The last cowboy
Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. The spurs of cowboy boots: an unmistakable sound. An ancient sound, dating back to the Roman legions of Julius Caesar and beyond, evoking feelings of respect, awe and fear. The American cowboy. Long days, wagons, and toughness are words used to describe the life of a cowboy to schoolchildren when they visit pioneering museums on field trips. But like the gunmen of the Wild West, the traditional life of a cowboy is now only preserved in movies like Lonesome Dove and history books.
Or is that it? Are there real jeans?
My family and I were recently invited to attend the Steiner Valley Ranch Annual Livestock Roundup in Whitney, Texas. I’ve always considered myself an “outdoor” guy, so I thought it would be fun to snap some photos of the kids in dusty old men in big hats. Images of Billy Crystal in “City Slickers” filled my head, but I wasn’t sure what to really expect.
We arrived late at night after driving no less than 20 miles off the paved road. The Steiner Valley Ranch, or SVR as it is called, was established in 1849 and seemed to last forever. Our 12-person team received a warm welcome from Wanda Harris, the wife of Ranch Managers and provider of all goodies. Perhaps the kindest woman in Texas, her hospitality, generosity, and cuisine are legendary in these places. I heard a song was even written about her! After settling into our ranch, Mrs. Harris advised us to “Get plenty of rest tonight. Jay likes to saddle up at dawn.”
As my alarm clock rang, I was sure there had been an error. Nobody in their right mind gets up that early! I thought. As we brushed the sleep out of our eyes and sipped our coffee, we wondered what the new day would bring.
Ka-Ching. Ka-Ching. Ka-Ching. The heavy, rhythmic footsteps across the front porch indicated that someone was approaching the door. “Oh my gosh! It’s him!” I accidentally said out loud as a lump formed in my throat.
For years, I have heard stories of this traditional old school cowboy in Whitney, Texas. “Hard as nails.” “Eyes, sharp as a hawk.” There is even a story, as the legend goes, of when he “sewed stitches with his own hand while driving a cattle drive.” Jay Harris, Steiner Valley Cattle Ranch Manager … He was on our doorstep!
Two quick knocks, then the door opened. Time stood still and no one breathed when he entered the room. Taking off his hat, the Trail Boss quickly inspected his new ranch laborers and in a husky voice said, “Good afternoon, girls. Come on, we’re late.” I think he smiled, but he wasn’t sure. But what I did know is that he was at least 8 feet tall and now I believed all the stories I heard about Jay Harris.
As we helped saddle the horses in the moonlight before sunrise, Jay and a host of other “royal” cowboys gathered and discussed the game plan for the day. Hall of Fame Cowboy David Merrill was even there! I never realized jobs like this still existed and was amazed by the tough men who called this place home. The saddle leather creaked as they climbed and disappeared into the darkness as he secretly wished he was one of them.
We listen to them before we see them. A few hours after dawn, scattered on the horizon, brave men on horseback led the first group of cattle to the corral where we waited patiently. A few strays in the canyon made the trail difficult, but the Trail Boss directed some of his hands to break through and surround them. The herd was carefully guided to the corral where the real work began. The purebred Angus were sprayed with a pesticide and the cows were separated from the calves. They asked me if I wanted to feel one of the cows to confirm that it was pregnant. I told him that it was much better to leave it to professionals like them and I thought I could put that task on my “wish list” for another day. The calves were led to the large “rope pen” and the Trail Boss held a safety meeting while the SVR branding iron was set on fire. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but I could tell from the mood that things were about to get exciting!
When the first calf was tied up and thrown to the ground by the team of experienced cowboys, I realized the enormous amount of effort that was required to “work the cattle.” No boy and very few men have the courage and toughness to call themselves “cowboys.” These guys were professionals in anyone’s book and they had obviously been doing it for a long time! Jay Harris made most of the strings on his favorite old horse, Amigo. Adrián Hinojosa was also a talented roper and an asset to the operation. Amber Tiwater was a vet and administered all the vaccinations. One by one, each calf received the SVR mark and was vaccinated, tagged and neutered. Their mothers protested and waited impatiently in the grass to join their calf.
When the dust settled in the late afternoon, Jay decided to call it a day and invited us to dinner. A mountain of raised ribs was served at Steiner Valley Ranch and every conceivable side dish and dessert was also available. I think it was the best meal of my life. I was able to visit Jay and gathered a lot of information about the life of a cowboy. Your work is real, meaningful, and important. Their lives have a purpose, they are pure and honest. It’s not a 9 to 5 job by any means, and there are very few rich cowboys. A gardener, veterinarian, fence builder, welder, carpenter, accountant, plumber, and heavy machinery mechanic are just a few of the tasks that are required of a cowboy. A day off? Not here. Jay noticed that after church in the morning, he would go back to work.
The cattle drive lasted 3 full days and we were exhausted. When the last calf received the SVR mark and was returned to the pasture, I felt a sense of pride that I was surrounded by such hardworking men of honor and spirit. Real American cowboys. I learned a lot about getting back to basics and the joy of working hard and living free. I found that happiness and satisfaction are directly proportional to the amount of dirt under the nails and the sweat dripping onto the floor. This land was settled by brave men on horseback like Elgin and Mike Guentert and that legacy lives on today in men like Jay Harris. I appreciate the time we spent with Jay and Wanda Harris and the best Christian people I have ever met. I solemnly believe that my life is better having met them and I can’t wait to go back.
Jay Harris, the last cowboy? Probably not, but surely one of the best and most respected in Texas. A very special thank you to all the cowboys who help keep the spirit alive, including David Merrill, Rob Beasley, Jeff Sanders, Ronnie Doss, William Heard, Joe Hinojosa, Agustin Hinojosa, Adrian Hinojosa, Justin Moore, and Bo Wohleb. Hats off to each and every one of you. Good work, cowboy.