That was a quote I once read in a magazine. I think I have come up with an answer: they have nothing else to do.
When a person trots to work in the dark of morning, spends 4 hours gathering cattle and then trails them at a slow walk 4 hours back home, he has plenty of time to think. He can consider nature’s many wonders, his partner’s methods of handling stock, his horse’s habit of spooking at his chink fringe, the stain on the inside of the front brim of his hat, the smell of sage, why knock-knock jokes are funnier at 4:30 AM at Stockmen’s, and why the boss waited until the heat of an Indian summer day to push yearlings off the mountain.
Poetry and cowboying do not harmoniously go together. Much has been written about the mystique of the cowboy culture; the romanticism of a life untainted by cell phones and time clocks. In reality, cowboying is a dangerous and violent occupation. Calves get branded and wattles cut into their necks, cowboys misjudge majestic broncs get helicopter rides off the desert, the heat dehydrates and the cold frost bites.
I cannot argue with the poetry and beauty of fancy roping, a minimal number of people handling a large number of cattle, or a pair of square-bottom chinks with long fringe keepin’ time with a horse’s stride. But, it still seems like every part of ranch work involves a foul smell, blood, physically demanding labor, or obscene words. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy every bit of it.
The unpleasantries make the lifestyle real. None of us make it out of this world alive, and I suppose cowboys are just a little more aware of that than other folks. Maybe that’s the poetry in it: beauty in the face of danger.