Features & Stories
THE COWBOY; MYTH OR MODEL?


THE COWBOY; MYTH OR MODEL?

Story and Photos by Trudy Frisk

"They ride through myth and legend
Down a thousand dusty trailsÖ.."

What is it about cowboys? Surely, in the era of Palm Pilots and Global Position Trackers

a lone man on a horse chasing a cow is an anachronism. Isnít he?

It doesnít seem so. The TV series "Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy" was as successful as the original Rich Hobson books about ranching in the rugged B.C. Cariboo during the late 1930s. Dudes from as far away as Austria join regular cowboys and local riders to herd cattle on the annual Kamloops Cattle Drive. Cowboy Festivals are major attractions made all the more popular because many of the performers and audience are genuine cowboys.

Kamloops Cowboy festival
Whatís it all about? What does the cowboy represent that so deeply touches thousands of people in this mostly urban, technological world?

There are still plenty of working ranches and cowboys in the West and many city people have strong ties to those rural roots. But that doesnít explain why an amateur rider from Vancouver would pay handsomely to trail through heat or rain behind a slow-moving herd of cattle just for the fun of it; not to mention the added pleasures of not bathing for days, sleeping in a dusty tent and being bucked off a strange horse. There are more comfortable ways to camp. Whatís the attraction?

The week-long Kamloops Cattle Drive, herding cattle along sagebrush covered ridges and through the winding valleys of the Thompson Nicola ranching lands is the closest most people can ever come to participating in an important part of the old West. Cattle Drive is more than dust and saddle sores. From physical discomfort to campfire camaraderie, itís a glimpse into a way of life that shaped this country. The cowboy embodies definite qualities and attitudes.

Admirers of cowboy heritage are often accused of yearning for a simpler time. How could anyone imagine that a time when any man had to be able to shoe a horse, build a barn, mend a bridle and doctor a cow was "simple"? Multi-tasking isnít a modern concept! Cowboys were, and are, resourceful, able to handle animals and cope with nature, working in whatever weatherís going. Cattle, after all, donít take the day off because of a snowstorm.

Cowboying demands physical stamina and endurance. It also required strong character. Cowboys werenít all loners, but they werenít afraid of being alone. Reserved, stoic and proud, cowboys made jokes about adversity.

They minded their own business; a very important trait on the frontier where every person mattered; but offered help when a neighbour needed it. And, they were able to get along with a wide variety of people.

The cowboy culture is as egalitarian as it gets. Rich and Gloria Hobson, both from wealthy families, and their partner, Panhandle Phillips, created a large ranch in the midst of wilderness. Money may have bought the land and cattle but it, alone, couldnít ensure the ranchís success. They could never have done it without their cowhands and the local First Nations tribes. Money and formal education mattered less than physical skills, animal know-how and just plain guts. These came with practice and were as much the property of an average cowboy as of a Harvard educated ranch owner. People were respected and admired for their abilities.

Cowboy poets conversing
Thatís why cowboy songs and stories are so important. They remind us of a time when individual responsibility was taken seriously. Theyíre songs of ordinary folks, often coping in difficult, extra-ordinary circumstances, responding to disasters with a wry smile and an understated anecdote. .And, theyíre songs about places people know. Like bards and story tellers of old, cowboy poet preserve the history of everyday people. After hearing their wit and rhyme a listener might conclude that a few days on a horse followed by nights around a lonely campfire with coyotes calling would improve most professional historianís ability to transmit culture.

Mainstream historians and media may not be paying much attention to cowboy culture, but fans are. After only a few years the Kamloops Cowboy Festival is looking for a larger venue. In 2003 one busload of fans came from Alberta. In 2004 three busloads of dedicated Albertans are expected to join large local audiences.

Cowboys: they work hard, they donít complain, they turn troubles into songs, and produce a product that society needs. Obviously they represent something very important even to todayís urbanites!


Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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