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Jessie Veeder, Published August 03 2012

Veeder: Here’s hoping the cowboy way endures

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - In my life I’ve often contemplated what it means to have grown up surrounded by cowboys of the buttes of western North Dakota.

They are men who drop everything for a neighbor in need, rope a 3,000-pound bull off the back of a half-broke horse and go home at night to rock their babies to sleep.

I was one of those babies who spent my childhood listening as the cowboys in my life talked over coffee or beer about their rodeo days, having a buddy’s back in a fight, being stepped on, bucked off and bruised in the name of horsemanship and a living.

To me, no other man existed. As a teenager I would plaster the pages from the Western Horseman magazine all over my bedroom walls. The men in these photographs were handsome, fearless and representative of the men who surrounded me. The men who wore boots and pressed shirts to town and wouldn’t be caught dead in shorts, not even if one of their wives got them to join her on a Caribbean cruise.

I was certain all men had this in them. I was sure the market for khaki pants was a small one and was convinced cowboys, intense as they can be, were the only ones worth marrying.

And as I grew up I learned lesson after lesson about what it meant to hold the title. It was more than the outfit. It was the confidence, the quick-wit and the ability to keep composure while faced with challenges like jumping off a horse running wide open or working to save a sick calf.

I took those lessons and made them my own. When I failed, which every cowboy in training did, I understood that 100 percent of the role was brushing myself off and getting back on the horse.

Then I moved to a place where there were fewer cows, less dirt and more pavement. I missed a lot of things about the ranch while I was gone, but it wasn’t long before I got used to the sidewalks and the men in sneakers and neckties. I was becoming convinced that maybe there weren’t many cowboys in the world, really. Maybe they were tucked away in those far off spaces – the spaces only cowboys dare to go.

But every once in a while I would find one. He’d be at a bar wearing a baseball cap, jeans and boots, playing pool and leaning on the table in the relaxed way only a cowboy can. Or he’d be in class with me, studying to become a banker or a teacher, something to help earn a living so that he might have the chance to move back to the ranch someday. Every once in a while I’d catch him gazing in the distance, the same way I would when I was thinking of home.

I imagined where he might be from and understood that times are changing and that family ranches are bigger and further between. And sometimes, cowboys have to move to town.

But I worry that maybe real cowboys are a dying breed. I worry that with our fast-paced world – full of computers, machines and easy entertainment – that the cowboy culture is becoming extinct.

And then I take a ride on the back of a good horse through the pastures with my father and my neighbor who wear years of rough-stock, friendship and ranching on their weathered faces and callused hands. I look at my hands: fragile, small and intertwined with my husband’s and I worry, no matter what we’ve learned from these men about what it means to be a cowboy, that we might not be capable of continuing their legacy out here without their quiet, instinctual guidance.

And when I fall from my horse, take note of broken fence wire or the leaky barn roof, I feel a panic in my gut sparked by the daunting task of the future.

Then I think about those cowboys I met between the city streets, and I say a silent prayer of gratitude for the opportunity to give it a try.

And I get back on my horse.

Jessie Veeder is a 28-year-old musician and writer. She lives near Watford City, N.D., with her husband, on the ranch where she grew up.