The smell of cedar smoke from the chimney on the house hung low over ranch headquarters and a distant howl of a coyote pierced the darkness. Small dust devils swirled through the corrals where the saddle horses stood, tails to the wind, munching on the last of the hay tossed to them the night before.
The old cowboy shrugged on his jacket, pulling it up tight around his neck, tucking in his neck scarf while he fished to match buttons to buttonholes to close out the sharp cold of the fall morning. Pulling worn gloves over his gnarled leathery hands, he tugged his hat down tight against the wind that had arrived before daylight. Stepping out into the dark of early morning, his day began.
Fall of the year always makes me nostalgic. I find my thoughts wander often to memories of fall seasons in different locations, but always involving long days in the saddle and cattle of all kinds coming and going from pasture to pens.
I grew up on a high mountain Colorado ranch where we pastured about 4,000 head of yearlings spring to fall. Memories remain sharp of a long line of cattle trucks waiting their turn at the loading chute, dust boiling high above the pens as the cattle milled and the profile of a cowboy horseback looking like a picture postcard with the rising sun behind him and the dust forming a filter of light around him.
The sounds of the banging of the scale gate as each bunch passed through to be weighed for the final tally, a cowboy hollering at a wad of cattle as he drove them down the alley to the next stop and the deafening sound of cattle bawling that never stopped until the last truck pulled away.
It wasn’t history at the time. It was life. Back then cowboys weren’t an icon for what had been. They were what was. And with each generation the matter of making a living has become memorialized in books and movies.
We in the West have a history that is a continuation of the immigration and emancipation of this country and yet a story unto itself for there is nothing else like it.
The best real tell-it-like-it-was stories are from the old guy sitting under the shade of his hat watching what he can no longer do. He will tell you stories of cow herds so big you couldn’t recognize the cowboy on the other side. He recalls horses that bucked, horses that could run like the wind, and horses that died in the line of duty.
He will detail cattle markets of that day and speak of a day’s wages that wouldn’t pay for one meal in today’s world. He will recall droughts and floods and winters of record-breaking cold and snow. He will share stories about great friends, fine men of character, and heartbreaking losses.
He remembers the time before there were fences and cattle ran on ranges the size of three counties. He watched them survey the West with a wheel with an accuracy that still astounds today. He was entertained with music and song by the campfire or better yet, at the good-eats of an ice cream social.
Not so many years ago, his stride became a long shuffle and he felt every cold day of his life in his knees and hips.
Referencing old cowboys, Wallace Stegner wrote in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier: “They do not tell their stories in Technicolor; they would not want to seem to adorn a tale or brag themselves up. The callouses of a life of hardship blunt their sensibilities to their own experience.”
Calloused memories. Within each of us is one who began with the wonder of life intact. Whether we choose to peel back the layers and stay in touch with the Technicolor, or forge ahead to new rainbows, our roots remain in innocence.
At the close of the day, the old cowboy will dust off his hat and britches much like he dusts off his memories. Both are old, worn and with a lot of character. It’s not a bad place to be when near the end of the road.
Julie can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.