Dustin Stetter is a cowboy from Dubois, Wyoming, who balances his work as an outfitter to guide people into the Wind River range. Every year, he sets up a camp in the prairie close to the trail to go to Gannett Peak. He guides people who want to experience the wilderness through activities such as hiking, fishing or hunting. He has been doing this work for 22 years now, following his father’s path since he was 3 years old.
Early in the summer, when the camp is still covered by snow, he will ride there with his herd of about 20 horses and the other cowboys who help him. They clear the snow, set up the tents and start taking the first clients of the summer. During the summer months, he mostly leads people in expeditions to hunt elk, which he then debones in the camp. He then rides with the meat down to Dubois, where he will have it processed and delivered to the hunter.
At the beginning of fall, when snow starts to cover the mountains again, they will clear the camp, usually in zero degrees Fahrenheit weather. They will all sleep in Stetter’s tent for one more night. The following morning, they will leave camp during dawn and ride through a blizzard until they get back to Dubois. As he recounts it, pushing through snow drifts for 20 miles makes this one of the toughest times of the season every year.
The figure of the cowboy
In general, cowboys live in such harsh conditions that their work is usually regarded as one of the most physically demanding jobs. But most people’s idea of the cowboy nowadays stems from the way Hollywood represented the cowboys. During the mid-19th century, cowboys were poor herders who protected the cattle of wealthy owners and contributed to the settlement of the West. Since the 1930s and through the 50s and 60s, Hollywood created the myth of the cowboy as a flawed anti-hero that mostly participated in gun fights, chase scenes and shootouts. Common examples of this are Gary Cooper, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, which gave the cowboys the cliché characteristics of masculinity, righteousness and bravery.
When asked about the figure of the cowboy, Stetter admits that one part of these stereotypes have a solid foundation.
“If you want to do this job, you have to be tough. If I’m riding 20 miles into my camp and a horse bucks me off, and I’m beat up, I don’t really get an option to whine about it. I can either go to camp or lay there and die,” he says.
Stetter says, “each season we find 5 to 10 incidents that could be deadly, and it’s a matter of experience that gets you through it. When the rivers are high in the spring and you have to cross that river, you hope that you picked the right spot, or you could get washed downstream.”
For Stetter, “There is not a lot of room for weakness. If you are not tough, you either get tough or you quit. There is a certain amount of self-respect that comes from living through this hard life.”
To sum up his idea of the cowboy, “being a cowboy is something you always strive to be because it embodies more than your job. It’s more about your ethics, your character, the type of man that you are. You will meet very few people who will tell you ‘I am a cowboy’ and if they do, they are probably not.”
Synergy with nature
As Stetter recounts it, when he is up in the camp, he is a part of the landscape, not only a visitor. During the summer months, he gets to see everything that happens during the day, form dawn to dusk, and learns the patterns of the animals that live there and how everything in nature works together.
“We consider ourselves as the stewards of the population,” he says.
Since hunting for elk meat is one of their main sources of food, he is very mindful of the role that conservation has in his job.
“No one tells me how much I can hunt. But if I take 35 hunts in one summer, I know that the next summer will be bad,” he says.
Becoming another part of the landscape also means that they might become the prey when they run into bears at the wrong time and wrong place.
The most important part of nature they have to work with is their horses.
“Each horse is their own individual, you have to know their quirks,” he says.
They are the ones that carry all the food and equipment up to the camp.
“Anyone who calls themselves a cowboy would agree that the relationship with a horse is a relationship of mutual respect,” Stetter says.
In view of this mutual respect between cowboy and horse, when the horses get older, Stetter tries to find a good home with children, where the horses can have an easy remainder of their life.
Future of the cowboy
Due to the tough life that cowboys lead, younger generations are becoming less and less interested in continuing this tradition.
“When I was in high school, most my buddies at some point or another were guides,” says Stetter. “And now looking at the high school class coming up, there is not a single student interested in it.”
While people from the town might not be interested in continuing the traditions, some people from the East and West Coast who want a change in their life contact Stetter to help him at the ranch. But usually, these are temporary jobs, and the history and tradition is slowly being lost.
Many cowboy businesses are being bought by businessmen who want to make the most profit out of it. The history and tradition of the job is being cut off for higher profits. Stricter regulations and the rising prices of real estate are making it harder to make a living.
“Cowboys are taken for granted, and there’s no real push to ensure that this industry continues forward,” Stetter says. “Ranches are worth more to real estate developers than the ranchers can make off their cattle. Their family ranch might be $20 million, but they don’t want their family legacy being chopped up into 40 acre tracks.”
For now, cowboys just pray that their children will be interested in carrying on their legacy.