Note: This story was published May 29, 2011.
OWYHEE COUNTY - On a recent Monday, Andrea Scott hit a tree limb with her face and fell from a tall horse while chasing a fast calf. When one of those who witnessed the fall remarked that she was lucky not to have hit her head on a rock, her response was classic buckaroo.
“Yeah - poor rock!”
Falling from a horse, a mishap justifying an emergency-room visit for the average city slicker, doesn’t rate a blip on the buckaroo scale. And Scott doesn’t even consider herself a buckaroo.
A photographer and writer who lives in Greenleaf, she’s the originator of The Idaho Buckaroo Project. Its goal: to document the lifestyle with a book, exhibits and presentations.
She started work on it a year ago, after one of her photos of a buckaroo appeared in a magazine.
“People were enthralled by it, “ she said. “That made me realize that the way I can help these buckaroos is to tell their story. Their way of life just strikes such an emotional chord in me. I want to help people understand what these men and women do.”
The audience she hopes to reach would be hard-pressed to define a buckaroo. The word is an Anglicization of “vaquero, “ Spanish for cowboy. Buckaroos are skilled equestrians hired to move cows for ranchers, mainly in northern California, Idaho, Oregon and parts of Washington. They’re known for their distinctive dress - cowboy boots and hats (often flat-topped), spurs, chaps and brightly colored scarves - “wild rags” in buckaroo-speak. Many practice arts related to their work, such as rawhide braiding, saddle making and silverwork.
The definition varies, however, with the individual.
To Scott, “It’s what’s in your heart.”
Owyhee County rancher Paul Nettleton adds that “cowboys dance in bars and ride in rodeos. Buckaroos herd cows day in and day out. They’re the real thing. You won’t find many of them over there in Bois Angeles.”
Nettleton was expounding from atop his horse, Ranger, as he, Scott, buckaroos Gordon Thompson and Paul Magart and their dogs moved his cows to new ground to prevent over-grazing. Their expertise belied the difficulty of herding contentious cows across a swift-running stream.
“You have to learn to think like a cow, “ he said.
Buckaroos work in all kinds of weather and let little short of dire emergencies get between them and moving a herd.
“If you broke a leg, they’d come back and find you, but they’re not going to stop the momentum, “ Scott said. “Gordon broke a leg once and set it with baling wire.”
Thompson, 67, has been a buckaroo all his life.
Why? Reasons high on any buckaroo’s list:
“I like being outside and being my own boss.”
Oreana buckaroo Tana Gilbert has been bitten by a rattlesnake and a bull snake and was riding the range two days after an appendicitis attack. To her, “a buckaroo moves the cows, and a cowboy is the one who cares for them. But it’s mostly what’s inside a person. I like cows, I like solitude, and I like a challenge.”
With the ranchers whose cows they move facing uncertain markets and environmental constraints, it can be a challenge just to make a living as a buckaroo.
“It’s hand-to-mouth a lot of the time, “ Gilbert said. “There are buckaroos who think $600 a month is a hell of a wage.”
Part of Scott’s reason for doing the project is to assist buckaroos, many of whom answered the call of the range at a young age and with shortened educational experience. She envisions teaching them financial and computer skills, and helping them with scholarships and other educational opportunities, such as apprenticeships through the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
“Their lifestyle is so much a part of the cultural fabric of Idaho, “ the commission’s Maria Carmen Gambliel said. “The lifestyle and the art pertain to everybody in the ranching community. They need to be passed on and continued.”
Scott couldn’t agree more.
“I can’t explain it, but I feel protective of them, “ she told a Statesman team. “You were out there and saw what they do. There aren’t many people who get that chance. There’s a pretty big disconnect between city people and that way of life. I want people to know more about it and appreciate it. I want to do what I can do to preserve that way of life.”