Cowboy Genes

J. H. wore long-sleeved blue shirts every day-light chambray in summer, denim in winter. Never rolled the sleeves up. A straw cowboy hat working, a fine felt version when going out on the town, a brown cowboy-cut suit at weddings and funerals. He was an inch shorter than my six feet and much shorter than my dad’s six feet three inches, but his body was thick with muscle, stout with vitality and daily hard work. I share his strong wrists and his wide hands, but the ability to fix stuff skipped me over completely.

Our ranch was never a big operation. Granddad ran about a hundred head, pasturing them during cold winters and driving them to the southern Colorado mountains, above Durango, come summer. Before he married my grandmother Florence in 1937, he’d spend the summers up there alone, tending the cows. After they were wed, Grandmother manned the chuck wagon, actually an old Chevy truck, during the weeklong drives. A photo of him in his late twenties shows a lanky, handsome man with a stylish air leaning against that Chevy, displaying the heel of his boot.
My aunt Javonna was the first of the two kids. Granddad had her on a horse by age three; my grandmother was horrified when she was bucked off into the coal pile. Dad came along four years later.

I never knew the cow days. Granddad sold the herd in 1978, when I was five, and settled into farm life. Their house was a two-minute walk from ours, and I spent almost every evening there. The ranch sits at the bottom of a valley, abutting the old county road and the San Juan River. For most of my life it looked like this: a century-old, two-story redbrick house with a green-shingled roof that everyone says feels like a “grandma’s house”; a big back lot fenced with old ammunition boxes from World War II, painted white and nailed on top of one another; a weathered corral with a sagging tin roof; ancient, alien-looking farm equipment that made great spaceships; the “pout house,” a one-room workshop that smelled of welded metal; and a scrap pile behind it, from which Granddad would pluck pieces of metal to fix tractors, combines, fences, and my battered aluminum Battlestar Galactica lunch box. It was home.

I’ll never forget when, at age fourteen, I outshot him with a rifle. “Boy, that tickled me,” he said. And the next week, deer hunting, when I accidentally blew out every window in my great-uncle’s GMC, it was Granddad who kept me from my dad’s not inconsiderable wrath. As I stood in a patch of sparkling safety glass, simpering, Granddad said to my father, “Now, John, leave the boy alone, he feels bad enough as it is.” It was also Granddad who helped me skin my first buck the very next day, a perma-grin on his wide face.

I arrive in Wyoming on a Sunday, not entirely sure what I’m doing here. Chasing Granddad’s legend? Or testing my bright-lights, big-city life against one of bright starry nights? I’ve lived in New York City for nine years, worlds away from a little house on the prairie. Try a walk-up brownstone in East Harlem. I’ve never regretted it, but I know that for everything you gain, you gotta give up something in return.

I’m picked up at the one-terminal airport in Cody by one of the female “wranglers,” the young crew of two men and three women who work seasonally and function as tour guides, safety instructors, and hosts. We pull up to the Hideout to find the manure-strewn field outside the barn chockablock with trucks and horse trailers; it’s the ranch’s quarter horse sale. One bumper sticker reads, “Screw the whales-save the cowboy!” The inside of the barn is frenetic energy. It is packed, all eyes trained on the horseflesh paraded one by one around a center dirt ring. The auctioneer is a big-bellied fellow with snap-tight suspenders. He is spitting words in a never-ending patois, the original Bubba Beastie Boy. “45-45-45-45-45-45-45. Can I get $4,600? 46-46-46-46. Come on folks I know he don’t look pretty but I can guar-an-tee you that dancing girls aren’t good cooks either,” which elicits a laugh from the crowd.
The old men stand in the back rows, arms crossed over stout frames, pants invariably strapped on tight with belts or suspenders. Most are accompanied by their better halves-once cowgirls, now cow-matrons. Two little boys wearing chaps and vests dart among the bowed legs, shooting imaginary guns. This is pure Americana, a little mistrustful of outsiders and true unto itself. It doesn’t exist for anybody else’s edification.

The top horse of the day sells for more than sixteen thousand dollars, bought by, somebody grouses, a damn Californian. I walk out of the barn and stop to jaw with an old man leaning on a fence post. I ask if he’s buying today. He laughs. Points at seriously bowed legs. “Don’t need any more horses,” he says. “Rode too much in forty years of cowboying in all the big outfits round here. The reason I can’t walk so good anymore.”

The Flintners’ story is a heck of a lot like my family’s. The patriarch bought the ranch in 1906, having moved here from Kansas, and started out with sixty head and fewer than two hundred acres. I’m not sure what I expected from that man’s seventy-year-old grandson, but David isn’t it. Yes, he’s got the silver hair, the silver mustache, the water-blue eyes, the cowboy duds-but there’s nothing homey or folksy about him. A thousand-watt magnetic field vibes around him. He’s a man you want to like and want to have like you. Long before I hear his stories of going on brutal cattle drives at age five, his improbable graduation from Dartmouth, and his even more improbable return to the ranch, where he turned 160 acres into 300,000-I instinctually know his big ideas have yet to reach their limit. The Bell 407 helicopter sitting on the lawn outside, which he ably pilots, attests to this. He is married to a firebrand wife, Paula, a native of Belgium, who keeps the staff hustling, the laughter rolling, and my Jack Daniel’s glass full. Every morning and evening, David and Paula take meals with their guests, leaving an unmistakable thumbprint on the Hideout’s dude ranch experience.

After a great dinner talking with David, I sit out on my porch as the air cools. The Hideout itself is but a tiny portion of an enormous operation. It comprises well-kept cabins, a lodge, a barn and corral, all located in the bottom of a green-belted valley framed by the Bighorn Mountains. The feeling of infinite space, which often sets Easterners and urbanites on edge, whispers to me of home. The Wyoming sky is a personality unto itself, evocative and changeable as a lovely woman. Clouds, rounded and distinctive, roll in like moods, shifting in color and hue as the day passes, until the sky blushes watermelon at sunset. Finally, the dark takes on a spectral hint of blue when the stars burn through, crisp and thick. This is how it looks now, as I rock in my chair. Horse whinnies carry through the air.

The next morning, after our “cow psychology” lesson, I realize that my Ford 150 baseball cap ain’t cutting it. It doesn’t keep off the sun, and, strangely, I feel out of place. I go into the Hideout’s gift shop and hesitatingly try on a few hats. One is the style my dad wears. I tilt it this way, that. Mug at my reflection. The girls who work in the office are watching, giggling. “It looks good,” says one. Okay, not so bad. Kind of cool even. But a cowboy hat? Didn’t I spend my teenage years escaping exactly this? I embraced western clothing, complete with the type of leather belt that had jason tooled on the back, until the age of seven or so, when I got a whiff of the divide between cool and uncool kids. Small agricultural towns are deeply awkward places, and I was way too cool for these hicks, right? The culture, the place, irritated me-I could smell the world outside. By my teenage years, I wanted nothing to do with the farm, cowboys, cowboy music, and most certainly nothing to do with cowboy hats. I left my one-stoplight town of Kirtland the week I graduated from high school.
“Really, it looks good,” repeats one of the girls. Okay, maybe. I even kind of like it. But for the time being I’ll keep that to myself.

There is something unique about the father-son relationship in a ranching or farming environment. Part of it is the proximity-the son who’ll take over the ranch one day is the anti-prodigal son; he never really leaves home. But there is also an interesting give-and-take as responsibilities shift. Ranching bosses traditionally have a hard time ceding control, and it isn’t any better when your boss is Dad. David Flitner tells me that he was planning to go to Harvard Law School when his father called to say that the next-door ranch was for sale. “I’ll buy it if you’ll come home,” he said. It seems to surprise David even today that he agreed. Now his own son, Greg, forty-three, runs the nuts-and-bolts of the cow-and-horse operation. It is midweek when Greg and I first get a chance to talk. The real wranglers and we neophytes have pushed forty head of cows into an eighteen-wheel trailer for transport to better grazing in the mountains, and Greg is driving the big rig. I ask to ride along.

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