The federal government has confiscated the land, but the frontier spirit lives on in a few cattlemen fighting to protect their way of life.
The Lost Frontier
I saw her around the corner, talking to someone who was still out of view. The Western fashions were what caught my eye: a raccoon fur coat cut and styled like classic sheepskin, except for those raccoon tails dangling in a macabre manner from the seam under each arm, like scalps from a belt. Cowboy boots of blond eel, with designs of peyote buttons and marijuana leaves stitched in. A lariat trailed off and down around the corner from her gloved hand, finally ending in a poodle. Was she headed for cutting and branding or for the manicurist’s?
Her partner wore an all-black leather sheriff’s-style outfit, with a black Stetson hat, a jeweled star pinned to his shirt, and silver collar tips. Silver toe caps were clipped on his ostrich skin boots, a map of Texas embroidered into them, with a small diamond marking San Antonio on the map.
I lost sight of them when I was compelled to turn by the rumbling wheels behind me. I was too stunned to move. Bearing down on me was another designer-label cowgirl, her Russian sable fur vest flapping in the breeze, leather gloves with long fringes whipping her thighs at each pump of her arms, her eyes to the ground; mine were, too, on her 16-inch-high hand-tooled boots with the wheels on the bottom — honest-to-goddamn cowboy roller skates that brought her gliding and rumbling straight at me, collision imminent, until I was on my back, looking up…
Whaamm! came the sound, rolling and reverberating as if I were inside a bell. “Time to get going!” the voice called. Peering through the scattering shreds of the dream, I placed myself: snug within my down sleeping bag, in the back of a Chevy van, parked on the Elton’s Cabin Bar Ranch. Consciousness returned: 4:00 A.M., time to get up and join the cattle drive, the autumn drive from the Sierra Mountain foothills out to the high desert.
This is a tale of the New West. In these times of internal combustion, a “cattle drive” usually means that you herd your cattle onto the back of a truck and drive them to their destination. A web of dirt roads crisscrosses the West. The range is diminished, fenced, streamlined, diversified from simple cattle ranching. Nobody actually mounts up and rides herds of cattle any great distance any more, certainly not the hundreds of miles that drives covered a century ago. Fifty years ago a drive that crossed a state line was so rare that when one happened in the 1920s, Hollywood producer Earl Hudson rushed a crew of actors, cameramen, and writers there to get in the act and make the film Sundown as the drive unfolded before them. My task was similar: to accompany Buck Elton, Sr., his son Buck Jr., and their wives and family on as authentic a cattle drive as is left in the West. We would push several hundred cattle 18 miles today, pen them up in a remote corral, and then go 16 miles the next day to a waterhole.
Buck Sr. invited me inside the ranch house — actually a large mobile home — for a quick bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee before we headed out. My interest perked; I am a caffeine fiend, and the original “cowboy coffee” recipe calls for boiling the mixture until a horseshoe will float on top. But this is the Mild West; the “coffee” was Sanka. My expectations — or illusions — were taking a beating.
Out at the corral my hosts were saddling up our mounts in the subfreezing predawn air. My horse was a nag named Wampum, and Wampum coughed every time she breathed and loudly farted every time she coughed. “She coughs from alfalfa dust,” Buck told me. Her wind was a mystery, perhaps just age. Wampum farted so continually that after two hours I had to dismount and tighten the cinch strap 16 inches so that my saddle wouldn’t end up underneath her. She shrank like a pricked balloon.
The blue gray tint of approaching dawn lit up the scene I’d come looking tor: eight riders trailing along behind the cattle, getting them moving toward the alkali flats of the dry Owens Lake. The old hands were whooping at the cattle to get them started, each with his own chant: for Lou it was “Hey, ooo, hup, hup, hup.” Buck Sr. spat out “Die die die da da da” from his teeth. The catlle were eager: they had been penned near the ranch for days and wanted to move somewhere.
The light revealed my companions. Instead of bandannas, Buck and several other hands wore ski masks to keep the cold and alkali dust off their faces. It seemed an odd innovation, useful but not quite in the Western tradition. Annie Weston, one of the Elton daughters, said that she had started wearing ski masks on drives. The men laughed at it at first (as men will do) and then adopted It themselves. I was struck by the fact that bandannas and ski masks are both associated with bandits, as disguises, and now ski masks are replacing bandannas on the range. Buck Sr. wore a red mask with blue eye and mouth holes that made him look like a squat, bowlegged Spiderman in the saddle.
The cattle moved well; they had no calves to slow them down or make them nervous by arousing their protective maternal instincts. The drive immediately acquired a rhythm that rarely varied tor two days: clopping horse hooves were the percussion, lowing cows the bass notes, jingling reins the vibes, hoots and howls from the cowboys and cowgirls the occasional vocal chorus. After the scene was set, there was little variation. Cowboying seemed to be a lot of solitude in fresh air, and I realized why stereotyped old cowboys were always so reticent, shy, and deliberate in their pronouncements: you get out of the habit of conversation after a while. But in the New West you’re not likely to be away from people very long; so this cowboy characteristic, like so many others, is fading.