Vail Daily column: The last of ’em
I was 9 or 10 years old, letting my arms dangle over the top of the metal gate to the corral, standing on the second or third green steel bar so I could see over the cattle already penned. It was spring in Montana, and the cold of the winter hadn’t quite worn off yet in the mornings. The low fog, typical during this time of year, was gently backlit by the rising sun and slowly fleeing the countryside. It was hard to hear over the din of the cows already inside the pens, but as another part of the herd started to rise from behind the hills, my stepfather’s cattle only got louder.
The silhouettes of the cows came first, their breath casting a dissipating cloud as they bellowed, seemingly complaining about having to get up and walk at such an early hour. They lumbered toward the corral, most of them already knowing the end goal. Occasionally one or two of the head would stop to look back, only to be lured to return in step with the rest of the herd by the never-ending mass of swishing tails and belabored hooves.
Over the rising noise I could hear the voices of the drive team from behind the hill now as they drew closer. I could hear their shallow yells, somewhat stereotypically, around a grossly oversized wad of chaw.
It was then that I had what I now call my “snowy river” moment: Ten or so riders crested the hill in the fog, the sun behind them making their faces indiscernible, their Carhartts and hats making them seem more in uniform than individual, riding behind the cattle in the same way their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done before them. The names fit the men and women: Sterling, Buster, Ruby, Bobby and on and on and on. Even at that young age, I near realized I was witnessing something that only a choice few would ever see. I spent the next seven years or so with them, not quite knowing that the stories I can tell now are experiences that most people won’t even be able to imagine in a few generations.
These men and women aren’t exclusive to Montana. The high Rockies have seen their own fair share of horsemen. Once in a while, if you’re in the right place and listening, one of them will tell you the stories of when ranches filled this countryside. I ain’t referring to rambler mansions on 30 acres neither, or a show operation running a couple dozen heads. I’m talking about the ranches where a bunkhouse is an actual bunkhouse, and you eat beef and potato, in some form, all three meals.
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Jimmy and Carol, a few local legends, have likely been on horseback in Eagle County longer than the total time I’ve been alive. Jimmy jokingly says that he spent the first half of his life studying horses from the top down, and the second half studying them from the ground up. He works now as a farrier, but in his impassioned moments, he talks about his love of teaching children how to ride. He laments the casual horsemen of our day, who rather than understand or train their horses, view every side step, hop or haunch sit as an affront to their dignity. He’s always felt that the human has the duty to understand the horse at first, rather than the other way around. You’re supposed to train your horse, he says, not just go out and find one that takes no effort. Being on your horse … well … that’s a privilege that’s supposed to come after you’ve been bucked off a few times. I’d agree.
He and Carol still dance together after all this time, and I don’t reckon I’ve ever seen the two of them apart in public. Carol, an accomplished rider herself, is the one to hold Jimmy gently by the arm after a few beers and take him home at the end of the night, just as they have done since they were my age and younger.
Those two are just a few, but if you were to count them all up these days, there’s only a few left anyway. I’ll tell you though, there’s a few lessons you learn from riding with them that you wouldn’t learn otherwise, and I hope that some of those lessons carry on. Here’s a reminder for some of you, or perhaps a brief look into what you saw in the pictures:
• You ride for the brand. Whatever your outfit, whatever your job, it’s that brand that you represent.
• Don’t inquire about a person’s past too much … you ought to take measure of the man he is today.
• Never order anything weaker than whiskey (I’m good at this).
• After you pass someone on the trail, don’t look back at him … it implies a lack of trust.
• Take pride in your work.
• Do what must be done. When you do what others won’t, you can have what others can’t.
• Never bother with another man’s horse … consider it akin to sleeping with his wife.
• Cuss all you want, but only around the men, horses and cows.
• Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand to show friendly intentions. (Translate this into your own industry.)
• Don’t make a practice of ingratitude.
• Live with courage. Cowards aren’t much tolerated in any outfit.
• Be hospitable to strangers. Anyone who wanders in, including your enemy, is welcome at the dinner table.
• Give your enemy a fighting chance.
• Real cowboys are humble … don’t be all gurgle and no guts.
• No day drinking.
• Your word is your bond. A handshake is a contract.
And finally, talk less and say more (something I’m working on … a blatant shout here to Maria Minick, a local talented, retired English teacher who is kind yet direct enough to leave grammar feedback on my voicemail. Keep it coming Maria … how else am I going to get better at this? For rebuttal though, check out Jack Kerouac’s 30 Beliefs, No. 13).
Now, even though I’m at my desk, I’m suddenly on the ranch. I can smell the hay being put up. I can feel the rumble of the washboard dirt roads and the dew of the wet grass soaking my boots. I look across the rolling fields and squint into the setting sun, and look up at the azure sky to scare off the oncoming sea of storm clouds. I see the men and women, some of them dead now, some of them more of a legend now than they were then, quiet and hardened by the elements, the black veins from too many winters gracing their noses as trophies.
I guess I’ve been getting a little quiet and hardened myself these days, but as I stand up from my desk and in front of the window, I look down at my hands and mourn the lack of cuts and calluses that were once there. I reckon I ought to go for a ride …
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.