The real wild west

My friend’s Toyota hatchback struggled along the two-laner as we bounced along the far reaches of the Western Slope. Make no mistake, the car was in fine working order and handled the road proficiently. It was my friend’s white two-door and its Florida plates that made for the struggle. Things got particularly uncomfortable as we blew through the backwater of Norwood, nearly doubling the speed limit, and bounded toward a herd of close to 500 moon-faced cows straddling the highway. My friend seemed oblivious as he casually held the steering wheel and intently discussed the merits of a recent Primus concert.

“Holy shit!” he exclaimed as if waking up. “Oh my god! There are cows on the

road! And, wow, those look like real cowboys!”

The Celica was road-side instantly, my friend’s door was wide-open, and his instamatic camera was burning film before I could say a word.
“I don’t believe this,” he uttered proudly. “This is real wild west. You gotta see this.”

I didn’t bother telling him that not only had I seen it, but from the other side. To avoid more talk of six-shooters and cattle rustlers, I didn’t let him know that I’d worked on a ranch a few miles back. Instead, I tried to hide my embarrassment, pulling my hat down and sliding deep into the seat as a familiar ranching family moved its herd up to summer pasture.

Last week, this picture flashed again before my eyes. My friend hasn’t been through Colorado in close to a decade, and thank god that Celica died back in Florida because of operator error. But there they were - three cars pulled off in the middle of a cattle drive near Mancos, their occupants bouncing happily next to the parked sedans, mouths agape and fingers holding digital cameras.

A group of my non-Florida friends love to make fun of the notion that I exchanged resort life in Telluride for ranch life in Norwood during my teen-age years. Somehow trading good times in Town Park with Sam Bush and the Grateful Dead for fencelines and jukeboxes loaded with Merle Haggard didn’t jibe with them. Come to think of it, I’m not sure it jibes with me anymore.
However, those days of working for room, board and pennies did make for decent perspective on some hard Colorado realities. And I can comfortably say that during my four-year high school stint as a ranch hand, I was also only a passerby. I certainly could never call myself a rancher or genuinely pose as a “cowboy” for passing motorists. And every winter, when the going really got tough, I had the luxury of returning to the land of the Coonskin Ski Lift and the Bluegrass Festival.

I did, however, get more than a few strong glimpses of the lifestyle, and I enjoy a distinct appreciation and respect for ranching heritage whether it be in San Miguel or La Plata County. This is particularly true, because more than anything, I remember no game of wild west.

There was little romance to any of what I was involved in. For my employers, ranching was a livelihood and a losing one at that. Agriculture never really covered the bills, and I watched as the groceries got lean, my already meager paycheck stopped arriving on time, and tax pressures from Uncle Sam came over the phone lines. Ultimately drastic measures were necessary.

Over the course of those four years, I saw the size of the operation shrink dramatically, as three parcels were taken out of ranching, subdivided and turned into homesites. The ranch continued to operate but only because the family converted its only asset into dollars. The last sale I saw go down was the most humiliating. The family was stuck in a corner and forced to sell off the original homestead, the 100-year-old origin of the operation. John Wayne was nowhere to be found on the ranch that year. It wasn’t the type of place where you heard, “Howdy, partner.”

In Durango, the cowboy still sells. Our old west mystique is why many people visit and many of our storefronts, hotels and festivals are tailored toward keeping the cowboy dream alive. This town’s old-timey flavor draws more tourists and tourist dollars than any combination of ski resorts, bike trails and whitewater. I can say with certainty that more than a few people have imagined Indian attacks or making deliveries to prospector camps as they ride the narrow gauge north through the valley. Old-time photos from our local studio adorn refrigerators and picture frames the world over.

Meanwhile, land values soar while beef prices falter. A new Home Depot nears completion atop the old sale barn. Hobby ranches take the place of working cattle operations. And cookie-cutter subdivisions neatly replace pasture. The irony runs deep.

Most of us are just passing through in one capacity or another. However, many of the same people who are being treated as props have gazed on these mountains, worked this ground and been the caretakers of this valley since close to the beginning.

Lately, their road has not been an easy one.

- Will Sands




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