
“I was 40 years old,” he admits, “before I could talk about my mother and experiences I had at Mustang Ranch. It was hard for me to feel the judgement people passed on my mother’s choice of profession, to see it in their faces, hear it in their voices.” All that is in the distant past now for Leonard and he can express himself more freely. Nevertheless, those early experiences did leave their mark and led him to think deeply about life, finding sustenance in his own brand of spirituality, and developing an abiding faith in the power of the outdoor experience.
Life brightens considerably when Leonard and his family make it back to Idaho, and is it’s at that point in the book that his narrative takes on a more lighthearted nature.
He teams up with a friend from Boise and they start climbing. One of their goals is to make a winter ascent of Mt. Regan on the north end of the Sawtooth Mountains in the central part of the state. Their several attempts to climb the mountain in the middle of the winter will keep you chuckling as well as glued to the page.
In the first attempt, over the Christmas holidays, an unusual rain storm takes them by surprise, wetting their clothes and sleeping bags. Then it immediately turns bitter cold and their previously sodden clothes freeze stiff as boards. The retreat is long, cold and arduous, but they survive when helped back to town by friendly forest rangers.
The next year, they return with an alternative plan, deciding to cache their tent, bags and other supplies in the autumn before the snow falls. They find a suitable tree, securing their gear some 30 feet off the ground. But upon reaching the tree in the winter, they are unable to find their gear. Once again, they are faced with an arduous trip out.
Do they ever make it to the summit? The answer to that is just another reason why you’ll want read the book.
During one of his winter climbing trips, he hatched the idea to start a backcountry ski guiding service. With the support of climbing friends, he looked for a ranch in the Sawtooth area that might want to serve as a base for winter skin trips and eventually hit the jackpot with Robinson Bar Ranch, a beautiful cluster of cabins and a hot springs tucked away at the end of a road.
Joe Leonard and Robinson Bar were a marriage made in heaven. Since he grew up on a ranch and had such a varied work background, Leonard could do a little of everything from fixing fence to repairing broken pipes to rounding up cows.
One of most amusing stories in the book is about Chote, an old cantankerous cowboy that loses a passel of cows near Robinson Bar. Chote apparently doesn’t have a phone and whenever Leonard must reach him, he has to call the Gay Bar in Challis, one of the most redneck towns in the state of Idaho. Gay Bar: that’s not a typo. It was called the Gay Bar. This was during a time, Leonard reminds us, when “Gay” doesn’t have same connotation that it does now. Just the same, it gives the story a whole new level of meaning as Leonard slowly lays it out, and by the end, I promise you that you’ll be laughing out loud.
Leonard eventually leaves the guiding business and becomes absorbed in building straw bale houses, constructing one along the Snake River in the Thousand Springs area and another in the mountains of New Mexico. Ever looking for new challenges, and ever on the move, he has most recently re-located to Spain where he built his third straw bale house.
This is a fine book, one that you’ll definitely want on your “to-read” list. It is full of optimism and a joie de vivre which will keep a smile on your face long after you’ve read the last few pages.
Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase
Other Links: Joe Leonard's Photography Website
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