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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.