Pale Riders

(Scanorama May 1999)

His back needs an operation and one knee will soon be ripe for plastic replacement. Last year he was bucked off and the horse stomped on two of the bones in his ribcage. “I´m here because I wanna be here. It´s darn sure not the income, but it´s a good, clean, healthy way of life. Personally, I like being around horses and cattle. If you don´t enjoy that, there´s no other reason to be here.” Chris Davey is 43 years old and in the prime of his life, but he walks a little stiffly, with spurs jangling like bells in a religious procession.

The first rider looms into view at five past six, his head pulled down deep in his collar. Far away the cattle are moving in circles, like dark spots on a vast canvas. Gradually they drift across the pale green sea of grass, heading for the branding pen. Greyish winds have swept in during the night and the dawn rears up, hesitant and frozen.

For two months, ever since their birth, the calves have been roaming the range with the herd. Now the branding irons lie red-hot in the fire. In a couple of minutes their lives will be changed forever. Once carefree and coddled, they will soon become walking sides of beef. And, not long after that, they will be dead meat.

It was only 3:30 when Chris Davey, the cow boss, stuck his head in under the tent flap. “Heeey, breakfast!” One of the guys had been snoring loudly all night and, dog-tired, I staggered into the cook tent and wrapped my feeble, frozen hands around a steaming cup of coffee. Topher had already lit his first Lucky Strike. Thin and shivering, he sat hunched up under his hat. Breakfast consisted of eggs, meat patties, beans, biscuits, coffee and a smoke. Chris Davey and his closest hand, John Edwards, kept up a steady patter of conversation – stories about crazy horses and nutty horsemen – while we others yawned and blinked our eyes. Twelve good men lined up along the sides of the tent. Twelve cowboys on a mission.

In the space of 25 days they will brand 4,400 calves at the north end of the seemingly endless Padlock Ranch.

Montana is one of the biggest states in the Union, but people are few and far between here and Chris Davey approvingly quotes singer Don Edwards: “I like my fellow man the most/When he is scattered some.” Meriwether Lewis´s and William Clark´s famous expedition came through here in the early 19th century looking for a navigable passage to the Pacific Ocean. They were followed by settlers from back east, hard-bitten loners and worn-down pioneer families with nothing to lose.

The newcomers built houses on the prairie and tried to plough the soil when the snow had finally melted on the sagebrush. Among the few single women who found their way here were occasional schoolteachers, and before the roof of the schoolhouse had even been laid men stood panting in the hall, hoping their breath would not scare the women away. It was a colonization with many setbacks. For once, the white man´s cavalry suffered defeat by the Indians at Little Bighorn and many homes were levelled to the ground by harsh winter blizzards. Grey, sway-backed and abandoned, some of the barns and homesteads can still be seen standing against the horizon in Big Sky Country, this often heartbreakingly beautiful Montana, with the majestic Rocky Mountains in the background, where only those who knew the ways of the wild country or the new railroad capitalism survived.

What was once buffalo country is now cattle country. “I´d have to say, this grass is probably some of the best grass in the state of Montana,” Davey says. “But it´s a country of extremes. Whe haven´t had a lot of moisture and we´re kinda headed for a wreck if the weather doesn´t change.”

And on this early summer morning the wind does indeed carry some moisture, first in the form of horizontally driving snow, later as thin curtains of weightless rain. As the riders approach, their hat brims are white and their shoulders wet. By eight o´clock, all the animals are assembled in the pen, more than 200 cows and just as many calves.

The silence has been broken by their now-ceaseless bellowing and as the ropes sail through the air and the calves are dragged to the iron and branded on their backs and above their muzzles, their agonized cries pierce the air. There is a harsh smell of singed hair and burnt skin. Nimble hands dehorn the heaviest animals and snip off the bull calves´ testicles. Held down by a couple of cowboys, the calves roll up their eyes in fear and desperation, showing the bluish whites.

It is heavy, unpleasant, sweaty work, fraught with risk. The horses and riders are tightly penned in among the cattle; the animals are nervous and follow their own logic, able to deal a deadly blow with the kick of a hoof.

The day´s branding is over at 11:00. Coffee, a few smokes. The men disperse the animals, which climb to the top of a ridge where they look like little black slugs against the undulating hills.

Behind us we leave a few hundred square metres of trampled prairie, a hundred or so small furry skin pouches and the kind of stillness that settles over the scene when all is done.

The cowboys get about 600 dollars a month, in addition to meals and the corner of a tent to lay out their bedrolls. The first nights, before they hit the trail with their wagon, the youngest stay in a little two-room wooden cottage, where the washing machine has been stuffed full of jeans on which the terrified calves have peed. Empty soft-drink cans , piles of blankets, in the toilet three magazines with colour pictures of women baring all. The TV shows fuzzy images from Fox and PBS.

Tyler Cox is here for the first time. His parents run an unprofitable ranch in Washington state. He sees five years of agro business studies in front of him. “I want to make myself hireable and raise a family,” he says. “I want to become like Chris. Or else I need to apply for a job in a bank or with an insurance company, but that´s not something you do voluntarily if you can work with horses.”

“I wouldn´t trade this for anything, it´s a helluva life,” says Michael Tingle, who is a qualified welder and has worked as a roughneck on oil rigs back home in Louisiana. Nick Hix, who recently left high school in South Dakota, adds: “Nothing else compares to the cowboy life. You never stay in one place for long, you pack up and move on. But it´s a young man´s game. Age catches up with you. When you´re good enough to cowboy, you´re already too old for it.”

These young cowpokes are about 20 and many have grown up on smaller ranches where the future looks highly uncertain. Large-scale beef-growing enterprises are today´s melody, with hormone injections and overproduction and elimination of small outfits with debts. Something´s gotta give; many ranchers take other jobs on the side or resort to tourism. City dwellers from the east coast and Europe pay dearly for the chance to live a spartan ranch life for a few weeks in the summer, with a hunting rifle and a dappled horse.

Big outfits like the Padlock, which may have up to 40,000 head of cattle, smile at these so-called dude ranches – a “dude” is a city slicker who doesn´t know one end of a horse from the other – but they bring in much-needed dollars and keep a positive cowboy image alive. Time and again, Americans turn west to reinvent and recreate themselves. The Wild West embodies the great American Myth, where the lone horseman riding off into the sunset is a central figure.

When Topher breaks camp, everything is stowed away in its place: his tiny canvas tepee, his boots, bridle, bedroll and a guitar. “This is my life,” he says. “This is what I´ve got.” He wears spurs with peace symbols and his real name is Chris Doremus, from south Texas, a dusty land of scrub and sand “where you gotta be punchy” and where “cowboying is a ram and jam deal. In the south, you only get one chance to rope a calf, then it gets lost in the brush. Here in Montana they pride themselves on their gear. We go full blast and push the cattle a little harder.”

We have 43 horses with us when we leave the base camp. Topher´s hat has a curled-up brim. “That´s because Texans want to be able to crowd a lot of people into a pickup,” Chris Davey says teasingly. He and some of the others regard themselves as buckaroos; with their straight brims and specially made saddles they are harking back to a Californian vaquero tradition with Spanish and even Moorish roots.

One of the riders, Kevin Gatlin, is also trying to set up business as a silversmith. Before he went West he was a policeman in Atlanta for fifteen years, moving up from patrol officer to lieutenant with twenty investigators under him. “That job kind of wears you down,” he says. “You never know what kind of scene you´ll enter. There could be aids and stuff. Most policemen have only a gold watch to look forward to.”

In contrast, here the scene is a vast panorama of peace and emptiness. The trees are sparsely scattered, as if they were trying to form themselves into a forest but failing miserably. Robin redbreasts dart between the thickets. “And then there´s the smell in the morning,” sighs Clay Jackson.

He´s one of the young men, tall and dark, cultivating his cowboy identity, anxious to button his buttons just right. “There´s a use for everything we wear,” he says. “We wear spurs to make our horses go. We wear our chaps to protect our legs.”

“And we look classy,” adds Nick Hix, who wears a snow-white shirt under his sport jacket.

“Yeah, we look good and that´s important, too,” Jackson replies. “Nobody´s gonna see us out here, but I like to look nice.” He claims that ever since he was small he has known that this was the only thing he wanted to do. “People always say they can do it quicker and faster with other stuff, but you can never replace a good horse and a man who knows how to use a rope.”

According to Hix, you have to put up with a lot to take a life out on the range. “You can´t just pull somebody out here and think he´s gonna be a cowboy; that´s just real romantic. The cowboy´s been put on a pedestal. You know, this country was born and founded and raised with cattle, but Hollywood has glorified this business so much and made it all wild and woolly and bronc stompin´. I mean, they way they make it out in the movies is just completely different from the way we do it here.”

But what about country music, which conveys western sentiments to a large public? “The majority of us listen to rock´n´roll,” snorts Hix. “I don´t listen to country music at all. That country music line dancin´ stuff is just another misconception. Anybody can go to the store and buy them boots and a hat and go out on the dance floor. That´s what this country has turned into – they´re glorifying the cowboy as a two-stepping dancin´ fool.”

In this masculine world, beauty is experienced solely in relation to the landscape, animals and items that go into making up “the tack”, or work gear. At twilight, after supper, when the sweat has dried and the horses have been unsaddled, the young cowboys stand a little off to the side comparing pommels and stirrups and the hand-tooled patterns that swirl over the curved leather. The tents glow white in the silent sagebrush under an endless sky.

“What´s it all about?” Michael Tingle asks himself, scratching his beard. “A great big love for horses.”

That is the obvious answer all over the ranch country in Wyoming and Montana where, at any time, a herd can come pounding over over a rocky plateau and spill out onto the vast grazing lands. Early one morning, Kim Kelsey and his men from the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch round up their frisky horses from their winter pasture outside Bozeman to drive them 80 kilometres to their summer ranch chores just north of Yellowstone Park.

The sight is breathtaking in its perfection: 114 painted horses – white, grey, chestnut, black, spotted, speckled or striped – galloping down the slopes, first right at us and then down through a ravine and off towards the approaching sun. They move in unison, thundering across the mute, still sleepy,landscape. In the clouds of dust torn up by their hooves, they pant, snort, stretch and gallop away.

From the end of September until the beginning of June, they are more or less on their own. Then comes a period of work duty with saddles on their backs on Kelsey´s dude ranch. The horses are small and sturdy. “This is steep country and they work really well in the mountains,” says the rancher.

It was Indians from the Nez Perce tribe who bred them and gave them the name Appaloosa. As a boy, Kelsey listened with fascination to his father´s stories about how Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce ran off to Canada and fought the cavalry from there. “The Indians needed small horses with stamina,” he says. “The cavalry had big thoroughbreds and they could never outride the Indians. White people hated the Appaloosa because of this and tried to eliminate them. The West would have looked different had the Indians won a few more battles. The whites fought over gold, the Indians over horses. They had another view on life.”

On the surface, today´s conflict in the West is over the relations with outsiders who want to tell Montanans how to run their state. “Don´t californicate Montana” says a bumper sticker. When Ted Turner and Jane Fonda bought a ranch here, they sold all the cattle and released 3,000 head of buffalo on their land. In Washington, politicians and academic environmental experts warn against overgrazing and insensitive logging. A very large part of the grazing lands is public land, leased by private ranchers, and the spokesmen for public and private interests are not always on speaking terms. “Environmentalist” is one of the dirtiest words you can hear when ranchers meet to discuss economics and politics.

Bus as always where land rights are involved, it´s all about power and money. On the range and in the timberlands out west, an alliance has emerged that wants to shrink the public space and limit federal influence. Wealthy private landowners want to free themselves of political constraints and, at the outer fringes of the populist movement, openly undemocratic militant groups arm themselves and refuse to recognize the right of the American government to tax them or to make laws that apply to all Americans.

“I think a lot of times people in my line of work tend to be a little apathetical and kinda maybe not give a damn about the rest of the world,” says Chris Davey, reflecting on his own relationship with city folks from the east coast. “It´s almost kinda like an ostrich burying his head in the sand. We tend to stick to our own and maybe just concern ourselves with our own surroundings as opposed to more worldly things. But any time a person doesn´t take an interest or a part in politics and that sort of thing, it´s just kind of a bad deal.”

On the other hand, he says, federal legislators don´t care about what westerners think or feel. “There´s a big movement to try to rid public lands of cattle, but a lot of city folks don´t understand that grass is an important commodity to us and that, probably, some of the first environmentalists were ranchers. If they were not good stewards of the land, then they would be out of business. If you let grass grow and don´t do anything with it, it becomes so bound up that it prohibits growth.”

Next day, they´re out there again among the bellowing calves and the hissing branding irons. The heat has crept down over the hills and the dust coats sweaty necks and noses. One of the horses suddenly sprints away with Clay Jackson, who swears and swats the animal´s neck with his black hat. Soon everything is under control and, later, he walks off to the side to whisper secrets into the horse´s ear.

As usual, Denise Davey, Chris´s wife, is waiting with food at the chuck wagon. Tortillas, beans, minced beef. She grew up with the ranch life and has a warm, easy smile which deepens as she talks about the Montana where she has always lived. “I seriously believe I couldn´t live in town,” she says. “I´d have a hard time seeing a neighbour as soon as I open the door.”

She is, strangely enough, a night person, totally out of rhythm with the rituals and duties connected with camp life on the range. “It´s tough getting up at 1:30 in the morning to cook breakfast, but I like being around cowboys.” This means she´s had to shoulder a traditional woman´s role, something no one around has questioned. “It´s my responsibility to take care of the kids while Chris brings home the money. Chris never changed diapers on our kids. My place is in the house. I take pride in that; that´s how I was brought up. Nothing upsets me more than people asking me what my job is.”

For Chris Davey, this life is about a choice of values. On the ranch, the children don´t have to be confronted with urban gangs and destructive drugs. If he hadn´t been a cowboy, he might have considered a life as a seaman; at sea there is the same close camaraderie, the same liberating sense of solitude.

But he doesn´t think that the cowboy lifestyle will survive very far into the new millenium. “It´s pretty much done. The Padlock´s one of the few ranches with straight riding jobs, where a man doesn´t have to get on a tractor. My son is 17 and I´ve really tried to dissuade him from going into this line of work.”

With his sore back and his bum knee, he has paid a heavy price for the freedom of having his office on the back of a horse. “It´s a tough way to live and, really, a man doesn´t have much to show for it. If I was to lose my job tomorrow I´d have nothing. I don´t have a house of my own; it´s owned by the ranch. It´s just one of those things where a man can put in his whole life doing this and at the end he can kinda look back and wonder if it was all worth it.”

What does Davey think of the young cowboys who come here to work with the branding crew? “A little romance is probably what´s brought them out here. They´re attracted by that and by the fact that we´re still doing things the old-time way. That´s kinda neat, but a lot of them will wash out. I can guarantee a lot of the younger guys won´t be in the business five or ten years from now. I imagine it being a bit like joining the French Foreign Legion or being a mercenary or something.”

After coffee, the men gather in the corral to saddle twelve of the horses. The paling sun has wandered far westward when the riders pass the cook tent and climb the slope to prepare for tomorrow´s work.

“More coffee?” asks Denise.

“No thanks, I´m coffeed up,” I reply.

We watch the horses and the bobbing hats until they´re out of view. “That´s the neatest sight,” she says. “I´ve seen it a hundred times, but I never get tired of it. Every time they leave or come back I just have to get out and watch it.”