I met a Cowboy.
A real life authentic Cowboy.
One that I’m sure had a thousand stories that he could tell me. Stories of his life, his land, his animals and his family. Stories that would captivate me just as his smile, rugged tan skin and happiness captivated me. He talked to his cattle as if they were his children…scolding the sassy one and sweet talking another. He had a twinkle in his eye, I kid you not, and an easy smile that spoke volumes and made me ache to photograph him. I wanted to capture with my camera the stories that creased his face, gave him laugh lines at the corners of his eyes and gave him that smile.
So I asked.
“May I take your photo?”
He looked surprised and then smiled again.
“Sure, I don’t see why not.” And he seemed a little shy yet honored that I would even ask.
I photographed him as he talked to my husband and as he talked to his cattle and went about his business of checking on them and feeding them. I even caught him as he smiled and looked right at me for a moment. That captured moment became one of my favorite photos of our entire road trip. In fact, it is a photo that I treasure two years later because I feel that it captures LIFE.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
It was December 2013 and we were about 2 weeks into a cross country road trip.
My husband, two youngest kids and I had decided that for Christmas we wanted adventure and to experience life rather than stay home and purchase material gifts for each other that we really didn’t need. So, we planned a road trip that would take us from our home in Alabama to Breckenridge, CO for a few days. Then we would travel to Heber Valley, Utah for a few days then on to Missoula, Montana where we would spend Christmas Eve and Christmas day with my brother, his wife and baby. From there we would make our way through South Dakota where we were awed by The Bad Lands and visited Mount Rushmore. Then it was back down to Alabama through many different states that we only saw from the window of our SUV. There are a lot of details that I have left out but you get the idea.
The first couple of days that we were in Montana my brother had to work. His job was in a tiny hospital in a tiny valley community called Plains and it was right at 2 hours away from their home outside of Missoula. While he worked he had an apartment that he lived in, there in Plains, so he wouldn’t be home until Christmas Eve. So, we took off to see him and to take in some of the natural beauty that is Montana. As we ended our short visit with my brother and prepared to drive back to their home we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to pull off of the road, into a small dirt parking area, that sat above a frozen river.
It was here, just on the outskirts of this tiny valley community called Plains, that we happened to meet this smiling and welcoming Cowboy.
We had taken photos in front of the frozen river…you know, just as anyone from the deep south would do since we NEVER see frozen water unless it is in the form of ice cubes from our freezer…and we were talking to the cattle who had wandered over to a nearby fence to check us out. Turns out, it was their dinner time and they were wondering if we had their food. After only a few minutes a farm truck rolls up with a wagon full of hay attached. This farm truck was driven by a rusty old Cowboy who captured my attention immediately.
He had a smile on his face, beautiful bright eyes and a firm handshake as he introduced himself and assured us that we did not need to leave. He was dressed head to toe in “cowboy” attire. And not fancy spotless new “cowboy” clothes but comfortable worn-many-times, lived in clothes from his hat down to his dusty worn boots. His clothes had character and told of a life of hard work yet a life well lived just as his golden skin and the creases on his face did. He had laugh lines around his eyes and an easy going laid back manner about him that spoke of warmth and a sense of being comfortable with himself and the world around him.
This Cowboy stood around comfortably talking to my husband for a few minutes as if Jason were an old friend he was glad to see. He masterfully included us all in the conversation so no one felt left out and I noticed that our 17-year-old son, Lane, stood with a smile on his face listening carefully and giving his full attention to this Cowboy. I think he was quietly amazed by this kind hearted Cowboy just as I was.
While talking to us the Cowboy was also keeping an eye on his cattle who were eager to see him. Now, I know nothing about cattle or the proper terms to use when talking about them. This being said…there was one beautiful “cow” who was actually calico in color and probably the best looking “cow” that I have ever seen. But man, was this “cow” sassy! The cowboy scolded his calico “cow” and talked to him/her as if it were his child. I was tickled and amazed to watch as this giant animal listened to this cowboy and even reacted as a young child might when testing their parent. This “cow” wanted his/her dinner and the Cowboy wasn’t about to give in to such sassy behavior. It only took a couple of minutes of talk between this Cowboy and “cow” before the “cow” decided to stop being bossy and wait nicely for his/her dinner. This Cowboy knew his cattle and you could tell that the cattle clearly knew him…there was a relationship there between man and beast and they had a respect and understanding of one another.
I was so interested in this Cowboy and his life. He learned where we were from, our deep southern accents were a dead give-away that we lived nowhere around there, and seemed genially interested in our sense of adventure and our road trip. He told us a little about his life and family. Turns out that he actually had cattle scattered on different sections of land due to the mountains dividing up the land and not giving enough flat land for the cattle to all be in one spot. As he finished feeding the cattle at this location he had to hurry down the road to the next location. He shook our hands and wished us well before climbing into his farm truck and heading down the road.
A MOMENT IN TIME THAT I WILL NEVER FORGET
We hung around the frozen river and cattle for a few more minutes taking photos with the beautiful snow covered mountains as the backdrop. Then we climbed back into our two separate vehicles and headed out of the valley. I was still smiling over this chance encounter with a true Cowboy when a scene caught my eye. I noticed a farm truck, with a wagon attached and full of hay, parked in the middle of this long fenced in field with snow-capped mountains jutting up maybe 50 yards behind the truck. It was a beautiful stretched out scene with cattle making their way towards the truck and a Cowboy climbing up to give them hay. As we passed the cowboy turned and waved to us. I caught my breath as I realized it was the same Cowboy that we had just met and he was waving good-bye to us. I couldn’t see his face clearly due to the distance but I know without a doubt he had a big smile on his face.
I wasn’t prepared for the moment and to this day regret not having my camera ready to capture it. It looked like a scene out of a movie, where everything was staged and placed just right to capture the beauty of the mountains contrasting with the rustic farm truck and wagon full of hay and the devoted Cowboy working hard to feed his cattle in the fading light of day. And in a tear inspiring moment he is waving towards the camera and you think he must live a beautiful life in a beautiful place. I wish I could have captured that exact moment with my camera. As a photographer that was an once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity that was missed. BUT, you better believe that my mind’s eye captured it, as well as my heart, and I know that it is an image that I will never forget. I will also never forget the Cowboy who gave me a tiny glimpse into a different way of life. A pure, hardworking way of life where life is hard yet life is beautiful.