The Cowboy - an endangered species
By Daryl Hunter (4/2006) originally published in the Jackson Hole Weekly

cattle drive Grand Teton National Park
Rancher Mary Mead driving cows in Jackson Hole. Mary died in a horse wreck driving cows several years after this photo, her son Matt is now Governor of Wyoming (2012)

The cowboy is one of America's most cherished and mythical figures. He symbolizes the mystique of the American west, a caricature of frontier courage, independence, and rugged masculinity. The iconical cowboy brings to mind, horses, cattle, the howl of a coyote, and wide-open spaces, the cowboy riding off into the sunset. In the west all these things are still alive and well but sadly the cowboy may be riding off into the sunset for good.

Once cowboy poet and humorist Baxter Black was asked: What made you decide to become a cowboy? He replied: You either are one, or you aren't, You never have to decide.

One day about 20 years ago I was having coffee at the Wort Cafe when a lady from back East asked me if I was a real cowboy, embarrassed I replied; if owning a few horses, a hat and living on a ranch made me a cowboy I guess I am. The truth was different, I rented a house on a ranch and my possession of a few horses and a hat didn't make me a cowboy. Living on that ranch taught me that.

Cowboy Rancher, J.P. Robinson, Freedom Idaho
J.P. Robinson of Freedom Idaho. Photo taken while driving cows outside of Alpine Wyoming

As a wrangler I blended in all right and probing tourists were surprised to find out otherwise but real cowboys could tell right off that I was new to the culture. It wasn't because I didn't know the secret handshake, it is because elementally you don't just become a cowboy like you can become a lawyer or a doctor; it helps to be born into it.

Ranch life is hard and it builds tough resolute characters, "can do" people whose day starts early and ends late, it can be dusty, mucky, stinky, wet, cold, hot, and often is dangerous. Some think that cowboying is sitting on a horse and following a bunch of cows around but it is much more than that.

Cowboy Harry Taylor back in the 1930's. This photo was colorized in 1996

Years ago during one of the family farm crises when farmers and ranchers were losing their land my thought was what can they do for jobs, all they know is how to farm or ranch. Oh, stupid me, my ignorance of farm and ranch life was monumental. When that cow, horse or pig is sick that cowboy is often the vet, the tractor he operates teaches him to be heavy equipment operator, when the swather breaks it teaches him to be a mechanic, When the family gets to big he becomes the carpenter, plumber and electrician. When water needs a new route from point A to point B he is the excavator and surveyor, and when it is time to sell some livestock he often is the truck driver, country folk can do anything! A guy doesn't just show up in a western town wearing a hat and automatically become a cowboy.

older cowboy
Rancher Clark Wheeldon while guiding trophy mule deer hunters in the Gros Ventre Wilderness

Recently the media has glamorized the West for a lot of other things besides the western culture. Our mountains and valleys have left indelible impressions on our minds from movies since the days of John Ford, but the last couple of decades magazines like Outside, Skiing, Backpacker, Flyfisherman, and Men's Journal have romanticized western living for many of its other offerings and has fueled an influx of newcomers who often find fault with the cowboy culture they find there.

boy on horse trail ride
Aspiring Cowboy Cody Hunter. Young westerners still aspire to be cowboys, hopefully the environmentalists don't sabatoge their future.

Some rejoiced at Hollywood's attempt to emasculate the cowboy image with Brokeback Mountain, as many of the testosteronally challenged are inhibited by the cowboy's cool, iconic image of strength and confidence. But the real threat to the cowboy isn't from Hollywood; it is from the invasion of city folk of the cowboy's home. When a backpacker is 12 miles out into the wilderness he doesn't want to see a tenth generation bovine grazing in a beautiful mountain meadow. When a fly fisherman is putting the sneak on a spooky spring creek cutthroat he doesn't want to be joined by a thirsty Bessie and her new calf. The mountain biker rarely has a pleasant encounter with a horseman on a narrow trail. The triathlete on the make doesn't like loosing the girl to the quiet hick at the bar with the large brimmed hat. 150 years ago the cowboy squeezed the Indian off the land and now it is the cowboy getting the squeeze.

Cowboy Gros Ventre Wilderness
Me taking in the view in the Gros Ventre Wilderness (1987)

Jon Marvel's Western Watersheds Project and the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign are trying to end public grazing on our rangelands. When public grazing ends and ranchers no longer have a place to graze their cows during the hay farming season the cowboy, as we know him will fade away also. Restricted to the confines of a bankrupt fenced in ranch and barred from the wide-open spaces, it will sadly spell the demise for this living icon of Americana.

Book coming soon ~

(Addendum 2021)

With the ability of a scary amount of people to work from home huge development pressure has beset all of the west. We won't like the look of our western lands when when portfolio managers are trading stocks from the mountain tops and programers from silicon valley find the mini-ranch of their dreams all their friends raved about in a Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, or Monatana valley bottom that was once a hay field that fed America. My Idaho valley is paying for the arrival Zoom and fiberoptics and the rest of the rural wast will fall to this cancer soon.

Related followup column; The Public Grazing Conundrum

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