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.