(Nothing political here; nothing religious. Just brief moments from life.)
In the Spring of 1967 I turned 22 years old. I was tired of college, so I quit my classes and volunteered for the draft. I figured a two-year stint in the Army was preferable to three, which is what I’d get if I enlisted. While I was waiting to hear from Uncle Sam, I joined my mother on a cross-country trek that took us from California, visiting various families and friends in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. One of our stops was in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.
We stayed at the home (and cattle ranch) of Frances and Denver Miller, who raised cattle for many years, some distance to the northwest of Medicine Bow. Frances was an old school chum of my mother, who’s name was also Frances. They had been fast friends, either in High School in Denver, Colorado, or before that in the mining town of Black Hawk. I’m not exactly sure.
Frances Miller had an unapologetic, buck-toothed smile that told you in an instant she was friendly and honest and expected the same from you. Denver was a genuine cowboy. He was 50 when I met him, lanky and tough, but only so because he had to be, to do what he did for a living. Once he commented, “I’m getting too old for this.” But I recall it was many more years after that before he and Frances finally “retired”.
We spent close to a week with the Millers. This child of the southern California suburbs soon discovered what ranch work was all about. Our first morning there we got up and ate breakfast long before the sun was anywhere to be seen. I had never eaten eggs so deep gold in color and flavor. Frances said it was because they were from free-range chickens. Whatever it was, it was OK by me.
I went with Denver to help load up “feed cake”, which wasn’t really cake at all, but sacks of feed for the cattle. A semi delivered pallets of these sacks and our job was to load them onto his pick-up and stock them in the various storage sheds, spread out on his property. I don’t know how many acres he had, but it was a big spread. By the time we were done, my back was sore but it was a self-satisfied sore.
Later in the week, while showing us part of their ranch on horseback, they discovered some wild horses had gotten into a section where Denver didn’t want them. There were about 3 mares, one or two colts and a stallion. I don’t remember why he needed to get them out of there, but he made it clear they didn’t belong. Maybe he was concerned for disease or needed that section for some other livestock. I really don’t know. He said he was going to have to “round them up” and I thought I was going to see him do some roping on horse back. But, no, this was 1967. His equipment of choice was a little red Datsun. “You’d be all day trying to do that on a horse,” Denver said. “You can round ’em up easier, drive faster and turn quicker with this little truck.” (or something to that effect)
Well, we got in that little Datsun, drove back where we found the horses and proceeded to “round them up”. I discovered quickly that in order to prevent my head from banging on the inside of the roof every time we went over a rock or a ditch, I had to raise both arms and place my hands against the roof, keeping my butt on the seat and my head safe. This was years before they put seat belts in vehicles. Back then, you were on your own.
I must say that little Datsun performed admirably. Denver was right. He was able several times to out-maneuver the horses and herd them to the gate. The only problem was, they wouldn’t go through the gate, because the stallion would always drop back and stand off to the side a bit, and the mares wouldn’t go through the gate without him. Denver used every trick in his arsenal to try to get that stubborn horse to lead his troupe through the gate. We must have driven over every rise and dip of that section — twice. We were running out of time and gas, not to mention patience. My arms were aching and I started alternating the left one with the right, giving each a chance to rest. Even the horses were exhausted. Things began to look bleak.
It was getting late in the day and Denver was down to his last option — shoot the stallion. He looked at me and said, “Frances isn’t going to like this. Do me a favor and just tell her how it was. There’s nothin’ else I can do.” After taking the time to think through what he was going do, he drove as close as he could to the stallion without making it shy away.
We were quite a distance from the horse, maybe 75 to 100 yards. It just stood there, wary and proud. Denver took his rifle down from the rack over the seat and leaning on the left front fender, steadied his aim over the hood. He took his time, carefully lined up the shot and fired. For a brief second, nothing happened. I was beginning to think he had missed, when suddenly the horse dropped and was motionless. Even then, Denver didn’t move from his position for a few more seconds. It was obvious to me he did not like having to kill the animal.
After that, the mares and colts were submissive to the little red Datsun, and they cooperated by exiting through the gate, into the open range. Back at the ranch house, Denver told Frances what had happened. And he was right about how she reacted. Hurt and outraged, she could not understand why he would kill such a beautiful animal. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night and much of the next morning. She probably would have given him even more of the silent treatment, if my mother and I not been house guests there.
Before we had to bring our visit to an end, the Millers made sure they took us to a cattle auction. Apparently cattle auctions were the main social occasions when they had the opportunity to see friends. They all lived miles from each other and most of the time had to stay on their ranches to take care of their animals. But, selling livestock was their livelihood, so a day trip to a cattle auction was a thing to look forward to.
Normally, they would hire trucks to haul the cattle they were selling, but on this occasion they only loaded three head of cattle into the back of their own truck and the four of us piled in, all crammed together in the front seat. [This wasn’t the little red Datsun, but a larger truck — with a ton and a half or two ton load capacity.] I have tried to remember where this cattle auction was, but I’m not sure. To the best of my recollection, we drove south from their ranch on 487 to Medicine Bow, then east on 30/287 toward Laramie.
Denver’s truck bed only had a basic wood framework around the cattle, so he kept his speed down to maybe 35 mph. I seem to recall we drove for a little over an hour, which seemed an awful long time, as we were all jammed together in the cab. Using rough calculation, the auction was probably in Laramie. I don’t remember seeing a big town, so maybe we were on the outskirts.
I’d never been to a livestock auction before, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. There was an entertaining element in how the animals were shown, which contrasted with the underlying serious business of buying and selling. I was captivated by an attractive girl, just about my age, who was doing color commentary. A local girl who had just gotten engaged to be married, she regaled the audience with stories of college pranks, like the time she and her friends got even with a particularly annoying practical joker. They filled his car with shaving cream and he never bothered them again.
An atmosphere of local community permeated the whole auction experience. The Millers kept seeing people they had known for years, introducing us as their special, long-time friends. Each conversation included a reference to getting together afterwards for dinner and drinks. I got to thinking this was just something they said for the sake of saying it. I didn’t see how, realistically, we would have time to visit so many people.
But the solution to this dilemma was that they all got together in one place. What I didn’t know was these ranchers had made a ritual of getting together for dinner and drinks after concluding their livestock business. They had been doing it for years. We were among the first arrivals at this historic bar and restaurant. I don’t remember the name of the place, but as we passed through the entrance, it was as if we’d stepped back in time, into a saloon of the Old West. We bellied up to the long, sprawling bar, and ordered drinks. I wasn’t a big drinker, but figured the occasion called for whiskey, so I ordered a Seven and Seven.
The first thing that caught my eye was an old photograph behind the bar of two cowboys drinking beer at the bar. They had ridden their horses into the building, up to the bar and sat there, atop their mounts, drinking their mugs of beer. I couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be considered outrageous or just the norm. The folks in the picture were smiling. It sort of summed up the wild west ideal, a sort of pendulum swing between exciting extremes — letting civilized restraint tone you down or cutting loose for simple pleasure.
I was thus musing, with the presumption that the folks here and now were somewhat more sophisticated than those cowboys of old, when Denver Miller introduced us to a friend of his, who asked what we were drinking and bought us a round. I enjoyed the idea of having two drinks. It seemed appropriate to the occasion — a way for me to cut loose, in the cowboy tradition.
Then, in quick succession, more of the Miller’s friends were buying us drinks. Each time I tried to politely decline by telling them I already had more than I needed, they simply shrugged it off and said don’t worry about it. It seemed a really important thing to buy someone a drink. But we were not allowed to return the favor, because we were “guests”.
This buying of drinks was being done along the whole length of the bar. Each time someone bought a round, the bartender would pour the drinks and put them in rows in front of each person at the bar. At first, I felt an obligation to try to finish every complementary drink. But that became a losing battle, and I found myself getting further and further behind. Finishing my third drink, I looked to measure my progress and I still had six full glasses in my row. I was already fairly sloshed. It was a wonderment.
We abandoned all our rows of drinks when we were told our table was ready. They had set up one long table for all of us, like they do at large wedding banquets. We walked through the restaurant to the table and I succeeded in walking straight and pretending I wasn’t drunk. The menu boasted of the best beef in the USA, so I of course ordered a steak. But then I was surprised to discover that hardly any of the ranchers ordered beef. For the most part, they all ordered lobster, which, when you think about it, makes sense. I was beginning to realize the stereotypical cowboy in my mind was a bit two-dimensional.
I can still see that steak on the platter before me. It was huge. The baked potato was huge. But it was delicious and I ate the whole thing. You can do that when you’re 22. When the meal was over, there was an atmosphere of delay. No one really wanted to call it quits and say good-bye. But most everyone there had animals that needed to be tended to in the morning, so reluctantly, we bid farewell and best wishes until the next time. I don’t remember the drive back to the ranch much at all.
We had many other memorable experiences on that trip. We visited an old family friend of my mother’s in Butte, Montana who told us miners’ stories from half a century before. We drove up to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and spent some time with the Dolivers, who had been our neighbors when we lived in San Luis Obispo. Bill, a retired civil engineer, had fought in World War I. I’ll never forget the evening we had dinner at their neighbor’s house, who was also a WWI veteran. I sat and listened to these two old guys who had been soldiers talk about their war experiences and it forever made me see that time in our history as something very real — not just something you read about in books.
But to me, the most memorable part by far of our trip that summer was our brief sojourn in Medicine Bow. There, I think I really learned what “down home” means.