The Cowboy Way

Guest Post:  Submitted by The Lone Ranger

“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by.” – John Wayne

For some the term, cowboy, is used in a mildly derogatory way.  For example, referring to a truck or a forklift being driven in a wildly unsafe manner someone might say the driver is, ‘a cowboy’.  For others, the term cowboy is used as a verb such as ‘get tough’, ‘suck it up’ or ‘cowboy up’. And for still others, cowboy has taken on a sort of mystical quality conjuring up the likes of Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, or John Wayne.

The cowboy way I am referring to is based on a way of life, a code if you will, that has application for all people – for those that make their living with a rope and for those that don’t know a Texas Longhorn from a Charolais.

My wife and I recently joined up with good friends and attended The Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering… a celebration of music, poetry and art in Ellensburg, WA.  The weather was sunny and mild – balmy compared to North Central Montana – allowing us to thaw out a bit. Catching up with friends alone was worth the trip.  But we, as did many others, went for another reason… 

Why is it that venues such as The Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering are so popular?  Many in attendance were likely ranchers but many more, like me and my friends, are not. So what is the attraction?  Is it a fascination with all things western?  Is it nostalgia for the ways things once were?

The Spirit of the West website reads, “The Spirit of the West Cowboy Gathering brings the best traditional cowboy musicians, poets, and artists together to celebrate the western tradition of ranching and cowboy life.”

Ok, so there were merchants selling everything from cowboy hats and silk scarves (oops, I mean ‘wild rags’) to buffalo robes, art work and custom saddles.  Eight or so chuck wagons competed for a blue ribbon trying to take first place with a traditional Dutch oven meal.  I might add that the excellent vittles fortified us for more cowboy poetry, western music, and ranch roping demonstrations. 

What is it that makes this stuff so popular?  Why do western movies (Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, True Grit) do so well at the box office?

I think the attraction to the cowboy way is deeper than the realization that a cowboy is someone who works with his hands and lives off the land. It is more than admiration for someone who is self-sufficient, in tune with the changing seasons, and coaxes a sustainable yield of protein (beef) out of typically hardscrabble, arid land.  It is all of these things and much more.

In his 2004 work entitled, Cowboy Ethics – What wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West, James P. Owen lists a code.  Several codes – mostly for boys and girls – exist already: Gene Autry’s Code of Honor, Hopalong Cassidy’s Creed for American Boys and Girls, Wild Bill Hickock Deputy Marshal’s Code of Conduct, The Lone Ranger Creed, Roy Rogers Riders Club Rules, and Texas Rangers “Deputy Ranger” Oath.  All of these probably have some similar bunk house roots.  The original code was not written down anywhere, but it was understood by all – developed over time and passed on to young green horns.

Owens’ Code of the West reads this way:

Live each day with courage  –  Real courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.

Take pride in your work  –  Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Always finish what you start  –  When you’re riding through hell… keep riding.

Do what has to be done   –  It’s not always easy to do the right thing but nobody said it would be.

Be tough, but fair –  The principle of “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” is nothing more and nothing less than a key to survival.

When you make a promise, keep it  –  A man is only as good as his word.

Ride for the brand  –  The cowboy’s greatest devotion is to his calling and his way of life… “You hire out to a man, you ride for his brand and protect it like it was your own”

Talk less and say more  –  When there’s nothing more to say, don’t be saying it.

Remember that some things aren’t for sale  –  To the cowboy, the best things in life aren’t “things.”

Know where to draw the line  –  There’s a right and there’s a wrong and nothing in between.

There is something very noble, very right, about “the code”.  Owen’s code to be sure, but here I mean the code that has existed since cowboys started running cattle in the west. To be a cowboy, that is to say to live by the code, is not easily achieved nor maintained.  It requires self-examination and causes each of us to be better than we by nature are.  In my opinion, that is why so many are attracted to The Cowboy Way.


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