The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch

Last CowboysA good review led me to this book about a rodeo family, the Wrights of southern Utah. Famous on the rodeo circuit for three generations of championship saddle-bronc riding, the Wrights are a large close-knit family with a cattle ranch as well as a serious rodeo passion. Patriarch Bill Wright, no longer on the rodeo circuit, does his best to maintain the land that’s been in his family for 150 years. Changes in the weather that decimate grazing grounds, conflicts with the Bureau of Land Management, and offers from developers combine with Bill’s aging bones to make ranch upkeep difficult. All through the book Bill debates different scenarios if his sons can’t or won’t take over the ranch. He’s been a good steward of the land, but he knows that ranching on Smith Mesa may no longer be viable.

Bill and his wife Evelyn have 13 children, 7 of them sons, most of whom ride the rodeo circuit, burnishing the Wright legend. Saddle-bronc riding is brutal: an 8-second, one-handed, stylish burst, where the rider must synchronize his movements with the wild, angry gyrations of his mount. The Wright sons–and some of the grandsons as well–are big winners, but the success comes with a physical price. Injuries, many quite serious, are frequent, and I can’t imagine how their families maintain equanimity in the face of inevitable broken bones, torn ligaments, and head injuries. In order to compete in as many rodeos as possible to accumulate the wins they need for the championship contest at the season’s end, they drive thousands of miles every weekend. For me,  Bill and his oldest son Cody were the central characters and Branch does a good job of helping us see what drives them.

Author Branch, a journalist from the east coast, spent several years visiting the Wrights, immersed in their lives and relationships. It’s a great story and a fascinating picture of the ranching and rodeo world. The opening scene, where all the Wrights gather to brand and castrate the cattle, is riveting in its depiction of this traditional activity. Although the story does get somewhat repetitive in the last third, with the descriptions of the many rodeo contests blending into each other, the intimate picture of this remarkable family is a testament to resilience and dedication.

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