I am a cowboy in the sense that every graduate of Gunnison High School is: our mascot is a cowboy. He — it’s in the very name, “boy” — is apparently getting a facelift this fall: Gunnison will finally be done helping itself to an approximate version of University of Wyoming’s logo, a bold rider bringing his bronc to heel under him, in favor of a rather static, bowlegged silhouette. But a cowboy all the same.
I am pondering cowboys today because at some point yesterday, at a red light, I found myself behind a car where the driver was wearing his heart on his bumper. Next to the sticker pledging violence against liberals was a new one that also appeared in the local paper this week: Make Gunnison Cowboy Again.
I believe the originator is the same woman who has been busy fomenting divisiveness and leading the attack against public health, so obviously its intention is the complete opposite of the suggestion I made that gained no traction, perhaps because everyone I suggested it to was in the middle of transitioning away from their authority with the county.
I thought appealing to our local heritage would make for a great pro-mask campaign: photograph some authentic-looking locals and put them above the phrase “Cowboy Up * Cover Up.” I still think this could have resonated, particularly with tourists, but given the way things are turning out it might have been hard to find people who wear neck and face cloths as a matter of course to willingly pose with those articles of clothing. Maybe they’ve all stopped wearing them altogether as an anti-public health statement, I don’t know.
And now there’s a sticker that can probably be yours for the asking, wanting us to “make Gunnison cowboy again.” What do we suppose that really even means?
Clearly it’s an intended play on “Make America Great Again,” which, if we stop to think about it, doesn’t make for a great re-election slogan because it suggests you failed in your mission the first term around.
Once upon a time Gunnison was populated by cowboys. Real ones. Our little town originated out of a mistaken notion: a man named Sylvester Richardson wanted to create an “agrarian colony,” so he picked just about the worst place anyone could imagine, a spot with a growing season of less than 60 days, a place so cold and snowy that the Utes who were already here only used it for summer pasturage.
There was an Indian agency — sorry, that was the term — located south of town prior to the Richardson group’s hopeful arrival, where cowboys hired by the federal government tended to a cattle herd used to feed the Utes who had more or less agreed to stay on a reservation that of course kept getting whittled smaller and smaller as what was initially perceived as undesirable land suddenly gained desire.
The agrarians looked at that and quickly adapted their business model, trafficking in cattle and alfalfa rather than a bounty of crops. Ranches sprung up all across the Gunnison Country, along with the cowboys needed to work them.
We still have ranches, although many of them, like the one I live on now, have been sold to developers who convert them to subdivisions. Cows — and horses — are no longer, by covenant, welcome in our neighborhood. Others have been sold as vanity projects. Three family ranches up Ohio Creek were bought up by one very wealthy man who doesn’t live here, combined into one, which still runs cattle and employs a small handful of local cattlefolk, including a friend’s son, but it’s hardly the same sort of operation as the family ranch my friend grew up on and which is now run by her brother.
The avocation of cowboy probably hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last 150 years. The tools of the trade are different, some of them — there seems to be a lot more ATV driving than horse riding — but it’s still a poorly-paid job that involves working for someone else. And while every depiction I’ve ever seen of a cowboy involves a white man, even way back in the early days of the trans-Mississippi West a third of them were black or hispanic.
Today, around here, many of them seem to be vaqueros (which is where we get the word “buckaroo”) who speak little to no English and are perhaps not legally in the country. They also don’t bring their own horses to the job and may never end up astride one.
So I am still pondering what it is we want when we want to “make Gunnison cowboy again.”
Cowboys are generally thought of as fiercely independent, tough characters who aren’t going to be told what to do or how to do it, although in reality it’s almost completely the opposite: they are probably still tough, but they rely on their employer for housing and food, and they go about each day performing tasks set out for them by their boss, same as everyone else.
Maybe it’s the notion that cowboys seek no government assistance, but if we look at the very first cowboys in the Gunnison area, they were federal employees. Most of the fabled ranches of the west were founded on free land provided by the government, and nearly every ranch around Gunnison still relies on summer pasture that is federal land, at a cost of $1.35 per animal unit month. In other words, the rancher pays the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management 1 dollar and 35 cents per cow and her calf every month the cattle are on public land. If you have 100 adult head, you pay the government $135 per month to get the cattle off your own land so that you can grow and lay in a winter’s worth of alfalfa.
Obviously we’re being far more romantic than literal when we want to “be cowboy.” If you’re of my vintage, you caught the last of the western craze on TV in your childhood, where you could watch a lot of white men (and “Hey Soos” of Rawhide) ride the trails and reach for their guns a lot more than any cowboy in real life ever had to.
Those westerns, both on TV and in books, faded to the fringes of American consciousness a long time ago, but people still find the notion of cowboys thrilling — at least for the duration of a summer rodeo, where a successful ride lasts eight seconds.
I assume, in this new iteration, “cowboy” is short-hand for exactly the opposite of my proposed ad campaign: “Keep your stinkin’ public-health hands off my face, where I would have a silk or cotton cloth anyway, pulled up to keep dust particles out of my lungs.”
So I’m still pondering, still not sure what we want. A return to a romantic notion that never existed, where all cowboys were white and free to roam the land without fetter? Which would be odd, given that much of a cowboy’s job is to install and maintain fences. We just want to be tough and independent? The very nature of the word “cowboy,” as opposed to “rancher,” implies that you work for the Man (or the Woman). Hail to Gunnison High School, as we like to sing? (Most memorable line: “Hail hail hail hail hail to Gunnison High.”)
I just don’t know what this sticker is espousing, but it’s obviously something angry and conservative, since it was lodged right there on the bumper amid a veritable hail of liberal bashing. It has more meaning to some cowboys, I guess, than this one. Go GHS!
Note Roy’s neckcloth, ready to be pulled up a moment’s notice to cover his mouth and nose. That’s the cowboy way.