Near the corner of southwest Utah, a few miles from Zion National Park, sits a parcel of land called Smith Mesa, more than a thousand acres of red dirt, dramatic cliffs and scrubby pinyon pines.
To tourists taking a drive through the area, it’s a beautiful, forbidding landscape. To members of the Wright family, who have raised cattle on the land for more than a century, it’s a part of their heritage — and it’s under threat.
“Like the Wrights themselves, it squatted at the intersection of the old and new Wests,” writes John Branch in his compelling new book, “The Last Cowboys.”
“Developers were coming. Feds were circling. Conservationists were knocking. Land prices were rising.”
Branch follows three generations of the family as they struggle to hold onto their way of life in a country where nothing is certain for very long, and traditions are routinely thrown by the wayside as soon as someone figures out there’s more money to be made.
In Branch’s book, we’re introduced to Bill Wright, the paterfamilias who’s in charge of running cattle in Smith Mesa, occasionally having to retrieve stray cows from the nearby national park. Bill and his wife, Evelyn, have 13 children and “thirty-some grandchildren”; he hopes his offspring will take over the operation someday, but life as a cattle ranching family never seems to get any easier — drought has taken its toll, and sometimes there’s a scuffle with the Bureau of Land Management, which leases some of the government-owned land to the Wrights.
Sections about the Wrights’ cattle concern are interspersed with ones about the younger Wrights’ rodeo careers; they’re a legendary family in the world of saddle bronc riding, with the buckles and broken bones to prove it. The family’s rodeo winnings help keep Smith Mesa in business, but cowboys can compete professionally for only so long; it’s a career that never gets any easier for the Wright children and grandchildren: “Bronc riding might be done in eight-second bursts, but rodeo was a cruel and lonely slog.”
Branch does a beautiful job chronicling a family as it navigates old traditions in a new, fast-paced century. He’s an unobtrusive writer, letting the family members speak for themselves, and refraining from making any judgments or trying to shoehorn the family into some larger narrative. “The Last Cowboys” is an excellent, compassionate book that deftly captures the cowboy ethos:
“Life could turn in a moment. You just held on and tried to find the rhythm in it.”
Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times, and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Austin, Texas.
The Last Cowboys
By: John Branch.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 277 pages, $26.95.