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The last cowboys

GAYS MILLS - I just read an interesting new book, ‘The Last Cowboys - a Pioneer Family in the New West.’ It was about the Wrights, a ranching family in southern Utah. The book was written by prizewinning sportswriter John Branch, who is a master of narrative nonfiction. I heard Branch interviewed on National Public Radio and checked the book out of the library, as soon as it was available. 

The book provides a look at agriculture as practiced in a unique part of the country. Branch spent a lot of time with the Wright family and he does a good job of telling their story. Their backstory is about the deep roots of a family that has run beef cattle for 150 years in the part of the west they call home. Most of the book deals with the problems they face now, hanging onto a traditional way of life in a changing west. 

The usual concerns of drought, livestock health, low prices, and severe weather, are ongoing in cattle ranching. Dealing with government agencies, environmental interests, and encroaching urban developments are some of the current complications the Wrights face in trying to survive as a family ranch. The Wrights do much of their ranching on horseback. They like the traditional, old school ways. The land their cattle roam is rugged and the grazing is sparse. Most of the far-flung range land they use involves grazing lease permits from the government.  

The Wright family has 13 adult children; Mrs. Wright teaches school, and all of the kids have looked, by necessity, for ways to earn a living off the ranch. They still feel a strong attachment to the ranch and pitch in to help with seasonal jobs. Five of the six Wright sons have found a traditional and ranch-related way to making a living: they compete in professional rodeos. Much of the book describes the rodeo life.

On the advice from their father, the sons gravitated to the saddle bronc event. This is the rodeo contest that is most like an actual cowboy skill. Events like bull riding, bareback riding and bulldogging are unlike any real-life situations actual cowboys ever face. The Wright brothers, and now their sons, have developed into a virtual dynasty of saddle bronc riding. They each put on thousands of miles a year, often traveling together, to compete in as many rodeos as possible. Much of their winnings goes back into the ranching operation by buying more cattle and lease permits.

As of August 12, there are four Wrights (and one Wright brother-in-law) in the top 16 standings of pro rodeo saddle bronc riding for the year. The top 15 cowboys in each rodeo event compete in the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December where the payoffs are huge. It is not unusual for several of the Wright riders to be in competition at the finals.

If you like the west, cowboys, rodeos, cattle ranching, or a story about a unique family, you might like this book. Check it out.