Most people only dream of living a ranching lifestyle. Cowgirl poet Jessica Hedges sees it as her responsibility to let everyone know what it is really like.
Story by Jennifer Denison • Photos by Darrell Dodds
It’s a brisk March morning in southeastern Oregon, the wind nipping any exposed skin. Cowgirl poet Jessica Hedges is bundled up in a canvas coat, black ﬂat-top hat and chinks, leading her alert, jigging horse down a dirt road.
“He’s a little cold-backed this morning,” she says as she tightens her cinch and prepares to get on. “But he’ll ride.”
Just like any working buckaroo, Jessica rides the horse she has saddled for the day, swinging onto the spooky sorrel gelding’s back and then long-trotting him through the sagebrush to expend some of his energy. Later, the spunky horse bucks the cowgirl off, but she gets up, dusts off, and goes on with a laugh and smile. After all, such real-life ranch situations are the inspiration for her poetry.
Raised on the TS Ranch in Battle Mountain, Nevada, where her father was the ranch boss, Jessica is deeply rooted in rural life. She and her husband, Sam, both in their early 20s, are among the young couples in the Great Basin trying to make a living on ranches, working to one day have their own. The couple spends most of the year on one of the Tree Top Ranch’s remote cow camps, 120 miles from Ontario, Oregon, managing 500 head of cattle on 70,000 acres. Their home is a small, cinder-block dwelling powered by a diesel generator. There is no phone, television or Internet.
“We read, play games and watch a few DVDs,” Jessica says. “But by the time we put away the horses, do chores and eat dinner, we’re like an old married couple and ready for bed.”
Sometimes, however, Jessica stays up late and writes. She grew up listening to Waddie Mitchell, Red Steagall and Ian Tyson, and her family would have discussions on their way to town on what each of the writers was trying to express in his poems and songs. That inspired Jessica to start writing her own poetry as a youngster and performing it at open-mike sessions held at Sherman Station in Elko, Nevada. She admits, however, back then she didn’t know much about rhyme and meter. A few years ago, she submitted her first poem to Western and Cowboy Poetry Music & More at the Bar-D Ranch (cowboypoetry.com), the premier juried website for publishing cowboy poetry.
“They ripped it apart,” she recalls. “That poem had made grown men cry, but my rhyme and meter were off. Once I licked my wounds, I went back and reworked it.”
Ranch to Raise Me
I was drug kicking and screaming
to the sage
Wondering what could ever be here
But now I’m near 18
and coming of age
And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
For the land and its people
have taught me much
About how a person should live
on this earth
How feeling something is more
than about touch
How a man should have his own
sense of self worth.
I learned how a woman could make it
From a boss that gave me motherly
Rough around the edges
and boy could she swear
You’d best get to the point and be
There was the coworker I had dated
I thought was everything I’d ever need
But time and pain more than
That I’d ﬁnd a better-suited man
Oh yeah, and you can’t forget
about good old Charlie
Charlie always had a smile and good
The glass was always half-full
not half empty
Its a lesson I always try to include.
My mouth and spirit were far
I was wild and crazy most would agree
It’s said to take a village to raise a child
But it took a Nevada Ranch
to raise me.
Another poem, “Leo,” appears on the website today, as well as on her debut CD History in the Barn, which was the 2010 Academy of Western Artists Cowboy Poetry CD of the year, was a top-five finalist in the Western Music Association and put Jessica on the map. The poem tells the story of an unfortunate accident Sam had while hobbling a horse two weeks into a colt-starting job on a ranch he worked on in Washington.
“We were sure he’d lose his job and we wouldn’t have a place to live,” she recalls. “But he couldn’t have done anything differently with the colt. It just happened.”
After “Leo” was published, Jessica started traveling to cowboy-poetry gatherings throughout the northwestern United States and reciting at open-mike sessions. Soon, she started getting paying gigs, including an invitation to perform at the 2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, the ultimate place for a poet to perform.
All of Jessica’s poems are based on true stories she, Sam or her father have experienced. Some poems, such as “Leo,” are solemn and contemplative, while others are witty and wry.
What makes Jessica’s poetry different is that it comes from the perspective of a 23-year-old cowgirl and ranch wife. This is especially apparent on her second CD, Buckaroo Woman, Unconfined, which doesn’t yet have a release date. Poems include the title track, as well as “The Ranch Wives’ Laundry Meeting,” a humorous poem about a group of ranch wives discussing the interesting things they find in the pockets of their husbands’ clothes. The poem has spurred a collection of poetry Jessica is calling “The Ranch Wives’ Meeting.”
Though Jessica recites mostly her own poetry, she has started mixing some classic Bruce Kiskadden into her performances, and she recorded “Where to Go,” by Waddie Mitchell, on first CD.“
Cowboy poetry is an oral tradition, and I think it’s important to perpetuate the early writers and their poems,” she says. “I like to see the tradition and education continue. Most of the general public is so removed from ranch life in their day-to-day activities. It is very much alive and happening, but not like it’s depicted on the silver screen.”
Jessica’s ability to take a common, everyday experience, such as cooking dinner or doing laundry, and put a ranch-life spin on it has made her poetry popular with both men and women alike. She has also drawn the attention of a younger crowd that is searching for a grounded lifestyle that is real in a fast-paced, computerized society.
“As a poet, I consider myself an ambassador for the Western lifestyle,” she says. “My challenge is taking our every-day experiences and conveying them in a way a large audience can relate to and understand. The greatest reward for me is seeing people identify with what I’m saying.”
If you liked this, then you may also like watching Thatch Elmer perform his poem in this video Bear River Buckaroo.