Let me tell you about this place—it’s 135,000 acres of grass and trees and rocks and wind between Grass Range and Roundup, Mont., in the central part of the state. I manage this ranch for the largest private landowners in Montana. I live here with my wife and three young sons, as well as with two cowboys who work for me and their small families, and an older bachelor who chain smokes Marlboro cigarettes as he checks water for the cows.
The wind and the sun are harsh and the isolation can be challenging. But cattle thrive. And men, though they are tested, do well, too. They are tried every day, challenged to show up to work, sober and unafraid, tested to do the right thing when no one else is watching.
At least, that’s the way it used to be. These days, it seems like I spend more time scolding my cowboys for updating their status on Facebook than I do for them letting their dogs pollute the bed of my pickup. One of the ranch wives is notorious for walking back and forth across the mouth of the branding trap with a camera, taking photographs of her husband to post on Facebook. I’ve told my guys, “If you have something important you’re dealing with, go ahead and use your phones, but tell me about it first so that I don’t assume you’re just bored with work.” They nod their heads and spur their horses to the far side of the pasture, where they think I can’t see them trotting around to find a good signal.
Seen in the worst light, these connected cowboys aren’t present in the moment. Rather than focusing on the task at hand—the pairs that need to be trailed to fresh grass—they are sucked into the online world, trading cow dogs and swapping geldings and looking for a job where the boss doesn’t scold them for texting. I shake my head at the fact that they would rather take photos of the work that needs to be done, instead of doing it.
Once, the outside world was just a blinking red light on the answering machine when I came in at dark. It was a letter or a magazine waiting in the box at the post office in town. It was listening to “Tradio” on the local AM country station and taking down the phone number of the guy looking to give away a blue heeler pup. Now, the outside world is right in our shirt pocket, only a click or a tap away.
What I need to remind myself is, seen in the best light, the cowboys and their wives are documenting these moments in their lives. They are young and strong, working on one of the most beautiful ranches in the West. They are showing the world that they are doing what most people only dream about. Somehow, we are all aware that these days will not last.
I am guilty of doing the same thing when, in the first paragraph of an essay, I lay out my bonafides by saying, “Let me tell you about this place.” The same thing as the truck driver delivering a semi-load of mineral who wants to tell you about the ranch his uncle once owned in Nevada. We all want to lay claim to having been in the promised land, to living the life of a cowboy in the American West.
I need to remind myself that the young cowboys and their wives are doing the same thing, but only in a more immediate fashion. Until I come to terms with how they go about doing it, I will take the outside circle and check that country for stray pairs, because I damn sure know there isn’t a good signal over the hill. The outside world can wait.