Cowboying in the Sagebrush

Upon inspection of his attire, the office manager observed “he don’t look like no cowboy.”   

 STORY BY Gina Teichert                                                      PHOTOGRAPHY BY Brandon Baker


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COWBOYS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN KNOWN FOR THEIR GYPSY STREAK.  Whether intentional or circumstantial, many ranch hands only stay on a few months at each outfit.  The seasonal nature of the job suits a vagrant lifestyle, and constant movement provides a little change of scenery and relief from the rural isolation.  Basque settlers of northern Nevada coined the term txamisuek jota - struck by sagebrush- for the social anxiety one experiences from being out on the range too long.  Tending to livestock in the Great Basin was and is a lonely job. 

Nevada’s high desert stands expansive, vacant, a landscape inspiring or abysmal dependent upon the moody forces that govern the sagebrush sea.  Valley floors rise up from 5000 feet, doubling in elevation to become rocky, alpine ranges largely unseen by Interstate 80 passersby.  Ghost towns and modern diggings dot the hillsides, a reminder of the fickle temperament of the land and stubborn will of mankind.  Through 150 years of mining booms and busts, the cattle industry has remained a constant in northern Nevada.  

In recent years, change has come to the cattle business as well.  Fewer children return home to take over family ranches.  Fewer families have ranches to pass on. Friends and neighbors succumb to debt.  More adult children go to work in the mines.  Struggling ranches sell to wealthy hobbyists and investors, some to the mines themselves.  A new generation of landless agricultural laborers seeks day work, seasonal work, management work for absentee owners – whatever jobs they can get.  

Founded by Basque immigrants in 1874, the YP has traditionally made room for the roving cowboy.  The behemoth ranch, whose grazing permits extend beyond the Idaho state line, runs 5,500 mother cows and employs a minimum of eight cowboys year round.  In warmer months, buckaroos camp or sleep in line shacks, primitive shelters on the outer fringes of the ranch, where they monitor the cattle and water supplies. 

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After a few months cowboying on the sagebrush sea, no doubt txamisuek jota kicks in.  Unless you’re lucky enough to find chemistry with a coworker or the cowboss’s daughter, opportunity for romance is pretty limited.  A trip to town could be an hour or more - often on dirt roads - and once there, church and the local bar are about the only places to fraternize with the opposite sex.  

PX cowboy Darci De Boer wasn’t raised on a cattle ranch, but began picking up summer ranch gigs while studying at the University of Idaho.  She credits her degree in agricultural production for landing the position at the PX Ranch, which includes some involvement in managing the company’s feedlot business in addition to day to day cowboying.  

During her tenure at the PX, Darci has befriended women from neighboring ranches and dated a coworker, but keeps to herself most evenings reading and braiding horse tack.  Slow and labor intensive, braiding is a popular pastime in a region where cell phone reception and social lives are intermittent at best. 

Shawn McWilliams, a recent hire at the YP, adheres to the BYO lady philosophy.  He and his wife met in college and moved to the isolated ranch together, circumventing the hurdle of long distance dating.  Originally from Wyoming, Shawn has only worked at the YP for two months, but plans to spend the winter there.

Buckaroos often come from ranching families, though it’s not a prerequisite.  A thick skin and willingness to learn carries inexperienced cowboys through their first jobs.  Veteran ranch hand Norbert Gibson recalls arriving at the YP, fresh out of high school, wearing corduroy pants with tennis shoes.  Upon inspection of his attire, the office manager observed “he don’t look like no cowboy.”   

Norbert’s parents had driven him from their home in Owyhee, a small town on the nearby Duck Valley Indian Reservation, to the YP where he first learned the trade that would see him through the next 30 years.  A bit of good natured hazing and decades of on the job training have shaped Norbert into a well known fixture on the cowboying circuit.  When asked how many ranches he has worked at, Norbert replied, “too many to count.”  An attempt at listing them stalled at 12 and included some of the biggest names of the modern era like the Winecup, Gamble and PX.  

Since August, Norbert and his nine year old son have called the JD Ranch home.  Norbert’s son, who goes by Hoss, travels an hour south to Eureka, Nevada for school each day.  Hoss catches a ride with neighbors, as there aren’t enough children in the valley to warrant sending a bus.

Like many rural Nevada teens, Justin Sorensen homeschooled.  Completing his coursework early allowed the shy seventeen year old to strike out on his own despite his youth.  After getting wind of the opening from his uncle, who also works there, Justin left his family’s ranch in Ruby Valley to join the YP crew last March.

The lanky, blond cowboy comes from a community nearly remote as the YP, so transitioning to the lifestyle wasn’t much of a stretch.  Justin works on college correspondence classes from a sparse but private room in the bunkhouse and trains his horses, four of which accompanied him in the move.  The eldest of eight children, he doesn’t yet know what his future will hold, but notes that his younger brother Kaysen, just 15, eagerly awaits the day when he too can sign on.  

Passing through Nevada, the uninitiated only see how barren it seems.  But ask anyone who’s spent time atop a horse in the high desert and they’ll tell you it’s not ugly, it’s the sagebrush sea. 

 

BRANDON JOSEPH BAKER is a photographer, art director and producer whose clients include the Sundance Institute and The North Face. For more from Brandon, visit brandonjosephbaker.com

Gina Teichert is a San Francisco based writer and visual artist. Through travel guides and intimate profiles, she gives readers a peek into the world of her youth in the wilds of the Great Basin. For more from Gina, visit ginateichert.com