Perhaps I am at an age where reminiscing on the past, romanticizing my youth inspires me to write, to preserve the memory of a bygone era I witnessed setting as a western sun the last light passing below the horizon during my days.
Coming of age in Montana, I walked a path that differed from many in my generation. At 14, my Hawthorne boots, heavy, thick brown leather with a stout, stacked heal often found themselves walking the green hay fields and pastures of Paradise Valley Montana kicking cow pies while lost in nonsensical ramblings with my peers, against a backdrop of scenic beauty that was the snow capped, Absaroka Mountains pouring down into the Yellowstone River.
As youths keen on danger, adventure and the lust for near death experiences, being chased by an irritable bull or daring each other to slap him on the rump was the entertainment of the day before the age of apps and social media. Our walks home from the bus stop were up a gravel road, littered with the local population of bovine, and lined with a towering row of Cottonwood trees shading the meandering creek that nurtured their being.
It was here we rambled on about old trucks, hunting, shooting guns, laughing at our own jokes and dabbling in the plug, chewing tobacco known as Red Man, working up juicy, tar colored spit that struck the dusty gravel road with the force of a hail stone in July. Each of us boys, were in our youngest teen years, wearing tight fitted Wrangler jeans, “Brushpopper” shirts, belts fixed with buckles, boots and oversized leather wallets that protruded out of our rear pocket with a decorative floral emblem impressed into a silver button. We never had much money, so having a wallet was purely aesthetic. In our front pockets was the original Leatherman multi-tool. Yeah, the schools back then never bothered boys carrying a knife, as it was never a problem.
The land we walked, explored, hunted, adventured, rode horse, or caused mischief on was run by the ranches in the area. These cattle ranches, large open tracts of pastoral green, dissected by rusted barbed wire hanging on gray weathered posts, rolling into soft folded coulees dotted with pines were operated by older men, many of them from the generations that preceded our parents. These men were no John Wayne, nor the Marlboro man. No, these were the lives of which art so desperately wished to imitate only falling short by failing to capture the finest of details, scents and the grit of environ these men tread. There were several of these men whose lives were in their twilight while we were in our dawn.
As young wiry boys hurrying to be men, motivated to prove our merit, awe-struck by these land barons and lords of the valley, each year we were easily convinced to lend a hand at the many local cattle drives, round-ups and Spring time branding. The labor was paid only in the opportunity to be there, partaking in the annual ceremony, a right of passage where traditions of age old cowboying was practiced, where we learned from their wisdom and at the end of the work received a feast of their own cattle – steaks, roasts, burger and testicles aka Rocky Mountain Oysters.
There were several Ranches I remember clearly working on/for; the Francks, Nelsons, Bohleen, and Peters among a few others. One ranch in particular inspiring this entire article is the Bohleen ranch and the man himself, Sonny Bohleen.
We arose early with the dawn on a spring day, a cool, green, clear morning in May. Wiping sleep from our eyes, a meager quick breakfast, we were out the door, rattling down the road in an old pickup truck 4 miles of gravel to the Bohleen place. There was three of us. Rylan, a neighbor kid who lived on another ranch, my brother and I. I was the oldest at 15.
Green, the valley is not just green, it is a vibrant explosion of color that is the marriage of blue and yellow on this landscape. The hills are velvet smooth, a verdant green with every blade of dew covered grass an emerald in a sea of stretched velvet. The fields were a sheen with this color of life, symbol of a renewed season of growth.
The air carried the scent of this color green, if there can be such a thing as a scent to a color, damp, cool, pure, within it dancing the elements of muddy earth, budding trees and the herds of mingling cattle rolling their lips around the fresh sprouted shoots.
To the east the sun crested over the towering Absaroka Mountains, whose long, cool shadows retreated across the Yellowstone River, the flat, green pastures, back to the foot hills, where shadows now lingered only in the steep, dark canyons out of which poured the melting snow from the alpine ridges. The River wound its way through old growth, towering cottonwood trees, rising to an over-arching canopy, presenting itself so very ancient and untouched one would imagine the cretaceous period with Dinosaurs browsing leaves from the limbs. This wild river, with its islands of tumbled stone, guarded over by these arbor titans, made the western border of the ranch.
Pulling into the ranch there was the quintessential humble farmhouse, quaint, yet functional. The barn, stable and various out buildings appeared much older, being of gray worn timbers of squared hand hewed logs. The wood was weathered with the soft summer wood driven out from between the harder winter rings, leaving deep grooves within the grain. The gray was streaked with blacks, pale tans and reds, colors shifting with where years of weather and sun had left its mark.
Our truck crunched the gravel to a stop as we parked. As we creaked the doors open and stepped onto the driveway with lilacs on the side and two of the large out buildings to our front, the sun became obscured by the approaching shadow of a giant. The signature sound of hooves clip-clopping upon the gravel came towards us. As we turned and looked up, squinting at the sun, a man approached, sitting upon a horse we were told was 19 hands (over 6′ 4″ at the withers). His name was Sonny Bohleen. He was an old man, 80 years of age, large in stature, confident in demeanor, wearing a stetson, and a thin plaid western shirt.
Sonny was born in Montana in the early 1920’s. He was born into ranching, and ranched his entire life, save a brief time during the great depression, where I remember a story of him traveling to California in a Model T with some cowboys to pick strawberries for money, only to hastily return to Montana. He raised Black Angus cattle on the wild lands of a sparsely populated Montana landscape for the greater part of a century. He was a horsemen, training a black mare to become one of the six best roping mares in the United States. He competed in Rodeos in calf and team roping from 1939-1973, “winning a few”. He was married briefly, enjoyed dancing and black coffee. Sonny and his “crew” of fellow 70-85 year olds were the last of their kind.
We made our way down to a series of corrals, a small island of rotting fence posts and pens that sat as an island in a sea of green pasture dotted with black cattle in cow-calf pairs. The old cowboys galloped off, hollering at one another, whistling at cattle, chirping at their horses, twirling ropes in the air. Portions of the heard were pushed into the dilapidated network of corrals.
Outside the gray posts making up the temporary pens, there was a blowing propane torch, hissing like a jet engine, stuffed into a pile of burning wood appearing as a small campfire. Among the red hot coals, were the branding irons, glowing in the fire.
One of the old, hunched over, wiry cowboys, would limp over to where we held down one of the herd, with a glowing brand clutched in his leather gloves. Each hiss of the brand, produced a foul, choking, nauseating stench of burning hair and flesh, permeating the arena, your clothes and staining ones nostrils with each rising plume, accompanied by a cacophonous wail from the miserable beast.
The young bulls suffered the worst. Before or after the branding, simultaneously at times, still held down, an aged cattlemen approached carrying a small folding, old-timer pocket knife. He slipped down, well practiced, surgical with obviously decades of practiced execution and removed the testicles from the bull – now a steer. Often these morsels were tossed as a treat to the working healer dogs dancing around assisting with the movement of the herd, however many were placed into a small cooler for, “later”.
For the remainder of my life, I will never forget the age-old wisdom of these old cowboys that seemed to shine out at the oddest of times, shrouded in humor and wrapped in mysteries of stories left unsaid. While bent over, wearing a stained and tattered Stetson hat, with his blade in hand, just prior to making his surgical business complete, the old cowboy looked up at me (15) and my friend (13) and said in a low drawl, “You boys want to save yourselves a lifetime of trouble? Well, then you’d best do this too, right now……”. He finished the statement with a slowly rising smile, a glint of ancient wisdom, and a chuckle of laughter as he removed the two small testicles, slipping them into his hand, rising, laughing and sauntering off on the mud and manure.
Hours later, beaten, worn out and covered in feces, and mud, reeking like burned hair and flesh, we were beckoned to another corral closer to the house. Here, two young bulls, from last years births needed to have testicles removed as well. How they were “missed” last year was not disclosed, all I knew is these were huge animals. These were no longer calves, but yearling bulls. This pen was near the creek with round, tumbled, stones strewn below a beaten muddy, paddock partly shaded by a canopy of large Cottonwoods.
The team of aged cowboys quickly hatched a strategy, and went to work with horse and rope. One at a time, the large fighting yearling bulls were roped by multiple riders and dragged to a position where their legs could be stretched and their testicles removed. These were large, white and appeared the size of ostrich eggs, again slipped into the cooler, “for later”.
It was well passed the lunch hours, getting towards suppertime when the work was completed. Looking at the broken and bent, limping bodies of the old cowboys, it was clear, how a life of rodeo and rough work lead to breaking a man into such a state.
With horses unsaddled, and tack put away, the lot of us left a trail of mud on our walk to the farmhouse. Inside the sparsely decorated, stoic abode, there was little furniture, few personal items of interest and a decor that wasn’t even new five or six decades ago. Old homes such as this have strange scents. It’s as if memory and time itself has an odor as it decays. The living room was turned into the dining area for the large party of men filling the house. Several tables had been placed end to end, forming one long table in the bright, however small room.
Sliding into seats, laughter echoed about, and plates began to fill with potatoes, steamed vegetables of sorts, chunks of meat, and various other fixings. One of the men slipped into the kitchen where he battered and fried, “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, even cooking the much “larger ones” that we had removed later in the work day. The men praised his cuisine, passing the plate of reproductive organs around, laughing and prodding the young men to partake in the tradition of eating fresh testicles.
I cannot recall the beverages, however I vaguely remember a few beers and I am confident that these men were no stranger to fermented barley and hops. Tales, were spun from these men, recalling stories from days gone by, with details of each yarn interrupted and offered by another of them who perhaps remember a variation of the story or a piece of information that desperately had to be included.
Every one of these men is dead now. Many as I recall, had not married or if had done so, divorced early on. I recall the stories of them having “lady friends”, however the lot seemed content with living a life among each other and cattle. The memories of their lives mostly passed with them, however this is perhaps a few minutes of their lives recorded. Had I thought to do so as a youth, I would have been able to accurately recall more of the detailed accounts and escapades of this rough and tumble gang.
Even then at 15 I knew we sat among history, men who wrangled and rode in eras that had been paved over, fenced in, and legislated into the annals of history. These were the last real cowboys.