ELK MOUNTAIN, Wyo.
An easterner, settled in the sunroom of the ranch house, had a question for Rod Johnson, a man of answers on anything western: Why is a bum steer called a bum steer? A pair of them were lazing uncorraled in the scrub growth in front of the kitchen. "Because they bum," replied Johnson with stenographic directness.
Sensing that easterners, especially the Washington breed, prefer long answers that get longer, with perhaps a commission report or two thrown in, Johnson went on. After calving, he said, nature sometimes gets unwired and the cow rejects the newborn. The baby is then forced to bum its way through the herd for spare teats.
Agrarian linguistics -- called cowboy lingo out here -- is one of a dozen skills Rod Johnson has mastered in arrowing his way to the goal of independence and integrity. Johnson, 46, is a rancher with 7,000 acres near the upslope of the 11,000-foot Elk Mountain in south-central Wyoming. On his scenic pelt of land, a fair amount of which his father homesteaded in 1933, the last year that was possible, Johnson is grazing 430 cows, 405 yearling steer, 203 heifers, 27 bulls and more than 400 calves.
He is precise about the numbers because everyday, in boots and chaps, he rides among the animals. C.S. Lewis wrote that you can't know whether you love animals until they are your livelihood and you can still be gentle with them. Johnson's gentleness is well-known among the ranchers in Elk Mountain. The winter before last, which was severe, he repeatedly braved nighttime blizzards to rescue some 50 calves. He has put the near-frozen ones by the fire in his house and stirred their circulation in a warm tub.
Johnson has other tender mercies. He often does not inflict ear tags on his animals, the common practice by which ranchers know which calf belongs to which cow. He can identify each animal by sight, because he was on hand at its birth or soon after. This style of cattle ranching -- personal, caring and attentive -- is less and less visible in the West. The small operations -- 7,000 acres is a backyard in the expanse of Wyoming -- are in competition with spreads of up to 200,000 acres that are owned by what is locally called "Texas money" or "Arabian money."
Cattle ranching has become an industry, not a calling as it was for generations and still is for Rod Johnson. Ranch managers, with nothing of the cowboy in their blood, are now hired for the daily toilings. Head work is delegated to accountants and tax lawyers. Many operations truck the animals into Wyoming only for summer grazing. When the weather turns, they are shipped south or east. Agriculture has migrant workers, and now migrant animals.
Johnson stands in contrast to all that. With the cloud line low on Elk Mountain and a Sunday afternoon to relax in the ranch house, he spoke of his work as though it were a sacred trust. His father and father's father ranched in the valley before him. Of the hard times currently hitting cattlemen and farmers, Johnson believes that genuine help would be for interest rates to drop. He is paying 12 1/2 percent on a loan from a Rawlins bank. In February, he closed out one at 15 percent. He borrows for livestock, not land or machines. The loan runs for a year and he plans to pay it off with the returns on the sale of 400 head.
Johnson is his own accountant. He explains that if he gets 68 cents a pound for his steer, he can make $30,000 this year. If it is 65 cents a pound, it will be $15,000. A tone of independence runs through this money talk, like an underground mountain stream nourishing the earth. Johnson is making it on his own and his respect is for other practitioners of self-reliance.
"I don't think government should step in," he says in reference to ranchers who overspent or misspent and are now hurting. "Ninety-nine percent of the problems are caused by mismanagement. Too much money has been going to needless equipment. Let them go under. There are ranchers and farmers who are making it. They work hard and take few wild risks."
Johnson's kind of conservatism -- respectable, apolitical conservatism -- flares with justifiable pride. It has a foundation of self-responsibility, with none of it prinked by government subsides. An estimated 80 percent of Wyoming's ranchers graze their cattle on federal land. The practice is cheap and unworrisome. The Johnson cattle graze on the Johnson land. He and they will make it together, or not at all.
As the afternoon wears on, Johnson's amiability expands. After the success of explaining the meaning of bum steer, he jokingly tells of his many limousines on the ranch: They are a breed of cattle, imported from the Limousin region of France.
An easterner sorting all this out -- a limousine conservative who likes bum steers -- will need time. What comes fast is that, like the sheer beauty of Wyoming, Johnson is real.