When people first find out that I’m from Texas, a question that I often get is something about being a cowboy. “Are you a real cowboy?”, “Do you have cows?”, "Where's your hat?" or some other goofy question.
Having grown up deep in the heart of Texas, it is somewhat surprising to me that my yearning to be a Texas cowboy never really found its way to the forefront of my adolescent thoughts.
As I’ve grown older though, I watch movies like “Lonesome Dove,” John Wayne’s “The Cowboys” and others and feel the romantic tuggings of the cowboy life. Living out on the range, sleeping under the stars, riding a fine horse across vast lands under impossibly big and wide skies, eating grub from the chuck wagon, growing my mustache longer than the trail and wider than the skies… who wouldn’t want that life?
Look at that guy. Does he look happy to you?
Here’s how things were for cowboys back in the day.
Roundups were held in the spring and in the fall. During a roundup, cowboys from different ranches worked together to gather cattle in a central location. The purpose of the roundup was to give each owner the opportunity to inventory his herd and have cattle separated to send to market.
New calves were branded during the roundups. Calves were branded with the same brand as their mother. Several cowboys worked together to brand each cow. Usually one roped the calf, two held it on its side on the ground, and another placed the brand on the hide of the cow using a branding iron heated in a fire. Even today, it takes several cowboys to brand a calf.
During the roundups cowboys from several neighboring ranches worked together. They often spent their time in the evenings together telling stories and having contests. Cowboys competed to see who could rope a calf the quickest or who could ride a wild horse the longest.
Cattle separated for sale in the spring were moved in herds from Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas. Cattle were moved during the spring and summer because there was plenty of grass and the weather was warm.
During the late 1800s, the closest railways were in Kansas. Once the herds reached Kansas, they would be sold and transported by rail to Eastern cities. Because the cattle moved 10 – 15 miles per day over the open plain, it might take 2 – 3 months to reach their destination. The routes they chose were determined by the type of terrain and the location of water. Some of the difficulties cowboys faced included deep rivers, lack of adequate water and stampedes. The route of one of the most popular trails in Oklahoma, the Chisholm Trail, was marked with 400 concrete markers in 1997.
Cowboys on cattle drives spent much of their day alone. They rode from sunrise to sunset, except for a break for lunch when the cattle were given time to graze and rest. The evening meal at the chuck wagon was the social event of the day. Cowboys gathered around the fire to visit and tell stories.
At night each cowboy took a 2 hour shift to watch the cattle. During that time, the cowboy watched to see that no cattle strayed. Cowboys often sang to the cattle to help calm them. If something frightened the cattle, such as a loud noise, there was a danger they would stampede.
Cowboys faced many dangers on cattle drives, including being trampled in a stampede, struck by lightening or bitten by a rattlesnake. Being dragged by his horse, after falling off the horse with his foot still in the stirrups, was a common cause of death for many cowboys.
It’s not like I haven’t had my opportunities to be a cowboy either. We were big time cattle ranchers back in Texas. It wasn’t always easy taking care of a herd, but the adventure and experience was unforgettable. My family’s foray into big time cattle ranching back on the Seven Oaks Ranch consisted of two cows, and two calves sired by our neighbor’s bull. Yep… big time cattle ranching at its finest.
Remember that movie with Billy Crystal called “City Slickers”? “Yesterday They Were Businessmen. Today they’re Cowboys. Tomorrow They'll Be Walking Funny.”
Synopsis: Three male friends, facing their 40th birthdays and experiencing midlife crises, decide they need time away from their "soft" city lives. Fans of old Western films, particularly John Wayne's RED RIVER, they decide to vacation at a dude ranch, where they will be responsible for a two-week-long cattle drive through the Colorado hills. Along the way the urban cowboys encounter bad weather; macho, gun-wielding ranchers; and pregnant cattle, but they finish the drive with their lives back on track.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
Well guys, here’s the awful truth about me.
I would’ve been like the ice cream guys. I would’ve quit right next to them. On the surface it sounds like an adventure that would be fun and exciting. Out under the open sky, eating food cooked on the chuck wagon, sleeping peacefully under the stars. Working hard to accomplish a goal. Yeah, that sounds like fun except for one thing.
Cows. I don’t like them. I don’t like rustling them. I have no interest in roping one. I’m not all that fond of the way they smell. They have a way of messing up a perfectly good field. They’re prone to stampeding. I do not now, nor have I ever, had the yearning to sing to a cow. They make that hideous bellowing noise. They are as stubborn as mules. I just don’t like being around them. For any reason!
Some Texan I am, right? Oh sure… I might dress the part sometimes. I have my cowboy hats and boots. I might even wear a large belt buckle someday if I find the right one. I have some button down shirts, but that’s as close as I’m willing to get to being a real cowboy.
I’m also not crazy about riding horses either. I’ve been on a horse two times in my life that I can recall. The first was when I was a small boy growing up in Austin, Texas. The second was in 1996 just before I was to meet some friends I had met on AOL. I was the only one of the group from Texas and I was a little shy about admitting that I don’t really ride horses. Someone I worked with had horses and she volunteered to take me out and teach me how to ride. She put me on the biggest horse out there and I was more than a little intimidated by the beast. But I climbed aboard and even got some pictures of the rare occurrence. Man, I wish I still had those pictures. Wouldn’t they be a hoot? I rode for about an hour, and that was enough. My hind parts let me know that one hour was MORE than enough.
So today my interests in cows are limited to good Bar-B-Que. OK, maybe the occasional leather item will spark a little interest. Other than that, I am perfectly happy letting someone else be the rugged John Wayne / Marlboro Man hero of the wild west.
Just not my cup of tea.
Until next time…