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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey reviews

THE COWBOY WAY

By David McCumber (Headline, £9.99)

When I was handed this book to review, they asked what I knew about cowboys."About as much as the next person," I replied, with a shrug I'd borrowed years ago from John Wayne.

It was the kind of response that could have been made by any of the millions of people around the world who have never been near a ranch or a branding iron.

But then they, like me, have experienced the popular myth of the American cowboy through books, comics, paintings, film, TV, video or tourism, including Frederic Remington's paintings, Louis L'Amour's novels, popular TV series like Rawhide, The High Chapparell and Bonanza, and countless Western movies from Howard Hawk's epic, Red River, to the more recent City Slickers, an Oscar-winning comedy that suggests modern society emasculates men and that there is nothing like an old-fashioned cattle drive for a fuller life.

If you want to retain the cosy illusion of the cowboy as a gun-toting, chain-smoking, horse-riding champion of open ranges, you will find little of it reinforced in David McCumber's excellent first book.But as he says, "I have always been a Westerner, which means I have always thought about being a cowboy.Thinking and doing are different."

McCumber is former assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner and founding editor and publisher of Big Sky Journal, who, at 44,decided to spend a year slaving as a cowboy on a huge cattle ranch in the high mountains of Montana.

It turned out to be a labour of love for this award-winning journalist who at the time was facing a mid-life crisis and gives the reasons for his sabbatical as: "…journalistic curiosity about a lifestyle glorified to the point of religion in our culture…It was the final step of letting go, signing on as a gray-headed greenhorn, proposing to make my living out-of-doors, with my body as well as my brain."

His detailed description of the Montana cowboy's unenviable daily grind is thoroughly engrossing.In fact this book would be the perfect manual for the ignorant Dude who fancies working on a ranch: there's everything here from rousting renegade steers to the right way to build and repair fences in a snow-drift halfway up a mountain, learning new mechanical skills in the ranch's machine shop and garage, assisting with veterinary operations, and fighting brush fires.

McCumber's Montana is a harsh world where cowboys from disparate backgrounds bond while working against extremes of weather.Sadly, the cowpoke's four-legged friend - the horse - has been largely replaced by the more cost-effective small all-terrain vehicle (one driven by petrol not grass), occasional sorties in the Boss's helicopter, and Shank's Pony.By the end of the book, I felt as worn out and exhilarated as the author, whose every moment and enthusiasm for hard work I felt I'd shared.

Everything you need to know (and perhaps would prefer not to) about the modern cowboy is here, finely observed by a sympathetic writer who is given to dropping in the occasional witticism, historical anecdotes, pen-portraits of his co-workers, and poems.

Like his gritty colleagues, McCumber resolutely overcomes spectacular obstacles that would phase a lesser human being, such as working 12 hours every day, sometimes in driving snow, 30 degrees below zero.

Then there's his love of Montana's physical splendour, his admiration for his workaholic anti-smoking (ironic, in Marlboro Country) Boss, Bill Galt, and distaste for the bigotry and love of hunting apparently imbedded in many of the otherwise decent people he works with.And a memorable description of an annual festival where three thousand Prairie Oysters (bull's testicles, freshly cut) are barbecued and eaten with salad and potatoes.

In the early part of the year it wasn't all such fun: "Some of those first bunkhousemornings I would wonder why I was spending my forty-fourth year busting truck tires or hosing out cattle trucks or shovelling cowshit in another man's barn. It was hard to see, through that grimy little window, just where that kind of work fit into the great legend of the West, where never is heard a discouraging word…"

Later McCumber learns why cowboys work twice the hours at half the pay that any unionised worker in any of their areas of expertise: "I began to understand, by example and the lack of it, the real cowboy ethos: Don't duck out on your share of work.Don't make someone else clean up your mistakes.Take care of the animals and your fellow hands."

Not least, McCumber confirms that the main job of the contemporary cowboy hasn't changed in a century or so: keep the cows fed and safe so that the rest of the world can eat them off a plate.

"…many Montanans see their homeland turning from a great place to live and work," he says, "into a virtual theme park full of designer-dressed Westerners who don't understand what it really takes to make a living on the land."

Who would blame them for there must be an easier way of making a living than the one vividly described in McCumber's book.After reading it I no longer dream about being a real cowboy but at last I now understand why some people still do.

But a cowboy without the comfort of a cigarette still seems a contradiction in terms.

Copyright James Leavey, 1999.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.

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