"Rolling Stone: The Great Individualist Part 1" originally aired on The Modern West, May 11, 2022.
What is it about cowboys? I mean, why is America – why is the whole world – so fascinated by these guys? The actual cattle drive era only lasted a few decades in the middle of the 1800’s and those original drovers were nothing to make your heart patter, usually illiterate, antisocial and kinda stinky. But for some reason, it doesn’t matter: we love them anyway.
I know I did. Growing up, there were lots of cowboys hanging around our house. Like my dad’s good old friend Jake Heflin. It was like he’d stepped straight out of a western. Well, he kind of did: the bowlegged walk, the cowboy hat curled low over the eyes, nary a tooth in his head, a chain smoker. Every time our families got together, Jake made my dad get out his guitar. He’d round up his two teenage daughters, Judy and Patty, to sing harmony and they’d play music all night long.
Jake was a horse trainer and he helped us buy our horses. Then my dad, an urban midwestern kid, decided to teach himself how to break a colt with the help of Jake. We called that horse The Black, a beautiful big-boned Morgan. I can’t help but think my dad was aspiring to be as cool as Jake. He just emanated authenticity. My mom was a wannabe cowgirl from Iowa who drew horse pictures and read Western pulp novels, growing up. I think it’s why they ended up moving us to Walden, a tiny ranching and logging town in northern Colorado surrounded by purple mountains majesty. My earliest memory? Taking a bath in the kitchen sink and The Black sticking his head through the window and my mom giving me a carrot to feed to him. My parents weren’t ranchers but they sometimes worked for them. That’s not why we had a horse, though. The Black was a very large pet. My dad made him a cowboy hat with holes for his ears to go through. One time he walked right into the living room and took a crap on my little brother’s blankie. You’ve never seen such a mortified kid.
Living close to horses was a way of life for most people we knew, back then. (Maybe that was a little too close but….) And with horses came cowboys and a dewy-eyed admiration. At those late-night jam sessions, Jake would often call my brother and me over to sing a song too. I always felt like his attention was a blinding spotlight. When Jake asked you to do something, you just couldn’t help it. He put a spell on you.
My mom and I visit Jake’s daughter, Judy on her small ranch a few miles outside of Walden. Judy’s grown daughter, Jamie sits with us at the dining table too, her son TJ playing with his puppy nearby. It’s winter and it’s hard to take your eyes off her view of the hayfields against the Sierra Madres. Judy gets to reminiscing about her dad.
“Well, he was born in Saginaw, Texas,” she says. “I know that. And he started to rodeo, probably at a pretty early age.”
When he was 16, he rode a bull in Madison Square Garden where he became the fourth-best bull rider in the world.
“I think he left school in eighth grade. And I think he at one point was just trying to get away from family situations and stuff like that.”
Jake followed the rodeo all the way into some Elvis movies, working as a stuntman in films like “Love Me Tender.” Back then, Westerns were anything but politically correct.
“During the 50s, they were making movies left and right, western movies. And he would always be some, like, wild Indian or something,” Judy says.
“He was the female lead,” my mom says. “He played her. And he was in a dress and he jumped off of a cliff.”
“Did he jump off a cliff…?” I start to ask.
“On a horse? Yeah,” Judy tells me.
Judy was a middle child in a brood of six. But life wasn’t easy with Jake as your dad.
“He loved to just hit the road,” Judy says. “And he’d just load up the kids and everything he owned in the back of the truck and what you can’t carry you leave behind.”
But when Judy was in her late teens, they moved to Walden to train draft horses for the Grizzly Ranch, managed by some friends of ours. Judy fell hard for the ranch manager, Jim Elliot.
“His world. The respect that people gave him. Because I don’t feel like I had that with my dad. So it was easy to fall into that world. And so I really fell in love with his world. And his draft horses,” she says, and we all laugh.
But Jake didn’t like Judy hooking up with Jim. Plus, that itch to mosey along came over him.
“For whatever reason, he decides he wants to go to Dumas, Texas, and work in feedlots and I’m like, I’m not gonna do that,” Judy says. “And my dad, and Patty, my sister, who was all that was living here at the time, they left. And I never spoke to him again.”
It was only a few years later that Jake died young, only in his early 60s. But Judy had discovered a new life. I remember Judy and Jim’s wedding in the living room of their ranch house. None of her family attended.
“So I didn’t really love everything about dad’s life. You know, we were at the racetrack sleeping in horse trailers and not having a home. So it’s nice having a roof over your head. Dad never really was ‘a rancher.’ He was a rolling stone. Where Jim was more of a rancher. And that’s the life I fell in love with, the ranching life. I loved everything about it,” says Judy.
The ranching life. This season of the Modern West, we’re going to push back our hats and look deep into the fiery sun that’s the epicenter of all things American West. Because just like Jake was a mystery, a rolling stone, not exactly a rancher, well, I think there’s a lot we don’t understand about cowboys and what they’re really about. Like, why, as Americans, do we need the cowboy so bad in the first place. And where’d this cowboy come from anyway? And how do we decide who gets to be included in the cowboy identity and who doesn’t? And another thing, how has our obsession with cows and cowboys led to problems with how we raise these animals on the land? Is this way of life economically viable, anyway? Maybe it’s time to let the cowboy change, grow up. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to let him ride off into the sunset.
Jim Hoy is a guy who knows a thing or two about the cowboy myth.
“Myths are essential to people,” he tells me. “You have to have myths to believe in. And they help structure your life. They give you the truth around ways to structure your life.”
Hoy is an American folklorist who grew up on a ranch in Kansas and he’s written a bunch of books about the cowboy. But even he isn’t sure what all the hullabaloo is about.
“Why did the cowboy become America’s major folk hero, and they are. If you want to be seen as American, anywhere in the world, have a Stetson on your head and boots on your feet.”
He says the cowboy is so deeply baked into who we are as Americans that he’s almost another mascot.
“I would say the cowboy is the third most recognizable aspect of America worldwide: the flag, the bald eagle, and the cowboy.”
But this blind adoration, it worries Hoy. He says it’s time we take a good hard look at the realities behind this myth.
“Seems to me that we shouldn’t be so hidebound about them, that we should recognize this story is, how can that possibly be literally true?” Hoy asks. “It’s a great story. And it has hidden truth, a deep truth in it that helps us guide our lives in a good way. But how could that possibly be literally true?”
For one thing, Hoy says there’s a serious contradiction in the cowboy mythology. When you look deeply, the cowboy is two legends all tangled up into one.
“We made him into this cultural hero. Why? Now you’re going to get the sermon here. Because we believe strongly in two things here in America. One, the rule of law, right? We believe firmly that no one should be above the law, and everyone should be treated equally above the law.”
The sheriff with the gold star, right? But, Hoy says, the sheriff’s alter ego is the exact opposite: an outlaw. And we love that side of the cowboy better.
“How many folk songs are there about Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson? None. How many folk songs out there about Billy the Kid and Jesse James and Sam Bass? Bunches,” Hoy says. “The ordinary people celebrate outlaws. We give lip service to law and order.”
And it’s not just our songs that reveal our bias.
“In The Virginian, that seminal novel of the West, the Virginian is out on an expedition to catch horse thieves,” Hoy says, “and hangs his former best friend without the benefit of a trial. Lynch law. Our sympathies are not with the guy that got lynched but with the Virginian.”
It’s like we think of ourselves as so naturally virtuous that we don’t need laws. We can govern ourselves without them. The Robin Hood mentality. And since we don’t have to worry about right and wrong, we can spend all our time doing vigilante stuff like settling scores and defending individual rights. Jake was a great example. He didn’t care about mandatory school attendance laws and took pleasure in yanking his kids out to move on to the next job. Hoy says we love outlaws and vigilantes because, in our heart of hearts, Americans are radical free spirits.
“And why does the cowboy become the epitome of that?” Hoy asks. “Because he is an individualist. He’s called the Great Individualist. He is bound to no person, except his conscience. He does what’s right. Ideally.”
And that’s the key – ideally. The American cowboy is an idealization. Like Jake in his lady costume riding off a cliff, a lot of what it means to be a cowboy is a performance, a trick of the eye. It’s not based on the real way of life of ranchers. When you read The Virginian, there isn’t a single cow to be seen.
Maybe it’s because cows, man, they’re a lot of work, let me tell you. One year, I worked on the hay crew with Judy on the Grizzly. Her stepdaughter Summer and I were rakers, Judy was the baler. Day after day, I sat on an old blue 1950s tractor. You didn’t get a day off unless it rained. Weeks went by. No rain.
“I remember, Melodie would go by, and if I had my tractor turned off – because I was in the baler – she’d just be singing at the top of her lungs,” Judy says.
“There was no radio!” I explain.
“Oh, believe me, I sang many a mile out there,” Judy says.
“I tracked down every song there was about rain that I could possibly find,” I say.
“Or there’d be a big rain cloud and it’d just part,” says Judy.
“Summer called it Dad’s parting powers because he could part the clouds,” Jamie says.
“We were like, ‘Let’s go! Get it done!’ When you have a bunch of teenagers – well, you guys were in college – but you didn’t have the desire to get done like Jim and I did.”
“No, we just wanted days off,” I say. “We didn’t care.”
We didn’t have a desire because we wanted a break from the unrelenting labor of ranching. And Jim was a demanding boss. While Jake always wanted to move on, Jim wanted to knuckle down. Nothing about Jim’s version of the cowboy was a costume. The stained sun-bleached hat. The soft voice. The cigarette dangling from his mouth. Tough as nails. His daughter Jamie remembers that too.
“Yeah, growing up I mean, he was a little intimidating,” says Jamie. “And I remember being with him but it was definitely while you were working.”
“He did a lot of heavy equipment work so if you wanted to be with him, you had to go do that work,” says Judy. “Jamie and I did a lot of the riding, the cowboying and moving cattle and stuff like that. And so she did a lot of that with me.”
Back then, they didn’t even feed their cows with tractors. Every day, even if it was 30 below, they used draft horses to pull a sleigh through the snow, pitching hay off it.
“I remember going out one time, we went out with you guys to feed with the horses and it was like, the snow was so deep,” I say.
“So quiet, wasn’t it?” says Judy. “Just the bells. It felt like heaven. I get a little chill, just thinking about it. People pay money to do that. Here we were doing it and we were getting paid.”
The hardship was part of the pleasure of that life. I remember how Jim and Judy both recoiled from the performance aspect of the job. They knew dudes would be happy to pay to come spend a vacation doing this work. But they weren’t interested in selling the experience. It was about authenticity. Doing the work was reward in itself. But Judy says that all changed when ranching became mechanized.
“The only time I remember Jim ever saying the F-word was when it was followed by John Deere.”
Judy and Jamie have fond memories of running a ranch on horsepower.
“We would come in after chores and we would have all the stories about, the bridle broke or something happened, this horse did this or this horse did that. There was always something to talk about,” says Judy. “But once we got the tractors, that all stopped. It wasn’t the camaraderie that we had.”
Tractors are expensive. So is land. Ranchers and farmers are now in debt at historically high levels and the pandemic hasn’t helped. They might love this work, but they don’t love how it looks in the bank account. There’s a guy I’ve talked to a lot of times about how fast ranching is changing. Jim Magagna with the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association grew up on a ranch himself. He’s an older gentleman, almost always in a cowboy hat, even on Zoom.
“I have to admit, I get a little bit nostalgic sometimes because you and I both think of the cowboy as the fellow with the big hat on his horse riding across the countryside,” says Magagna. “Today, more and more of our ranchers, the cowboy is the fellow on the four-wheeler or the motorbike going around the cattle. And that’s not even the end of it, it can be the rancher sitting there with these drones sending it out to check on the cattle. And even increasingly, in a few cases I’m aware of in Wyoming, it’s the rancher in his helicopter moving his cattle. So the cowboy image is still the same. But what being a cowboy means today is not the same thing that it did 100 years ago.”
There’s a lot that ranchers are having to adjust to.
“The number one at the top of my list would be drought and that’s had a significant impact. It reached the point this year that some of our ranchers actually had to sell off breeding stock, and that’s unusual and not easy to recover from. So that’s a factor,” says Magagna. “And we are trying to get new and younger people into ranching because the age of our rancher is growing. The price of land, the market price of land in Wyoming and in most of the West today at least, is not reflective of this value for producing livestock. It has other values that we can’t compete with. So that becomes another challenge.”
Not to mention that most ranching kids aren’t like Jamie. They move away to find less back-breaking work and so there’s no one to run things when the older generation can’t do it anymore. When they go, these kids often keep the costume, the hat, and boots, and pickup truck, but not the lifestyle. Kind of like Jake: a cowboy but not a rancher.
All of this just doesn’t match our image of the invincible cowboy. But neither does this…
“Public lands ranching provides less than 3 percent of the beef consumed in the United States. So it’s not as if this is a major market force driver for the beef industry overall, in the United States.”
Josh Osher is not what you’d call a fan of the cowboy myth, even though he grew up in Montana and, like me, was steeped in it from a young age. He’s with Western Watersheds, a conservation group that’s working to limit overgrazing of cattle on public lands. And that means that part of his job is busting up the cowboy myth.
“Most beef is not produced in the western United States,” says Josh. “I mean, the states that are considered the cowboy states are not the big beef producers in the country. Most beef is produced in the Midwest and in Texas, and in Florida, and in other states where grass grows year-round and there’s more water.”
Josh says we have this perception that states like Wyoming – the so-called Cowboy State – make all their money from raising cattle. But that’s another myth.
“Ranching is more important locally than it is nationally, in a lot of cases. But even then, it’s a drop in the bucket for almost any county’s income statistics,” says Josh. “You could look anywhere in the West and public lands ranching tends to contribute less than a percent of the total income for that county and just a handful of jobs. It’s not a major economic driver anywhere you look.”
And Josh says the ranching industry isn’t just not making money, it’s also costing money in the form of government subsidies on the taxpayer’s dime.
“I can’t open a restaurant and serve food that my community doesn’t want to eat, and expect the government to support that restaurant and keep it in business,” he says. “You know, if the ranchers in the West can’t make it, because it’s not profitable, it’s really the cowboy myth and the policies of the U.S. to support that, that keep propping them up.”
Here in the Cowboy State where I live, only 2 percent of the state’s total GDP comes from ranching. In northern Colorado, Judy and Jamie can attest to this too. These days, a family can’t make all their money just from ranching.
“You have to have a wife with a good job in town, I’m telling you,” says Judy and we all laugh. “You can live that life but one of you has to have a job that pays the bills. I did the same thing. I started waiting tables, and working for the neighbors and stuff like that.”
Eventually, Judy got a job in Steamboat, an hour’s drive away over a treacherous mountain pass so she could get health insurance for the family.
“Because we couldn’t afford insurance,” says Judy.
“Good thing you had it,” my mom says.
“Good thing,” Judy agrees.
What my mom and Judy are talking about is that after a lifetime of smoking, Jim developed lung cancer. Jamie took care of her dad while Judy commuted back and forth to Steamboat to work as a UPS delivery driver. Jamie stayed with him at home until he passed away. But even in the end, Jim defied the stereotypes.
“Then when he got sick,” Jamie says, “and then when I had TJ, he would sit and hold that baby, and take care of him and was very kind. He was always thanking me.”
It’s hard to imagine Great Grandpa Jake with a baby in his arms. By constantly hitting the road, he protected his wild and free persona. Looking back, I realize how much my dad and all of us, we put Jake on a pedestal. When he refused to attend Judy’s wedding, I remember being confused. I think it was then, for me, that he toppled.
Jake’s version of the cowboy was the toughest of the tough but when you look closer at what the rancher does all day, it requires a gentle hand. Gretel Erhlich explained this in her book The Solace Of Open Spaces. She says, “Ranchers are midwives, hunters, nurturers, providers, and conservationists all at once. What we’ve interpreted as toughness—weathered skin, calloused hands, a squint in the eye, and a growl in the voice-only masks the tenderness inside.”
All those years of demanding labor were hard on Judy’s body too. She had a couple knee replacements. One day, walking her dog, she fell and the artificial knee slipped and cut through an artery. She lay in the street, bleeding internally. She was flown to Denver to save the leg, but in the end, her left leg was amputated. It didn’t keep Judy from moving back to her ranch the minute she could though. Now she’s helping to homeschool her grandson, TJ. Jamie’s husband works on the Silver Spur owned by John Malone, the telecommunications tycoon. Jamie has to have a job to keep the whole family afloat, but Judy’s helping out. They both say it’s what they have to do to live this close to the land.
“It’s the life, it’s the life,” Judy says. “Because I’ve had other jobs where you’re working for ‘the man’ and it’s just like, bust your butt all day long and there’s no reward in it. Where if you go out there and bust your butt out there taking care of cows and putting up the hay, it’s so rewarding, such a rewarding life.”