Outsiders like to discuss the vanishing Western way of life, but I’m here to spread the word that the cowboy lifestyle is alive and well. And you can even see the cowboys from the road, but it’s probably a dirt road with a wooden sign.
I’ve been married to a cowboy for 4 years, and we’ve always lived down various dirt roads in Nevada and Oregon. Our housing, health insurance and half our income depend on my husband’s roping and riding abilities. We don’t put on stiff new boots and drive a three-horse bumper pull trailer to brand calves twice a year; we’re a cowboy family 365 days a year, whether we like it or not.
And lots of our friends are cowboy families, too. They’re also raising their kids in the same semi-nomadic lifestyle and loving it. Some families travel from Nevada to Arizona and back again. We’re all just wandering around various deserts of the American West, chasing cattle and swapping recipes.
Some people like to dwell on the so-called demise of the family ranch. Sure, many ranches out in the Great Basin have changed from family-to corporate-owned operations, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Newmont and Barrick, the two gold mining giants in this region, now own many of the area’s ranches. The historic IL and TS ranches are just two of Newmont’s ranches. Owning them provides “green credits” needed by the company to offset pollution from its mining operations, and the corporate structure provides health insurance and benefits to the cowboys and their families.
Modern benefits are good and necessary for the modern cowboy. Even though he likes doing things the old ways and says things like “That horse isn’t bad to saddle, as long as you take him out of the barn and tie a hind leg up,” he still wants to provide for his family. But as long as he writes “cowboy” in the occupation box on his tax returns, a good saddle will be more important to him than a running vehicle.
There are still cowboys in the Great Basin who don’t own a running vehicle. They hitched a ride to some ranch on a Greyhound or with a friend, then just made it work. Some buckaroos don’t own a horse trailer, but they can neck a horse every time at the jackpot roping. Because out here, horse roping is still a beloved sport.
And a buckaroo can almost always hitch a ride somewhere. The Great Basin cowboy community is pretty tight-knit, and we aren’t too concerned with what the outsiders think. We are still here, still cowboying, and still raising our kids on cowboy wages and bronco stories.
Here at the Spanish Ranch, the cowboy crew wrangles the cavvy in to the ropes after work each afternoon to catch horses for the next day. I often put the toddler in the stroller and the preschooler on her bike and walk down to the barn to visit when they’re catching horses. I was crouched down by the ropes one day next to Grace when I snapped this picture. To her, catching horses on the ropes isn’t a story of bygone days; it just means Daddy’s done with work.
Here, Cole Stremler shortens his reins with his teeth while branding calves on a colt who’d never been ridden in the branding trap before. He didn’t drag around hay bales or ride the horse in a clinic beforehand. He just put a snaffle bit in his face and roped calves. He’s a cowboy; that’s what they do.
Monte Walsh famously predicted that as long as there is one cowboy taking care of one cow, there will still be cowboys. I’m happy to report that everywhere I look, I see cowboys and cows. We’re still here.