Why America could use a few more cowboys
Sometimes when I’m driving down the road or walking across the street, little kids will wave at me, and at first I don’t know why. Then I realize that it’s the cowboy hat. Kids like cowboys.
Right now, American Cowboy magazine is asking its readers to respond to the question “Why does America need the Cowboy?” It’s a good question. With all the ranches being chopped up into 35-acre ranchettes, beef being imported from Argentina, Mexico and Canada, and ATVs howling across lands that used to be horse country, why do we need cowboys?
I just read a letter from my former wrangler, Randy Melton, now a sergeant in the First Cavalry Division in Baghdad, who says that even little kids in Iraq know what a cowboy is.
When I lived in Germany, Marlboros were and still are the most popular cigarette, and the images of cowboys standing around campfires with red buttes in the background were plastered on bus stations and billboards everywhere.
I have a Ford F250 diesel truck for hauling horses and fence posts, and I have a little Chevy Tracker for running to town. When I’m driving the Tracker, I’m nobody, but when I’m driving the F250, everybody waves.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the People’s Republic of California banned the word “cowboy” from all of its school textbooks as being politically incorrect? That’s right, the beef that fed America during the 1870s and 1880s wasn’t driven up from Texas to railheads in Kansas by cowboys ” that task was accomplished by … bovine drover technicians? These are the same people who recognize Ebonics as a language (and many of those early cowboys were black).
These days, you have to be careful about who you call a cowboy. There are lots of wannabes out there, people who don’t know how to load a trailer with hay, how to bridle a horse, or how to open a wire gate, yet they’re wearing $500 belt buckles and sharp-looking Stetsons. There’s a saying out here that goes, “You can’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.” Heck, as far as that goes, I’m not a cowboy either. I have no particular affection for cattle and I can’t even throw a rope. I’m a horseman.
But I understand cowboys. I know their frustration when Harley riders are trying to weave their noisy machines through the herd as the cowboys drive the animals down a county road. I know the worried looks on their faces when they see a thunderstorm approaching and the newly mown hay isn’t baled yet. I know the smiles that come to their faces when a good joke is told and when they meet a child for the first time.
A cowboy may not be sophisticated about mutual funds, real estate investment trusts, Blackberry personal data systems or the latest pop stars, but he’ll damn sure be able to saddle his own horse. He’ll be able to build a stout, tight fence, maintain his machinery, work 15-hour days and say “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” He’ll take off his hat in your house, have a joke for your children, and a handshake is all he needs to seal a deal. If he gets hurt, he’ll work hurt, because it was probably his fault that it happened, and he’ll “cowboy up.” Whining and complaining are not part of his vocabulary.
When the chips are down, he’s not afraid of violence.
He’ll work for laughably low pay and without insurance, driving around beater trucks, because that’s the sacrifice he has made in order to make his living on a horse.
He is an eminently capable man who can work on his own, react quickly and decisively in difficult situations, and can live with the consequences. You see these urbanites in the Denver papers with their sob stories about recovering from car accidents and other mayhem. Heck, the typical rodeo bronc rider suffers the equivalent of about 10 car accidents a year, and doesn’t complain. He understands that life and death are part of the natural rhythm of the world, and that your beefsteak means he has sold a calf to slaughter that he may have genuinely liked.
There are things you should know about him, too. Never sit in his saddle unless he says to go ahead. Never pet, feed, or give his dog a command. That’s his dog and his business, and not yours. Never saddle his horse for him unless he gives permission. Even if you may not like his dog, his horse, or his wife, don’t tell him that. Keep it to yourself.
So why does America need this man? Because we need his example. We need to know that there is still a breed of American who is stoic in the face of adversity, who is self-reliant and able to fend for himself. We need a man who is true to his word. We need a man who understands the natural world and is at home with animals, because in this increasingly technological society, someone needs to be bound to the earth, the seasons and the land.
Most of all, we need the kind of man who knows that what’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong, and he’ll sacrifice his life, if need be, to do what’s right.
Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips and autumn big-game hunts.
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