Writer in the Sky

Journalist David McCumber headed up to Montana to become a ranch hand--from scratch--with a book deal already in hand. But the resulting experience left him with far more than material for a manuscript. McCumber's memoir, The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch, the story of how, at the age of 43, he went to work as a rookie hand at the Birch Creek Ranch, recounts far more than one man's experience. It also delves into the soul of a dying American lifestyle.

"I always thought I wanted to run my own paper, but I found out--well, how does it go in the Joni Mitchell song? 'Dreams lose a little grandeur coming through'?" Disenchanted with the bureaucratic, corporate end of his profession, McCumber decided his career, which had taken a turn into the upper editorial echelons of various newspapers in the West, including a stint as managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner, needed to change direction.

"That was the beginning of a thorough rototilling of my life," McCumber continues. "I found I wanted to work on whatever aptitude I had for writing, to hone and develop that--and at the same time, I wanted to be in nature, closer to the places and powers that move me. Going to work on the ranch--making a living with my hands, back and brain for the first time since I was a kid--was the final step in my metamorphosis," he says. Firmly believing in the experiential journalism pioneered by Hunter Thompson, McCumber headed to Birch Creek, where he applied for a job with encouraging words: "I don't know shit." He was hired anyway.

Though outdoorsy by nature, he was in all respects a greenhorn at the art of cowpunching. But he learned quickly. "I found that working on a piece of land as opposed to recreating on the land is profoundly different--it's deeper, richer," he says. But it wasn't all dreamily invigorating, either. McCumber found the responsibilities of ranch life back-breaking but edifying, too, in terms of satisfying underlying motives: "I wanted to parse the overall mystique, to figure out what was congruent to the Hollywood Western ethos and what part wasn't. There's an enormous amount of physically arduous and mentally numbing work--a lot of drudgery, a lot of mud and blood and pain. But at the same time, there's a fabulous romance to the dignity of the work."

The answers weren't always what McCumber, who considers himself an ardent environmentalist, expected. "I went into it with a more jaundiced eye than I came out with. That's a new experience for a cynical, twenty-years-in-the-business journalist," he maintains. "I was surprised at what a careful and assiduous steward of land this rancher I worked for was. The place essentially looks like it did 100 years ago." The self-sustaining aspects of ranching--growing grass to feed animals to make food for people--made a lot of sense, even to a hardened pursuer of social issues.

As for the cowboy mystique, it's still everything--and nothing--like it's supposed to be. "It is much different from the way it's portrayed, and it's becoming more and more different all the time," McCumber says. "After all, cowboys have been lamenting the end of riding jobs on the land since the 1880s." He considers himself lucky, though, to have experienced the outright rapture of riding the range. "Where I was, they still did some things the old-fashioned way," he says. "There were still a few good riding days in the year--especially in the fall, gathering cattle--that were absolutely beyond exhilarating."

McCumber comes away from the experience with profound respect for those who continue to live it day in and day out. "The very best hands are people who have such a deep and abiding love of what they do that it makes up for the hardship and low pay," he attests. "To be a good hand demands such a wide range of skills. The men and women who do it could make a lot more money doing something else, but they do it because they choose to--therein lies the romance."

That chapter of life behind him, McCumber thinks he'll keep Montana, though he resides there as a writer, not a rancher. "I like to eat," he explains. He recently returned from a seven-month, 20,000-mile road trip in a 1959 Edsel around the outer edge of the lower 48 states and has settled back in the Big Sky Country to ruminate over another book based on the experience, something he found just as difficult and transcendent as ranch work. And of course it will be, he hopes, more than a memoir. "I want to take the temperature of America, to see how people are doing," he says. "I saw a lot of tragically ruined places, but I also saw some fabulously intact places. Right now I'm letting the material ferment or fester or rot in back of my mind while I write a novel." That book, a period thriller inspired by his own grandfather, a Montanan and pioneer aviator in the early part of the century, is currently in the works.

But that doesn't mean a man can't dream. "I think about the fences I fixed and the hay I grew and some of the calves I pulled and how they're now having calves themselves," McCumber says. "I will always feel a certain level of kinship with those making a living that way and will also always keep that in my life in some form.

"If I were wealthy enough to own my own ranch, I don't know if I would," he says. "But I do think I'd be happy doing that."

--Froyd

David McCumber signs The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch. March 25: noon, Denver Press Club, 1330 Glenarm Place, $10, seating limited, 303-571-5260; 7:30 p.m., Tattered Cover Book Store, 2955 East 1st Avenue, 303-322-7727.

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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