On the fourth Saturday in July, most of the American western states recognizes the hard-working men and women on ranches with the National Day of the Cowboy. It is one day set aside to honor the men and women who toil on America’s ranches raising cattle and putting food on the plates of many millions of people around the world. It is also a day designed to help to preserve America’s pioneering spirit and promote cowboy culture that is so woven into our country’s culture.
Those who work on a ranch or know a cowboy generally don’t understand the fuss. Cowboy culture is already part of their everyday life. However, a clear majority of Americans have only witnessed ranching life and American cowboy culture on TV or the silver screen. And generally, they have very little sense of what life is like for those who live and work on America’s ranches. Yet traditional cowboy culture is responsible in many ways for how our country has evolved in the past 100 years and it is still how much of the world views America today. Hard work, no nonsense, and strong values are pillars of the cowboy code and they also helped to define the American spirit.
Over the years, many versions of the code of conduct for life on the western frontier were recorded in a variety of ways and under the guise of many different titles. Some include “The Code of the West,” Gene Autry’s “Code of Honor,” “The Cowboy Code of Ethics,” the Lone Ranger’s Creed, and Roy Rogers’ “Riders Club Rules.” The basic underpinnings of these codes and their common thread are surfacing more and more these days as people are reminded of the cowboy spirit and the old rules of the American west.
Examples of these cowboy codes of conduct include, “Take pride in your work and always do your best,” and, “When you make a promise, keep it.” Similar concepts occur in some form in nearly every religion and ethical tradition. But in the case of the American west, these rules of the road have been immortalized repeatedly in western movies and books and songs of the day. Their lessons are nonetheless important today as they were a hundred years ago. But in today’s world, where even the most basic message can be lost in that modern cacophony and mishmash of modern communication, for many the words have taken on a whole new meaning.
Today, many cowboys and cowgirls bristle with the suggestion that their way of life is at risk and may be giving way to something more efficient, but also colder and far less traditional. The thought of raising cattle and working the land without using the same ways handed down to them from previous generations of cowboys is alien to them. But the fact is, signs traditional cowboy culture is vanishing are all around.
The art of roping, for example, is gradually being replaced on ranches with mechanical contraptions called branding tables. Quarter horses are also being replaced with all-terrain vehicles, or as some call them, “Japanese quarter horses.” And experienced cowboys and cowgirls, who have represented the spirit and grit of the American west all their lives, are having their ranks thinned by hired hands and school kids who have spent more time riding around in the back of a pick-up than on the back of a horse. Sure, American ranchers will always raise cattle, but make no mistake; the traditional lifestyle of the American cowboy is in jeopardy. That’s why the National Day of the Cowboy was born.
Sure, guest ranches offer the public a glimpse into the traditional American way of life for tourists longing for adventure, but far removed from the prying eyes of tourists are the real working ranches with real working cowboys and cowgirls. There you find men and women who don’t get up at sunrise; they get up before sunrise. And they don’t dress for show; they dress for need. No, on real working ranches you can still see the gritty reality of life on America’s ranches. That’s where hard work, extreme weather, and serving at the mercy of volatile markets just to make ends meet happens every day.
The last American cowboys may live today on the Great Plains in Kansas and the Dakotas, and in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, and in the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. It is a simple life to be sure. But it is nonetheless enriching. Luckily, the soul of America still burns on the remote rural ranches of America.
But for how long, no one knows.