When you’re overseeing mob grazing you need to have your wits about you; that’s why none of my cowhands are allowed to wear ear buds. It also means that I end up with an odd group of employees: old men who’ve never learned to listen to their own music on the trail, young, often painfully earnest men who are committed to managing the land in harmony with the environment and willing to sacrifice their playlists to their ideals. Losers, maybe.

But I have the Jeep and what I play in my Jeep is my business. There’s a tradition, when we move the cattle from the lowlands to the hills in summer, that we start the drive with Take Five. It’s ironic in a way, because nobody gets to take five, or even take one, until the herd is relocated, but it’s also a moment when I get to stop and look out at Mount Diablo, and remember what a huge joke it is that Dave Brubeck got to be a jazz musician and I got to be a rancher. Or, as they call me here, lady rancher.

I always think that makes me sound like candy; the sugar-free, flavour-light version of a real candy, but if you’d heard what they called me ten years ago, lady rancher is pretty palatable, believe me. No matter that I drive the same cattle they do, no matter that I mend fences, trade forage and fire-watch just like they do, I’m still the lady rancher. It could be worse.

It makes me wonder about the Brubecks though. Because no matter how idyllic Dave Brubeck made his time as a cowboy sound, folk here can be unforgiving. Bessie, his mother, would have seemed to have airs and graces, especially leaving her kids to go play piano in England. You won’t find anybody to say a bad word about her today, but I’ll bet they said plenty at the time. Maybe, in fifty years, they’ll be talking sweetly about me too.

Still, I open the doors and punch up the volume and play Take Five while the cowboys smoke their final cigarettes or scroll their cellphones for the last time. Some are in ATVs but we still use horses here, at least on the high ground, because believe me, you don’t want to get stuck in a canyon at dusk because you’ve run into a gulley or out of gas. Or both.

As we head out – no smoking allowed and no cellphone coverage until we hit the other side of the grazing – I watch my cowhands. We’ll mob graze for a day on each section, opening up the fencing to allow the cattle through at dawn, pushing them into a holding area overnight, then another section the next day, for three days. After that we’ll hit the higher ground and leave the ATVs and half the crew behind, the rest of us mounting up to push the herd onto the sparser hill grazing while the remainder check fences to ensure they don’t sneak back down to deplete the richer grazing that needs to be rested for six weeks or more. This is the testing time; the older men cope well, although they grumble about having to vape or chew instead of smoke, but the younger ones may get actual withdrawal symptoms when they can’t swipe or scroll. Nicotine and dopamine – twin addictions.

One thing I never understood was why people have so much difficulty with Dave Brubeck – all this commotion about 5/4 time. It’s just the way life is, that’s what I think. Like the way Dave Brubeck had to give up his cowboy life to become a jazz pianist. Like the way my mum – I never learned to say mom – had to give up Cornwall when my dad was moved back home from Brize Norton back to Edwards Air Force Base, and how Bessie Brubeck returned from training as a concert pianist to look after her children. 5/4 time is like the way life breaks your heart and then remakes it, that’s how it seems to me. But I could be wrong.

The men who work for me are just broken, not remade. There’s a few who’ve been here for decades, who remember my grandfather, and they can look well put together, but they’re still broken. The ones who get remade, they don’t stay around ranching for very long and the ones who aren’t broken don’t come here at all. There was a woman on a ranch north of mine for a couple of years, actually herding, not doing the things women normally do – AI, veterinary tasks, all that stuff. It’s a tough task to come up from herding to running your own ranch for anybody. For a woman – much tougher.

On a round-up you work as much with your ears as your eyes. Peripheral vision is important but so is the sound of the herd – I hear that in Brubeck’s music all the time. It’s like a stutter. You’ve got the main herd moving along and then this little splinter, this twist in their step, that takes three or four off to the side so somebody has to swing out and cut them in again, or a stumble, a skip that makes a small group speed up and that can lead to a stampede. Don’t believe that animals need to get spooked to run – they do it for the sheer stupidity of it sometimes. So I watch and I listen and I make the hands watch and listen – if I can. I can take the tobacco out of their mouths to stop them starting wildfires and the lack of signal masts can take the cellphones out of their hands to encourage them to focus, but I can’t make them understand cattle. It’s a gift, or something.

Dad had fallen in love with the sky as a teenager and when he also fell in love with my mum, she knew she was always going to be in second place. But she loved him, and the idea of moving to America was exciting, she said. The reality turned out differently. Five years still living with her own parents in Cornwall because dad wasn’t granted married quarters, then when he was transferred home and she began her big new life by visiting her parents-in-law for the first time, my Nana broke her hip, slipping on a wet kitchen floor and Mum was stuck living with Dad’s parents for six months while Nana healed. It sure soured Mum on ranching.

I was four when we arrived in California. I’d lived with old people all my life; Mum’s parents seemed ancient to me and while Papa and Nana were active farmers, they were still old – and the ranch made them seem older. Water troughs and windmills, shorthorns and saddle horses, things I’d seen on the television and even at four I’d known that TV wasn’t real. So it felt like the ranch wasn’t quite real either.

After that six month hiatus Mum got the life she’d imagined – an apartment in Lancaster, and all the things she’d heard about: soda fountains, drugstores, big cars and actual Indians, as she still calls them, although I’ve repeatedly told her First Nation is what we say now. But I loved the ranch and I went back there a lot, because the Air Force moved Dad around and Mum went with him, and Papa and Nana were always ready to have me stay. They had two sons and a daughter and none of them wanted to ranch, so when I took my Agricultural Science degree at Davis and asked if I could do my project on the ranch, I just never left again. It still doesn’t feel real – but living a dream wouldn’t. Would it?

First night out, the hands always get a little giddy, even the old-timers. There’s always one with a harmonica – perhaps I should ban that along with cigarettes – and one who’s snuck some liquor along. The old-timers know not to touch it; sure it warms you up at the time, but sleeping out chills you to the bone, even in California, and alcohol makes that worse, not better. I tune out the first and ignore the second; they’ll learn their lesson fast enough.

Second day we start at dawn and I move them along quick, numb hands struggling with fence-wire and reins, numb heads fighting with hangovers and the presence of the herd. One day out from civilisation and you start to see the cattle as two things at once – individual animals, but also one immense, aggregated creature. It could trample you without noticing. Its breath is one giant, hay-scented cloud changing the humidity around it like a weather system. Against it, you have no chance.

That knocks out the hangovers fast and only actual alcoholics keep drinking after the first night. Alcoholics don’t make it past their first round-up, not on my ranch anyway. I know ranchers who deliberately seek out a certain kind of broken, the kind that includes solo drinking, but it never worked for me. I do better with the socially awkward ones, the quietly miserable young ones who think we’re killing the planet and the quietly resigned old ones who are hiding from their inability to build a life for themselves. Them, I can handle.

Being never quite one thing or the other, that I can understand. Half-English, half-American. Half little girl, half ranch-hand. Half wife and mother, half ranch owner. One eye on the kids’ homework, the other on the herd. If you spend your life trying to find the balance between two competing worlds, even if you’re the only one who sees the competition, you start to see other things too; mainly, you notice other people who are also balancing, or failing to balance. You learn to walk carefully, not trusting the evidence of your eyes because they’ve deceived you before, and because you’ve got more to hide, more at risk, than most people. I wanted to be a better mother than my mum, but I was always pulled to the demands of the ranch. I wanted to be a rancher that my grandfather could be proud of, but I’ve never really felt I belonged on this land – not truly. Two not quite halves don’t make one whole.

By the third day we’re in the foothills and half the hands get to relax, loping behind the cattle as they straggle upward, no longer a herd, just slow moving, hard grazing, soft-footed beasts. The horses know too, snatching the odd mouthful of grass, stopping to look around. The rest of the crew stays below, to double-check the fencing. I move between the two, knowing the fencers are going to bitch about working so hard while the herders are going to switch off entirely and could miss lame animals or rubbish dumped on the land – that happens, even places as remote as this. I’ve known ranchers lose half a herd that way. Cattle eat anything, nearly as bad as goats.

On the fourth day I leave three men out with the cattle; two old-timers and one youngster. The old-timers can be relied on and the youngster is there in case something goes wrong – he’ll be able to ride, or even run, to get help. These days cowhands are all over forty-five or under twenty-five, but mainly they’re old. It’s like ranchers. Now I’m approaching my sixties, I’m still a youngster in ranching terms. Most of my neighbours have a decade on me, or more. We talk about dying with our boots on but we all know that’s not going to happen. Our kids will put us in care homes and sell our lands to anybody who’ll buy them, and apart from a few fenceposts it’ll be like we never happened. We’ll have been no more than a pulse across the landscape. A cloud moving across the sun.

I heard that Pete Brubeck kept a herd going for his son, right up until he died. You do that when you’re not sure things are going to work out for your kids. I know my parents were happy for me to stay with my grandparents for the same reason – my dad was a flyboy and my mum had fallen in love with the American dream; neither of them had that much time for a quiet child who didn’t fit in. They were both escaping from exactly the thing that I was was escaping to. There’s a Brubeck song called The Promise of Endless Skies and it’s like that phrase meant something different to each of us. Each time I look up, I remember that.

And that’s why I understand Brubeck, or think I do. Why he could twist music inside out and why he became Roman Catholic. The cowboy son who escaped the ranch even though he couldn’t read music … it felt like a dream to him. The thing is, when you live in a dream, nothing seems impossible – and nothing seems real. I’m the little half-English girl who got to run her own ranch … and I still don’t quite believe it myself. I have a husband, and two daughters and a son, and while none of them want to ranch, and my grandkids are nowhere near old enough to show interest, let alone aptitude, I’m not frightened of the future. Dreams are what you wake up from, that’s all.