It was sunny at the Albuquerque airport, unlike Trementina, New Mexico where I’d come from, which was all snow and mud. We had finished loading out seven possum belly cattle trailers headed for Caprock-5 feedlot. Some of the trucks had to be pulled up the dirt road with a bulldozer because the snow melting had turned the red clay into slick ooze. Once on the oil top road they ground gears to pull out for the Texas Panhandle. The next morning, Howard, the ranch owner, offered to take me in his Cessna to the Albuquerque airport to come home to Texas. We loaded my bedroll and saddle into the nosecone of his plane and took off for sunny Albuquerque. As I boarded the Southwest Airlines turboprop I found my seat next to a man who was preoccupied looking out the window at the baggage being loaded. He briefly glanced up at my sweat stained Stetson and asked “Is that your saddle?”
“Yep” I said.
“You a rodeo performer?”
“Nope, I’ve been up here penning and loading cattle for a friend.”
“Really! So you’re a cowboy?”
“Yeah, but I don’t rodeo, I’m more kind of an agricultural worker.”
I had to spend half the flight trying to explain the beef cattle business and how cattle are managed on marginal land that won’t serve as suburban housing or good farmland for mechanized crop management. Then I pointed out, when he said there weren’t any real cowboys anymore, that you don’t see them from the road. Also, since millions of people eat hamburger and roast and steak, and close to 50,000 steers are slaughtered every day, there are more cowboys in action now than there ever have been.
My mind flashed back to pushing steers up out of the brakes of the Canadian River through light rain, then snow, into muddy corrals. By the end of three days, the eight of us looked pretty authentic! Our horses had accumulations of mud, sweat and cactus thorns on legs and stirrups. Our leather leggings and chinks were mud, manure and blood spattered. We were a collection of five-day shadowed, or even outright bearded, sunburnt, frost bit, felt crowned bowlegged dukes of choya and snake-weed country. Standing in a circle, surrounded by horses ground tied or too dang tired to escape, someone found a bottle of Old Charter under the seat of a pickup.We pulled the cork, heaved it into the corral and passed it around. The stories began there. The headache that I was experiencing as the plane climbed to altitude began there, too.
To try to explain all that to this civilian whose only connection to cowboys was Hollywood and the National Finals Rodeo on television, was like translating Chinese arithmetic into hip-hop poetry.
Strains of an old 60s song “We live in two different worlds” came to mind.