The mountains of Colorado are not shy about their majesty, or their purple. From a plane window view they stride regally through the landscape, sporting crystalline white crowns and violet robes. But more humbling, and perhaps more self-agrandizing than the Colorado Rockies are their rare breed of people who inhabit them: cowboys.
Cowboys claimed a piece of Hollywood fame in the good-old-days of Westerns, but outside that unique genre so little is known of them in the 21st century American North East that they may as well have ceased to exist. The name “cowboy” only contributes to a misunderstanding of the field; if anything defines a cowboy it is the horse, not the cow. The horse is to the cowboy as the cow is to the Hindu: sacred.
On the Wilderness Trails Ranch in Durango I met cowboys of many forms, all involved with horses: wranglers, breakers, poets and cooks. They came from all over the country: the southeast, southwest, and northwest, (there was a curious lack of northeastern cowboys). But of all of these, the pair with whom I journeyed into the wilderness, a man named Joe and his daughter Tierra, helped me best understand the essence of cowboy existence. In my ill-informed, northeastern opinion, they were the closest to the “real” (read: non-holywood) thing.
Joe looks like a cowboy; his sun-worn, dirt-strewn skin is clad in plaid and his weather-beaten hair is permanently covered by a Stetson. Joe eats like a cowboy: a steady diet of meat, often self-hunted, and foods cooked over open fire. He rides like a cowboy, drinks like a cowboy, speaks and twangs like a cowboy. But I couldn’t pin down what it meant to be a cowboy. One definition of “a true cowgirl” that runs among the community is someone who’s been thrown from a horse three times.
Joe and his sidekick, Tierra, led my siblings and I on a day long pack trip to the mid-mountain campsite where he takes visitors to hunt, fish and ride for up to a week at a time. Joe led the way up the mountain, turning backwards on his horse to drawl out a steady stream of stories of horses and hunting and smoky, starlit nights. Tierra brought up the rear on the back of Max, a wide eyed paint horse with color as splotchy as though he’d been decorated by Jackson Pollack. Max was known for bucking every cowboy who’d ridden him. At 12 Tierra had already fallen off the horse three times, but she still sat unflinchingly atop Max, whom she’d taught to smile on command. That horse raised his lips at her behest like she was holding a gun to his head! Surely, she was a true cowgirl.
Still, as much as I tried to define a cowboy, the cowboys defied definition. In a week of dude-ranching I encountered two indefinable aspects of cowboy culture. The first was the food. While legend has it that cowboys exist on canned beans and jerky, a good cowboy cook can whip up the most scrumptious meals with tools no gourmet would dare go near. Using the scant ingredients and tools he had, and cooking over the ungovernable tongues of the campfire, Joe managed to serve up the best broccoli I ever recall tasting. Smothered in nothing more than butter and pepper, and delivered into a pair of chattering, chapped lips, that broccoli had a warming effect that could turn any protesting child’s heart. As a pescetarian I did not partake of the sizzling steaks Joe shunted off the grill, but my brother’s face, despite the lack of A1 sauce, spoke volumes of that carnivorous delight.
The best thing on the menu was the also the freshest: a brook trout caught not 20 minutes earlier by my rod-happy brother. When he had been away from the campsite for an hour I went to look for him, only to be sucked into the position of flag bearer; the unglamorous task of carrying the fish, speared onto the edge of a long stick, its rigor mortis causing occasional spasms reminiscent of a flag’s flashes in the wind. Still, the sumptuous, unparalleled freshness of the fish caught and filleted before my eyes convinced me that brook fishing was not a fools’ errand, but rather a singularly delicious and rewarding experience.
Aside from roasting marshmallows, favorite fire-side activities include telling stories. But cowboy campfire stories are of a different breed. On a different star-spangled evening, around a different campfire, I soaked in the Seuss-like rhythm and tone of cowboy poetry. Yes, cowboy poetry, a rare art form that manages to wrangle the essence of the wild-west into a presentable media. “Dirty” was the evening’s poet, named thus for his habit of chewing tobacco and depositing the resultant saliva into whatever receptacle was most immediate. Those who found the snuff in their coffee mugs or untended sneakers affectionately coined the name.
Thoroughly unaccustomed to poetry of the cowboy persuasion, I found myself riveted by tales spun in primitive meter. My favorite of the many rambling, pastoral scenes was one about a homicidal chef who shot doughnuts with rifles to create holes, and beat eggs with the ferocity of a bee-stung bear. Before my ears was true organic, local art: close to the land and its people. Locavores should add art to their list of things best consumed indigenously.
As best as I can define them, cowboys are, at core, simple, great outdoorsmen who value shooting stars over movie stars, and prefer a good hook over a good book. Cowboys and girls are the rootin-tootin types who know the lay of the land better than the back of their hand, because the back of their hand is covered in dirt after too many showerless days. Their expertise is ironically, and somewhat unnervingly, reminiscent of the people whose land they forcibly occupied: the native tribes whose ancient dwellings can still be spotted among the Colorado cliffs. But as the crown has passed from the Indian to the Cowboy dynasty, the latter now reign supreme over the regal Colorado range. From atop their horses, they surely know how to hold that reign.