She was the most wonderful kind of contradiction.
She loved people. And she loved her solitude.
Perhaps she needed the bouts of solitude simply because her love for all other living beings was so intense.
Dena Joseph recalls of her mother Sallie, “At family gatherings, she’d get overwhelmed and have to walk off into the sage and look for arrowheads.”
There wasn’t a stray person, horse or dog Sallie Joseph wouldn’t invite in and take care of – whether it be for an evening or a lifetime.
Son Jay recalls days where he’d leave for school in the morning and by the time he returned home, there was another family under their roof, pets included. Or really, pets preferred.
Her acts of kindness were legion.
As Dena says, “People keep coming up to me, telling me about things she made for them, gave to them … I didn’t realize her network was as vast as it was, the number of people she’s touched, the number who have a story to tell.”
Sallie Joseph, horseman, poet, artist, iconoclast, died in the Walker fire in November. She was 69.
Sallie was born in Santa Barbara into a ranching family.
Her mother had an uncle, Bill Walker, who owned a ranch at the north end of Smith Valley.
The family would drive north to help Bill during certain times of year.
One day, Sallie’s parents decided to drive back around through Antelope Valley instead of the usual straight shot down to Bridgeport. They fell in love with the A.V. instantly, and bought a ranch in Coleville in 1959.
Sallie graduated Coleville High School in 1969.
She then attended one community college, and after taking all the arts classes it had to offer, enrolled in a second school to take all of its arts classes – Feather River College in Quincy.
She met her husband, Dennis Joseph, because her best friend was dating Dennis’s twin brother.
Dennis was enrolled at Chico State at the time.
In an instance of romantic symmetry which would be impossible to duplicate in the modern era (damn cellphones, damn internet), he dropped out of Chico to be nearer to her at the same time she transferred to Chico to be closer to him.
They eventually figured it out, married, and then moved to Idaho where the Joseph family had bought a big-game hunting outfit based in Riggins.
That’s how they spent their autumns.
In the summers, Sallie would work at Hunewlll Guest Ranch at Twin Lakes in Bridgeport. She was intiially hired as a kids wrangler and taught riding. And save for a few gaps, spent the next four decades of summers there.
It was one of her home places, safe places. When the marriage went south in the mid-1980s, Megan Hunewlll said her grandmother told Sallie, “Just come on down. We’ll put you to work.”
Her other home was, of course, the ranch in Coleville. Her first job when she moved home: She opened “Burlap and Blossoms,” a flower shop and feed store.
But her true love was art. In all its forms. “She saw art in whatever she looked at,” said close friend Leslie Scott.
Sallie’s son Jay is a ranch manager in Smith Valley. When we visited him last week, he set out his mother’s varied artwork like a gallery display.
She made wind chimes which she called “boogie bells” to keep the boogeyman away – out of various artifacts from her father’s junk collection.
She had a leather shop in the garage and made horse-related gear.
She was an accomplished quilter.
And painter. She painted everything – canvas, tiles, old pieces of wood, even lampshades.
At the time of her death, she was taking a silversmithing class and getting into making jewelry.
She published a book of poetry in 2003 called “Rain on the Sage” with Ken Gardner.
She published calendars, first with her sister Donna and then later with Dwayne Leonard, the Hunewill Ranch photographer.
Many of these above items she’d sell at the Hunewill gift shop. But most things she simply gave away.
And the giving created a momentum of its own.
Son Jay talked about a saddle she gave to a little girl in Oregon who’d been a visitor at Hunewill.
When the little girl outgrew the saddle, she gave it back.
Sallie then gave that saddle to a little boy in San Diego and made a new saddle for the Oregon girl to grow into.
Where it says “go forth and multiply” in The Book of Genesis – that was an apt description for Sallie’s creations, which had a way of circulating.
“She’d do 14 different things in a day,” said Jay. Perhaps a few hours painting, a few hours working on a boogie bell, an hour riding, an hour helping a friend. Never mind the various odd jobs to make ends meet, driving a schoolbus and the like. “She always said she would’ve been a greater success if she could have stuck to one thing,” says Jay.
But how do you stick to one thing when you’re good at so many?
One claim to fame: The Bowden Saddle Tree Company of Canutillo, Texas at one time sold a Sajoca (Sallie Joseph California) saddle tree of her own design.
She may have been best at being a mother. Perhaps because she was not stuck in a particular dynamic with her children, who both described her as a best friend.
A parent, a person who doesn’t continue to evolve can’t pull off that trick.
A key attribute was how observant she was. As Jay said, if you mentioned something you wanted, look out. You might come home and find it sitting there. Without a note. Without a clue who’d dropped it off, or built it, or installed it. Until you’d eventually figure it out by power of deduction. There are only so many people like that.
Dena mentioned a time where mom drove over to Yerington in the middle of the night because one of the grandchildren was sick. She must’ve heard something in Dena’s voice. Just a slight something which told her to get in the car.
It was cruel fate, therefore, for one so observant to be blindsided two months ago by a fire she didn’t see coming (her home was orientated in such a way that it faced away from the fire’s path) and couldn’t hear coming because of the powerful wind event that day.
Wind that carried fire 10 miles in the span of 15 minutes.
Her son says he spoke to his mother at 12:20 p.m. During the call, she told him she noticed a glow in the distance.
They spoke again at 12:22 p.m. Her house was on fire. She was set to flee.
He tried her again to get an update at 12:25 p.m. No answer. There would be no more answers. No more daily phone calls.
Her children discovered her remains in the middle of the driveway.
Leslie Scott lives in Alamo (East Bay) with her husband. She first visited Hunewill Ranch when she was nine years old.
She met Sallie when she was visiting the ranch with her family about 25 years ago.
Their shared interests, values, and understanding of what’s important drew them together.
Drawing on the ranch theme, Leslie said, “We all have one great horse in our lives, or one great dog. This was my one great friend.”
“She was strong, sensible, sincere, explicit, generous … and gifted with words to describe the Sierra, open spaces and life’s predicaments.”
Leslie says Sallie knew all her poetry by heart and could recite it from memory. “She was most comfortable reciting poetry in a pasture on horseback with all the feeling that fit into that space.”
She was far less comfortable reciting it in front of a room full of people.
As Megan Hunewill said, “She was a unique individual. Did her own thing. Said what she thought. She was one of a kind in a great way. She revamped our kids program. Guests loved her. She was a great teacher of horses and children.”
All those students over the years are like seeds scattered over a grand pasture. Students who can’t help but mimic a beloved instructor.
So the next time you hear the cry 1-2-3 Let’s Lope! echoing over the western range, that’s not only a call to get moving (and as Leslie Scott says, that’s exactly what Sallie would be saying right now. Keep going. Keep creating. Don’t mope around) but it’s a call to memory, a call to the heavens, a call to remind us that it’s never too late to inhabit our best selves.
She is survived by her son Jay, 41, of Smith Valley and daughter Dena, 43, of Yerington.
Jay manages a ranch while Dena works as a state nurse. Dena and husband John have two children, Ian and Josie.
She is also survived by her brother Bill Knowles (Bev) and their children Lindsey and David, and her sister Donna Hustace (Dusty) and their children Jaime (Erik LeFeldt) and Jeff (Jen).
A celebration of life is planned for March 13. Details to follow.