LittleField Notes: Tales from the Bozeman Trail Part 1
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
During the summer of 1991 I went to work for a Montana outfit called the Bozeman Trail Wagon Train. For a youth coming of age in the late 20th century it was high adventure. At such an impressionable age I learned a great deal about the nature of horses, of men, and of myself. It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, and those summers of my youth, especially the one spent on the Bozeman Trail, while not necessarily stranger than fiction, were certainly on par with any fiction I have read. At just shy of 20 years old, I went looking for adventure and romance, chasing after the myth of the Wild West. I suppose I found what I was looking for: dudes and drunks, romance and runaways, good horses and bad men, bad horses and good men, braggarts, fools and friends. What follows are some tales from my summer on the Bozeman Trail.
The westering sun reflected sharply in the mirror of my faded blue ‘79 Datsun pickup and I nearly missed the sight of the workhorses from the interstate overpass as I approached Reed Point. They were a motley lot, nibbling the grass in what appeared to be a large backyard between a run down white townhouse and interstate 90: six horses in a one horse town. I had arrived. The prospect of quitting the road, and the realization that this long-dreamed-of adventure was about to begin, quickly revived my road-weary mind as I exited and drove into town. There were just a couple of main streets and a smattering of houses. The one establishment in town, the Waterhole Saloon, was doing a lively business for a Tuesday evening, with a solid line of pickups and large American cars parked in front of the boardwalk.
I pulled around to the little white house nestled under some cottonwoods on a graveled side street. Other than the horses, the place definitely didn’t have the air of an old west wagon train outfit. It didn’t look like much of anything to me. I felt the slightest twinge of disappointment as I walked up the buckling sidewalk and rang the bell. When the door opened, I was greeted by the familiar face of Jim Colburn.
I had spent a summer two years prior working with him in Wyoming. He was exactly as I remembered: slightly hunched, head cocked, with a crooked smile that bordered on a sneer. He wore a blue denim work shirt and brown felt hat cocked to one side, just so. He might’ve been 60, but could easily have passed for 50, one never could tell. And of course there was the cigarette, that perpetual accessory to his person, now between his lips on one side of his mouth, bouncing up and down while he told a story out the other side; now between the fingers of his right hand, smoke dancing as he gesticulated, bringing home his point.
Jim Colburn fancied himself a citizen of the 19th century. He never quite acknowledged that the Indian wars were over and the west was settled. He was quite sure that somewhere out on the plains between Reed Point and Red Lodge there was a band of Indians plotting an attack on his circled wagons. He never missed a chance to rail against “them damn sodbusters,” by which I suppose he meant farmers. According to Jim, a man couldn’t buy a good hat these days, same as you couldn’t buy a good horse. Modern horses had gone all soft and lazy; hats were soft too, like the horses. “You just can’t buy a hat anymore that will fit you right,” he’d say. He never missed a chance to rib someone about going to Billings for nothing but “whorin’ around.” He would rattle on for hours in an old west reverie as if Red Cloud, the Comanches and Custer’s cavalry would, at any moment crest the hill just south of town at a full lope, guns blazing, arrows flying.
Jim was the first person that ever put a pair of lines in my hands. I was just 17 and still in high school. We both worked for Wagons West, in the mountains east of Jackson Hole, he as a teamster, me as a campfire entertainer. One sunny June day while traveling from one camp to the next, I rode along in his wagon. These were big rubber-tired covered wagons with hydraulic brakes and bench seats that made down into bunks for sleeping. We wound our way through the Absoroka mountains on a nicely graveled forest service road behind a big team of black Percheron mares named Bell and Sue. We had a payload of a dozen or so dudes, “guests,” we called them. They hailed from everywhere, sporting cheap cowboy hats and hobbling around awkwardly in ill fitting pointy-toed boots. We added a bit of adventure to their mostly mundane city lives. They paid cash money to feel the unmediated heat, or the frost of a mid-August mountain morning and always mosquitos, sometimes thick like snowflakes. When it rained or the wind blew, these city-slickers couldn’t just duck into the nearest corner cafe for a hot cup of coffee and a grilled cheese. The next camp may yet be a few miles off with nothing but animal power to get them there. Mostly they loved it. For a life filled with concrete and steel, traffic, meetings and deadlines, nothing felt more real to them than to suffer a sore bottom from a day in the saddle, a blister on the heel, or a jacket soaked through with rain. It was a small price for an opportunity to ride through some of the most beautiful country on earth. Out on the trail they got a taste, however small, of the struggle that has been the dominant tale of human experience through the ages: cold and heat, high mountains, deep valleys, hunger and thirst, the sheer physicality of moving through space and time without engines — the kind of basic human experience that modern first-world life has rendered nearly obsolete. When at last they rolled in weary and exhausted after a day under the elements, they would find their tent pitched and a cup of cowboy coffee and a steaming bowl of beef stew waiting to revive them.
Being the young greenhorn that I was, most days I was sent ahead in the pick-up or stock truck to help set up the next camp, but from time to time I was given the opportunity to either ride a horse or travel along in a wagon. Jim had taken a bit of a shine to me, and that day, riding along in his wagon, he looked back and gave me that wry look of his and motioned with his cigarette for me to come up front. I had no sooner than sat down next to him when he reached over and put the lines in my hands. “You got to drive ‘em straight,” he said. “You might think they’d just walk on down the road on their own, but if you let them pick their own route, you’ll leave a track like a snake.” I stole a glance behind and saw that the wagon wheels did indeed leave a distinct track in the dusty road. He showed me how to feed the lines through my hands maintaining just the right amount of tension between my hands and the horses mouths, how to ease the load on the horses by braking the wagon on the hills, watching the angle of the neck yolk as it changed relative to the tongue.
That began an informal apprenticeship of sorts in which I learned the ways of harness, horses, and wagons. The summer flew by. At the end of August I packed up my fiddle and bedroll and prepared to head back to school. Jim announced that he would work through the end of September but wouldn’t be returning for the next season. He didn’t offer a reason and I didn’t ask. He just shook my hand and tipped his hat; I was pretty sure I would never see him again.
I returned to Wagons West the next year and continued with my horse education. I helped every morning at the picket line to saddle and harness up to 60 head of horses and mules. I ate large from the delicious open-fire dutch oven cooking of Camila, Mormon mother of 14. I worked hard, met interesting people from all over the world, did a few dare devil things on horseback, and chased a few east coast girls. Evenings around the campfire, I honed my fiddle and guitar chops by sawing out the Arkansas Traveler and singing a whole lot of whoopie ti-yi-yo and jingle-janglejingle.
The second year there was a change of ownership that didn’t suit me, and when I left at the end of the season and headed back to Laramie for my sophomore year of college, I knew that I wouldn’t be returning to Wagons West. I was pretty certain my wagon train days were over. That is, until I found in my mailbox one day in early January, just after the beginning of spring semester, an envelope with an intriguing return address — “Bozeman Trail Wagon Train,” Reed Point, Montana. Curious, I hastily tore open the envelope and found inside a nice color brochure and a brief handwritten letter with an interesting covered wagon letterhead.
“Looking for teamsters to go out on the Bozeman Trail. Hoping you would be interested in coming to Montana next summer.”
It was signed Jim Colburn.
I never gave much thought to what Jim had done after he left Wagons West, but he had plainly gone off and started his own wagon train. I took a close look at the brochure. It was well done with beautiful color photographs of real old-time covered wagons, not the rubber tired characterless people movers that we used in Wyoming. He was clearly trying to emphasize the historical aspect of his trips. I was immediately taken with the idea, not only because it smelled of adventure, but also because he was asking me to be a real teamster, to take charge of, and be responsible for my own team and wagon. I could hardly contain my excitement. Books, papers and exams suddenly seemed nothing but a burden of boredom, something to be suffered through until I could head out on the trail that spring. I scratched out an affirmative reply on a piece of notebook paper and sent it off. I was going to be a teamster on the Bozeman Trail.
The Bozeman Trail was established in 1863 and ran from a junction with the Oregon Trail at Ft. Laramie in Wyoming to the gold rush country around Virginia City, Montana. Especially in the early years, the passage of settlers and miners along the trail was hampered by the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes, all loosely united under the leadership of Chief Red Cloud. These tribes had only recently defeated the Crow to win control over the Powder River Country through which the trail ran. The Crow had been granted these lands as part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. As a consequence they sided with the US Army in its fight against the tribes that had so recently defeated them. Red Cloud fought fiercely and in an unusual turn of events for the period, the United States in 1868, under the direction of President Ulysses S. Grant, ordered the forts along the trail be abandoned. Despite this fleeting victory, the story ends as they all do, with the conquering armies vanquishing the conquered. Red Cloud is gone and for the most part, so too are his people. Today the Powder River Country is one of the largest coal producing regions in the world and Interstate 90 follows portions of the trail through Montana.
The morning after my arrival in Reed Point, I followed the smell of bacon and coffee, stumbling bleary-eyed into the kitchen to find it already abuzz with activity. Jim leaned over a big dining room table in a cloud of cigarette smoke. It was a war room scene, with his generals Bill, John and Rocky leaning in, pointing, tracing out potential wagon routes on the map laid out before them. I had met the other fellows briefly the previous night before going off to bed.
Bill Collins was a short man with a grey mustache who always wore a black western cut vest. Though I never actually knew his age, I always felt he looked older than his years. He smoked like a coal-fired power plant, seemingly without discrimination. For insurance, he usually packed both a cheap cigar and a pipe sticking out of his vest pocket while he pulled deeply on a hand-rolled cigarette. He looked like Richard Farnsworth as the outlaw Bill Miner in the western film “The Grey Fox” just before he robbed the Canadian Pacific in 1904. Bill was no outlaw though. He was an amicable fellow, with a twinkle in his eye, quick to tell a story or a joke. Despite his general good cheer, I always sensed a dark cloud around him. And as fierce as was his commitment to tobacco, he had a stronger love of liquor.
Bill had come to work on the Bozeman Trail after a chance encounter in the post office with Jim, who had been on the road buying horses down in Colorado. While standing in line to buy stamps, Jim overheard Bill talking to another fellow about his 12 pony hitch. Jim jumped right in on the conversation, “Twelve ponies?! You must be one hell of a teamster. How’d you like to come work a summer in Montana?”
“I’d love to,” Bill said, “but there’s the wife to think of, and besides, I don’t think I could leave them ponies.”
It was just a couple of weeks later however, that Jim received a call from Bill saying his life had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. All of a sudden, Bill explained, he darn sure needed something to do, and was the teamster job in Montana still available? Seems he’d staggered home from the bar one afternoon to find that his wife had sold the ponies and left his packed suitcase sitting on the front porch. She was a woman among many, in company with a great line of long suffering wives of deadbeat men. Men whose lives had been taken by vice: by drink, by gambling, by the siren call of beautiful women with whom they had no business cavorting. Like so many wives before, the well of her patience had run dry. She had had enough: enough of the smoke, enough of the ponies, enough of the booze, and in the end, enough of the man himself. It didn’t matter anymore that he had been her husband for 40 years, or that he was the father of her children, or that in the deepest corners of her heart she still loved him, and always would. When she watched the last of a baker’s dozen of Shetland ponies jump into the 20 foot gooseneck trailer, she was no longer thinking of all that. She was making her own future now, and Bill and his ponies would not be part of it.
Also standing at the dining room table that morning was Rocky, the cowboy from Texas. You could tell he was a cowboy from Texas just by looking at him, “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.” He was a big man with a big black Stetson that had not a speck of trail dust on it. On the rare occasion that he removed it, every dark brown hair was combed perfectly and held securely in place by an expensive pom-aid. He was the dapperest Texas cowboy you ever saw. He wore shined-up cowboy boots and crisp blue-jeans with a handkerchief meticulously pocketed, with only a perfect triangle of red showing.
If you weren’t convinced by his outfit that he was a cowboy, you had only to ask. He would gladly tell you how he had worked on outfits north and south, big and small; how he could saddle a horse in two minutes flat; how he would be happy to ride all the rough ones if the rest of us weren’t up for it. He had been a trail boss, wagonmaster, chuckwagon cook — and he by-god knew how to fry an egg properly by cracking it directly into the bacon pan, bathing the yolks in the hot grease.
Jim had hired Rocky to be our wagonmaster and camp cookie. He was to be the boss out on the trail when Jim was taking care of business in the office or otherwise engaged. I was young and certainly naïve, but I could see immediately that Rocky was just another dude. Behind those fancy cowboy duds was a puffy soft skin doughboy with a handshake like a limp fish — but I did like his eggs.
The other man around the table that morning was John Blankenship. He was from Montana and he was a cowboy, and not just by the clothes he wore. He had a ruddy round face with thick square glasses that never stayed put. They were forever sliding down his nose. Often he wouldn’t even bother with them, looking instead out over top. His stained white felt hat had both sides folded all the way up and over, scrunched flat against itself. He wore light western shirts usually with one shirt tail hanging out. He had a leathery handshake like a bear, and he listened more than he talked. I liked him immediately.
End Part I