The Day of the Ur-Cowboy

by cowboylands

In honor of Day of the American Cowboy, I hereby proclaim New York City the official Urban Cowboy State. Someday to join the real Cowboy State, Wyoming, and receive a parade of cowboys up Madison Avenue (fuggeddabout astronauts and sport teams). This day should be for cowboys of all creeds, genders, ethnicities, sexual persuasions, or anyone who can stay on a horse. That should be the only qualification, which means I wouldn’t ever be in the parade.

 Cowboy in Spur, Texas 

courtesy of Library of Congress 

In honor of this special day, emblazoned across American blogs and small-town newspapers in the cyber-frontier, I have a list of Ur-Cowboys. There are many lists of Real Cowboys, Honorary Cowboys, Cowboy Heroes, usually centered around a couple presidents and  John Wayne. For this list I wanted to move away from the usual suspects and round up a different breed. 

In no certain order, the Ur-Cowboys 

Elmore Leonard: I can hear you now–“What? The guy who wrote Get Shorty?” Why, yes, he wrote that, after writing a herd of impeccable, classy westerns without an ounce of sentimentality or one wasted word. He may not be able to ride a horse–I have no idea–but his spare and rhythmical prose has created more than its share of classic celluloid cowmyths. I’m not the only one to think so.

From The Law at Randado. 

Frye felt the anger hot on his face.  “Doesn’t killing two men mean anything to you?”

“You picked yourself a beauty,” Sundeen said to no one in particular.  “Why does he pack that gun if he’s so against killin’?”

Jordan said, “Maybe it makes him feel important.”

“Now if it was me,” Sundeen said, “I wouldn’t pick a deputy that whined like a woman.”

Jordan was looking at Frye.  “Maybe that’s what this deputy is…only dressed up like a man.

Sundeen grinned.  “Maybe we ought to take his pants off and find out.”

Frye held his eyes on Sundeen.  Just Sundeen–he felt his anger mounting.  “Sundeen, if you want to try, stop by the jail tomorrow. 


The Beefcake Cowboy. Nearly naked, usually with a sheen of clean, honest sweat. Nothing can match the smolder of his stare. He has launched many a romance. The Beefcake Cowboy makes both genders say “ride ’em, bucko!” I’m not the only one to think so! And because ND of the AC is for everyone, these folks think so too.

My personal favorite is well, a personal one. Stopping off at a western reenactment tourist trap in Wyoming,and wandering far from the madding crowd made up of khaki-shorts-wearing tourists, I came across a rather unassuming man braiding a lanyard. He was politeness personified, and we fell into lengthy conversation. At last he stood and asked if I wanted to take a stagecoach ride. Turned out he was the guy who drove the stagecoach for all the tourists (including me), and he proudly introduced me to his team of horses and the beautiful vehicle itself. He then asked if I would like to “ride shotgun,” which effectively separated me from the riffraff for good and joined me forever with him, my Ur-Cowboy. He is the kind of guy who was at the end of a long, illustrious career of wrangling Hollywood actor butts in and out of his stagecoaches, as well as raising horses in Texas, and now, plodding around in the center of a trailtown with mind-numbing regularity. “I used to be able to run the horses along the riverbed,” he told me in his slow, ambling voice, which to me says everything about the changing of the West. His hands were the size of Christmas hams, and he had a rodeo champion belt buckle that flashed like a laser in the sun. I’ve written about him time and again, never quite finding his combination of humor and deference, acceptance of his lot and pride at his accomplishments. He is the Ur-Cowboy of the modern West. I have no pictures of him. He may have been in my imagination. 

The next is an institution. Call me crazy, but geddaload of this: I chose the San Juan Historical Society, whose list of accomplishments doesn’t have to be laced with tall-tale hyperbole: those people out-Pecos Pecos Bill. So far, the SJHS in Silverton, Colorado, has asked for and received funding of well over $600,000 from national, state, and local organizations. They have not only transformed a jail into a museum, but also created an archive and a building to house it. They have saved the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge train depot, rebuilt the town hall completely from just a burnt-out shell  (an effort which has become a national model for restoration projects), negotiated with a local mining company and the EPA to acquire a mill and run tours, and amassed one of the most complete collections of mining equipment and artifacts in the world.

Silverton Museum copyright es 2007  

To house it, they bought a rundown boarding house that was listing under the weight of rockfall, and trucked it from high along the timberline, around winding mountain passes, all the way to Silverton. And they have more plans. They embody the make-it-so spirit of the Ur-Cowboy. 

Those are three.  I also think of Bill Pickett and Calamity Jane, both of whom require posts unto themselves. May they soon receive their due! Happy virtual trails, and Happy National Day of the American Cowboy!

Badlands, by Bennett Foster
cover illus. Norman Saunders
Bantam Books, late 40s, early 50s
from the collection of ES


Leave a Comment to “The Day of the Ur-Cowboy”

  1. This is so hot!!!! who knew!!!!! my whole life is now rich because of these totally hot hot hot cowboys!!!

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