Monday, February 11, 2008

TheCowboy of Wild Horse Mesa

Out in a remote corner of Utah's Grand Staircase looms an impressive table top mesa that juts due East from Escalante to the Colorado river, ending abruptly near the famous Mormon Pioneer crossing, Hole-in-the-Rock. A formidable barrier all by itself, 50 Mile Mesa is surrounded by impossible country. To the North, a high desert plain is broken by the twists of the Escalante river gorge with its myriad of slot canyons and hidden arches. Follow its rugged South slope into another maze of intense red rock and serpentine narrows that empty into what is now Lake Powell. This country's solitude is self-imposed, forced by the unbreachable moat of the mighty Colorado and its tributaries. Many a luckless wanderer has perished in this unforgiving land for want of refreshment, or for taking a fatal mis-step--including the dear wife of my boyhood scoutmaster, Kimo.

Those who have survived the strict demands of her barren sandstone punctuated with well-springs of life will testify of her desperate beauty. And those who have tricked a living from her unwilling grasp are the grittiest of cowboys who still live in this last, great wild west.

The Cowboy: not the hillbilly, beer-gutted simpleton of red-neckdom--but the real Cowboy; he lives by nature's universal laws and a common-sense code hardened by brutal necessity. Tougher than nails, and blessed with a survival instinct born of experience, the Cowboy understands the circle of life and the power behind all of creation. He still exists in this place, but
faces certain extinction inside of this generation. The world will trudge on, unaware, when he finally slips away for good. There may continue to be hobbiests and dreamers like me, but the real cowboy who lives by what he can coax out of hoof and horn raised on the grand 50 mile mesa and her lower benches is the stuff of legend. Battles with land managers, pencil-pushing beaurocrats, extremist groups, and East coast politicians like dick durbin of Illinois and bill clinton of Pennsylvania Avenue have taken their fatal toll. Small men by comparison: Its a bitter irony that they who aren't worthy to lick the Cowboys' boots have transferred the care of this magnificant land to middle managers who are doomed to failure for mis-understanding natural law, and who are condemned by the law of unintended consequences.

September past, I got to live several days with one such Cowboy on 50 Mile Mesa. Steve Westhoff's bearing is soft-spoken and understated, but don't underestimate this 50 year old giant of a man. He executes every motion with certainty of purpose, and each word from his mouth is uttered efficiently. This Cowboy runs his outfit in one of the last places in America without a safety net. He punches longhorns where any slip in preparation, or any injury could vanish him into the same fraternity as Charles Lindberg and Emelia Erhart.

We rode hard those days. It started at the base of the Mesa after pulling our gear and stock up from the valley floor to a set of corrals at the base of the trail. We had just driven our trucks and stock trailers up an unusually steep, rutted road that barely passes for such, and more fitted for ATV use. It was midnight by the time our animals were saddled and mules packed for a 2,000 foot ascent to the Mesa's pinioned top. By moonlight, we struggled up the ledgy trail, leading our horses and doing our best not to get stepped on as they scrambled over boulders and washouts. The next three days started early. Some 200 head of cattle had to be located and rounded up into the naturally corraled box canyon near the cozy old cabin on the East end.

Sagebrush flats, low meadows and juniper groves interspersed with steep, bouldered pinion stands were our theater of operations--grandstand to the specticle of creation. The cattle could be found in bunches here and there, some--a day's ride from camp. Pushing longhorns through densely forested and steep canyons almost proved impossible, but we got nearly every animal we sought. The risks we faced from the terrain were punctuated by the threat from some of the cattle who would gladly skewer you or your mount with needle sharp horns given the chance. We were also told, "shoot to kill" if we happened upon any of the remaining, ill-tempered wild cattle roaming the deep and hidden hollows like the ghosts of the ancients who lived here centuries ago. Three days of shouting and whistling took my voice, but three days in the saddle lifted my soul.

The cost was high. Two good horses lost their lives by the time it was over. One, my big hearted appaloosa riden by my pard Jay, sustained a fatal leg injury in the back of a truck on the way back down that brutal dirt road to the bottom lands. The other, one of Steve's horses, fell to its death while scrambling off the ledgy trail from the top.

Legend has it that Zane Grey's famous book Wild Horse Mesa was written of this place. God was good when He hid it the way He did, saving it for the lowing of cattle and the Cowboys' idle banter around the evening campfire. Its a shame that the world's politicians have blazed their way into her inner sanctum--leaving the scar of their track across her face.


Huck Finn & Co. said...

Wow Paul, have you ever thought of being a writer? I'm serious, you have an amazing gift with words. I always knew you were smart, but I guess I never knew how smart, because when we went to school, who knew what each of us realy was up to? I just wanted to be a cowboy after reading your awe-inspiring, yet sad post. It makes me wish I could fix the corruption of powergrabbers who ruin everything good. Good thing we know these things will be rectified one day.

Mike and or Cindy said...

As a neighbor and friend of the Westoffs, I can attest to their toughness and kindness. They know how to raise good stock, including their own offspring. Better kids can't be found in all of Leeds. Except for mine of course;) I wish I could have been along on that trip. The one I went on with them was a memory I'll never forget. Parker is one tough cowboy. He is friend to my two boys and son of steve. I spent the better part of a day and a half with him just talking and enjoying chasing longhorns.

Anonymous said...

If I had my life to live over again, and I wasn't homesteading in Alaska, I have just been convinced that I would like to live the life of a cowboy. WoW

BonBon said...

Ummm, how much does a horse cost? I have decided that I was born in the wrong time period. I want to be a cowgirl.

Ditto Shellbell! You should write books! I was drawn right into your story!

Tamster said...

I also agree you are some writer! You have a way with words and describing things! :-)

Wendy in Alaska said...

Oh man, everyone said what I was going to say.

Iditadad said...

I thought I was going to be able to expound very eloquently like you and the rest of the kids. Not so. I love your blogs.

Your Iditadad

Anonymous said...

Great write-up and pictures. When you get with Steve and his family you just naturally slow down and look at life differently. His love of the outdoors, his calm foundation, love of god and family, and ability to enjoy what life throws his way makes him a man among cowboys. Eldon

Anonymous said...

Hey this is pretty cool. I love the pictures, they are really great. I have loved the fifty ever since the first time I rode up there. It is a great ride with beautiful scenery. The first time I was there the big full moon was eclipsed and looked like it was right overhead. It is amazing to get out of the hustle bustle and out among God's creations and majesty. Dad and the boys are lucky. Good Times K in NV