Cowboy upwards, please

Retro Blog


There are many things I have learned in my years in the west.

As a “round peg in a square state” I have learned (and written) about hunting, fishing, hunting and fishing guides, gates and why you don’t want to sit “shotgun,” rowing a raft, snow and its consequences and much more.

But never before have I written about cowboys.

Before I get started, I want to warn you that I am, at some point in this column, going to make a joke so bad I pretty much guarantee you will groan audibly. Many will stop reading altogether. You have been warned.

Yes, we still have cowboys in Wyoming.

You know, boys who “cow” for a living.

We even have girls who “cow” for a living. We call them cowgirls.

You most likely will never hear a cowgirl demand to be called a “cowperson.” Much less would a cowgirl want a cowboy called a “cowperson” just to rain on his parade. The cowgirls I have known want to be known as girls and eventually you will find they also can hold their own with any cowboy out there. Sexy, smart and strong … it’s pretty much a western thing and our version of feminism.

We do have men who “cow” for work … but they’re cowboys too and proud to be called “boy.” When you get to men and women who “cow” and need to be called men and women … well, them’s Cattlemen and Cattlewomen … and they are usually the bosses (that’s why the capitol “Cs”).

Cattlemen and Cattlewomen may work with cowboys but that’s usually a choice thing. They are usually also cleaner (less crap on them) and better dressed (newer Wranglers) than your run of the mill cowboy.

I have met lots of Cattlemen and Cattlewomen at cocktail parties but cowboys are usually to be found in bars (dive or regular—nothing higher).

There is not usually a lot of upward mobility in the cowboying profession. It’s not like cowboys often find themselves growing up to become Cattlemen.

There is one position lower on the totem pole than a cowboy though. That’s a cattle guard. I’d tell you more about that–but it’s a grating position (Wait. That’s not it—keep reading. Also, if you didn’t know that was a bad joke–you are definitely a greenhorn).

I do know one self-professed “dumb cowboy” who got out and bought himself a bar. He has owned that bar for decades now and can usually be found sitting there drinking a draft beer and dispensing “dumb cowboy” wisdom to any ear that can be bent. He used to scamper around a bit delivering these bits of “common sense”–but age has dulled the scampering to a more manageable (for the rest of us) shuffle.

Cowboys (and girls) do fun things like ride horses to mend fence, brand cattle, irrigate fields, collect stray cows and the like. And even though the large cattle drives of old are gone (replaced by semi trucks and trains), you will occasionally still see modern cowboys driving cattle from pasture to pasture. Sometimes that means you have to wait while a herd crosses the highway you are trying to drive down.

If this kind of delay upsets you though, don’t come out west. Personally, I find these sort-of looks into the past usually bring a smile to my face. How often do you get to see real cowboys riding herd and whooping and hollering at a bunch of cows anyway? It’s really pretty entertaining if you are willing to let go of your annoyance and just be entertained.

It spoils it when one of them is on a cell phone while riding though.

Texting while riding … isn’t that a hanging offense?

Most real cowboys will tell you they have two tools: baling wire and duct tape. If it can’t be fixed with these two heaven-sent commodities then it can’t be fixed. Knowing this now, I’m kinda surprised I have never found a piece of duct tape in a package of beef from the store … but there’s always tomorrow.

I knew all about the remarkable duct tape before coming out west but my suburban upbringing had never taught me the wonders of baling wire. Baling wire is a bendy (flexible) yet strong wire usually associated with containing hay in a convenient bundle. Pieces of it can be used in many imaginative ways—most of which seem to involve holding up truck mufflers.

Cowboys are practical types. If something doesn’t have a function they don’t want it. For example, a cowboy hat protects both the wearer’s face and neck from blistering sun. It’s shape makes a pretty good umbrella in wetter conditions. It can also be used to hold water for a horse if need be.

The silk scarves cowboys favor are not just for decoration either (though they are fairly fashionable). Turns out silk is preferred because they can be effectively worn as masks to keep dust out of their mouths in windy, dry conditions. Silk is also a way better insulator than cotton and keeps a cowboy neck warmer when things turn chilly.

Trucks are practical too. They hold all the tools a cowboy needs and are rugged enough to get where’s needed to be got. Cowboys pretty much all use trucks as their secondary mode of transportation (after horses) and have since the days when trucks were cheap.

I think this cowboy romance with trucks is at least partly to blame for the increased popularity of trucks as a primary vehicle. Everyday cowboys generally drive old beater trucks because they actually use them as well … trucks. Although most western folk who drive trucks use them as trucks, the general populace has become enamored of trucks that are more luxury cars than truck–with prices that usually make me ask “how many rooms does it have” rather than “how many cylinders?”

But that’s just me. I’m cheap.

Also, at the end of the year ranches all across the west get their cowboys gathered up and measure their masses … but hey, that’s just the cowboy weigh.


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