Writer of the Purple Sage
By Mike Moutoux
Some have said that the West was "won." Maybe so, but I would argue that it is not some prize or a place that can be claimed with land grabs, wars or politics. The West, in fact, wins people—I know it won me over a long time ago. I surrender to its charms every day: the brooding mountains and sculpted plateaus, the windswept deserts and prairies, and all the wild things that live here. Surrendering should be easy; I'm a poet and poets aren't usually fighters. But I'm also a cowboy and that means I'm unlikely to be bowled over by something as simple as a sunset, much less surrender to it. I don't mind getting my hands dirty; I use simple words; I know which end of the horse bites and which kicks. I wear a Stetson to work. I don't surrender easy.
"Cowboy Poet" sounds like an oxymoron, I know, and actually it's rare for me to be both at the same time, but I've done it. When you're cowboyin' you have your hands full most of the time. It won't do to stop everything just because a muse shows up with a good idea for a poem. I never understood muses anyway—it's all Greek to me. So, I just write when I can, memorize the poems I think an audience will enjoy, and perform them in a way I hope takes their imaginations for a ride. That's how I see my job—takin' folks to a place or a feeling they may not get to any other way.
Speaking of getting away. . . The Cottonwood Ranch lies two hours northeast of Elko, Nevada. It's a working cattle ranch that survives, in part, because it also operates as a guest ranch. I was there looking for a good time and to collect some new experiences and ideas. I spent a week there about the time the aspens were turning gold up in the mountains. The highlight was a two-day horse drive through 25 miles of high desert sagebrush hemmed in to the north and west by the Jarbridge Mountains. It rained one night while I was there, and the smell of the sage the next morning was almost intoxicating.
One of the pleasures of that trip was using the ranch owner's old saddle. It was over 50 years old, made by the Hamley Saddle Co., and in use by Horace Smith since he was 16 years old. I got to thinking that there must be a lot of stories in that old saddle and I was right. I learned there were enough stories to fill a book, certainly enough for a poem:
It felt right to me, sittin' in that saddle pushin' cows and horses by day and swappin' stories at night by a fire.
So when I landed in New Mexico, I started looking for ranch work as soon as I was settled in. It was almost an hour commute from my house to the ranch near Gila, where I got a job as a wrangler on local working/guest ranch. During the hottest parts of June and July, I fed and saddled horses, fixed fence, and occasionally took guests for a ride. You'd think I'd have been writing about those experiences often, but to tell the truth, I was too tired most days and still trying to absorb it all. I told people I was the dumbest and hardest working cowboy on the place. Both true.
One of my favorite experiences involved taking some salt blocks out to a herd of cattle about seven miles from the ranch headquarters. We saddled two horses for ourselves and secured a pack frame (a noisy combination of wood, leather and metal) to a third horse. Our foreman led the packhorse with an empty pack frame off on a trot to see how the horse reacted to the noise and banging. It took about three seconds to learn that the horse did not like the new experience much at all.
The horse pulled free in a panic and took off trailing the lead rope. He circled the hitching rail twice, exciting all the horses tied there, and then he ran off down the dirt ranch road clanging and banging and kicking up a trail of dust. He crashed through the low branches of the first tree he came to, breaking one of the cinch straps in the process as well as a large limb from the tree. The pack frame and the horse parted company about then; the frame seemed to have suffered the most from the collision. We picked up the remains of the frame, caught the horse and started over. Of course, we picked a different packhorse and things went smoothly this time.
The sun was setting by the time we reached the cows. It was a great time to be on horseback, but a long ride from headquarters. So my buddy, Stan, and I left the cows and headed back immediately, covering the last mile at a trot under the light of the moon. I did not go home and write a poem as you might think; I was too tired and would get up at 5:30 the next morning to go to work again. I didn't need a poem to remember the ride or Stan's quiet company, anyway. The ride deserves remembering. Stan and I have both since left the ranch, and it was our last ride together.
I live near Pinos Altos, and that's where I met my next cowboy buddy. Everyone knows him as "Cowboy Charlie." I just call him Charlie; adding "cowboy" seems unnecessary considering his weathered features, the long-sleeved white shirt he always wears, the slick-soled cowboy boots and especially that hat. That Stetson has clearly seen better days, but Charlie swears it's only nine years old. Hat-years must be like dog-years—multiply their birthdays by seven and you get something closer to the truth:
Charlie and I have been doing a little volunteering at a horse rescue place until we figure out our next move. He hopes to buy a little place and start training horses. I hope to find at least part-time or seasonal work on a ranch and spend my free time performing at cowboy poetry festivals and around a campfire now and then. I try to reach out to everyone: the old rancher in the straw hat who won't sit down but listens from the back of the room, the kids with the too-big-for-their-heads' cowboy hats and jeans tucked into their boots, and the well-dressed couple that look like they live in town.
We all benefit from the values and traditions of hard-working, fun-loving cowboys. I try to leave an audience with an image of the cowboy as I see him: a guy who is generous and kind with a heart as big as the West itself, but a guy who can also be stubborn and tough when decency and fairness require those things. A guy who puts women on the highest pedestal—-children and puppies a close second.
Maybe that image isn't accurate today or even historically. Maybe I romanticize too much. But I like the image and try to live up to it. I'm pretty sure the effort makes me a better man.
"Cowboy." Some say the word is a verb, not just a noun. Others have said it is an attitude and not an occupation. I think the word stands for a lot of what is good and right in the circles I travel in. When I write about cowboys, I try to keep those things in mind. When I perform the poetry for an audience, I try to bring them into that circle so we can all ride off into that Western sunset together—sitting tall in the saddle and feeling pretty good about who we are.