Vagneur: Let me tell you about ‘Yellowstone’

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at
Tony Vagneur/Courtesy photo


No, not the park; the popular soap opera, masquerading as a Western — or as the limited imagination pundits like to call it, a drama series — that has captured viewers for the past 3 or 4 years. If you didn’t know, it’s about a man, his family, his ranch in Montana, and the struggle against encroaching civilization and development. Coulda been filmed in the Roaring Fork Valley, if you ask me. 

The biggest difference between “Yellowstone” and other shows of similar ilk, like “Dallas” or “The Big Valley,” is that the story purportedly happens on a real working ranch. Wherever such stories occur, they are all pretty much alike — the previously mentioned difference being that many of the actors actually try to look like ranchers or cowboys. It’s a stretch, in my humble opinion, but there aren’t too many places left where Hollywood can look for authenticity. 

Hell, give Kevin Costner, who lives just up the creek, credit for being the main protagonist and for making a load of notoriety, fame, and money off the series. It clearly does remind this writer of our old friend, Larry Hagman, head henchman for the “Dallas” series, who used to visit us with some regularity. Maybe it’s the altitude. 

Over the years, I’ve had friends send me links to “Yellowstone,” telling me how much they think I’d enjoy it. I watched part of one episode but couldn’t make it through the entire thing. To me, there just wasn’t anything, or at least not much, that was true to ranching or credibility. The ranchers I see with frequency had the same opinion. Never mind that soap opera plots move with excruciating slowness.

Then CBS, mainstream media that I use mostly for watching football, said they were going to feature Deion Sanders, CU football coach, on one chapter of “60 Minutes”, so I got locked into that, and then — boom! — “Yellowstone” was the featured evening show, and “What the hell,” let’s give it another try.  

Once again, it was difficult to focus, and then, doing a little channel surfing, a John Wayne movie flashed upon my screen. Oh, Lord, thank you for saving Sunday evening television. Tell me I’m uncouth and unsophisticated if you want and don’t appreciate nuance or degrees of BS, but the 20X Stetson I wear to work every day, stained with real sweat and grime, isn’t nearly as perfect-looking as the ones worn by “working cowboys” on the soap opera in question.  

There’s quite a dichotomy between John Wayne movies and a Kevin Costner television series, each serving a yearning in most folks who envy those men of the West — cowboys and ranchers, who exemplify freedom, toughness, individualism, and rugged handsomeness. We grow up with images of what we believe the West to be and what our part in it might comprise. 

Dust on boots, cow shit on the heel, jingling spurs, a lariat slung across the cantle, squint eyes under a big felt hat, and perhaps a self-congratulatory chew in one cheek. Nothing ahead but open range and unbridled sovereignty. In the 1980s, former Pitkin County commissioner Dwight Shellman (RIP) accused us remaining ranchers in the valley of owning “fiefdoms.” 

He and Joe Edward’s growth control measures made those fiefdoms affordable only to the wealthiest of buyers, and if you try to get permission to drive through or fish in one of their creeks today, the true meaning of fiefdom will make itself clear. They missed the point, those commissioners did, as “Yellowstone” seems to, also. They hastened the end for many local valley ranchers. For the ranchers, it was not so much about the money — it was about preserving a generational way of life. 

Years ago, maybe the 1970s, some developers wanted to buy one of our Woody Creek ranches, supposedly for creating a small number of ranchettes — a sweet sounding plan — but someone leaked the true intentions of the developers: building a golf course. 

It would have made a great golf course, but when my great-uncle Sullivan, the last surviving patriarch of his generation, got wind of this, the developers were sent down the road. As they should have been.  

But when there’s a lot of money on one side and a lot of family on the other, each side involved in real-estate negotiations, the preservation of a way of life generally goes up the chimney. That’s the evolution of ranching in this country. And this valley. For each generation, it gets tougher to maintain the basics. 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at