Keywords: Buckaroo, Great Basin, Dammit, Ranch, Supper.
Stories recounted firsthand have the effect of taking the fortunate listener to another time and place.
I walked into Todd Morgan’s workshop on November 24, 2021 – but I quickly realized that’s not where I would be spending the next couple of hours. We were going to another time and place entirely. Apart from the Apple Watch on his wrist, there were no indications that it wasn’t in fact 1962 and we weren’t in fact in Southeast Oregon…
The Summer of 1962 was a coming of age moment for Todd. He was fourteen years old and he would spend the entire Summer away from his family, earning his stripes as a buckaroo alongside grown men at Roaring Springs Ranch.
Roaring Springs is a neighbor of Whitehorse Ranch (where Todd grew up from birth until fififteen and where his dad was the ranch foreman). ‘Neighbor’ in the loosest sense of the word – when ranches are comprised of 50,000+ deeded acres, you aren’t going to the neighboring ranch to borrow a spare egg or two.
Being that Todd had only ever known ranch-life, he was well aware of what he was signing up for and not at all the novice that his age would have led you to believe. Even so, the buckaroo crew was a different breed. They were the horsemen of the ranch; accustomed to riding fifteen miles out to where the cattle were grazing – working with them all day – then riding the fifteen miles back to the bunkhouse at a long trot.
Was it necessary to ride all that way twice per day? Why not stay out for a few days at a time? Hell, why not trailer the horses and drive a truck when possible?
These are all questions that a fourteen year old kid might wonder, but Todd was smart enough not to ask. He learned from the first day that he was expected to learn by watching how the other buckaroos did something and fall in line accordingly.
For his very first supper, the cook prepared beef stew. Seemed like a reasonable enough ranch meal and he hadn’t had anything to eat since before the sun came up, so Todd had no complaints. The same couldn’t be said of the other buckaroos.
“Dammit, Jim, if this cook serves beef stew one more time, we’re leaving this place and you’re gonna to be out of help!”
Jim got the message. The next day there was no beef stew and no cook either. Jim’s wife filled the role for the rest of the Summer and peace was restored. The buckaroo’s ultimatum paid off and their hunch that the ranch needed them more than the cook proved true.
Todd found out later that they had eaten beef stew for breakfast and supper for the prior two weeks straight. Monotony can drive a person mad and Todd didn’t write off the possibility that he would have joined in the threatened revolt had he been served beef stew for another two weeks.
Now is a good time for a little ranch-life vocabulary lesson.
First, a ‘Buckaroo’ is not a ‘Cowboy’ and if you call the wrong old buckaroo a cowboy in the Great Basin area of the country, you just might get hit. (They are kind of the same, but don’t push it). A buckaroo is the person on the ranch that does all the cow work. They ride on horseback all day long driving cattle, roping calves, and keeping an eye out for the sick or vulnerable members of the herd. They might mend the occasional fence but their mantra goes something like, “If I can’t do it on horseback, I ain’t doing it.”
Next, ‘Supper’ is the last meal of the day and it really didn’t matter what the middle meal was called because Todd didn’t get one anyways. The boss’s philosophy was that the horses were working hard enough as it was, so they didn’t need any extr weight weighing them down, and luxuries like food and water fell into the ‘extra weight’ category. He got pretty good at putting down as much water as his stomach could handle by 4:00 A.M. so that he could make it until sundown without anymore – the body is an impressive machine.
Finally, the ‘Great Basin’ is the part of the Western U.S. where rivers do not flow into the ocean. Every river, creek, and slough of flowing snow runoff continues out into the basin until it eventually soaks back into the ground, creating an area called a ‘sink.’ The basin runs roughly from Nevada on the Southern end – the Eastern Sierra’s of California to the West – Southern Idaho for the Northern boundary – and the parts of Western Colorado that don’t flow into the Colorado River as the Easternmost point.
Every buckaroo at Roaring Springs had six horses – one for each day of work. When you ask a horse to carry you for 40 miles, the polite thing to do is give it the rest of the week off. These horses were ‘buckaroo broke,’ meaning they were trained enough to do the work asked of them, but they weren’t always that nice about it. Todd noticed the other buckaroos wearing boots with three-inch long heels – Hell to walk on, but they sure came in handy when a horse spooked, as they made it virtually impossible to get your foot caught in the stirrup and drug to death – something a buckaroo was always wary of.
Out of his six horses, Todd only had one that he was confident enough in to relax in the saddle. It was always a good day when that horse’s turn came around each week. The rest of them kept him on his toes – partially focusing on taking care of cattle, partially taking care to stay in the saddle.
Out of his six horses, Todd also only had one that stood out as particularly troublesome – the name of which has only recently escaped him. Part-way through the Summer, he told a fellow buckaroo about this horse.
“I’m worried this som-bitch would run off without me and leave me to walk the fifteen miles back to the bunkhouse if I ever get out of the saddle when I’m alone.”
To which the older buckaroo replied, “You should be worried! It’s happened to more experienced horsemen than you.”
He didn’t get out of the saddle when riding that horse on his own the rest of the Summer…
When listening to Todd Morgan recount his experiences from his time at Whitehorse and Roaring Springs, there was an honest nostalgia about it that is hard to come by. Honest in the fullest sense of the word. He was straightforward in his portrayal of the buckaroo life – no sugar coating the difficulties by romanticizing something that wasn’t romantic at the time. But he was genuinely nostalgic about what it was, and not just what he would have liked it to be. He actually loved it. It came through loud and clear from his steady stream of stories, (spoken like only a true cowboy could – forgive me, Todd – buckaroo) to the quiet but obvious satisfaction present on his face as he remembers a time well-lived and work well-done.
If earning his stripes as a buckaroo at Roaring Springs Ranch was the epitome of ranch-life and where you can find the best of his honest-nostalgia – the family’s move south to California the following year introduced a period of more honesty than nostalgia.
The ranch culture of the Great Basin shaped Todd’s growing-up years, but it wasn’t exactly the same culture waiting for him at the N-3 Ranch in the hills outside of Livermore, California (Remember the whole ‘buckaroo’ v. ‘cowboy’ distinction? Not such a concern on the ranches of Central California.)
The man who owned Whitehorse Ranch, also owned N-3 and wanted Todd’s dad to move down to California to manage it the way he had successfully managed Whitehorse. Todd’s mom and dad moved down first to begin the work, while Todd and his sister stayed back so she could finish up her senior year of high school before relocating.
It was a different sort of operation – raising steers instead of running a cow-calf operation – but it was still a ranch. Todd continued his ranch work on the weekends and in the Summers when school was out, but it would only be a couple of years before he moved away for college. There’s only so much impact a place can have on you in a short period of time and it sure wasn’t like he’d had the first 14 years of his life for it to leave its mark – the way Southeast Oregon had.
If moving away for college was the end of the story, there would be a lot more room for nos- talgia and less cause for honesty. But it wasn’t the end.
Broken glass on the ground – blood mixed in the dirt – no movement in his left arm. Todd’s dad had been driving his truck down a ranch road late at night when he ran off the road and down an embankment. The truck careened 40 feet to the ravine below where it ejected his dad out of the closed passenger window – causing severe nerve damage and paralyzing his left arm permanently.
Did the man who owned the ranch visit him in the hospital? Send flowers? Express his condolences in a letter?
Does it matter?
He thanked Todd’s dad for the 20+ years of service and wished him well… at his next job. He fired him.
Couldn’t he see that this fifty year old man had a lifetime of ranch knowledge, a mind that was still sharp, and a desire to stay on the ranch? Couldn’t he be just the slightest bit accommodating and hire a young person with two working arms to take care of those buckaroo duties that he would no longer be able to participate in, since the majority of his role and responsibilities could continue on unhindered? Couldn’t he give this man, who had helped his ranches achieve so much success, the respect due any human?
That is the honest part of the nostalgia.
Todd’s parents would move back to Southeast Oregon to be closer to family, but his dad would never work on a ranch again. The one thing that he wanted to be his whole life, the truest version of himself, was no longer an option that he had available to him.
Maybe it would have turned out different today – maybe it wouldn’t.
We finish up our conversation talking about how times have changed, and how they haven’t. Todd went back to Roaring Springs Ranch for an anniversary celebration a few years back and half of the buckaroos were women now. That’s up about a million percent from 0 in Todd’s day. He said the ability of the woman buckaroo to rope and ride hasn’t changed all that much – there were women in his day that would have held their own or better against the men – but the acceptance of seeing a woman buckaroo as a viable candidate for the job has changed dramatically. Back then, she would have been laughed out of an interview or in the best scenario listened to only as a polite gesture, but now, she is a buckaroo – with everything that comes with it.
Some things stay the same. Todd was born into a ranching family, so he had the opportunity to learn the ropes and earn his place on the buckaroo crew. It’s not that the role was given to him, far from it, but the opportunity arose partially out of proximity and partially out of familial connection. He doesn’t see it being all that different for young people today. Kids that grow up on a ranch or closely connected to one have the opportunity to pursue a lifestyle that few else have. Of course, not all of these kids take it, but it’s available. And for those that don’t grow up immersed in the ranching community, it’s an uphill journey.
Society is changing all the time – and the pace seems to be picking up. Southeast Oregon is changing too, just at a slower clip. You will still find ranches that stretch for miles and miles, buckaroos that prefer riding to walking, and beef stew is still on the menu.
The rest of the story is for another day – The existen- tial tension between cowboys and shepherds, the importance of land stewardship and how ranchers have every reason to act with environmental integrity whether or not someone from the outside tells them they have to or not, and how everything comes back to water.
Stories remind us that the way things are today, is not how they used to be, and is not how things will always be. For some, this is a comforting reality. For others, it is not. We will all be on each side of the story at one point, and that makes us all a little more human.