A Coat From Cowboy Dave

For 20 summers he’s pushed cattle up and down the Greys River Valley, upstream in the spring, downstream in the fall. This week, he put the mules and me up. He fed us whiskey and camp cooked potatoes but left us with something way warmer than that. Meet Cowboy Dave.

Cowboy Dave (Greys River, Wyoming)

Leading up to Cowboy Dave

10 days ago, the mules and I headed out of Douglas, Wyoming, bound for Alpine. The first 60 miles took me across sagebrush country. We passed millions of them. Fragrant and bushy and spaced checkerboard-like across the land.

This is the hard land I’m not so crazy about crossing with mules. Yes, it’s beautiful in that cowboy way of riding the open range as the antelope scurry and the eagle soars overhead. At day’s end, the cowboy throws down his bedroll, rolls a cigarette and admires his horse as the two of them stare in to the glowing camp fire thinking of whiskey and the woman back home.

But that’s not the way it works. These days cowboys haul their cow ponies to the sagebrush in stock trailers. They rope and doctor and push cattle all day long. Then they load their horses back up on their trailers and head back to the ranch.

They’re smart. I’m less so. I’m trying to cross this land with 2 mules without a stock trailer or chase vehicle.

In to a hard land: not much browse here for the mules

Crossing this land with mules is hard. There isn’t much for the mules to graze on. Even if there was, it would be hard to tie them out overnight without ending up in an epic tangle. The leg pickets I use to secure them quickly wrap around the closely spaced sage bushes. In a matter of minutes, their tethers are so tightly wrapped around the sage brush clumps they can’t move.

Cottonwood Road. The road we followed for miles across sage brush country. I didn’t see a single cottonwood tree. (Outside, Daniel, Wyoming)
Sage brush country. You can see how easily the mules’ tethers would get tangled on the bushes.

Lacking a getaway truck, I pushed mules Brick and Cracker hard to get across the sage brush land that stretches from Douglas, Wyoming to McDougal’s gap.

McDougal’s Gap. That’s the 8.000 portal from the sage brush country to the Greys River country. From there, the river drops 2,500 feet over a course of 35 miles until you reach Alpine.

It’s along this stretch of rushing river I met Cowboy Dave.

On the road to Cowboy Dave’s.

Cowboy Dave

Cowboy Dave works for the Greys River grazing association. The association is made up of nearby ranchers. Each year, the association pastures 700 pairs of cows and calves in the Greys River valley of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Dave’s job is to make sure they travel up the valley in spring, graze safely all summer long, then get home the first week of October.

Cowboy Dave – aka Dave Ellis –
Cowboy Dave relies on horses and dogs for tending cattle in these remote parts. 4-wheelers can’t access much of the rocky terrain his cattle graze on.
Tools of the trade.

This time of year, early October, the cows crowd the cattle guards. Seems that with cold weather coming on, some cattle want to go home. Cowboy Dave’s job is to move them on so vehicles can get by.

Cowboy Dave lives in the forest close to the cattle he tends. From spring ’til fall, home is a camper along the Greys River. Home is a cowboy cook shack and a campfire and horses scattered all over the scene. Some stand in corrals, some are tied to trees. A few just roam free, browsing for what grass they can scrounge.

Here are some photos of Dave’s camp I thought you’d find interesting.

Dave’s camp
Dave’s camper
Dave’s front door.
Horses galore: Dave’s horses galloping through camp. Shows how far we’ve come from pastured and stall kept equines.
Cowboy Dave’s friend Jim Dixon showing off vital camp supplies.

And Then it Got Cold

Two nights after I met Dave, I found myself around the campfire with some of Dave’s friends. Stories and the Black Velvet flowed. A Rocky Mountain mix of smoke, and whiskey and tales of the one armed fisherman and the time Dave skinned out a lamb in the kitchen of a lady who worked with Fleet Wood Mac.

A welcome bit of warmth.

I didn’t have much to add to stories like that so I sat under the Milky Way and soaked it all in and tried not to shiver as the dew turned to frost. I’d only worn my denim shirt and summer slacks to the shin dig. Knuckle head.

Dave looked at me and said, “It’s gonna get cold and I hope you’ve got some warmer clothes than that.” And I lied and told him that I wasn’t cold and it would work out.

Talk turned to what happens when you try to get bear spray through Jackson Hole airport security and dictated letters of apology and Mormon family reunions on public land gone awry.

I tried to hide my shivering and then a warm sensation poured over my shoulders.

“You’ll need that.” I heard behind me and it was Cowboy Dave. He’d taken off his quilted Wrangler coat and draped it over my shoulders.

Had given me the coat off his back. It’s the cliche that’s so worn it’s weightless but here I was in the Wyoming mountains, with a shiver and winter coming on, and a cowboy gave me his coat. Still warm off his back.

The coat smelled of dogs and cigarette smoke and campfires. It smelled of cheap whiskey, old truck seats and cow shit. It was beat up and the cuffs were frayed and it was the warmest I’d felt in weeks.

Cowboy Dave’s coat. Here, the morning after he gave it to me.

I cherish that coat for keeping me warm and reminding me that there are still folks out there that will give you even more than the shirt off their backs.

Want to Meet Cowboy Dave?

Tending cattle doesn’t net Cowboy Dave a fortune. To earn extra money, he tends bar at the Flying Saddle in Alpine. Short of trekking 15 miles up the Greys River, it’s your best chance to meet him. When he does plunk that drink down in front of you tell him I said hi. And tip him well.

4 Responses to A Coat From Cowboy Dave

  • Bernie, we met along the road as you approached Independence Rock in Wyoming. Kathy and I gladly shared some of Colorado fresh peaches with you and the mules while having a great conversation with you. I also am guilty of delivering the cup of coffee,McMuffins and peaches the next morning as I found your mules stacked out at Independence Rock. I must admit…I thought you were still sleeping because your shelter was in place and you were no where in sight. After reading your post I realize you were up hiking on Independence Rock. Later that day I called Kathy and accused you of sleeping (late as hell). Lol When I got home and looked up your website I realized we’d met in Colorado years earlier when you were traveling with the mule and wagon near the Utah border.
    Bernie, sometimes we meet the neatest people in the strangest of places and it was an honor meeting you again in Wyoming on the Old Oregon Trail, something really hit home with me after our brief conversation…I think I’ve been worrying to much the past few years about things and I need to slow down to a mules pace and start counting my blessings one step at a time.
    I hope we meet again my friend, you’re good medicine for those of us needing to slow down.
    Sincerely, Rex Beach

    • Dear Rex. I THOUGHT it was you and Kathy that left off the wonderful coffee, burritos and peaches. Wonderful hearing back from you!
      It’s encounters like we had that color in the lines for me on this trip. But there’s more to it than this. Many people I meet are afraid of ghosts: the specter of “bad people” out there, the mirage of violence, mean people and ne’er do wells. They’re held hostage to these specters but that’s all they are. I say specters because they really only exist on the flickering screens of TVs, phones and devices. The moment the screen is turned off, they vanish.
      Here’s where you come in. When you drop off a lovely gift like you did, it arms me with a ready answer when people ask (and the ALWAYS do), “aren’t you scared out there? So many mean people around these days….”
      I say emphatically, “No!. People have treated us great. Why, just recently, some stranger dropped off peaches and coffee at my tent.”
      And they breath a sigh of relief and say, “well, that’s good to hear there are still some good folks out there”.
      So those peaches and coffee held way more power than staving off hunger. They helped soothe the nerves of many, many Americans I’ve met along the way. Folks who are scared and just need to hear that “out here”, away from the TV screens and devices – folks are still incredibly generous.
      Rex, you and Kathy will never know how many lives your gift enriched…give or take 2 mules….!
      Here’s to crossing trails farther up the road!
      Bernie / presently Blackfoot, Idaho

  • Wonderful stories. Thank you. I have been lucky to meet a few people like Dave, mostly out in the country, or in the mountains. They are the ones that stil sit golden in my memories

    • Hi Todd. I specifically thought of you as I was typing up this post. I knew you’d met these “Cowboy Dave”s out there and would enjoy the story. I also knew there were some folks out there who would enjoy meeting a man like this who doesn’t stray far from these hills. Cheers to the cowboys and cowgirls of the Cowboy Dave fabric! Bernie / currently Blackfoot, Idaho

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