I wasn’t surprised when the regular hands equated my inept equestrian style to that of John Wayne. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the Duke dissed—and not just by the Navajos who served as extras in his movies while code talking behind his back. Wayne was a movie actor, not a cowboy. As a horseman, he was much too big and top heavy. A more astute casting director, according to the late Owen Ulph, would have put Fred Astaire in the saddle.
Ulph, who died in 2003 at the age of 89, is the author of THE LEATHER THRONE and FIDDLEBACK: LORE OF THE LINE CAMP—two of the best books every written about the cowboy life. In THE LEATHER THRONE, which took Ulph 25 years to complete, he set out to “show the Louis L’Amour fans how you can write a genre Western and still make it a work of literature.
“I’d had a lot of practical experience,” he told me. “I know how you run cows, I know what cowboys are, I know their work. And I thought, it’s gonna be a goddamn good genre story with gunplay, and all the hokum will be there, but it’ll be in an authentic context. It’ll be a work of literature and still be every bit as good as trash.”
Ulph recalled he had gotten about sixty pages into his story before he ran into trouble in the midst of a barroom scene set in a Tonopah saloon.
“I had my cow boss Ed Fisher, whom I’d called Ed Forrest in it, and I had my villain Casey, and they get into an argument. And Casey gets up—he’s a big man—and I had Ed just clobber him. I dropped my pencil. I thought, Oh hell, Ed Fisher would never do that!”
Ulph tossed the first draft and started over, vowing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. The result is a Western without a single gunfight or fistfight. Ed Forrest became Ed Fisher. In fact, all the riders of the RO are identified by their real names.
Owen and I were seated at opposite ends of a small table at his Bear Trap Ranch at the foot of the Ruby Mountains in Lamoille, Nevada. Between us sat a tall margarita pitcher and a platter of sausages—the second of three sausage and margarita combos we would consume that evening. Come morning, I awoke to find my lips encrusted with salt. Throughout the day, range cows followed me around, straining to get in a lick.
Ulph’s spread was beautiful, the physical manifestation of a beautiful mind. Born in Chatham, Kent, England, he had come to the United States when he was five years old. In 1947 he earned his doctorate at Stanford, and taught such subjects as French history and Russian literature at various universities, including Reed College and UCLA. A brilliant academic and colorful conversationalist, Ulph was popular among students who admired him for his irreverent and stimulating lectures that tended to stray far and wide from the subject at hand. It was his penchant for nonconformity and alleged socialist leanings that eventually cost him his job at the University of Nevada, after which he turned to punching cows on the RO ranch in the central Nevada’s Big Smoky Valley—a job that in the Nineteen Fifties paid just one hundred dollars a month. It was that sabbatical in the saddle that completely changed Ulph’s way of looking at the world.
“I think back now as how I thought of myself as having an independent mind,” Owen told me. “But it’s just B.S. I was a tremendous victim of all the built-in prejudices of the day. And I have become much more conservative, but not in a reactionary way. I’m not talking about economic conservation, I’m talking about tradition. There are some customs and traditions that are worth retaining. And I find myself an enemy of rapid, vigorous change. It’s upsetting. We invent too much, too rapidly. We’re creating a world of complete obsolescence, and we’re gonna end up living in a garbage dump.”
I came away from that evening wishing—as is often the case—that I had been born earlier. How I would love to have met and photographed the colorful and authentic cowhands that populate Ulph’s writings! Unfortunately, by the mid-Eighties all of them had passed from the scene—all of them, that is, except one.
A year following my dinner with Owen Ulph, I found myself in the faded boomtown of Belmont, nursing a Shirley Temple in a saloon next door to the ruins of the Cosmopolitan Club. At the far end of the counter sat the crustiest, most weathered, lined and tanned gentleman I have ever set eyes upon. We struck up a conversation, and I learned his name was Holly Richardson, onetime saddle mate of Owen Ulph!
“How is old Doc?” Holly asked.
“He’s good. You know, he wrote about you in a book.”
“That’s what I heard. I haven’t had time to read it.”
I learned that Holly was the caretaker and ex officio constable of Belmont. He lived in a trailer across the road from the saloon and patrolled the town in a bizarre vehicle that looked to be an amalgam of half a dozen different makes of cars. All the time we were chatting, I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and all I could think about was how much I wanted to take his picture. But first, I’d have to win his trust. Cowboys are notoriously camera shy—the real ones, at any rate. I knew I would have to have his permission and full cooperation, because unlike, say, Annie Liebovitz, I’m not the sort of photographer who could snap a semi-nude studio picture of Miley Cyrus without her or her father having the foggiest inkling of what was going on. No, I’m always upfront about my intentions, and after an hour or so of idle conversation I asked Holly if I could snap his picture.
“Aw, c’mon, Holly. It’ll only take a second, I promise.”
“I would prefer not to.”
I left Belmont that afternoon in a state of despair. Here I’d come face-to-face with the most photogenic cowboy ever, yet I hadn’t taken a single picture. Perhaps, I thought, if I were to venture even deeper into America’s Outback I’d stumble upon still another of Owen Ulph’s old saddle mates.
On the map, there is an unpaved road that leads north from Belmont to Highway 50; however, after a night of steady rain said road is more like a slippery slide. I’d gotten only a few miles out of town before I realized I was in deep trouble. My little VW bus was skating this way and that, inching precariously close to ditches on either side of the roadway from which there would be no escape were I to fall in. I was creeping forward toward what looked to be a spot wide enough to make a U-turn when I spotted a Volkswagen bug coming in my direction. At the wide spot we introduced ourselves. The driver was Gunar Berlings, an artist from Freedom, California, who had miraculously skated all the way down from a place called Potts.
Eventually I got my bus turned around and followed Gunar’s bug back to Belmont, where we celebrated our safe passage with a round of drinks in the saloon. Gunar, being an artist, was immediately captivated by Holly, even as I tugged on his sleeve, whispering that it was no use.
“I’d love to sketch you, if you don’t mind,” said Gunar.
“Sure,” answered Holly. “Why not?”
I’ll be damned if the man who couldn’t spare this photographer 1/125th of a second didn’t sit still for twenty minutes while Gunar worked up a pencil sketch. And when it was finally finished, the subject seemed pleased with the results. Perhaps by now there is an oil painting of Holly Richardson in the saloon, or a marble statue on display in front of the Nye County Courthouse. But no photographs. I guess I’ll just never understand cowboys.