Carson Vaughan is a writer from Nebraska. His first book, about a small-town zoo in Northeast Nebraska, will be published in 2019.
No doubt there is something romantic, even literary, about rodeo: the grit, the sacrifice, the tinge of nostalgia, the dust lingering beneath the floodlights after the final ride. And yet, unlike baseball or boxing, rodeo is rarely given serious literary treatment. If you Google “books about rodeo” you’ll find no passion project of a great American novelist but instead a smorgasbord of trashy romance novels, each one adorned with a square-jawed cowboy unencumbered by his pearl snaps, the sunset bouncing off his waxy chest.
This makes “The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West” seem entirely overdue. The book, an intimate if sometimes insular portrait of one family’s rodeo dynasty, profiles the Wrights of southern Utah, who have ranched on Smith Mesa near Zion National Park for 150 years, “long before there were any roads to get there,” writes author John Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. But in the 21st century, as climate change triggers periods of drought, land values continue to skyrocket, and the attraction of Zion expands along with its hotels, restaurants and bike shops, the family operation finds itself “squatted at the intersection of the old and new Wests.”
While Bill Wright, the patriarch of this large Mormon family, struggles to manage the ranch, his sons and grandsons continue to dominate the pro rodeo circuit, their names familiar to anyone with a knowledge of the sport. Cody, the oldest of Bill’s seven sons and one of the oldest riders in the field in his late 30s, is a two-time world champion saddle bronc rider. He has qualified 13 times for the National Finals Rodeo and earned millions of dollars in prizes and sponsorships. In 2016, his stiffest competition at the National Finals came from two of his own sons, Rusty and Ryder. In earlier years, the ranch financed the family’s rodeo hobby. Now rodeo earnings might just save the ranch. Much like journalist Ted Genoways’s recent portrait of a Nebraska farm family in “This Blessed Earth,” the narrative of “The Last Cowboys” turns on a question of succession. Can Smith Mesa survive another generation in the Wrights’ name? And if so, how? The land is perfect for a postcard, but as Bill explains, “Beauty don’t pay the bills.”
Branch spent three years shadowing the Wrights at rodeos, brandings and family gatherings, and he chronicles the dizzying ups and downs of the family business during this period of transition. He maintains a reporter’s objectivity that allows him to avoid caricaturing and sentimentalizing a lifestyle so often portrayed as if stuck in the cattle-drive era or worse, a bad spaghetti western. Branch’s legwork is astonishing, and he delivers a visceral sense of both the danger of the sport and the grueling schedule of full-time saddle bronc riders, who regularly travel hundreds of miles or more to spend eight seconds in the saddle.
“Bronc riding might be done in eight-second bursts, but rodeo was a cruel and lonely slog,” he writes. “The next ride might be a winner. Or it might be the last. Either way, it was always a long way back home.”
The author seems at times reluctant to fully elaborate the issues underlying the area’s transformation, perhaps because he wishes to shield the family from criticism, or to escape reprisal from a West often defensive of tradition and suspicious of the outsider, or perhaps simply to avoid distracting from his narrative. Though drought plays a role in the evolution of ranching, the author delves into climate change only peripherally; the boldest statement on the topic comes from Bill himself, who says, “I heard that was all a bunch of bulls---,” while he simultaneously admits to a trend of drier springs.
Similarly, though broken bones from bronc riding litter nearly every chapter of the book, Branch shies from directly discussing the safety of the sport. And though wives and girlfriends float in and out of this necessarily male-driven narrative, it might be good to hear from the women who hold their families together while the men spend most of the year away from home, saddling up despite the obvious risks.
The narrative is so packed with rodeos, rides and injuries that one misses moments of wider reflection on the quest driving the men.
But the pros far outweigh the cons in this timely, clear-eyed examination of rodeo and the shifting culture that has long sustained it. If “The Last Cowbodys” doesn’t provide all the answers, it does give us one hell of a ride. As Branch writes of Cody: “None of these injuries mattered to him, really, because they were just excuses, and rodeo was where excuses went to die. The only way to make a dime was to get on the horse. Anything less than eight seconds didn’t really matter, and might as well never have happened at all.”
By John Branch
Norton. 277 pp. $26.95