Still a few cowboys left
November 29, 2013
It was an early-morning jaunt, in that fleeting space between dawn and daylight, when my dog and I overtook a walker who wanted to talk. After sizing me up, what with my Patagonia down jacket, Salewa hiking boots and Smuggler Mine baseball cap, she figured me for one of the restless imports who ride a desk or a profession for a living. "Oh, what a beautiful border collie," she said, with a touch of rue. "Too bad he doesn't have a herd of cows to chase."
"Lady," I carefully said, "he rules a kingdom of 20,000 acres, filled with black, bawling, sons-a-bitchin' cattle, from early May through mid-November. I go with him."
Now the regret was replaced with sarcasm as she replied, "Sure you do."
"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy," goes the old line from the popular death ballad "Streets of Laredo." "Beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly as you carry me along" to my grave. If some folks around here had their way, cowboys wouldn't exist anymore.
A couple of years ago, one of my columns mentioned a day of working cattle with a young cowgirl, to which a reader replied that there weren't any cowgirls or cowboys left in the valley. He followed that up with a few photos of some girls who once rode herd on a commercial "horses for hire" operation, pointing out that those pictures captured the last "real" cowgirls left around these parts. "And by the way," he'd said, he had worked on a 50,000-acre ranch in Montana, so he ought to know what he was talking about. He was a history revisionist, clearly, and a candidate for a midlife crisis (it's all about size, isn't it?), but short on local knowledge.
Not that long ago, I got in a pissing match with a "new guy" writer about the subject of cowboys in Aspen. He swore that anyone in town who thought he might be a cowboy was either an impostor or a poser, although I think he really meant to say "poseur." Further, he went on, he had lived in rural Texas and Utah and would know a cowboy if he saw one. (We used to wear sunglasses like those on the ski patrol — rose-colored — courtesy of Billy Sol Fox, but we still had to deal with reality.) Cowboys don't ski, do they? I might have given that wayward journalist a smidgen of credibility, but he got sheepherders and cowboys mixed up in his rant, and my attention began to wander.
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The myth of the West belongs to everyone who wants it, and we each see it through different eyes, although some of us are hampered by myopia and one-dimensional thinking. Everybody wants to be a cowboy at some time, even those who can't, or they wouldn't have wasted valuable email space by lecturing me on their ignorance of the subject.
Early Thanksgiving morning, I'd about decided to put this column in the recycle bin when the call came alerting me to the fact that my good friend and sometimes mentor, 80-something Bill Fender, had died in the night. Like most lifelong ranchers of his generation, he was the epitome of the Old West, cowboys and toughness. Those of his generation are getting fewer and fewer, and it hurts us all each time one departs for the next journey.
It's important to realize our history even as we live in the present, for the future will ring hollow if we don't. Cowboys and ranchers still exist and still contribute a great deal to the area, including a ton of conservation easements they have granted over the years.
As I struggled with the news of Bill's death, I recalled a conversation he and I had several years ago concerning the lack of understanding about ranching by many of today's newcomers. Succinct and ever to the point, Bill had said, "Sonny (he always called me Sonny), it's bullshit. They wouldn't know a snake if it bit 'em on the ass." And turning away, he changed the subject.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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