Published: December 2007
21st-Century Cowboys
Why the Spirit Endures
By Robert Draper
National Geographic Contributing Writer

There are two things that Wes Miner hopes not to see when he wakes early each morning and saddles up to survey the cattle left in his care. He does not wish to see a big black bird. Miner has nothing against crows or buzzards per se. But to view them wheeling solemnly across the sky, or scattering from the brush at his approach, is to feel his stomach tighten as he reckons with the knowledge that one or more of the animals entrusted to him have been killed.

Some of them are freak deaths. Four years ago, Miner worked on a ranch in Idaho where a spectacular electrical storm had erupted and toppled a dozen head of cattle huddled under a tree. Their bleached bones remained arrayed on the pasture for years as a testament to ill fortune. On the ranch he now tends in southwestern Montana, wolves devour a calf in the dark of night and leave no trace of the carnage. A cow gets stuck in a bog, breaks her leg, and Miner is forced to shoot her on the spot. A yearling munches on the blossoms of poisonous larkspur and drops dead within four hours. Nature gives and snatches away on a whim, but Wes Miner can handle that.

“What gets to me,” says the 28-year-old somber-eyed cowboy, “is if we lose a bunch of sick ones. Because that’s something I should control better.” Men in Wes Miner’s trade love the riding, the roping, and the stark romanticism of a cow camp. But there is a bottom line, and it comes at the end of October, when the 4,100 head he is paid to tend are herded into corrals, and the cattle owners roll up in their dusty pickups to count and inspect their property.

In high country like the Snowline Ranch where Miner works, temperatures can seesaw from 80 to 8 in a single day, and so pneumonia is a constant threat. It occupies Miner’s attention as he rides through the cattle. If some of them get caught in a downpour during cold weather, he’s fatally behind the curve. He must seize upon the earliest symptom: that lone calf amid the lurching sea of fur and fat with a single drooping ear, at which point Miner’s horse separates the calf from the others and the cowboy swings his long rope. Catch the calf with the first loop, reach for the meds in the saddlebag, inject the Nuflor. Done right, the calf barely notices, returns to the herd, and by the end of October is 600 pounds and received by his owner with an approving half smile—which to Wes Miner is a tiny miracle, at least compared with the sickly vision of the big black birds dining off his failures.

It’s a proud feeling, knowing he has staved off tragedy and been rewarded with the gratitude of owners who wave goodbye as they cart off their fattened commodities. The satisfaction lasts an evening. The next morning comes, and with it Wes Miner faces the second spectacle that he would rather not see. It’s the sight of a pasture with no cattle grazing on it. And this, too, feels like a sort of death. “We go so hard those last two or three weeks—every day, go, go, GO... and then you look on the hills, and there’s nothing but those saddle horses. It’s an empty feeling.”

American cowboys have not vanished in the mists of legend. Against the howling locomotion of modern and postmodern and transmodern eras, they reside right where they have been for three centuries and counting: in the cattle country of the West and Southwest, and at the core of a nation’s identity. This, despite the vagueness of the vocation itself. Are there ten thousand working cowboys today? Fifty thousand? Even were everyone to agree on the definition of “working cowboy”—and good luck with that—tracking the species has eluded every organization from the Working Ranch Cowboys Association to the United States Census Bureau.

Whatever the actual number, the job itself has gotten no easier in recent times. As cattle ranching has increasingly become big business, the cowboy’s essential place is more subject to an accountant’s dispassionate scrutiny. For that matter, the 71-billion-dollar U.S. cattle industry itself is beset by challenges from changing weather patterns, the vagaries of the international market, urban sprawl, and health threats from abroad. Inevitably, some cattle operations have learned to diversify by leasing out their acreage to hunters or offering dude-ranch tourism. Computerization—for ear-tagging and brand recording, among other uses—has increasingly become a welcome if strange bedfellow on cattle ranches.

But if high technology is the unstoppable force, here is the immovable object: Cattle subsist largely on grass. Cows need to be led to where the grass is ample. To achieve that requires no more and no less than an individual on horseback, accompanied by a rope and maybe a decent stock dog or two—all set on a landscape detached from urban clamor, not to mention cell phone service.

Proof of the cowboy’s resilience is that he has survived Hollywood’s ceaseless hyping of him as the quintessence of terse, masculine individuality. In the romanticizing, a few details are overlooked: Subzero February mornings. Triple-digit August afternoons. Cracked ribs from being bucked off a spooked horse. Thumbs severed by a roped steer. Forearms gooey from pushing a cow’s prolapsed uterus back up into its vagina. And day after day, week after week spent watching a thousand furry creatures chew up a pasture while your own stomach growls. All of this for a wage that works out to about four dollars an hour. What this arrangement guarantees is self-selection. Only those who seek out such misery will endure it.

“Oh, yeah, it was fun,” says 18-year-old Tyrel Tucker as he reflects on the winter he spent with his 20-year-old brother, Blaine, tending 2,300 cattle in a camp north of Flagstaff. The brothers slept in a cinder-block shack with cracks in the walls and no electricity. Every day from December until April, they rode on nearly 100,000 acres of land with only the cattle, the horses, and each other for company. Blaine’s cooking regimen did not vary: pancakes and sausage for breakfast, a can of sardines for lunch, potatoes and a hamburger on a biscuit or tortilla for dinner. The wind was relentless, and by nightfall the temperatures plummeted to 15 below zero.

None of which mattered. “We got to rope at least one calf every day,” says Tyrel. “You get to be by yourself. Do your own thing, don’t get bothered by the boss. I’d go back again.”

The Tucker brothers are lanky and taciturn and uninterested in any other life save the one they have led since infancy, when they rode horseback before they were able to walk and received their first horses by the age of two. Not for sport, however: Their mother, Michelle, tended the family ranch near Powell, Wyoming, and needed her boys’ help. When Tyrel was 17, he volunteered to drop out in the middle of his sophomore year of high school to get his GED and work full-time on the ranch. “It was great with me,” Tyrel recalls. What was there to miss? All of his classmates spent their free time playing Nintendo.

Blaine wears a Fu Manchu mustache, as do his father and his uncle. Tyrel is still working on his. With the hand-to-mouth lifestyle and the desire for independence comes an unexpected though endearing vanity: Cowboys care about how they look. A man who drifts from ranch to ranch, camp to camp, may not ever own a bed, much less a house. What he wears and what he straddles are pretty much all he’s got. “You can do this job in tennis shoes and a ball cap, I guess,” acknowledges Pat Crisswell, a compact Oklahoman who now tends a camp on the 150,000-acre Wagonhound Land and Livestock Company ranch in Wyoming. “But the more old-timey, the better.”

The original vaqueros—derived from vaca, Spanish for “cow”—were horsemen from present-day Mexico who drove cattle into Texas and up into California. Replete with engraved silver and embellished leather gear, the vaqueros cut gallant figures on the surly canvas of the Old West. But form was seldom without function. Their flat-brimmed hats and bandannas warded off the sun and the dust. And for durability, no cotton rope could compete against a hand-braided rawhide riata.

The vaquero style lives on in varying degrees in different regions. Mexico, with its sagging economy, is no longer chief custodian. Instead, California and Nevada buckaroos (itself a corruption of vaquero) are most apt to follow the tradition to the letter: half chaps, flashy silver bits, wide, flat-bottomed stirrups, slick-fork saddles, and the compulsory long ropes and flat hats. To the buckaroos, finesse is key. Rather than constantly jabbing, the buckaroo prefers to cue his horse with his spurs. The uncorrupted art of cattle roping—and God strike a cowboy dead for doctoring a sick cow from a four-wheeler instead of with a horse and lasso—involves first catching the cow, then dallying, or wrapping one’s rope around the saddle horn rather than tying it on. This takes more time, but the buckaroo does it anyway, without apology.

“I like the slower pace—throw a big, purty loop, not a hurry-up deal where you’re cussing at people,” says Wes Miner, the Montana native who was reared in the rodeo trade and now cleaves to the buckaroo ways—as do others less devoted. He notes ruefully: “I wore the flat hat for years. Then one day in Bozeman I saw two guys wearing ones like mine. Turned out they worked for a gardening store.”

Buckaroos are afforded their style by the wide-open terrain on which they labor. More rough-hewn landscapes breed a correspondingly unfussy approach to a cowboy’s work and dress. Brush country tears up jeans, necessitating the full-length but unadorned shotgun-style chaps worn by cowboys (sometimes called cowpunchers) in the Great Plains states and Texas. Brushy, tree-cluttered environs require shorter ropes and swell-fork saddles to tie on to. (Dallying is, well, dallying.) In windy areas, a stiff gale can knock a flat hat off a cowboy’s head, so he may prefer the steadier taco hat. Buckaroo purists may disparage the spartan, gritty style of cowpunchers as “hard and fast” and “rammin’-jammin’.” (The term cowpuncher probably derives from the brisk manner in which 19th-century ranch hands loaded cattle onto trains.) But looks deceive. The care in a cowpuncher’s work is as evident as in the more stylized rendition of the buckaroo’s.

Tyrel Tucker did not know much about these loose distinctions among cowboy traditions until his brother, Blaine, returned from summer on a ranch near Pryor, Montana. The buckaroos there wore silver-studded half chaps, reined their steeds with twisted horsehair mecates, and swung long rawhide ropes. So, now, do the Tucker brothers. Tyrel spends his free time working with silver, designing belt buckles and bits and spurs. The way other young men obsess over sports teams or computer games, Tyrel and Blaine Tucker devour every granule of the cowboy culture.

Not every cowboy is born into the life. “Some are loved into it,” says Pat Crisswell, a racehorse jockey’s son. “I had a government security job. The money was great, but I didn’t like the city, and I spent more time in bars than I should’ve. So I went to the Pitchfork Ranch in Guthrie, Texas. Went from $20 an hour to $750 a month. Guys I left behind thought I was crazy. I told ‘em, ‘There’s a little somethin’ called job satisfaction.’”

The cowboy culture is more egalitarian than most. You can find boilerplate Westerners riding cattle—but also African Americans, Mexicans, Canadians, and even Mennonites, not to mention emigrants from Germany, Brazil, Australia, and even India. Most who heed the call are young single males stirred by the outdoorsman’s yearning for manly adventure. But of course there are cowgirls, too, like Jodi Miner, a clear-eyed woman with a formidable handshake who grew up on a ranch near Dell, Montana, doctoring calves, repairing water tanks, and mending fences. In between college semesters at Bozeman, she took jobs calving and branding heifers and slept in bunkhouses surrounded by snoring men. Today, she and her husband, Wes, run the Snowline Ranch together on behalf of an absentee board of directors. They get free housing for themselves and their two young daughters. In return, the board expects Wes and Jodi Miner to devote themselves to ranch management, dealing with the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Cowboys have long been gypsy-like in their meanders—ever searching, through word of mouth (cowboys don’t Google), for that optimal blend of agreeable terrain, independence, and the opportunity to stay in the saddle. “In Montana, there aren’t many straight-up cowboy jobs anymore,” sighs Wes Miner. “For the most part, you’re gonna have to get off your horse a bit.’

So the Miners, and most of their ilk, get off their horses. Adapt they must, when they must. Cowboys have seen the alternative to their life, from a safe distance: men who live for the weekend, for their golf game. There is no Monday or Friday out on the ranch. There is no “hobby.” Instead, there is just being on a horse among three hundred elk and watching the sun rise. Cowboys don’t rhapsodize about such pleasures. Leave that to the poets or the keen brilliance of artist Charlie Russell. The cowboys hold their passion in reserve—waiting till the snows melt and the cattle trailers pull up to the gates, followed by the year’s first swell of hoofbeats. Then the vaqueros fall out of time, and they’re riding and hollering, boys for one more season.

There is no sign for Darwin Falls on the highway—you have to make the turnoff before you’ll see a sign. This is because the Park Service hides signs for certain attractions. I think this is a good idea. But no one wants to miss Darwin Falls, which features an 18-foot (5 meters) plunge into a shallow pool surrounded by maidenhair fern, impossibly green under beige sun-scorched cliffs. The mist from the falls cools the air to, I’d say, ten degrees lower than the open desert, and there is watercress at the pool. The water itself feels cool.

Even in February, with temperatures in the low 70s—and low 60s near the pool—it is tempting to take a quick dip in the water, but this is the drinking supply for a nearby resort, and swimming is highly impolite. Also, in the post-9/11 world, messing with someone’s water supply is not a good idea: The ill-mannered swimmer could be charged with terrorism.

From the falls, I drove several thousand feet up into the mountains on Highway 190, making for the Saline Valley turnoff. The pass took me to a forest of Joshua trees. They are widely spaced plants, and they often grow with four and five and even six arms, their branches festooned with green, bayonet-like leaves, reaching to the sun. Legend has it that Mormon pioneers saw in them a resemblance to the biblical Joshua raising his arms to heaven or brandishing his spear.

After the sun had set on the trees of Lee Flat, the western sky had that bruised, purple look of things to come, and I set up a tent and laid out a sleeping bag.

Dawn. And yes, as hoped, it was snowing lightly on the Joshua trees. I wandered about in the forest, as wet snow accumulated on the green of the growing leaves, on the autumnal brown of the dead vegetation nearest the trunks of the trees. Joshua trees are signature plants of the Mojave Desert, and the concept of desert flora in the snow contained within it a quiet thrill. I was alone, and I owned this view. And just as I began feeling especially blessed, the rising sun turned the snow into a cold, bitter rain. No matter: I’d had my half hour of beatitude.

At Telescope Peak trailhead, 8,133 feet up (2,479 meters), I prepared myself for the nearly 3,000-foot (910 meters) climb to the summit. Happily, I was stopped by snow almost immediately. From that point, I plunged down various roads, making my way north to the Eureka Dunes, which are up to 700 feet high (210 meters). They make groaning sounds as rounded sand grains slide down their steep slopes, playing them as a musical instrument.

Later, I hiked many of the canyons—one of the great pleasures of trekking 21st-Century Cowboys. Sinuous, shady walls make for cool walking in Fall Canyon, where rocks were laid down in light and dark layers. In places, these layers arched like an angry cat and eventually fell over on themselves, so that the striations looped over and under even as they rose into another peak that likewise collapsed. It is plain to see: The bandings, like the rocks in the Racetrack, have definitely moved. At this spot, on a looming canyon wall, geology itself appeared to be in a state of agitated frustration. This wall of naked rock, exposed for all to see, seemed to be blushing crimson in the light of the setting sun.

Robert Draper, a former staff writer at Texas Monthly, passed childhood summers on a quarter-horse ranch. Robb Kendrick spent six months documenting cowboy life in tintypes, a 19th-century photographic process.