At home on the open range, self-reliant and hard working, the American Cowboy remains an iconic figure. With spurs jangling and hat tipped against the wind, he continues to symbolize the free-thinking, rugged individualism that, in part, defines the American West and much of our country’s history.
The first cowboys or vequeros came from Mexico in the late 1500s, hired to move cattle into what is now Texas and New Mexico. In the centuries that followed, the cowboy played a crucial role in the development of the West. Working hard for low wages, breaking trail through dangerous country and enduring long, lonely days and nights sleeping under the stars, cowboys helped establish the new frontier.
Despite fewer numbers and changes in ranch management, the cowboy’s work still must be done. Throughout the West, you’ll find men and women on horseback, protected by hats, chaps and boots, riding into the far reaches of the backcountry to round up errant cattle, mend fences and doctor a sick calf. You’ll also find them on the rodeo circuit showing off their skills, often including tricks of their trade passed down through the centuries.
For many who are part of today’s Baby Boomer generation, childhood play might have meant donning a pretend holster, hat and cowboy boots before heading out, fully outfitted for a Wild West adventure. Then came watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on television and perhaps catching a John Wayne movie on the weekend.
Yet, free time for modern day kids is more likely to include high tech pursuits ranging from globally-themed video games to text-heavy “conversations” with friends or organized athletic pursuits.
“Unplugging from our busy lives can benefit everyone. “ That, according to Tyler Beckley who owns and operates the Three Bar Ranch in Cranbrook, BC and coordinates the efforts of the Spur Alliance, a group of ten, like-minded guest ranches in the West. “We see what it means for families when the kids are able to run free, there is little focus on time or technology and adults and children are able to connect with animals, nature and each other. “
For those interested in savoring the rich flavor of the old West and tapping into the compelling culture of the cowboy, the options remain plentiful. Even if the name “Trigger” doesn’t ring any bells, grab your boots and a bandana and hit the trail. Here are five places to consider:
Santa Fe: Cowboys Real and Imagined.
The storied Santa Fe Trail comes to an end in the heart of Santa Fe, NM, just steps from modern day museums, shops and galleries. What was once a challenging, 900-mile trade route brought many a weary cowboy into town. There, he would tie his horse to the hitch rail and seek refreshment, grateful for a break from the dusty trail where rattlesnakes, weather and the threat of Native American attack kept him on high alert.
The city of Santa Fe has celebrated this beloved aspect of their local history with a multi-faceted exhibit, Cowboys, Real and Imagined, at the New Mexico History Museum.
Drawing on photos and artifacts from its extensive collections as well as loans from more than 100 individuals and museums, Cowboys, Real and Imagined sought to answer the question: Who is a real cowboy?
“One of the reasons the cowboy myth has been so pervasive and long-lasting is because anybody could become a cowboy of sorts,” said guest curator B. Byron Price, director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma and director of the University of Oklahoma Press.
In its search for an answer, Price said, the exhibit discovered that cowboy “is a verb, an adjective, a noun, an adverb.”
The interactive cowboy extravaganza offered plenty for visitors to see, touch and hear from recreations of a saddle shop to cowboy movie nights. Popcorn, a palomino horse character, offered his take on the cowboy story in kid-friendly language. Children had the opportunity to try on cowboy costumes and participate in hands-on activities.
The annual family-friendly Wild West Weekend, (check the web site for dates) features cowgirls and cowboys in full dress, music, saddle and boot makers, plus cowboy cooking and roping demonstrations.
Contact: (505) 476-5100; www.nmhistorymuseum.org
Cowboy culture is alive and well in this Wyoming town, founded in 1896 by Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Thanks to the legendary showman’s traveling Wild West shows, Cody was once bestowed and now retains the title of Rodeo Capital of the World more than a century after he put an entertaining twist on the skills local cowboys used in their daily endeavors. The Cody Stampede Rodeo attracts topnotch talent and also serves up classic rodeo entertainment, parades and a craft fair.
Each year, from June 1st through August 31st, Cody’s night rodeo, the longest running in the country gets underway at 8:00pm. Operating for more than 60 years, expect fan favorites including riding, roping, and bull and bronc exhibitions.
The musically inclined will want to tune it to Dan Miller and his "Empty Saddles Band" at the historic Cody Theatre across from the famed Irma Hotel. The Cowboy Music review offers up music, comedy and poetry throughout the summer months.
Also outside the Irma, catch a nightly Wild West street performance where the good guys and bad guys battle it out to the delight of visitors.
Make your way to Old Trail Town on the original site of Cody City to see 26 authentic frontier buildings dating back to 1879.
The onsite Museum of the Old West features artifacts that offer insight into how trappers, frontier folks and cowboys lived in the era as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids’ “Hole in the Wall” cabin and the gravesites of mountain men including Jeremiah “Liver Eating” Johnston. (Contact: www.YellowstoneCountry.org.)
Once home to the likes of Calamity Jane and her cohorts, Livingston, MT rests on the outside edge of a lazy eastward bend in the legendary Yellowstone River. Just fifty miles north of Yellowstone Park’s Gardiner Gate entrance, the former railroad town’s main street and historic buildings still stand as a testament to the ways of the old west. Their authentic turn-of the century charm cast the town as the perfect backdrop for movies like A River Runs Through it and The Horse whisper.
Today, the region’s cowboys still mix it up with local artists, writers and visitors, all of whom pay homage to the area’s blue-ribbon fly fishing and the rugged Bridger, Crazy, Absaroka and Gallatin Mountain Ranges that beckon many into the backcountry.
Each year over the Independence Day holiday, top-ranked PRCA cowboys and cowgirls gather for the Livingston Roundup, one of the country’s top paying rodeos. The festivities kick off with an old-fashioned parade, complete with tossed candy, costumed Shriners, themed floats and crusty wranglers pulling mule-trains along the parade route.
After three sold out nights of barrel racing, team roping and bronc riding, the festivities come to an end on July 4th when fireworks light up the western sky and a patriotic sound track gets the flags waving.
Extend your experience with a stay on a nearby guest ranch or the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort.
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
Oklahoma City, OK.
Founded in 1955, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum has shared its extraordinary western art and artifacts collection as well as a wealth of history with more than 10 million visitors from around the world.
The stories told through the works of famed artists Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and James Earle Fraser combine with interactive history galleries to illuminate the enduring legacy of the American cowboy, rodeos, western performers and the region’s frontiersmen.
“There is nothing more American than the American cowboy,” explains Don Reeves, the Curator and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the museum. “People can really relate to the Code of the West and everything the cowboy stands for. We get a lot of young families in the museum who talk about integrating those values into their lifestyle.”
Throughout the year, families can enjoy the Children’s Cowboy Corral and interactive exhibits. Over Memorial Day weekend, the annual Chuck Wagon Gathering & Children’s Cowboy Festival gets underway. Expect authentic cowboy grub served from a chuck wagon as well as stagecoach and covered wagon rides, weaving and roping demonstrations and a range of western stage entertainment.
Contact: 405-478-2250; www.nationalcowboymuseum.org
Visit a Dude Ranch.
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
High-profile families flock to Big Sky Country where there are more buffalo than paparazzi.
From Ted Turner and Dennis Quaid to the recent arrival of singer John Mayer, Montana offers
a chance to unplug from a pressure-filled existence and enjoy the wide open spaces. Local
guest ranches, such as Mountain Sky in vista-rich Paradise Valley, treat all their guests like
celebrities, according to general manager Yancy Arterburn. “Whether they choose to sit on the
porch reading a book or load the kids into helicopter for a day of private fly fishing or
Yellowstone sightseeing, we just want everyone to have a good time.”
Contact: visitmontana.com; 1-800-548-3392; www.mtnsky.com
Established in 1861 by Napoleon Bonaparte Hunewill and his wife Esther, the Hunewill Ranch, is the oldest working guest ranch in California and home to 1200 head of cattle, 190 horses, and an assortment of llamas, goats, and sheep. “The fact that we are one of the oldest continuously owned family cattle ranches in the American West means our guests have the benefit of all that history. We are the real deal,” explains Betsy Hunewill, the great, great granddaughter of the founder, who was known as “NB”.
“Some of our guests show up wound pretty tight,” adds Hunewill, “but by the time they leave they are different people.” It makes perfect sense. Guests have the option to disconnect from their daily stressors and enjoy outdoor adventures on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. Days begin with a cool morning breakfast ride through a lush meadow.
Later guests can saddle up and help move cattle, fly fish, watch as young foals or yearlings are worked in the corral, or explore a corner of the 26,000 acre expanse on which five generations of Hunewills have shared their western ways. Riding programs are crafted to match the skill and interests of each rider, explained Hunewill. Wranglers have designed games to help beginners learn horsemanship, activities that Hunewill says are as enjoyable for adults as they are for the youngsters. Following a home-style dinner in “NB”’s original Victorian ranch house, families gather for talent night, square dancing, stories around a campfire or a little roping practice before retiring to their comfortable cottage-style accommodations.
“We get a lot of repeat guests and many families have been coming generation after generation,” said Hunewill. “One mom recently told me she had offered to take the kids to a popular theme park. But the kids insisted on returning to the ranch. It’s kind of neat to hear that.”
Happy trails to you until we meet again. Happy trails to you, keep smilin' until then. Who cares about the clouds when we're together? Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather. Happy trails to you 'till we meet again. Dale Evans – 1950.
Since the early 1900s, the Izalco Volcano northwest of San Salvador remained active, emitting steam and heat into the atmosphere. It was such a popular site from neighboring Cerro Verde Mountain that the government decided to build a resort at the top of Cerro Verde, but there was a problem. Three witches who lived at the base of the mountain asked the resort not be built because it was a sacred mountain.
Well who cares about a bunch of witches, certainly not the Salvadoran government, and it told the witches it would proceed with the development. The witches put a curse on the project and sure enough after it was completed Izalco Volcano went quiet.
Eventually the resort went quiet as well. Today, when people go to the summit of Cerro Verde, whether for a picnic or simply to enjoy the salubrious mountain air, they usually end up climbing around the boarded-up resort as if it was a Mayan ruin.
I’m not sure what happened to the resort, but to my mind it still seemed like the perfect place to have a lodge of some sort. The air is cooler than in San Salvador, the views of Izalco are still there, and the ride to the summit is absolutely a treat.
Just before the mountains is a massive crater formed by volcanic eruption years before. Over the centuries water accumulated, forming, in this almost perfectly circular geographic structure, Lake Coatepeque. From high above, as you look down into the lake, you notice a small island had formed and that the edges of the lake were dotted with private, vacation homes including one belonging to the president of the country.
From the waters of the Coatepeque, the cone rises up sharply. It’s all very wooded now, from the water’s edge to the peak circumference of the cone and as I looked about, the top of the cone seemed to be a thin line of rock, but I was wrong because the road to Cerro Verde was along one of the conical sides of the old volcano. It was a two-lane thoroughfare that followed the circumference geography and in its simplicity a nice piece of engineering, although I was fairly sure the ancient civilizations, the Mayans or the Olmecs, probably had created the first path along the very same route.
Later, on the road back from Cerro Verde, my guide and I would stop for a lunch at a restaurant with an overlook of the lake – one of the great sites in a land of many great vistas not much visited by non-Salvadorans.
A Land of Volcanoes
I’m told by my guide that El Salvador counts 25 volcanoes, which is an extraordinary for such a small country. The land there is restless. Every once in a while it all comes to life either through an eruption, earthquake, landslide or any combination thereof. We are not talking dinosaur life but in modern times. The last volcanic eruption in El Salvador was in 2005.
If one looks at the topography of the capital city, the population sits in a broad valley between a couple of high peaks, one of which is a volcano, and the other, La Puerta Del Diablo (The Devil’s Door) is a popular park area that really completed its geographic formation early in the 1700s when landslides reformed the mountainside. Today, La Puerta Del Diablo is framed by two immense rock formations, the highest of which is 3,250 feet and is a major climbing location. For the rest of us, there is a short trail to a cavern. Make the walk because the view from there is stunning. On a clear day, you may not be able to see forever, but you can see to the Pacific Ocean.
The most visible volcano from the city is the defining peak of San Salvador, the Boqueron Volcano at Cerro El Picacho at almost 6,328 feet. At the summit is the popular El Boqueron National Park, with the most visible attraction being the immense crater. A tourist trail with look-out points wraps around the conical summit. The crater can’t be entered without a guide, but even without that excitement the view from the top is worth it as oddly, within the larger crater is a smaller, distinctive crater at the bottom of the formation.
El Salvador’s volcanic peaks seem to come in bunches. Probably the most accessible, historically significant and picturesque are in the mountain ranges to west. I skirted the mountains, heading along what is sometimes called the Mayan Route, since this was an area settled by the Mayans after the volcanic eruption in a nearby lake region. My first stop was the ruins of Joya de Ceren, a relatively recent discovery. Unlike the big Mayan ruins stretching throughout Central America from Honduras to southern Mexico, Joya de Ceren, was not a ceremonial place but a living area that was covered by volcanic ash. As a result, this site is one the few places where archaeologists go to learn what common-folk, Mayan life was life.
The Ruins of El Tazumal
Further to the northwest can be found the much grander ruins of El Tazumal, which looks much like the great Mayan ruins of ceremonial places found elsewhere in Central America. Tazumsl is not as tall, as say, Tikal in Guatemala, looking more like a squat palace, but its impressive nevertheless. There is a small but wonderful museum on the site, where resides the largest Mayan ceramic statue ever found.
After La Tazumal, I headed southwest in the heart of Mayan mountain country, but now dotted by many small villages, basically unchanged from their Spanish heritage. I stayed two nights in the cheery Ahuachapan, temporarily residing in the town’s fanciest accommodation, but in American lexicon, just a bed & breakfast, which was built out of a traditional, one-story colonial habitat. The proprietress, a former beauty queen, decorated the place with bits of antiques, arts and crafts and family heirlooms.
From my base in Ahuachapan, I spent a day visiting the villages of Apaneca, Juayua, Salcoatitan and Nahuizalco. All the villages are connected by a two-lane mountain road that looked precarious at best, but never slowed down the local drivers or pedestrians. On the road out of Nuizalco you should actually slow down and find the overlook along the side of the road. From this single spot you can see seven volcanoes. Five in a long line and two more in the distance.
This is coffee country and just for something different to do, I stopped by the coffee plantation called the Carmen Estate for a lesson as to how coffee is grown and prepared – and I have to say, to get from seed to the coffee bean we know, is a lot more complicated than I imagined. I got to help “sweep” the seedlings into drying position using not a traditional broom, but one with a flat wooden face instead of a brush. My reward, a fresh-brewed coffee from locally grown beans. It was like drinking a fine cognac.
The steep mountains look lush and green, but if you look closely this is mostly coffee being grown on the mountainsides and divided into plots by other types of vegetation. Coffee has been a blessing and a curse to El Salvador. Beginning in the late 1800s, it became the country’s first major cash crop, but when the market collapsed after World War I and with the coming of the global depression, thousands of native peoples were thrown out of work. They rebelled only to be slaughtered by the tens of thousands.
There is a small cultural center in Juayua that is in effect a museum of the genocide.
The conflicts of the 1930s in a sense festered and grew until the 1980s when the country entered into 12-year civil war.
In Apaneca, my guide took me to visit the home a friend who had been part of the guerilla support network during the civil war. Surprisingly, the home was chock-a-block with crafts, collectibles and bits of antiquity. With thousands of years of Mayan civilization and then Spanish domination beginning the 1500s, there seems to be so much antiquity about that I had not gone into an El Salvadoran home that didn’t have something that looked like it belonged in a museum.
Although the old revolutionary was quite proud of his collection, I took a picture of him not alongside his treasures but standing near a large, iconic photograph – of Che Guevara.
IF YOU GO:
Coming from Phoenix, I flew first to Los Angeles International where I got a direct flight to San Salvador via Taca Airlines. www.taca.com
WHERE TO STAY:
My first two nights in San Salvador, I stayed at the Holiday Inn, near to the American Embassy (www.holidayinn.com). In San Salvador, I also stayed one night at the Hotel Mirador Plaza, a beautiful, boutique hotel favored by businessmen and occasional celebrities (www.miradorplaza.com). In the village of Ahuachapan, my accommodation was the Hotel Casa de Mamapan, a pleasant Salvadoran version of a historic inn ( http://lacasademamapan.com). Finally, a real surprise was the ultra-modern La Cocotera Resort on the shores of the Pacific Ocean (http://www.lacocoteraresort.com).
I was traveling alone and Salvadorean Tours (www.salvadoreantours.com ) arranged not only my itinerary but furnished me with a car and driver the whole time I was in El Salvador. Excellent service all around.
At the turn of the century, America's wild bison - which at one time numbered 60 million - had dwindled to about two dozen animals. Strong, sturdy and resilient, they’ve made a comeback, thanks to public and private conservation efforts.
On the range, in refuges and national parks, this symbol of our wildlife heritage is magnificent to observe. Despite their seemingly docile ways, don’t ignore ranger warnings. This large, grass-eating creature has been known to charge the too close for comfort curious tourist.
Snap a shot of this American icon – with a zoom lens:
1.Wildlife Expeditions, an educational outreach program of Teton Science Schools, a nonprofit organization, provides year-round wildlife viewing and natural history interpretation to those interested in a close-up, ethical view of Greater Yellowstone’s wild animals in their natural habitat. Experienced biologists use their knowledge and skills to locate bison as well as elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, and coyotes amongst the towering Teton Mountains.
Contact: 1 (888) 945-3567; www.wildlifeexpeditions.org.
2. The National Bison Range, 40 miles north of Missoula, MT, sprawls across 18,000 acres on one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the nation. Established in 1908, it is a scenic home to hundreds of bison as well as 200 species of birds and other native wildlife.
Contact:1( 406)644-2211; http://bisonrange.fws.gov.
3. Yellowstone National Park is home to approximately 3,500 bison, many the descendants of the few who survived near-extinction. Weighing up to 2,000 pounds, you’ll likely spot them in the Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Also, be on the look out near Pelican Valley, the Lower Geyser Basin and in Gibbon Meadows.
Contact: Yellowstone National Park; 1 (307) 344-7381; www.nps.gov/yell.
4. Terry Bison Ranch, Cheyenne, WY: This family friendly ranch offers bison viewing year round in an environment dubbed “the west the way you want it” by its owners. A popular reunion spot, families can spread out into eight cabins, 17 bunkhouse rooms, as well as RV sites on the 27,000 acre spread. Home to nearly 3000 bison, the ranch also features train rides, horseback riding, a restaurant and a Trading Post.
Contact: (307) 634-4171; http://www.terrybisonranch.com.
5. Established in 1901, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, in Indiahoma, OK, maintains a bison herd of approximately 600 animals. The 59,020 acre Refuge provides habitat for additional large native grazing animals, including Rocky Mountain elk, and white-tailed deer. Texas longhorn cattle also share the Refuge rangelands as a cultural and historical legacy species. More than 50 mammal, 240 bird, 64 reptile and amphibian, 36 fish, and 806 plant species thrive on this important refuge.
Contact: 1 (580) 429-3222; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/oklahoma/wichitamountains/refhist.html;