Born on the road and still wandering
BATTLEMENT MESA – For Archie Hughes, the cowboy life is pure poetry, and he has followed his destiny of ridin’ and rhymin’.”I’ve been bucked off some broncs I thought surely I could ride. I’ve seen some good buddies cross over the Great Divide,” he writes in his poem “Unsaddlin’.”These days, this cowboy and award-winning Western poet is hobbling due to injuries suffered not from falling from a horse, but from being bucked off the back of a dump truck while helping hurricane victims in New Orleans.”I wanted to retire, but not like this,” he said of the irony.Since January, Hughes, 63, has lived in Battlement Mesa, about 65 miles west of Gypsum. He arrived there following a wild ride of a life in which he has crisscrossed the West as a cowboy, while alternately rubbing shoulders with movie stars, disturbing the peace in bar fights and keeping the peace as a town marshal.”My mother said I was born wandering,” he said, referring to his birth in a car while she was on the road in the Southeast. “I’ll probably wander till the day I die.”While rehabilitating, he’s working on a book about his life, “It’s Almost a True Cowboy Story.” He’s also writing four children’s books – some true, some fiction – about animals that include a rascally rabbit, an ugly horse, an injured tortoise and a (supposed) jackalope.”I’ve been riding horses 59 years now, Bud, and not only on the weekend,” he said. “My grandpa was a cowboy, and he lived in New Mexico, and I come out when I was a kid and fell in love with it.”
Hughes treasures memories of rounding up and taming wild mustangs. “If you can just imagine being on an animal that you love and trust, running wide open to catch another one, and what you’re catching is wild and untouched,” he said.Cameo with ClooneyAfter his work as a “mustanger,” Hughes hit the “road,” he said. “I just started back cowboying, traveling horseback. I stayed out probably 210 days out of the year, just going out on horseback, just going from place to place, picking up jobs,” Hughes said.For a time, Hughes worked as town marshal in Ignacio, in southwestern Colorado. “It was a pretty rough little town then,” he said.The job was a change of pace for someone who had gotten caught up in his share of brawls as a cowboy. “I was on the other side of the law. I was breaking up the fights instead of being in them,” he said.He and a friend once got in a scuffle at the Red Onion in Aspen with “hippies and bikers” who were making fun of them. The two eventually fled – on horses. “They was looking for us in cars and we was going up the side of the mountain on horseback,” Hughes said.
In the 1960s, Hughes met up with actor Dennis Hopper, who owned an old stagecoach stop in Taos, N.M., and offered to hire him on. “He just thought I’d add to the flavor of it,” Hughes said. “At that time I didn’t know Dennis Hopper from a grasshopper. Room and board was good so I took it,” he said of the job offer.While there, Hughes met guests ranging from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Janis Joplin.Hopper “was in his crazy years” when Hughes worked for him, but Hughes would bite his lip when asked about the actor. “I said, ‘Well, he’s kind of goofy but he’s my boss so I’m not going to say nothing about it.'”Later, Hughes found work at an Arizona dude ranch owned by Merv Griffin. Hughes would entertain guests with his poetry and campfire stories. Again he met more celebrities, including Joan Rivers and Mark Spitz. “What was so neat, they wanted my autograph. I thought that was kind of funny,” he said.Eventually Hughes met David O. Russell, who was directing the movie “Three Kings,” starring George Clooney, whom Hughes calls “a real nice guy.” Hughes said he drove some vehicles in the film, and he also appears, bearded, in one scene in which Ice Cube is dividing stolen gold in a cellar.Hughes said he also has shot commercials for Southwest Airlines, Dodge Dakota and other advertisers.More recently, Hughes ran Piney River Ranch near Vail.
Still not settled? Hughes said his wife, Leslee, used to sing with Daughters of the Purple Sage. Today the two of them, and his stepchildren Aimee, 21, Alee, 17, and Austin, 15, perform bluegrass, gospel and old western music together.Hughes said he once traded a horse for a 1905 Gibson mandolin for his wife. It was a good deal, he said. “I can take an old horse and make something but I can’t take a piece of wood and make a mandolin out of it,” he explained.Hughes is recovering from numerous injuries suffered in New Orleans, while also mentally processing the extreme poverty and conditions he observed there. “I saw things there that will probably stick with me the rest of my life,” he said.He hopes eventually to buy a place with some land for his horses, perhaps in the area. He said he’s happy just to be able to smell horses, even if he can’t ride them again. But this vagabond cowboy still has some favorite places around the West he hopes to visit again on a horseback.”It’s like I’ve always said. There’s something over that other mountain I want to see,” he said.Vail, Colorado