The Secret Life of Cowboys

by Tom Groneberg

Published by Scribner

272 pages, 2003



Under the Stetson

Reviewed by David Abrams


When I was growing up in Wyoming, I was surrounded by cowboys. My high school classmates were evenly divided into three cliques: the hippies, the smart rich kids and the cowboys. There was also, I suppose, a fourth social order: the outcast weirdo loners. That was my group.

From my position -- flattened against the lockers between classes, books hugged to my chest, eyes downcast -- I'd watch the sneakers and the boots passing by. The sneaker-set always seemed to walk on the balls of their feet, as if tip-toeing through life; the boots, scuffed and manure-stained, swaggered down the halls. If I'd raise my eyes past the fancy leather belts with "Clay" or "Pete" or "Wanda" tooled across the back, past the back-pocket can of snuff which left a tell-tale faded ring, past the Wrangler shirts with their pearl snaps, all the way to the faces, I'd be met with impenetrability. The mouths, the eyes, even the nostrils were hard, tight, closed-off.

Those sons and daughters of Wyoming ranchers, with their bony elbows and snuff-packed lower lips, were a mystery to me. I could discern nothing behind their eyes except rodeo bravado and grossly exaggerated tales of Saturday night drinking in the cabs of pickups.

Reading Tom Groneberg's memoir, The Secret Life of Cowboys, I begin to suspect that there was actually very little separating me from those hard Wyoming kids -- apart from bronc busting, a few broken bones and an addiction to Copenhagen, that is. Cowboys are just regular people, Groneberg writes. A bit battered by weather and the occasional broken heart, but good folks all the same.

They are neither gods nor ghosts. They raise dust. They cast shadows. These men bleed and they smile with teeth rotten from chewing tobacco. The dust settles on their clothes, in the folds of their skin, in their lungs. Their hearts are as big as dump trucks, full of the land and the life they love. They are beautiful.

The Secret Life of Cowboys is a first-rate account of men and women whose lives revolve around hard land and stubborn animals. Through his portraits of ranchers, wranglers and rodeo champs, Groneberg goes beneath the stereotype of saddles, saloons and sagebrush.

Good-bye, John Wayne. So long, Gary Cooper. It's time for you to ride into the sunset of mythology. This a book that tells it like it is, showing both the joys and the dark agonies of life in the modern American West. What Frank McCourt did for Irish poverty, Groneberg does for Montana ranching.

Truth be told, this book is not so much about the hidden secrets of cowboys as it is about Tom Groneberg, disillusioned kid from Chicago who goes west in search of purpose. "I chased a dream and it kicked me in the teeth," he writes. "Yet I find myself falling for it again and again." It's a cliché from the Me Generation, but Groneberg does "find himself" in the hard work, the unforgiving land, and the company of horses.

After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in English, he suddenly found himself adrift in a sea of indecision.

I was sick of myself and couldn't imagine that I had much to offer anyone. I had to do something big and dramatic and drastic to break the force field of the couch and the glow of the television set and the way the top of a beer can had begun to look like a face to me.

And so, he answers an ad in the back of Utne Reader: "Hard work with horses in a beautiful setting. Write for more info."

Soon, Groneberg is playing out a childhood fantasy of living the cowboy life. He gets the job at a Colorado dude ranch, leading tourists -- often arrogant, ignorant city slickers -- on scenic trail rides. Though he admits he doesn't know hay from straw or gelding from mare, he's a quick study and soon falls in love with the cowboy way -- especially the animals they ride: "I inhale horses. They fuel my heart and my head and my whole self."

We watch as this Chicago college boy tries to fit in with the other men, the ones with hard faces and snuff-can rings on their back pockets. We watch as he learns how to saddle a horse without spooking the whole corral into a stampede. We watch as he and the other trail guides endure their clients, the loud, spoiled dudes:

One woman wears jeans tucked into some high-dollar suede boots. It starts drizzling while we are riding, and by the time we return to the stables there are mud puddles everywhere. Kirk walks up to the woman and says, "My name is Kirk J. Moody and I am here to assist you in the dismounting process."

She says, "My boots will get ruined if I have to walk through the mud."

Kirk replies, "It's not all mud. There's some manure down here, too."

Before long, Groneberg grows sick of the manure of dude ranching and heads north to Montana where he finds work on a 29,000-acre ranch, herding a thousand head of cattle for $210 a week. Along the way, he marries his college sweetheart and the two start drifting around the state -- first to a small cabin without electricity or plumbing but plenty of isolation, then to a ranch near Miles City where Groneberg becomes part owner and full-time manager of the operation.

Each chapter recounts a different phase of his experience: at 30, he enrolls in a three-day bronc riding school so he can compete at least once in the famous Miles City rodeo; he rides out with a group branding cattle but stands by helpless, unsure of his place among the men; he fights to keep his ranch from going under due to fire, blizzards and starvation; he observes the ranching rituals with a poet's eye:

Calvin has a yearling in the head catch and is working a saw across its horns. The blood arcs through the sunlight, making a pattern on Calvin's shirt. So much spilled blood. So many stories about what a place like this can do to someone. The lost limbs and broken hearts, the many ways that ranch life can cripple you, then kill you. A cow, turning herself inside out by giving life. The baby calves that run in gangs, all heart and legs, just days old, destined for the feedlot and then the dinner plate. A bull with a horribly fractured leg manages somehow to drag itself from some distant pasture to the front door of the house and bellows for mercy, screaming to be put out of its misery. The ranch is life and death balancing in this grass and sky.

At every step of the way, Groneberg tells his adventures and misadventures with the kind of frank honesty you'd usually only find in a psychiatrist's office (where, in fact, Groneberg has had a few sessions and winds up popping Paxil to cope with a particularly tough winter). The cowboy admits he's overambitious, prideful, stubborn, insecure and dozens of other conflicting emotions that make up our human chemistry. At times, Groneberg errs on the side of self-analysis, but those passages never drag the book down, thanks to his graceful way with language. He ropes words with the ease of a professional bulldogger and brings us his story of Western wanderlust with equal parts humor and heartbreak.

This is a book for anyone who's ever wondered what makes men tick behind their façade of Stetson hats and hard, unyielding faces. Groneberg knows all the secrets because he's been there and returned to tell his tale without, as one character would say, "a load of boo-shit." | August 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.