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Death of the Cowboy

The death of the cowboy as a vital figure has been one of my principal subjects, and yet I’m well aware that killing the myth of the cowboy is like trying to kill a snapping turtle: no matter what you do to it, the beast retains a sluggish life. The cowboy has long since been absorbed into the national bloodstream, but is no longer quite so front-and-center in the popular culture. The Marlboro man is a last survival of the Western male in the heroic mode. In Marlboro ads the West is always the mountain West, the high, rich country that runs from Jackson Hole around to Sheridan, Wyoming, where the Queen of England sometimes goes to buy her racehorses. The West of those ads is the familiar, poeticized, pastoral West—the Marlboro men themselves need to do little other than light up. Perhaps they swing their ropes at a herd of horses that are thundering toward a corral.

Horses only, mind you—never cattle. The image of horses running is perhaps the most potent image to come out of the American West: cattle running produces, to most eyes, a far less appealing picture. The fact is, cows are hard to poeticize—even longhorns. They tend to seem ugly, stupid, and slow, which they are; images of cows are unlikely to loosen the pocketbooks of smokers in Japan or elsewhere where the Marlboro man and his horses are seen, and they are seen everywhere. No image out of the American West is so ubiquitous, and they are images that are entirely male—Marlboro country is a woman-free zone. Sometimes there is a cabin in the snow, with a wreath of smoke coming out of the chimney. The running horses may be making for this cabin. But if there is a woman in there, cooking for her man, we don’t see her: we just see the rugged male, riding the high country forever.

Few cowboys, though, smoke Marlboros. The image is rural but the consumption is mainly urban. One reason for this is that the Marlboro man is so commanding an image that the dusty, slightly lumpy real cowboys don’t feel they can aspire to it. The mere fact that the real cowboys have to wrestle smelly cattle all day removes them from the world of godlike horsemen. The level of romanticization needed to sustain the Marlboro image is extremely high: it needs the prettiest country in the whole West, plus horses, to keep it working.

Another indicator that the cowboy myth is gradually being absorbed into suburban culture is the current smoothing out of country music. Garth Brooks, who will soon have sold more records than the Beatles, is at the head of this trend. His songs are music for the suburbs and the freeways, songs to be listened to in the cabs of the newer, more expensive pickups; it is genteel music, domestic music, as opposed to the loner’s music of someone like Hank Williams.

What the Western experience has demonstrated perhaps more clearly than any other is the astonishing speed with which things can change. There were so many buffalo—fifty million, by some estimates—that no one could really envision their disappearance, yet it took barely twenty years to eliminate them. Similarly, the cowboys who went north up the plains to the Yellowstone couldn’t quite at first imagine that the unfenced purity of the Great Plains would be fenced and cut into ranches in less than half their lifetime. A young cowboy of 1866 saw the virgin land as one great expanse, stretching all the way from Mexico to Canada; such a cowboy would have had to be very prescient to imagine that most of that land would be cut up and fenced before he was even middle-aged. But many cowboys lived to see that happen, and it left them with a confused, unhappy, bittersweet feeling, unable to forget the paradise they helped destroy. They could never either recover it or forget it. Some may have realized that they themselves were only insignificant pawns in the economic drama of the West.

The giants of finance had already begun to look at the West with a hungry eye, and would soon begin to use their might to shape it to the needs of business, a shaping which first required the elimination of both the native people and the buffalo, who were occupying what was thought to be good farmland. Though it was easy enough to despoil the West, it turned out to be not so easy to despoil it profitably. For one thing, little people such as my grandparents began to trickle in, settling their sections and quarter sections, getting in the way of more visionary schemes.

I have said that my father studied cattle with the same fascination with which I study books, but now that I’ve thought back on it, I’m not sure that’s true. He studied cattle practically, with a view to herd improvement, or to detect signs of illness in his cattle. What interested him more, on both the intellectual and emotional level, was grass. To the extent that he had a religion, it was grass, a religion whose grandeur and complexity were worthy of him. He was born and lived his whole life on one of the great prairies of the world, on the shore of a sea of grass that stretched northward into Canada, and he retained a religious feeling about grass to the end of his life. He recognized, from walking on it and contemplating it all his life, that the world of grass was multiplex. He envied his neighbor the oilman, rancher, and philanthropist J.S. Bridwell, who had the financial resources to successfully fight the two local enemies of our grass which were the bane of my father’s life as a cattleman: mesquite and prickly pear. Mr. Bridwell had the money to bulldoze the mesquite off his land, the result being that his land—separated from ours only by a wire fence—looked like a paradise while ours looked like a hell. Even to the uneducated eye our grass was clearly less robust and less varied than his. The reason was obvious: we had mesquite and he didn’t.

Not that we didn’t fight it. Whenever a space appeared in a workday unexpectedly, my father would attack the mesquite with spade, axe, grubbing hoe, and kerosene can, pressing a struggle so hopeless that I could never understand why he did it. At best he could only hope to drive the trees back a few yards, and for a short time at that. Within a year or two they would always regain whatever territory he had wrested from them. The mesquite was as implacable as the Comanches had been, and far more resilient. My father couldn’t hope to win, and he didn’t win, but he kept fighting.

I expect I must, in part, have developed my notion of character from watching my father struggle against the mesquite. Character came to mean struggling on in the face of hopeless odds: in that attitude lay the vital stubbornness of the pioneers who refused to acquiesce to the brute circumstances they were faced with daily: the hostile natives, the often unresponsive land, the destructive elements—flood, drought, fire. Some of your children might die, your livestock might starve, the toil to be toiled might be beyond your strength: but at least the land was yours, if you could just hold it. Some could, some couldn’t.

My father, I believe, always felt a little hamstrung by his own sense of duty. His brothers left and made modest fortunes in the Panhandle; he stayed home, took care of the old folks, and worked all his life with very limited acreage, which he was only partially able to supplement with leaseholds scattered all over the county. Though historically minded, to a point, he nonetheless romanticized the possibilities that exist-ed to the north when his brothers left home; for all their efforts, none of the nine McMurtry boys got very rich in the cattle business, or any business. They prospered but their prosperity didn’t approach that of the legendary Texas rich.

Studies had been available from the 1940s—indeed, from the turn of the century—that showed clearly enough that the range-cattle business had never been a particularly good business. It had depended from the first on overgrazing, with the subsequent and almost immediate deterioration of the prairie ecosystems on which it was based. These conclusions were drawn very early and were clearly stated by the Department of Agriculture in its yearly handbooks. But my father didn’t like the Department of Agriculture; he saw it as creeping socialism. Studious though he was about the cattle business, he probably didn’t read the department’s conclusions, which were, in the main, sound. Instead, he stayed in debt for fifty-five straight years, attempting to profitably raise the wrong animal—the Hereford cow—on land that had been far better utilized by the animal that had been there to begin with: the buffalo.

Herefords and Angus and other English or continental stock were lazy grazers, and were also ill adapted to severe winters, but the English who began to pour money into the Western cattle business in the second half of the nineteenth century wanted them anyway, and got them; never mind that the cattle died like flies in the high plains blizzards and merely stood around listlessly during the blazing summer.

In a sense the whole range-cattle industry, source of a central national myth, was a mistake, based on a superficial understanding of the plains environment. As Richard Manning cogently points out in his recent book Grassland (1995), 50 million buffalo were replaced by 45 million cattle, to the ultimate detriment of everyone’s home on the range. Now the plains are so overgrazed—the public lands particularly—that should a major drought occur, the potential for a new Dust Bowl is great.

What small cattlemen such as my father got, in place of fortune, was a life that they loved. Seen historically, they were in conflict almost from the first with farming interests. Like most cattlemen my father recognized that running cattle was an indulgence, economically; he would have made more money farming. But it happened that he liked raising cattle and hated farming, though even as a young boy, I often heard him predict that our land would be farmland someday—and farms are lapping at its borders even as I write.

Looking back on the more than forty years during which I have been involved as a writer with the American cowboy, I wonder if part of what kept me interested was the tragedy, the inherent mismating of beast and place, which was always woven into it. The twenty-two years when I was involved with the ranch exposed me regularly to a small but representative group of cowboys and cattlemen—the men we worked with. This little bunch contained all the types that one finds up and down the range country. There were a couple of ranch owners whose holdings were roughly comparable to ours. There were three or four cowhands who were just that, cowhands, men who didn’t own an acre of land and never would. These ranch hands were well into middle age; they were not very competent, drew small wages, and lived in single rooms behind the larger ranch houses; their fates were sealed. They had no wives, no visible women.

Then there were two or three extremely competent cowboys who did all the most complicated work; they were smallholders, owning a few cattle, leasing a pasture here and there, which we helped them work. Shared labor is the norm in the cattle country; few ranches can afford to employ all the help they might need. The work exchange is virtually universal.

And then there was a foreman or two, men who managed sizable ranches for absentee (or indolent) owners; the foremen customarily owned no land themselves, though it was the custom for the ranch owners to let them run a few head of cattle, as a bonus for their industry and trustworthiness.

There, in essence, you have the ranching West: smallholders, foremen, top hands, and just hands. Even the more prosperous ranchers were smallholders, really, men with ten or twelve thousand acres, not a vast range in country where it can take thirty-five acres to support a cow.

Occasionally, in this mix, would be an old cowhand, too old to be very active but respected for work done in earlier years and still capable of performing small chores—loading the vaccinating needles, keeping the branding fires stoked, carrying the bucket in which calf fries, mountain oysters (calf testicles), were collected. These old-timers are kept active as long as possible out of a sense of decency, kept a part of the work, because if an old cowboy can’t work what would he do but wither and die? So it was with my father. When arthritis and fatigue slowed him to the point where he couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way of a gate or a running animal, the ranchers he had worked with much of his life became reluctant to call him to help them work cattle, for fear he would injure himself; but he had been a highly respected man and they were reluctant to relegate him to an old man’s chores. Once it became clear to my father that his neighbors were right—that he was an old man who, for all his skill and experience, would mostly get in the way—he was bitter for a few weeks and then lay down and died.

The tragedy of my father’s life effort, and that of many ranchers up and down the West, was that, despite skill and hard work (application, my father called it), they could never really get ahead. At best they held their own, living off credit, struggling, working, seeking a method that would improve their chances. My father read constantly in the literature of the range—the literature, and the science too—hoping to discover some new approach or technique that would allow him to improve his cattle or his land.

The statistical literature on Western ranching, available even when he was a boy, told the story plainly enough. The experts knew early what percentage of Western land had already been ruined. They also knew something about the cycles of Western drought, flood, and winter severity. They knew, in short, that the odds were heavily stacked against the smallholder in the West who was dependent on cattle alone. I don’t think my father ever found his way to these statistics—perhaps he didn’t want to know them. He wanted very much to make the cowboying life last, and by dint of shrewd planning and very hard work, he did just manage to make it last his lifetime. But tragedy was woven into the effort anyway. He had limited acreage and was raising the wrong animal; he was only able to stay in business because he lived most of his life in an era of cheap credit. Like most smallholders in the West he knew quite well that if a really bad year came—drought or flood—the elements alone might crush him.

I was born in the Depression, only a year after the great dust blizzards that Woody Guthrie sang about. Times got better during World War II, which didn’t keep all the people I grew up with from being Depression-haunted. I derived early the sense that solvency was a precarious thing. Now and then I heard talk about so-and-so, who had gone under. I didn’t really know what going under meant, but I knew that the prospect of it was never very far from my father’s mind, or the minds of his peers in the small-ranch country. People went under, and that, apparently, was the end of them.

From the age of three until I left for college I was sometimes constantly and always frequently on horseback on the land. Day after day I was out there under the sky, a partial nomad, working in fenced country but still much freer spatially than city kids. I spent enough time directly on the land, beneath that sky, to understand that the elements were a lot more powerful than myself, my father, or any of us. I was once knocked down by a steer in a lightning storm so intense that the white light made the animal invisible, obliterated by brightness, as if an X-ray were coming toward me.

I’ve also seen conflicts between men and animals escalate into terrible, Dostoevskian violence, men beating stubborn cattle with fence posts, fleeing bulls knocking over pickups and even, once, a large cattle truck. All this is unexceptional in Western ranch life.

What struck me in the cattlemen, my father most particularly, was the intensity of their desire to make it last. No Indian ever wanted to call back the buffalo more intensely than they wanted to call back the open range. The same land that the Indian longed to see filled with buffalo the cattlemen wanted to see filled with cattle, moving north, though in fact the real open range lasted almost no time. Barbed wire, the invention that was to slice it up, was invented scarcely five years after trail driving began. But in the minds of cattlemen and also in movies, the open range survives still, an Edenic fantasy of carefree nomadism in which cattle are allowed to follow grass wherever grass grows.

The notion that all flesh is grass is one that would have pleased my father; it would, I expect, please all cattlemen, herdsmen, drovers, men who follow grazing animals over the land, seeking the grass that nourishes them. Such men, pantheistic by nature, resolutely reject anything that smacks of the modern world: its politics, its art, its technology. What they accept, at a profound level, is the cycle of nature, in which men and animals alike are born, grow old, and die, to be succeeded by new generations of men and animals. Recycling of this natural sort does not bother men who live on the land; some even resent the fact that modern burial practices retard the process. The notion that they will soon again become part of the food chain doesn’t bother them at all.

It is usually when one is in one’s sixties that one begins to wonder whether the customary yardsticks by which success is measured have any relevance at all. My father, as he neared the end, counted himself lucky that he had owned a few good horses in his life and had sustained a good name through seventy-six years. Though he enjoyed great respect, and the love of his family, in his last years he often expressed to me his conviction that reality was more than a little cracked. Somehow life hadn’t really added up; his works and days hadn’t been a harmony, as he supposed they might have been for his brothers and other cattlemen who had accumulated more land and raised better cattle. In the end the two or three good horses seemed to mean more to him than anything he had done with cattle or the range. The winds of futility blew through like northers. What had it all been for?

When I would try to argue against my father’s sense of futility he would sometimes cheer up a little, reminding himself that he had his children, he had his good name, and there had been those two or three horses. He could not really hand his children a viable tradition—ranching had by then become an avocation for oilmen, lawyers, insurance men, and other nostalgic city dwellers who wanted, somehow, to make contact with the land again.

Once he was too old to wage war against them, the mesquite soon began to sweep over the old prairie. On the last day of my father’s life—I’m told by my son, who was with him—he slowly drove around the hill down at the home place where his parents, William Jefferson and Louisa Francis, had stopped some ninety years before, enticed by water, by that fine seeping spring. The next morning my father lay down in the kitchen and died. The hired man who found him and woke my son merely said, “Jeff’s gone.”

I now think it’s likely that a lot of my writing about the cowboy was an attempt to understand my father’s essentially tragic take on his own—and human—experience. He was not, day to day, an unhappy man; he was accessible to jollity, joking, dancing, laughter, fun—but still the tragic mien was his and I suspect it was because he saw too clearly the crack, the split, the gully that lay between the possible and the actual. He had attached his heart to a hopeless ideal, a nineteenth-century vision of cowboying and family pastoralism; such an ideal was not totally false, but it had been only briefly realizable. It was an ideal he himself could never realize, but it had been kept alive, though trivialized and cheapened, by the movies and pulp literature. It had even been kept alive by my own writing, about which he had a decided ambivalence, though I believe he had a better opinion of it than his last living brother, Joe McMurtry. Uncle Joe came up to me just after my father’s funeral and said in a kindly spirit that he thought I ought to consider going into another line of work, since, in his opinion, I had been going downhill as a writer since my second book.

The frequent presence of my father in my thoughts and memories recently suggests that as we begin our long descent toward the country we won’t be back from, our memory seeks to go back to where it started. In My End Is My Beginning, the title of a now forgotten book by Maurice Baring, suggests a notion that is itself an important filament in the emotions of older people, even if all it means is that as one is ending it is good and proper to think about one’s beginning in order to gain at least a fleeting sense of the whole.