“A Dirt Road Diary” – What Makes a Real Cowboy?

What is that essential ingredient that makes someone a real cowboy?


photo (CC0 1.0) by Parker Gibbs via Unsplash

photo (CC0 1.0) by Parker Gibbs via Unsplash

This has been a question posed by many a small  child, wondering if the costume chaps, spurs, and cowboy hat give them the right to be associated with the likes of Hopalong and Wayne, Wild Bill and Earp. However, the question itself only begs many others: Would Wyatt Earp have considered himself to be a cowboy or a lawman? Do Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne belong in that pantheon of Wild West heroes, or were they merely actors playing the part? Perhaps a cowboy himself can help us  answer this question. The following was written by our friend Steve Lucas, and is about a real cowboy that he knows. A cowboy named Wayne.

Wayne – A Dirt Road Diary

Wayne was a real cowboy. A child of the Great Depression, he grew up on a dirt farm near Malcolm, Nebraska. Wayne was still young when his father died, leaving him to take over the farm. He tells the story that in drought years the only grass left was on the side of the road, and you pastured your side. Mounted on his line back gelding, assisted only by his dog, and armed with just his blacksnake (what Easterners call a bull whip), Wayne kept his polled Herefords in a bunch so they would graze and not trample the valuable forage. This also made them easier to control, especially when cows and calves had to be moved through an intersection to further roadsides.

Wayne went to college and became an engineer; he worked for the Extension Service and farmed/ranched on the side. He eventually sold the property and wound up in Virginia to be near family. I met Wayne and his wife Betty some years ago. We share a lot of interests…cattle, engineering, church, and ministry. We have one point of disagreement. Can you be a cowboy and not own a horse, a dog, and a blacksnake?

This contention is not a divisive issue in our friendship, but I have long wondered how to respond to his question. I use the word “cowboy” in my email address, and write stories and poems about cowboys and the cowboy life. I recognize this alone does not make me a cowboy. I do not own a horse. Furthermore, my dog is a pet that in the presence of cattle would certainly be more of a hindrance than a help. I do have a whip, but I have no idea where it is.

I’m sure Wayne would not accept my premise that my head and foot gear define me as a cowboy. I wear a weatherworn Resistol, and prefer pull on boots, but so do any number of country music singers, actors, and Wall Street types whose only interaction with a cow is a steak at a four star restaurant.

Likewise, I can’t claim that merely owning cows makes me a cowboy, and I think Wayne would agree. We have both known any number of folks who own cows who call themselves dairymen and purebred breeders, not cowboys.

Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of a cowboy is “One who tends cattle or horses.” Wayne and I, I think, agree that this is an over generalization, unless you define the word “tends” as making the well being of your cows your first priority.

If tending means checking your cow’s condition every day, no matter if the temperature is 110 degrees above or 30 degrees below, in blazing sun, pouring rain, or knee deep snow, it describes a cowboy. If tending means being late for dinner with the neighbors because you had to pull a hip locked calf or had to search for a cow when you count came up wrong, it depicts a cowboy.

If tending means doing what it takes to keep the stock fed, if it is dividing pastures into small paddocks with step in posts and wire, or herding them down the road with a line back stallion, dog, and blacksnake, it defines a cowboy. I think I can call myself a cowboy. I’ll let you now if Wayne concurs.

Note: I asked Wayne to fact check this story for me. He responded: “I guess I can still brag and wish I could still wear boots and fit in a saddle.”

– Steve Lucas

So there you have it from a cowboy himself.

Thank you Steve for you insight on the subject and for sharing this piece with us. And thank you Wayne, for your hard work of the past that is in keeping with the cowboy way. That tradition is, in fact, the very thing that has made the American West the legendary place that it is.

If you enjoyed this article please share it with others using the links on the left. Likewise, if you have any comments or questions we would love to hear from you! And don’t forget to check out all of the poetry and other great pieces that Steve has written for us, here.