Ka-ching. Ka-ching. Ka-ching. The spurs on a cowboys boots- an unmistakable sound. An old sound, dating back to the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar and beyond, that conjures up feelings of respect, awe and fear. The American Cowboy. Long days, chuck wagons and toughness are all words used to describe the life of a cowboy to schoolchildren when they visit pioneer museums on field trips. But just like the gunslingers of the wild west, the traditional life of a cowboy is now only preserved in movies like Lonesome Dove and history books.
Or is it? Are there any real cowboys left?
My family and I were recently invited to attend the Steiner Valley Ranch annual Cattle Roundup in Whitney, Texas. I have always considered myself an “outdoors” guy so I figured it would be fun to get some photos of the kids with dusty old guys with big hats. Images of Billy Crystal in “City Slickers” filled my head but I was unsure what to actually expect.
We arrived late in the evening after driving no less than 20-miles off the blacktop road. The Steiner Valley Ranch, or SVR as it is called, was established in 1849 and seemed to go on forever. Our crew of 12 received a warm welcome from Wanda Harris, the Ranch Managers wife and provider of all things good. Perhaps the kindest woman in Texas, her hospitality, generosity and cooking are legendary in these parts. I heard there was even a song written about her! After getting settled into our ranch house, Mrs. Harris advised us to “Get plenty of rest tonight. Jay likes to saddle-up at daybreak.”
As my alarm clock sounded, I was certain there had been a mistake. “Nobody in their right mind gets up this early!,” I thought to myself. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes and sipped coffee, we wondered what the new day would bring.
Ka-Ching. Ka-Ching. Ka-Ching. The heavy, rhythmic footsteps across the front porch indicated someone was approaching the door. “Oh my God! It’s him!,” I accidentally said aloud as a lump formed in my throat.
For years, I’ve heard stories of this old-school traditional cowboy in Whitney, Texas. “Tough as nails.” “Eyes, sharp as a hawk.” There is even a story, as the legend goes, of when he “sewed stitches in his own hand while conducting a cattle drive!” Jay Harris- the Ranch Manager of the Steiner Valley Cattle Ranch… He was at our front door!
Two quick knocks, then the door opened. Time stood still and no one breathed as he entered the room. Removing his hat, the Trail Boss quickly inspected his newest ranch hands and with a gruff voice said, “Good afternoon, girls. Let’s go, we’re late.” I think he smiled, but was not sure. But what I did know is he was at least 8-feet tall and I now believed every story I ever heard about Jay Harris.
As we helped saddle-up the horses in the pre-dawn moonlight, Jay and a host of other “real” cowboys gathered and discussed the days game plan. Hall Of Fame Cowboy, David Merrill was even there! I never realized that jobs like this still existed and found myself awestruck by the tough men who called this home. Saddle leather creaked as they mounted up and disappeared into the darkness as I secretly wished I was one of them.
We heard them before we saw them. A few hours after sunrise, scattered along the horizon, brave men on horseback herded the first group of cattle towards the corral where we waited patiently. A few strays in the canyon complicated the drive, but the Trail Boss directed a few of his hands to break off and round ’em up. The herd was carefully guided into the corral where the real work began. The purebred Angus were sprayed with a pesticide and cows were separated from calves. I was asked if I wanted to palpate one of the cows to confirm it was pregnant. I advised that it was much better left to professionals like them and figured I could leave that task on my “bucket list” for another day. The calves were led into the big “roping pen” and the Trail Boss held a safety meeting as the SVR branding iron was placed into the fire. I was not certain what was about to go down, but I could tell by the mood things were about to get exciting!
When the first calf was roped and wrestled to the ground by the team of experienced cowboys, I realized the enormous amount of effort required to “work cattle.” No boys and very few men have the grit and toughness to call themselves “cowboy.” These guys were professionals in anyone’s book and had obviously been doing it a long time! Jay Harris did most of the roping from his favorite old horse, Amigo. Adrian Hinojosa was also a talented roper and an asset to the operation. Amber Tiwater played veterinarian and administered all vaccinations. One by one, each calf received the SVR brand and was vaccinated, tagged and castrated. Their mothers protested and waited impatiently in the pasture to be reunited with their calf.
As the dust settled late in the afternoon, Jay decided to call it a day and invited us to dinner. A mountain of Steiner Valley Ranch-raised rib eyes were served up and every imaginable side dish and desert was also available. I believe it was the best meal ever. I was able to visit with Jay and gathered much insight into the life of a cowboy. Their work is real, meaningful and important. Their lives are purpose-driven, pure and honest. It is not a 9-5 job by any means, and there are very few wealthy cowboys. A groundskeeper, veterinarian, fence builder, welder, carpenter, accountant, plumber and heavy equipment mechanic are just a few of duties required of a cowboy. A day off? Not here. Jay advised that after church in the morning, it was back to work.
The cattle drive lasted 3 full days and we were exhausted. When the last calf received the SVR brand and was released back to pasture, I felt a sense of pride in having been surrounded by such hard working men of honor and spirit. Real American Cowboys. I learned so much about getting back to basics and the joy of working hard and living free. I discovered that happiness and fulfillment is directly proportional to the amount dirt under your fingernails and sweat dripping onto the ground. This land was settled by brave men on horseback like Elgin and Mike Guentert and that legacy lives on today in men like Jay Harris. I cherished our time spent with Jay and Wanda Harris and finer Christian folks I have never met. I solemnly believe that my life is better having met them and I can’t wait to return.
Jay Harris, The Last Cowboy? Probably not, but surely one of the best and most respected in Texas. A very special thanks to all the cowboys who help keep the spirit alive including David Merrill, Rob Beasley, Jeff Sanders, Ronnie Doss, William Heard, Joe Hinojosa, Agustin Hinojosa, Adrian Hinojosa, Justin Moore and Bo Wohleb. My hats off to each and every one of you. Job well done, cowboy.