A Real Cowboy’s Job
The American West, rather like Ernest Hemingway, has passed from reality, through legend, to cliché. The Native American tribes have been whittled away, the herds of bison have gone, and the survivor, the cowboy, has been hunted down by film producers and advertisers and designers and graphic artists so it’s hard to know what the real thing is any more.
I think of this as I find myself in the saddle – never a comfortable place for me – on a Palomino stallion called Pal, heading slowly out across long, green grass to which the morning mist still clings, behind Randy, the sort of cowboy Marlboro’ would die for. He’s lean, which pretty much goes with the job – cowboys seem to be conspicuously thinner than the rest of America – laconic and laid-back. Randy’s introductory remarks in the paddock featured good sense rather than dire warning, and formal horsemanship was emphasised less than doing what comes naturally.
I’ve always had a mild aversion to being lifted off the ground (maybe my father dropped me when young) and I would unhesitatingly nominate the camel as my least favourite method of transport, but today, less than an hour after swinging on to the broad back of this distinctive pale tan horse, I’m not only trotting along like Roy Rogers, but I’m about to do a real cowboy’s job.
The Hargrave Ranch is a working farm with 320 head of cattle. Some of them are loose and we’re on our way to round them up. We’ve been told how to make the horse turn left or right, and stop, but it seems a bit of a leap from this to rounding-up. We enter a wooded area full of young pine and as Pal concentrates on picking his way through a web of fallen trees, I concentrate on keeping my hat on and my eyeballs in as the branches flick viciously at my face.
Everyone’s still a little nervous when Randy shouts that he’s seen the errant cattle.
‘Michael, take the right and bring ’em round off the bank of that stream.’
Oh yes, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Of course I’ve done this many times, usually on my bicycle after seeing a John Wayne movie. Now that I’m actually on a real horse with real cows in the real West everything looks a little different. What the hell do I do if the beasts head straight for me, get out of control, or, enraged by a mosquito bite, start a stampede?
I needn’t have worried. The rebellious cattle number fewer than twenty, of which eight or nine are white, fluffy calves and the rest either nursing mothers or several months pregnant. It’s hardly a round-up, more like chasing a crèche. The attorney from Buffalo takes a tumble during the slow chase back through the pine woods, but on the whole, this bit of cattle action has an electrifying effect on the party. Having to ride instinctively, without thinking about riding, has calmed the nerves and turned us all into swaggering cowboys. Rick, here to celebrate his second wedding anniversary, was, like me, a quivering jelly two hours earlier, now he moves through the trees like a professional, occasionally shouting, ‘Come on, cattle!’ Or more threateningly, ‘Hey! Cattle!’
Evening. Exhausted. At an open-air dinner beneath a big, protective river willow tree outside the old wood farmhouse, moments like the attorney’s fall grow in the retelling, along with those of my Laurel and Hardy-esque attempts later in the day to rebuild a pine-log fence with the help of two grandmothers from Massachusetts.
Over a good country meal of prime beef, with cabbage, mushrooms, jacket potatoes of exceptional flavour, cream, fresh-baked bread and a Cabernet Sauvignon riskily called ‘Dynamite’, Ellen draws out the guests with well-practised skill. Part schoolmistress, part ringmaster, part entertainer, she soon has us all recounting wedding stories and how we met stories, and Rick is telling us about romance in a Laundromat and soon personal hygiene secrets are being traded as if we’d known each other from school. This would surely have had Hemingway running for cover. He came to the dude ranches of the West to get away from people, to recharge the batteries, hunt, fish and write. And it seemed to work. On his first visit to Wyoming in 1928 he completed the first draft of A Farewell to Arms, though he was to change the ending forty-eight times before he was satisfied. Two years later, with A Farewell to Arms a firm bestseller, he was at the L-Bar-T ranch working on Death in the Afternoon and writing to his friend Henry Strater ‘Am going damned well on my book – page 174 – I can shoot the Springfield as well as a shotgun now.’
He never lost his fondness for the wide open spaces, though increasing fame made it more difficult for him to find the privacy he needed, which is perhaps why, in 1939, he agreed to be one of the first celebrity guests at the Sun Valley resort in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho, newly opened by Averell Harriman, owner of the Union Pacific Railroad. In exchange for free accommodation and the odd publicity photo calls, he would be left alone.
As we sit around the camp-fire listening to the jolly gurgling yodels of ‘The Singing Cowboy’ I try to envisage Ernest wrestling with the problems of true declarative sentences to the accompaniment of ‘Home, Home on the Range’ and I realise why he was tempted to take the rich man’s shilling and head for Sun Valley.