Today, while running errands in town, I saw a couple of working cowboys in off the desert, young buckaroos who hadn’t changed clothes in a while, were covered with dust and dirt and old sweat, and possessed of that quiet, settled pride and polite confidence I once knew very well. They were just passing through, stopping in at the Pumphouse Store for a cold soda, their filthy truck and battered goose-neck trailer parked out of the way and filled with saddled horses who peered out at the unfamiliar and busy world with huge, dark eyes. I am man enough to admit that I was hit with an immediate stab of envy, admiration, and melancholy, that wrenching emotional tide that only comes when you’ve known a life well, loved it with all your heart, lived it fully, and been forced to walk away from it. I’ve learned, over time, that it’s difficult to live entirely without a few regrets, maybe even impossible, and I don’t trust anyone who says otherwise. Something is broken in people who believe that. Our lives are far too complicated to escape the occasional question mark, a sudden and strong pull on the heart and mind, or to avoid imagining the way things might have been, given a different set of circumstances, a different menu of choices. By itself, nostalgia is a form of regret, and can come at you in almost any shape, at almost any time. For some it’s a childhood home. For others, a long lost friend, a school, or an old flame. For me, when regret bears down, it bears down hard, and it’s always about those precious few years I spent as a working cowboy, a wild-ass buckaroo on the great American outback.
In the spring of 1995, after finishing a perfectly worthless graduate degree at Northern Arizona University, and stacking on considerable debt to prove it, I went to work on the 10X Ranch outside of Twin Arrows, Arizona. I signed on despite the warnings from my grandfather, a lifelong cowboy, who told me that I would end up “Without a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of.” He was sincere, and undeniably correct, but a young man with an idea can be as obstinate as a badger at the bottom of his hole. I had ridden bareback broncs in college, and was raised in cowboy country, where earning a living horseback was, and to some extent still is, an actual career option. So signing on as a cowboy was not, for me, an incredible reach, and may have been driven, like all stories worth telling, by the engine of inevitability. I had only one real goal: to get as far out on the country as possible, and more importantly, to have a reason to be there. I did all that and more.
My boss on the 10X was a man named Lee Morris. At 5’6, 145 pounds, Lee was built like a bull rider, and wound tighter than a roll of barbed wire. He was not a man who approved of cheer, or cheeriness, or even the remotest attempt at humor, having been raised on cold water baths in a sod house outside of Newcastle, Wyoming. The wind of eastern Wyoming, and the eastern slope of the Mogollon Rim, had gotten in through his ears and done something to Lee. He did not like cowboy hats, which blow away, or slow horses, or cattle of any kind, and visibly bristled against any attempt at what might be, even remotely, considered genial conversation. In a good mood, which elevated his heavyweight silence into a series of porcine grunts, Lee liked to show off the gunnysack full of rusty and severe bits he had collected, as if one day he might suddenly stick one in your mouth. Each day, when the cow work was finished, the horses put up and the dinner dishes cleared, Lee drank exactly two cans of Old Milwaukee in abject silence, then stood, violently saluted the picture of his mother in law on the fireplace mantel, and marched off to bed. Lucky for me, after a mere few weeks of horseback work, and one flamboyant disagreement over a fence stretcher, Lee rode up in a dust cloud and unceremoniously fired me, saying from somewhere beneath his outsized walrus mustache, “Don’t steal anything on your way out.” The first take of my cowboy movie was, to borrow a phrase, in the can.
I rolled my bed then, packed my gear, drew a final hand-written paycheck (short), and powered a ruined Ford Ranger hard north into the night, the seemingly endless reaches of the Great Basin and Nevada. Eventually, after an epic stunt riding wild cows at a guest ranch “dudeo”, I landed a job on the 3 Dot Ranch, a sprawling high desert outfit that was merely the second stop on an outback cowboy adventure that ended at the very end of the road, 60 corduroy miles from a telephone, on the Soldier Meadows Ranch in northern Nevada.
From the 3-Dot Ranch, working forward, the characters come hard and fast. There was Larry Kucera, who had one tooth left in his head, roped with a rawhide reata, drew excellent cartoons in his free time, and was shot in the back by marijuana farmers while fixing fence on a ranch in Mendocino. When I met Larry, and rode with him, he packed a .44 on his hip, and would suddenly veer away from the cow work, over the horizon, because, as he said, “There is something about this country that just keeps calling you out, making you want to ride out farther, and deeper, until it swallows you whole, or maybe you just fall off the edge of it.” And he was right. There exists a siren song that can only be heard from horseback, in a country without cars, or decent roads, or the ambient noise of civilization, a desert country with a million visible stars on a clear night, sage hen at the bunkhouse door, some promise in the sweetness of rising dust in the rain, of cold granite walls, of hot springs steaming in the chill of fall, of birdsong echoing in the canyon bottoms, and the high-line draws where quaking aspens shimmer in the breeze. There was John Casey, who famously stole cattle, sabotaged windmills, stashed hookers from Reno in cattle haulers at the Dodge Ranch headquarters, and lived like a hermit king in a falling down homesteader’s shack surrounded by ten thousand mother cows, and a desert the size of Rhode Island. There were the mexican brothers from Guadalajara, Pedro and Francisco, who could rope a tick off a dog’s ass at a dead gallop, and sang sad spanish ballads while we pushed cows over the hard spine of the Calico range in clouds of dust and biting flies. There was the ghost in the Old Woman House, who stood in the back window and grinned, and then wasn’t even there. There was Country Joe, who lived on a mining claim and lit range fires to bring the bison back, who sawed the tusk off a fossilized mammoth at ground level, who walked naked everywhere, and who nailed found license plates to the gate leading up to his claim, like scalps on a warrior’s lodge, right next to the sign reading: There is nothing up this road that is worth your life. There was Bruno, down in Gerlach, Nevada, who hung venison in the back room of Bruno’s Bar— Where the Road Ends, and the West Begins–who cashed a working man’s checks without charging interest, and who one night leveled a sawed-off shotgun over the bar while telling a rambunctious buckaroo: “You wanna be a cowboy in my place? I’ll make you a real short cowboy.” There was Bill Bass, who refused to shoe horses, wore a dinner jacket to bed, and had once been a bullpen catcher for the Dodgers. And finally, there was a legendary buckaroo, rake, horse trader, and your first (and maybe only) friend in a bar fight, named Bert Lambert.
Bert Lambert had been raised in New Mexico, allegedly, and claimed membership in several tribal rolls. Depending on the time of day, the cant of sunlight, or the number of road sodas consumed between the bar and the bunkhouse, he was either an Apache, a Comanche, or a halfbreed Modoc. He might have been all of these things at once. Bert told so many inspiring windies that I actually began to track them in my daybook. A sampling: Bert ran away from home at 12 years old, surviving in a coyote den on a jar of mayonnaise, a loaf of bread, and milk stolen from dairy cows. He claimed to have raised mountain lions (which he rode around), and bears (which he fed watermelon after school), and to have ridden an ostrich, “Not much buck,” he said, “but they sure do run fast.” Bert also told of having traded a team of horses to Oklahoma State University in exchange for two bonobos, which he trained to feed his quadriplegic nephew, an act they performed loyally until turning mysteriously violent and beating his defenseless (and imaginary) nephew about the head and neck. Bert, in full pluck, told us many times the story of being bucked off the same horse 17 times in one day, and having roped, among other things, a bobcat out of a tree, a buck deer, a coyote, a pig, and four bison, all of which he managed to load into a trailer by himself. For all of that, Bert was a hell of a cowboy, and even more fun to work for, given his utter contempt for anything remotely connected to the truth. And in the real world, where the rest of us lived, he was, in fact, illiterate. He couldn’t read or write a single word.
Cowboys, then and now, pack a lot of living into each day, and there are simply too many stories, too many faces, too many names and places, to do them any kind of justice. The Buckhorn Road, where we stole salt blocks in revenge. Duck Flat, where I lived alone in a camp and listened to scratchy late night radio beamed in from Seattle, learning all there was to know about sasquatch, transsexuals, PETA, alien abductions, and one night shot a packrat off the bread safe while still laying in my bedroll. There was Massacre Lake. The Place Where Tom Shot Frank. The Wheeler Ranch. Claude Dallas. Fly Geyser. High Rock. Slumgullion Canyon. There was the runaway mystery kid from Wyoming, who might have been fifteen, who out-roped us all, then came and went like an evening breeze. There was Crabtree Camp, where a defiant and fired cowboy refused to leave, threatened violence, and one night delivered, pole-axing Bert Lambert with a baseball bat in the sodium light of the Hindu Market in Standish, California. There were bison the size of RV’s, who wouldn’t stay in one place, rattlesnakes and arrowheads, and there was a particularly homicidal bull up Chukar Gulch. From my daybook:
15 January 1996, Soldier Meadows…Bill and I picked up 19 head north of Mud Meadow and drove them into the trap beside the lake, where they promptly broke out and made a decent wreck. Three cows and a calf tear-assing through the sage and willows. We finally got them through and pushed down the road to Willow Creek. Rode back and ate lunch in the truck in a driving rain. On the way back we spotted a bull and cow in the south meadow, so I rode down to bring them back. They sailed off through the brush and all the way back toward Paiute Creek, where they brushed up pretty good. This bull we’ve been onto before–he’s wild and on the fight. The black cow vanished in the high brush but I managed to stay with the bull a good distance. Couldn’t get close enough, or draw him out to put a loop around his neck. We stared at each other, his eyes are all wrong, and he made to charge a few times, but I couldn’t get him out. He’s a mean sonofabitch just waiting to lay the hurt on some poor bastard. Same brindled and broken horned devil that jumped the corral last spring. Bill rode up about 20 minutes later but the two of us, and a dog, couldn’t get him to budge. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t kill us when it gets serious.
And so it went, day after day, on the big country, where we had no power, or telephone, or want of them. Perhaps it isn’t even what the cowboy life provided that causes me such sudden, sweet sorrow when I see young cowboys these days in a gas station. Maybe it’s what we didn’t have, and didn’t want, that leaves such a pleasing glow on the memories. Life intervenes, we roll our beds and move on, and sometimes we leave a better part of us behind, like the names burned into the tack room wall at the Fish Creek Ranch in Eureka, Nevada. I left the cowboy life because I had bigger bills than punching cows was ever going to pay, just like my grandfather promised. But I’ve always regretted it, and looked back often in the heat of a hard career that payed better–though never quite as much as the ultimate price tag–thinking I should have gutted it out a few more years. Maybe, just maybe, I should have followed Larry away from the herd and over the ridge, and just gone all the way.
Gandhi, that bald old guru in homespun, liked to remind us that “There is more to life than increasing it’s speed,” and as I reflect here now, decades later, the tape measure of my own life growing shorter by the minute, eating ibuprofen against a reasonably bad back and arthritis in my shoulders, not to mention a head full of calcified attitudes, it’s worth sitting for a minute, full of pride and admiration for those young buckaroos and their well earned bottles of cream soda, remembering a time when the days were so much longer, the work was so much harder, the meals so much finer, the friendships so much simpler, and at the end of the day, with the lamps snuffed out and the barn door shut for the night, the world still made so much sense.