Rough Riders

Josh Haner/The New York Times/Redux
Ryder Wright on a bucking horse at his family’s ranch, Milford, Utah, 2014

Joseph Brodsky wrote, “Should the world be designated a genre, its main stylistic device would no doubt be water.” He was talking about the watery city of Venice, and about the natural affinity humans (made mostly of water) have with it. But if in the end we will all return to dust, then we have something fundamental in common with the American West, too; in the western, the country’s native genre, the main stylistic device is dust. All true westerns are dust dissipating in the rearview mirror, elegies for ways of life that constantly disappear.

The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West, by John Branch, goes for the elegiac mood in the title evidently out of reverence for that tradition. The book profiles a Utah family, the Wrights, who descend from Mormon pioneers and who make their living by ranching cattle and riding bucking horses (broncos, or “broncs”) in rodeos. In fact, these Wrights are not persuasive as the last of anything. At the beginning of the book we see Bill, the patriarch, and his five-year-old eldest son, Cody, survive a near-disastrous horseback encounter with a flooded river. Soon the number of Cody’s siblings has grown to twelve. By two thirds of the way through the book Cody is a grandfather (and Bill a great-grandfather), and the number of Wrights has become too large for the author to describe or the reader to keep track of. Bill says he can’t keep track of them himself.

Branch, a New York Times reporter, paints the big Utah canvas as skillfully as he drypoints the cowboy minutiae. The sun comes up; the sandstone cliffs burst forth in color; the black cattle stand “in small constellations and cast long shadows.” The day is to be a branding, in which that year’s new calves are rounded up, separated from their mothers, branded, inoculated, and ear-tagged. In camp the cowboys wake and pull on their boots. To ward off the gnats they wipe their faces with those fabric softener sheets used in clothes dryers.

Dust encircles each reluctant procession of cattle as it makes its way to the corral: “Guttural dissents carried half a mile.” Dozens of Wright family members, big and little, help out. One of the inoculations is for upper-respiratory disorders worsened by dust. At the end, the steers are castrated. Sometimes the testicles are collected to be fried and eaten, but this year they are discarded, and “the pen of the corral was littered with dirt-covered testicles. They looked like dusty pearl onions.”

Will Bill sell the ranch? It is not big enough or well situated enough for his herd to grow and keep pace with the family. Some of his land abuts Zion National Park, the third-most-popular national…

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