Until that day I arrived at a ranch in Wyoming I had only been riding horses that came groomed, tacked, waiting beside a mounting block and speaking impeccable French. And being French, loved to eat, but that is another story.
And no, this is not the story of how after a few weeks on the ranch I became an accomplished rider. I still wonder what the wranglers did for amusement before I came along. No, it's about how I, the born-and-bred city slicker whose friends fell down laughing when they found out where I was going, came to accept as commonplace waking up to find three or four horses on the porch, looking amiably through my window, and daily meandering on horseback through vast meadows, indifferent to the curious stares of kneeling cattle.
Friends not withstanding, I had been here before and loved it, loved it the way I love the ocean. It was wide open and it made me feel free. It was also mysterious. If I felt that I instinctively understood the land, I also felt that I knew next to nothing about its inhabitants, not only Indians but, even more so, cowboys. Did cowboys really exist outside of the movies and Marlboro commercials? I kept wondering what went on behind those lonely ranch posts that stood at the entrance to dusty roads going nowhere.
The ranch seemed a good place to find out, according to my friend and host, and I accepted the invitation. It was a working ranch, with about 300 head of cattle, 200 horses, and about 7,000 acres for them to roam. In the summer it also accommodated friends in small comfortable log cabins. Three big meals a day were served up at the big house, but otherwise you could ride or do whatever you liked.
Naturally, this laissez-faire system had its limits, and as I sauntered down to the corral my first afternoon it was clear that there was already a discussion among the wranglers as to which horse to put me on, or ‘how to saddle up this gal.’ And indeed the saddle came first. They put one on a wooden block and sat me down on it for size. It was a good fit, or, at least, I straddled it.
Next, the wranglers put the saddle on a horse. I explained that I had never cavorted with horses that came without a mounting block. No one listened. Finally, I just hoisted myself up and landed successfully, put my feet in the stirrups, and felt like the monarch of all I surveyed which at the moment was the backside of other horses waiting to be mounted. Never mind; this was a real ranch, all right - stony, dusty, strewn with dung - and the wranglers certainly looked and acted real in their neckerchiefs and old felt hats.
I wriggled my feet proudly in their new, pointy-toed brown cowboy boots, which by some miracle didn't pinch. I had bought the boots that morning at the General Store in the nearby - by western standards - town of Dubois, from an elderly lady who hadn't really wanted to go poking around for them, because her back hurt, and who said when I told her I couldn't get my feet in, “They're loose. We don't fit them on dudes the way cowboys like them.” She called me a dude as she might have called me a female. Dude no longer, I sat tall in the saddle. The palomino, obedient to my will, didn't budge.
"What is the name of the horse?" I asked, expecting something along the lines of Pale Fury or Cyclone. The horse's name was Funny Face, and the reason he hadn't budged was that he didn't like to move at all. We finally got him started with a tiny little kick from me and a huge slap from one of the wranglers, and we w-a-l-k-e-d off, up a stony road, past my little log cabin, an abandoned chuck wagon, across a huge meadow dotted with beautiful yellow flowers populated by cows, and past a big wooden arena where the weekly rodeo took place.
Down below, the narrow Wind River rushed by. It was hot but dry, the light so incredibly even that we could see for miles and miles, across the range to the Wind River Mountains, backward toward the reddish buff cliffs of the Badlands, which loomed up behind the corral.
I felt better when I learned that the other horses' names were no more poetic than Ginger, Bones, and Schnozz - Black Beauty was for city slickers – so the wranglers told me. But I felt a lot worse during dinner at the house, when I looked through the window and saw Funny Face being ridden bareback by two children, both under the age of six.
The stars that night consoled me. One step outside my door I was greeted by a great black dome bursting with constellations descending to the very edge of the horizon so bright they hurt the eyes.
Those stars shone down on what is surely one of the most beautiful landscapes in this country, central Wyoming. It is a land of infinite vistas; a big, low sky; tall timber; endlessly echoing jagged mountains striated in red, pink, and purple; startling patches of green; and lakes so cold and clear and bright blue that it is hard to believe anyone had ever laid eyes on them.
Towns were few and far between. Riverton was the big apple and the place you flew into from Denver. Heading northwest up and down mountains, in practically the only car on the highway, you passed such places as Morton and Crowheart, which was a post office and general store combined. Farther on was the ranch and beyond that the small western town of Dubois - accent on the first syllable - which had one long main street, wooden sidewalks, some stores, a school, a cold-storage and taxidermy company, and three saloons.
All in all a lovely place made even more so by that blue western sky and the magnificent mountains. The geography was so dramatic that it was some time before I got around to thinking about the people I had met. When I listed them they seemed like the cast of a play; and, in fact, the people at the ranch, myself included, moved about en masse, from trails to cabin, to rodeo, to saloon, the same characters in different scenes, with an occasional walk-on part thrown in. I even had a hero, a big, soft spoken cowboy with a battered tan hat and eyes that squinted as if he were about to smile, the kind of man one would instinctively turn to in a national emergency.
Like all true western hero's he was also kind. He was kind when he explained that the glorious yellow flowers in the meadow are called tarweed and exude a sticky sap that mucks everything up. He was kind when he remarked that certain things are harder to learn when you get older, he didn't mention riding, yet he managed to suggest that it was Funny Face he was talking about, not me. He was kind when I got out of his pickup truck to get my first look at a prairie dog and fell into its hole.
His father had come to Wyoming looking for an uncle who had vanished into the West and liked it so much he stayed. The wranglers, too, were what I would have expected but never hoped to find. They were real cowboys, who drive cattle up to the high pasture in the spring and round them up in the fall; who roped, branded, and broke horses. Rough and ready, they were also very courteous to ladies. When I asked after a sick horse I was told that the horse still couldn't "go to the bathroom”, sweet. One of the wranglers a blue-eyed, handsome man with rugged features and a broken nose, was actually related to Butch Cassidy.
The ranch was in Butch Cassidy country in fact. Butch was spotted when he stayed in a cabin on a ranch at a time when he was supposed to have been gunned down in Bolivia. And Hank Boedeker, a hunting guide and lawman, who had a butte named after him, was one of the men who escorted Butch to jail in Fort Laramie. By way of a bit more local color, my host took me to meet a Shoshone friend, who took out of his trunks things I had never seen outside of a museum, such as a beaded ceremonial buffalo robe and his grandfather's feather headdress.
I had hoped for a big Saturday night, and I wasn't disappointed. There was a party at the Lodge, down the road apiece, for one of the girls in the kitchen who was going off to college. It was a good reason to celebrate, though I had a feeling that any excuse for a party might do. There we were all together laughing and drinking and telling tall tales on one another. The local penchant for hyperbole is called "stretching the truth a little."
I did what I had always wanted to do, order drinks for everyone in the house, though I managed to keep myself from asking what the boys in the back room wanted. When I asked the ranch cook whether ordering the drinks had been okay, she said, "You can't do anything wrong in Wyoming." I believed her. I certainly had been made to feel that way. And then we all went on to spend the rest of Saturday night in Dubois dancing like a bunch of fools to country music at the Outlaw Saloon.
Weeks later I finally made the trip to the Tetons that had been the reason for my wanting to come back in the first place. The Tetons were beautiful, just as beautiful as I had remembered them, the mountains elegant and majestic and the valley floor beneath them green and velvety. Still, I felt like a tourist. I took a short float trip down the Snake River. A couple on the raft was saying that they came from Los Angeles but I hardly listened. I was looking for moose or elk on shore and trying to work up some excitement when we drifted into a bit of churning current. Then the man remarked that he was staying at a ranch in the Wind River area, near Dubois, and I looked up and said, "I come from there too."
It was a difficult drive back to the ranch in the dusk, on a winding mountain road hemmed in by black, primeval trees, nothing and no one in sight. I was in Indian Territory, maybe hostile territory, and then, down below, was the welcome sight of little Dubois at the end of the trail its geographical location made perfect sense. I passed through town and shortly after pulled in at the ranch. My friend was there with some of the other locals, and as soon as he saw me he started to tell some whoppers about my horsemanship.
But I was thinking about what I had said to the man on the float trip: "I come from there too." Funny, I wasn't talking about Los Angeles, not at that moment anyway. I was talking about the Ranch in the Wind River Valley.
Thank you friend.