Riding With The Elusive Vaquero

Our September 2004 issue featured "Resurrecting the Ol' 25" about a historic Nevada ranch describes my encounter with one of the few vaqueros left on the western range.

As an extra bonus during my visit to Hardy Downing's lease operation, I enjoyed a great opportunity to ride with Juan Gonzalez, a living link to American buckaroo heritage.

"Watch Juan rope," Hardy's crew warned me in advance. "He's a top-rated charro in North America during his spare time. So's his son." My ears definitely perked up at hearing this juicy gossip.

I rode up on Juan early in the afternoon while moving cattle from Izzenhood Basin; he was on the downside flank by himself, keeping our little herd from falling off the side-hill as we wound our way around the mountain. He didn't make eye contact with me at first because he saw my camera. Most working cowboys tend to get bashful around a lens.

"Juan, do you consider yourself a cowboy, a buckaroo, a charro or a vaquero?" I asked.

After a few moments of head-tilting rumination, he answered, "I'm sometimes a charro (and a darn good one according to his North American charro association accomplishments), but today I am a vaquero," he smiled.

Not a buckaroo, but a vaquero - the pure, primary root of the flamboyant style embraced by non-Spanish cowboys who began to work the Great Basin so many decades ago. History books often are too vague when dealing with the evolution of the modern-day buckaroo, and never really answer many questions about how they worked and interacted with their horses or the kind of loops they threw.

Adding to the mystique is that there aren't many vaqueros left on the western ranges to interview. Some old buckaroos, now in their 70s, relate stories of vaqueros who'd hire on with the big crews every now and then back in the old days. Apparently, the vaqueros already were a rarity in the west by the 1930s. I'd certainly never seen one except for the man riding next to me.

"Where did you learn to be a vaquero?" I asked, realizing I might not get another chance to pose this question in my lifetime.

"I learned from the old people when I was young in Mexico and later in California," he replied in a rich Old World accent.

Then I did something silly. "Spin your rope for me," I blurted out, selfishly choosing to waste a once-in-a-lifetime, historically important, journalistic opportunity to satisfy my cowboy curiosity. I could always grill him later, I reasoned, but for now I wanted to see a master dally-roper in action.

He obliged me, probably as a tactic to avoid more inane questioning, and took a very used rope from the fork of his montura, or saddle. Hardy's boys had said Juan could spin anything - and they were right. By all appearances, the rag in his hands had missed its own funeral by about 2 years, but nothing could take away from the artistry of Juan's stunning performance for a sole spectator. The encounter only left me wishing for more time to spend with this 25 Ranch hand.