Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 1, 2008
What is a cowboy, exactly? I reckon nobody really knows for certain, although the definition might be similar to that of pornography ” you know a cowboy when you see one. A girlfriend of mine refers to cowboys as people with expensive trucks and trailers, and no visible means of support. Another friend says she never met a cowboy who wasn’t hurt, broke or both. Still another says she gets a special thrill in finding a pair of dusty cowboy boots parked under her bed in the morning.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t much difference between a cowboy, a rancher or any of the folks who ranched for a living or worked for those who did. Guys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were “cowboys,” made to order for the imaginations of kids, but because they sang and dressed really nice, we always considered them to be “city cowboys.” Then, of course, there were the real cowboys ” the ranchers ” like those folks out in Woody Creek who were our neighbors.
You can buy a hat uptown that’ll brand you a cowboy to most folks, one with sweat and dirt painted on its crunched-up facade, and a pair of boots to match, with artificial scuffs in the leather. But being a cowboy isn’t about how you look ” pretty is not the gist of it ” it’s about whether a guy or gal will pick you up from the mud after your horse has dumped your sorry ass in it. Looks take up space at the bar and provide a backdrop for wishful stories, but they can’t rope a wild cow or doctor a sick calf.
The life of a cowboy takes the good with the bad. Almost every day, I saddle up a horse or two and head to the high country, either packing salt, clearing trails or moving cattle from one grazing ground to another. Along the way, I’m graced with looking at Capitol or Daly or other majestic peaks in the Elk Mountain range, I take in a lot of fresh air, and I see more beauty than many people glimpse in a lifetime. I usually ride alone (which some consider folly), with the exception of my dog, Topper, and could die up there as easy as not. According to James P. Owen, Wall Street financier and author, “The code of the West is based not on myth, but on the reality of life on the open range.”
There used to be an Aspen city councilman who, from time to time, denigrated the wearing of cowboy hats. Those of us who considered ourselves cowboys, and deserving of the right to wear whatever type of chapeau we chose, always felt the councilman dressed reminiscently of a shirttailed, poor cousin of Oscar Wilde who, on his best night, was no better than envy paying tribute to genius.
We take issue with the imagination-challenged, pseudo-intellectual journalism professionals on both coasts who, in a fit of laziness befitting skid row bums, took to calling George W. Bush the “cowboy” president. That’s a crock, and a damned insult to every man who ever fancied himself a cowboy, as Dubya fairly well represents just the opposite of everything a cowboy stands for. In Texas, roaming cattle defecate once about every 1,600 acres, so I don’t know if that makes Bush a one-cow “rancher” on his 1,600 acres near Crawford or just a guy who’s “all hat and no cattle.” But any way you cut it, he ain’t no cowboy.
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Those who bemoan the loss of our Western heritage are the same people who have always used the West as a fantasy destination, a place they’d be if they could honestly live their lives as they wished. Better they not know how tough it is to scrounge an almost impossible living from land that can be so beautiful to the naive eye.
There are still cowboys around, even a few in the Roaring Fork Valley. And like good skiing, you have to get off the road to find them.
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