Sitting with a friend on the ski-lift chair converted to a front-yard swing when the cowboy drives past with some of his working partners in his pickup. Watching them pass my friend asks, "Do they have to earn their hats?"
Cowboy hats. The two that dominate head attire of real live cowboys around this valley are the so-called taco kind with the rolled up side brims, and the flat wide brims. Light color for everyday, black for dress-up. They can be made of straw like weave or felt. But a hat does not make a cowboy.
A real cowboy can be discovered in a handshake. Their hands are usually knurley, rough, callused. Fingers might even be missing from a roping incident. But the shake is firm and fair. None of that squeezing or rolling of the knuckles that some people try to show how tough they are. A person who takes an offer of friendship or greeting and treats it as a threat has no strength in character or courage.
And the eyes. Real cowboys have sun wrinkles around their eyes. They usually don't bother with spray tans, manicures or facial scrub exfoliation Not to say they do not care about their appearance. They groom their mustaches carefully, if they have them, and take regular hair cuts by spouses or barbers. Usually don't frequent spas. Their deep face lines can come from cold, or dry wind burns, or smiling. Real cowboys like their work. Or they would not do it. The pay is not great.
The classic cowboy dress code is a long sleeve shirt, any pattern, button or snap front, a pair of blue jeans and boots. Some choose boots that are flat, some prefer high curved riding heels, some straight block heels. Some have boots that look more like hiking boots than the typical stitched and colorful leathers that a rodeo queen might wear. The boot has a purpose and if it is not right for the chore, they pick what is appropriate, not what is fashionable.
Then there is their roping and riding skills. Cowboy horses, spin, stop, turn, kneel, wait, sprint, balk and whiney for attention. Takes patience to make a great horse from a good one. And with roping some cowboys use 30-45 foot ropes while some prefer the 60 plus foot ropes. The longer rope just means you gotta be good, really good with a rope.
There is usually not much silver on a regular cowboy, nor on his horse. A good pickup with a solid trailer is standard travel gear. And a real cowboy is fair to animals, honest in work. Tactful with the truth, but still speaks it.
Sometimes politicians try to act being a cowboy. Or surround themselves with that persona. Which is disrespectful to the real craft of a cowboy. Most cowboys are too smart to go into politics. Real ones would be uncomfortable with superficial smiling, and not caring when they should, and would walk away from any bunch that lied and spun half truths like the recent gathering in Tampa did.
So, yes, a real cowboy earns his hat, but as the real cowboy said to my query, "anyone can buy one."
Marie Johnson is a Carson Valley rancher.