The Rocky Mountains are where one’s desire for freedom and nature is quenched. The life of cowboys and cowgirls is tough. Yet none of them would ever consider giving up their ranch.
Dillon Kujala always wanted to be a cowboy. He carefully mounts Rio, the young brown stallion. It is only his fifth time riding Rio. The horse should really be almost fully trained by now, but horses are like humans: “Some don’t learn quite as fast!” Dillon explains.
Cowboy Dillon lives with his wife Samantha and their two children on a ranch roughly 125 miles (200 km) from Denver, in an area called Burns. The terrain is surrounded by raw nature. The landscape looks like someone has taken a watercolour paint box and used every imaginable hue of green and brown to paint it. Light green grass is intercepted by turquoise-coloured bushes, dark green trees rise up high from the dark brown soil. And, in-between, red rocks point majestically to the sky. The ground is dusty and the sun burns mercilessly on one’s skin. In keeping with what one would expect in this part of the world, Dillon and his wife are clad in western hats, shirts and boots. Even their young children’s cowboy boots feature tiny spurs.
An hour to the nearest school
Dillon leads Rio back to the stable, whilst his wife Samantha saddles four horses. The family will ride to one of their cattle herds this morning. They had intended to make hay, but it will rain soon, they explain. “You can’t plan things on a ranch,” Samantha says and lifts the heavy western saddle on to the back of one of the horses. Meanwhile, her daughter Cheyenne is happily giving orders to her little brother. She is the secret boss of the ranch, her parents point out with a laugh. Cheyenne shows her brother how to groom his horse (if he stretches, he can just about touch the belly of the mare) and how to hold the bridle. Soon after both children are seated on their horses. Though only four, Cheyenne can already ride by herself; her three-year old brother Lewi has his own horse too, but it is led by his mother. If Cheyenne had her way, she would spend the whole day in the saddle, Samantha explains. Cheyenne will start school next year. The nearest school is an hour’s drive away.
Half an hour in the saddle and the Kujalas have reached their destination. Dillon and Samantha quickly round up the cattle and their calves, and check if any of them are injured or sick. The young couple own a total of 550 cows. They met in college and now live on the ranch where Samantha grew up. They have no employees – just like most of the ranchers in the area. Their days are long, and the work is physically demanding. Breaks are non-existent. In the summer months they spend much of their time on horseback. Some of their cattle graze on distant pastures, so the Kujalas have to spend up to twelve hours in the saddle to see them.
Corncobs and numerous operations
Horseback riding is not just a part of the Kujalas’ daily life, but also their hobby. Just like most cowboys and cowgirls in the area, they take part in the weekly local rodeo tournaments, vying with their neighbours, friends and relatives. Rodeo is a bit like a “Schwingfest” (Switzerland’s largest sporting event featuring Swiss wrestling). There are hotdogs and corncobs. The contestants compete in “barrel racing”, an event in which the riders have to gallop around three barrels at high speed. “Calf roping” involves catching a calf in the shortest time possible by throwing a lasso. “Bull riding” is the most popular, but also the most dangerous discipline. The cowboys attempt to stay mounted on a bucking bull for at least eight seconds. Dillon used to be a “bull rider”. But he had to undergo multiple surgeries and stopped bull riding after the birth of his first child.
Meanwhile, it has started to rain and the family trots back to the ranch. Their home is modestly furnished, their most valuable possessions are the machines with which they carry out their work on the farm. They earn their living with selling one-year-old calves. This does not provide for a luxurious lifestyle. But both Dillon and Samantha say they wouldn’t want to trade it. “We know no different and cannot do anything else,” says Dillon and spits on the ground - a typical gesture for cowboys who often have chewing tobacco under their lip.
Cowboys then and now
The life of a cowboy used to be even tougher, says Vern Albertson. The 81-year-old lives a few minutes’ drive from the Kujala family; he sold his ranch to relatives a few years ago. “There were no machines back in the day; we had to employ our horses for everything,” Vern adds. Tasks such as haymaking or taking out the fodder took much longer and were considerably more strenuous. There were no supermarkets. Moreover, the cowboys had to tend pigs, hens and dairy cows as well. These days, the cowboys are no longer self-sustaining. The idea that cowboys spend days outdoors with their cattle is another misconception. Not cowboys do that, but so-called “riders”, an occupation that practically no longer exists. “Most people find it too lonely,” Vern explains. The life of a ranch cowboy is also a pretty lonely business. At times it can involve whole days riding on horseback to one’s cattle without ever seeing another soul. But Vern loved his work. “Galloping through rugged nature, bearing witness to pristine landscapes: that makes up for a lot,” he adds. He has not ridden a horse for four years and misses it very much.
There is a television in Vern’s small flat, and in most ranch houses as well. The walls of his flat feature photographs of his daughter and granddaughter; there is a bible and an iPhone on the table. The phone is switched off. Unsurprisingly, given that there is no mobile phone reception in the area. Vern calls Boots, his dog, and starts walking towards his car. He wants to do some rounds and “see if I can spot a bear”. Vern used to hunt - deer and elks. But he never shot a bear.
Horses do not need shoes
Indeed, there are guns in many living rooms in this part of the world, and the walls are often decorated with stuffed animal heads. By contrast, the walls of Bobby George‘s barn only feature animal skulls, albeit dozens of them. His mother hung them up, the fifty-year-old explains. And, so far, he has not had the courage to remove them, although, he hastily adds, he does not like “the artwork”. Bobby lives in the small locality of Yampa and is arguably the town’s most famous and controversial resident. He is said to be unable to control his temper. And low and behold: “If a neighbour’s dog bothers my cattle, I will shoot it,” he says. Bobby owns more than a thousand cows and sheep, and he feels he has the right and duty to protect his animals. A week ago, he even had to shoot his daughter’s dog and his own dog because they attacked his sheep. Now his daughter is mad at him. “But she’ll get over it,” he says shrugging his shoulders. Considering the charm and warmth that he exudes on this sunny morning, it is hard to conceive of Bobby being so tough. He demonstrates how, rather than shoeing his horses, he merely trims back their hooves. “Horses don’t need shoes,” he explains, “horseshoes are unnecessary if you take good care of their hooves.” He talks to his horse slowly and quietly, unlike his usual manner of speech which is fast, loud and with a broad accent. He talks about his ankle that became inflamed after he fell off a horse and has since been eaten up by bacteria. He admits that he is afraid of bulls and would never attempt any “bull riding”.
After lunch he saddles his horse; he has to take a cow with her calf to another herd and needs to do so today. Like Samantha and Dillon, he relies exclusively on the sale of one-year-old calves to make a living.
Several ranches in the area have long become “dude ranches”. In other words: they no longer earn their livelihood with calves, but with guests. Will the “real cowboys” soon be a relic of the past? Is the cowboy tradition turning into a tourist attraction? Bobby shakes his head as he utters an emphatic “no”. There will always be cowboys. Perhaps their lifestyle will change somewhat. “But we love what we do and being our own boss. We never want to give that up,” he says and rides off across the fields, through the rich hues of green, towards the horizon.
The illustrated book “Mountain Ranch” is a ten-year project that focuses on the disappearing world of cattle ranching in the mountains of Colorado. Photographer Michael Crouser visited nine rancher families and documented their traditional life in black and white photographs. His work shows the fundamental way of life of the American cowboy.
Travel Tips in and around Denver:
Visitors wanting to experience ranch life first-hand can book a few days on the M Lazy C Ranch. The ranch offers opportunities to practice riding or shooting and to experience a campfire dinner in proper style. Pure rustic cosiness.;;;
(801 County Rd. 453, Lake George, CO 80827, www.mlazyc.com)
Those more into luxury will be well catered to in The Broadmoor. When not indulging in spa treatments, golf lessons or fitness, guests can retire to their fine suites. Located close by is one of Colorado’s most stunning natural wonders: Seven Falls.;;;
(1 Lake Ave, Colorado Springs, CO 80906, www.broadmoor.com)