We call it flyover country, the vast, seemingly empty swathe of land most of us only see from 30,000 feet while travelling coast to coast. But as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Branch writes in his new book, The Last Cowboys, “Down there, in the nooks and crannies, there are people working extremely hard to make a go of it.”
Meet the Wright family: seventh-generation cattle ranchers and bronc riders in Smith Mesa, southern Utah. Battling unforgiving land, the encroachment of tourism in Zion National Park, drought, and bucking broncs, this tight-knit extended family is determined to continue a vanishing way of life.
When National Geographic caught up with the author at his home in San Francisco, he explained how he spent nearly five years with the Wrights as a fly on the wall, how bronc riding is a vital source of income, and how climate change is affecting the family’s cattle-ranching operation.
At the heart of your book is the Wright family of Smith Mesa, in southern Utah. Introduce us to them and talk us through some of the challenges they face to preserve their way of life.
Their origins in Utah go back about 150 years to the Mormon migration. Relatives of the Wrights going back seven generations ended up in the heart of Red Rock Country. With wild scrub oak and big, red sandstone formations, it looks like something from a John Wayne western. They’ve been running cattle for 150 years, out there on their own. But they are now at the edge of Zion National Park, which gets 4 million visitors a year, near a town that is growing gangbusters because of its proximity to the park and recreational opportunities in that area. So they are slowly getting surrounded by a lot of people, who bring all the pressures we see across the American West. Not just urbanization. They’ve run out of room to run, so they are in a dilemma, trying to figure out how to build a cattle operation for the family and future generations while they are surrounded by growth.
One of the things that fascinates me is the pivotal role of rodeos in the family’s life. Tell us about Cody and how staying on a bucking bronc for eight seconds is about much more than sport for the Wrights.
It is amazing! The Wright brothers, led by Cody, are among the best saddle bronc riders going these days. Five brothers are professional rodeo cowboys and now three of Cody’s sons have become professional rodeo cowboys, too. A brother-in-law is a saddle bronc rider, as well. They were recently at a rodeo where nine of the contestants were Wrights. [laughs]
The key is Cody, the oldest brother, who became one of the best in the world. Part of it is just fearlessness. I’ve been around these animals and they are big and mean and do whatever they can to throw you off. So rodeo requires not only talent and fearlessness, but also the willingness to go through the grind of hundreds of rodeos. They’re putting 100,000 miles on their trucks to go to these rodeos and there’s no guarantee that they’re going to get any money out of them. I’ve seen them drive hundreds of miles to a rodeo, hoping to stay on for eight seconds, and walk away with zero dollars.
Some of them may win a $1,000 prize or even $10,000 or $20,000. Cody won a $100,000 grand prize a few years ago in Calgary. They’re chasing to become one of the top 15 earners for the season. If you’re in the top 15, you get invited to what they call the National Finals Rodeo, which is like their world championship. It’s over 10 nights in Las Vegas and you can make $200,000 or $300,000 if you’re hot. But unless you’re really good, and can get some consistency in your paychecks, you’re chasing rodeos and not making anything.
I’ve covered a lot of professional athletes in this country, from professional football to hockey, and I’ve never seen athletes who are tougher than rodeo cowboys. Part of that is the culture. You expect to get hurt but then move on to the next rodeo. Cody has metal rods in both his legs. But if they get hurt, they will make zero dollars, so it’s in their best interests to just suck it up.
You write, “Evelyn was the glue that held everyone together, which was true in most ranching and rodeo families.” Tell us about this formidable matriarch and the role of women in the West.
Evelyn is barely 60 years old, has 13 children, 37 grandchildren and now at least seven great-grandchildren. But she looks about 50. She is whip-funny and really smart, dark-haired, average height. She could walk into any mall in America and fit right in. She is also an elementary school teacher in the little town where they live. She and her husband, Bill, were raising 13 children when Bill became an alcoholic and she left him, with eight or nine children in tow, and went back to school to get her teaching degree. She said, “I’m gonna do this on my own.” He came crawling back about a year later and they ended up with 13 children and all those grandchildren.
As the wife of a rancher, like her daughters-in-law and most wives of rodeo cowboys and ranchers, she is the one at home, raising the children. Most of them also have jobs. But they are the ones keeping their families going while their husbands, the rodeo cowboys, are on the road for 200-250 nights a year chasing rodeo checks.
One of the biggest challenges they face is drought. But Bill, the family patriarch, is a climate change denier. Explain that contradiction and why drought is so damaging for livestock.
I’m not sure Bill’s a denier, but he’s very much a pragmatic man who only worries about things as they affect him. It doesn’t matter to him if climate change is a real thing. All he knows is that his ponds have become increasingly dry every year over the last decade or so. Whether that’s climate change or a run of bad luck doesn’t matter to him.
But things like drought and climate change affect his herd in strange ways. Where they live there isn’t a lot of grass because it’s high desert and the cows are very spread out. Yet when there’s no rain, there’s even less feed than usual. The ponds that retain water from the snowmelt in the mountains dry up and the herd’s gestation cycles get thrown off. In a typical year, Bill would put his cows in with a few bulls and nine months and 10 days later, the gestation period for a cow, 90 percent of them would give birth to calves. But with the drought and lack of feed, their cycles are out of whack. That 90 percent figure is dropping, which makes it hard to make money in the cattle business. We think about climate change and drought and lack of water in big-picture ways, but to Bill it’s a micro relationship.
Like many ranchers in the West, the Wrights lease their land from the Bureau of Land Management. It’s not always an easy relationship, is it?
Most of the land ranchers run cattle on in the West is federal land. For most of them, who can’t afford their own land, it’s cheaper than going out and buying tens of thousands of acres. But it’s a love-hate relationship. They believe the prices are fair but they don’t know what the government will do down the road, like decide the land you’re renting can’t support the number of cows you have on it anymore, and tell you that you have to cut the number of cows in half. Or instead of using the land for cattle, rent it to mining companies. Where the Wrights are is a great area for hiking, camping, or mountain biking. So, as much as Bill appreciates the ability to rent tens of thousands of acres from the government, he worries about what will happen 10 or 20 years from now.
Many ranchers are feeling squeezed by the federal government. We’ve seen that in the case of Cliven Bundy, who has been fighting the government for more than 20 years over what is called the desert tortoise, which was declared an endangered species. The federal government said, “You can no longer run cattle on this part of that land because we need to protect the desert tortoise.” Over two decades Bundy kept resisting and racked up a lot of fines from the government. They came to him and said, “You owe us $1 million in back fines and we are going to take your cattle off this land physically.” There was then an armed standoff, with militia people from all around the country coming to protect Bundy’s land, which is about an hour from where Bill Wright is.
Bill Wright feels the greatest threat to his way of life is people. Explain the uneasy relationship with nearby Zion National Park.
Zion is now one of the most popular parks in the country and is growing by leaps and bounds in popularity. The land that Bill owns abuts the border of Zion National Park and Bill also worries that Zion will come along and decide to expand its boundary onto the federal property he uses for his cattle, squeezing him even farther. He also gets calls from developers who would like to buy his land and build housing units or hotels because it’s so beautiful and right outside the national park boundaries.
He’s in a dilemma between his head and his heart. Do I cash in and move my entire operation somewhere else, but give up 150 years of my family history? There’s also a lot of pressure from conservation groups, who come to him and say, “We have a trust and we can pay you a certain amount of money to sign a contract saying you will never sell it to developers and we will let you stay on that land.” He is constantly trying to figure out what to do. That’s the main tension of the book: What will Bill do with his family’s land as the world closes in around him?
You spent five years with the Wright family, on and off. Tell us how they reacted to a journalist from “back East” being a fly on the wall, and what you learned from that experience.
When I first approached them it was for a New York Times story. I said I’d like to do a story on your family and spend some time with you, and they were open-minded about it. Almost five years later, I kept showing up and they seemed to appreciate somebody showing interest, though I think they were also confused why I found them interesting. But they are so kind that they never had the gumption to tell me to go away. [laughs]
I’m still touched by their closeness and how they stick up for each other. They are an example of “family first,” which we don't see very often anymore. I also find the family extraordinary because they live day by day. They are as pragmatic a group of people as I’ve ever met. No problems ever seem to faze them, whether it is drought, a family issue, or the rodeo circuit. They might get bucked off six times, but you go for the seventh because better luck might come your way. They are resilient people who have been doing this for 150 years, and will keep going for at least another few generations. “Life could turn in a moment. You just hold on and try to find the rhythm of it,” is as close to a family mantra as they have.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.