Friday, October 15, 2010

David McCumber, The Cowboy Way

This is not exactly a cowboy memoir. The author is a newspaperman, not a cowboy, who spends a year on a large ranch in western Montana. All the same, his account of that year is the best book I've read on modern-day cattle ranching. McCumber is a complete novice and has to learn nearly everything there is to learn about it on the job. And the reader learns right along with him.

McCumber's employer, Bill Galt, is a hard-driving man, leaving no room for error and no time to rest. The men on his ranch routinely put in 12-hour days, working seven days a week. They work in all kinds of weather, including long winter months of snow, wind, and bitter cold.

The author's account of the year includes calving, branding, irrigation, fencing, haying, fire-fighting, trips to sale barns, moving cattle, and maintaining equipment of all kinds. Largely mechanized, working cattle in traditional ways ahorseback is a rarity.

Never mind the lone horseman on the cover. The most vivid images that have stayed with me since reading it are the racks of manure-filled straw to be carted out from the calving barn, the burning of trash in the ranch's dump, the disposal of dead animals, and the men's living quarters - prefab cabins with the bruising winter wind whistling in the dark outside.

Besides Galt, several of the men come to life on the page with particular vividness, especially Keith the foreman. A young cowboy, Jerry, who tries everyone's patience, is also memorable. This book is for anyone who has ever thought of leaving a tiresome job and working on a ranch.

What it shows is that cowboying is hard, back-breaking, dangerous, exhausting, unending work, requiring countless skills. And you understand the measure of pride that men who choose this kind of work take in what they do.


  1. I bet they do, too! If the cover is anything to go by, then the book must be good!

  2. I told my niece she should write a story of everyday life on the range. If she did, it would read similar to this. Her daughters know more about ranching than a person has a right to know. This book sounds like a good read with lots of information.

  3. By coincidence, David was in town this past week trout fishing and I had dinner with him. After writing that grand study of modern ranching-- cowboys these days are mechanics driving around in gimme caps on ATVs--he went on to become the managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it caved a couple of years ago. He's in Connecticut now, the publisher of four Gannett papers. His house here, near mine, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is now occupied by Margot Kidder. We played many a Scrabble game there.

  4. Having done a bit of cattle work myself, I can certainly agree about the hard nature of it. And I didn't half the things such people did on the frontier.

  5. Thanks, everybody, for the great comments.

    Cheyenne, like I say in the review, you can't really judge this book by its cover.

    Oscar, there's so much to learn about cattle and horses. Every one is different, and so many different things can happen with them. Growing up around them, you become an encyclopedia of animal husbandry.

    Richard, I knew McCumber had been at a former newspaper in Seattle and am glad to know he's found another place with Gannett. The book makes him out to be a real corker of a writer - in a league with Ted Conover, who traveled with hoboes and migrant workers and worked as a prison guard to write books about them.

    Charles, a cowboy's work on the frontier was mostly limited to what could be done from a horse. Today, very little of the work is done horseback.

  6. I've seen this book around for years and now I have a reason to pick it up and read it, thanks to your great post. Thanks, Ron.