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Country adventures with Hardy: on the ranch with Chad Justice

  • 4 min read

In our "Country Adventures with Hardy" series, follow along as photographer Hardy Wilson lights up with remarkable everyday people to explore the California wilderness.

"Nice to meet you, sir," he says fervently, the words in sync with the tip of his hat and an outstretched hand. His firm, weathered grip shoots me back to the first time I touched my great grandpa's old baseball mitt as a child.


It was the first time I met Chad Justice. My grandmother, who runs our family's 101-year old ranch in the outskirts of Napa Valley, had recently leased the land to Chad to run his cattle on. It was his first chance to run his own cattle on a large swath of land and he was enthusiastic about the opportunity.

I've grown to know Chad over the last couple of years while visiting family on weekends. I admired not only his work ethic but how original and true he was to himself as well. I had photographed him on a handful of occasions throughout this time so when the opportunity arose to tell his story for Country, I knew he would be a great subject. 

I prefer photographing subjects like Chad because of his authenticity. There is no facade and no corporate work construct consciously or unconsciously shaping his personality or identity. I am able to linger and observe, quietly waiting for him to walk to the right light at the right time - letting the moments happen as they appear. While photographing him I would rather his natural actions steer the narrative while I play the role of the privileged documentarian.


The Saturday I'm photographing Chad for Country he arrives in the morning with his two dogs. After unloading two ice chests full of butchered meat to sell, he gets to work right away, grabbing his chainsaw to trim back the branches of an overzealous willow tree stretching over the bridge on the driveway. We drive out to where he presumed the herd of cattle would be, taking cover in the field's last remnants of shade before the harsh midday sun wraps around the hillside to claim its daily territory.


With his dogs hanging back behind in the ATV, Chad walks quietly through the herd of cattle calling each one by name. He begins to pet them individually. Undeterred by his presence they casually continue eating the last remnants of green vegetation before the early onslaught of summer turns the field golden. 


Unable to resist the urge any longer -- and perhaps guided by instincts from generations before them ingrained in their DNA -- his dogs jump out of the ATV, causing the herd to run up the trail to find new land to graze on. We follow a few hundred yards behind and Chad lights up his first Country joint of the day under the shade of a half dozen valley oak trees. Quietly he kneels down to play with his dogs while surveying the land in front of him. Star thistles are already appearing and the drought this year means a limited amount of paddocks for the cattle to graze on. 

We head up to the new fence line he put in months prior and he coils up old rusty wires put in by my great-grandfather. The wood posts that had stood their ground for the previous hundred years were no match for last year's wildfire that swept through the property.


I watch as Chad opens up the Portuguese gate of the new fence and puts the old remnants of the last one to the side. He stops to take a break and lights up again, this time to tell the story of saving his cattle and grandma's house as last year's LNU Complex fire engulfed the property. "It got real western, I'll tell you that," he bemuses. "I thought I lost two cows only to find them days later hiding in the creek. They are my miracle babies!"

We get back in the ATV and drive through the creek, half following the herd that has moved a mile north and half looking for promising watering holes the cows can drink from in the warm summer months ahead.

Chad is always on the move and his acts are always deliberate in nature. His mind appears both joyfully present and infinitely energized for the work he is so proud to be doing. It's a non-stop energy that has not slowed down since his days as a professional bull rider. "This is both my playground and my Heaven," he says, as he climbs a nearby tree.

After checking on the cattle one last time he drives me back and invites me to come visit when the heifers are calving in a month's time. "Oh you have to experience it," he says, a glimmer of youthfulness forming in his face. At that moment I know, as I have felt before, that he is doing what he was born to do.