Bio: Wrangler 1968-69. Descriptor: 2005 White Grass article submitted to London’s Telegraph newspaper.
Jon’s Story: Those of us who can’t get the White Grass out of our system might be interested in this news feature (see below) I wrote for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper in 2005. That was in the George W. Bush era, so the story may seem a bit dated. But I think it still captures something that other White Grassers may feel about this amazing Teton ranch . . . and the lifelong friendships/memories it created.
So here goes: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, All’s Wonderful.
The Teton mountains captures the spirit of freedom that is the essence of living in America
12:00AM BST 17 Oct 2005.
As its critics are all too quick to point out, America is the land of the big mouth, the big belly and George W. Bush.
It’s also the land of the Rocky Mountain West, an area of unsurpassed beauty and grandeur – and home to some of the biggest-hearted people I know.
That thought occurred to me as my wife, Rosalind, and I were sleeping outside in the middle of a lightning storm on what remains of the White Grass Ranch at the foot of 11,938-foot Buck Mountain in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, just south of Yellowstone. We weren’t alone.
Also huddled under the same tarpaulin were old friends Tom Barrett, a Montana security-alarm company operator, Joe Baker, a Massachusetts musician and web-designer and Fran Fox, a Wyoming rancher and father of Matthew Fox, the celebrated American television actor.
I say old friends because I first met these three former cowboys 37 years ago when I was a 20-year-old British university student and had come to America to work for the summer.
It was during the hippie era when impressionable young Brits viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity . . . or at least of acid-tripping novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
After traveling by Greyhound Bus and post office van from New York to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I managed to sweet-talk my way into a job as a horse “wrangler” at the White Grass, one of the pioneer dude ranches in the well-known ski area, dating back to 1913.
The three of us, and the other wranglers, would get up around 4.30am and ride out onto the mountain slopes to round up the ranch horses that had been left out to graze for the night. Then, after a high-calorie, pancake breakfast, we’d take the “dudes” (generally well-heeled tourists from America’s East Coast) for leisurely rides morning and afternoon.
Some of the wranglers were professional cowboys. Others were enthusiastic amateurs like myself, raised on a steady diet of spaghetti westerns. But we all seemed to get along, through a shared a love of horses, the great outdoors and the occasional shot of fine bourbon whisky. And Barrett, Baker, Fox and I have kept in touch ever since.
Last month, we met at the old ranch and laid down our bedrolls for the night outside the run-down main dining lodge, a couple of miles from aptly named Death Canyon and a couple of hundred yards from a herd of bugling elk.
What we found was that neither thunder nor driving autumn rain had dimmed our passion for this Teton wonderland, named after French trappers and protected from runaway development by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Nor had we lost our love of the ranch, left to rot by the US National Park Service in 1985 after the death of its last owner, Frank Galey, but now slated for renovation as a training center for historic building rehabilitation.
The more things had changed, we discovered, the more they had stayed the same: the same jaw-dropping scenery, the same easy-walking trails through lodgepole pine and trembling aspen and the same invigorating mountain air.
So, it seems, had our shared belief in core western American values, including the conviction that everyone, rich or poor, puts their boots on one foot at a time, and that a man should never walk where he can drive a pick-up truck or ride a horse.
Certainly, when they tread politically, Wyoming residents lean to the right. But that is not really because they’re any less socially or environmentally conscious than more liberal-seeming Americans (Wyoming Territory, after all, was the first U.S. jurisdiction to grant women full voting rights in 1869).
It’s just that, coming from a state that for years provided a refuge for nomads, nonconformists and ne’er-do-wells like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there’s still a lot of the outlaw in them . . . or at least the libertarian. Wyoming folks don’t tend to like busybodies trying to fence them in.
These days, of course, Jackson Hole has come a long way from its mountain-man roots. It now contains some of the highest-priced recreational property in America, including that belonging to Vice-President Dick Cheney, actor Harrison Ford and other celebrities.
“The billionaires, they say, are driving the millionaires out of the valley,” Barrett notes.
Jackson itself, though, hasn’t been completely yuppified. Despite the art galleries and beauty salons, it remains at heart a honky-tonk western town.
During the summer, the world’s longest running OK-Corral-style shoot-out still struts its stuff. And the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with its inlaid silver dollars and saddle seats, still retains all the flavour of a Las Vegas booze can.
Besides, the further you get from Jackson through sagebrush flats and over mountain passes, the more land values fall to sober levels. A hardscrabble Wyoming beckons, dotted with trailer homes, junkyards and roughneck bars, like that depicted by writer Annie Proulx.
This is the land of the rattlesnake and the pronghorn antelope, of boom and bust, and of long, severe winters followed by short, bone-dry summers.
Life either soars to the sky (the state’s highest mountain is Gannett Peak at 13,804 feet in the Wind River Range) or plummets right back down… into the character-building zone.
In Wyoming, you either have an empty hand or a fistful of dollars. There is often little, it seems, in between.
But there is invariably the glorious feeling that, if you head out into the high country and lose yourself in the adventure, you are that much closer to the spirit of freedom that remains the essence of living in America – and the joy that comes from spending a night out under a billion stars.
White Grass Wrangler 1968, 1969.