The great American cowboy is not urban legend...
By Adam Risman
Photographs by J. Kane
The great American cowboy is not urban legend; he’s not confined to history; and he’s not a caricature most accurately served up in the reels of a classic Spaghetti Western. He’s alive and well.
I know because I spent two days with him and his comrades at the 825,000-acre sprawl where it all began—the historic King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas.
What started here when a stowaway-turned-steamboat-captain purchased a Mexican land grant in 1853 led to the very first registered breed of American cattle. And in 2001, the ruggedness and bold attitude of this Texas holy land inspired an original King Ranch breed of Ford trucks. On this typically humid South Texas morning, that tradition is in true form.
I find myself shaded from the sun by two shadowy figures on horseback. To my right is Adan “Bull” Alvarez, whose six-foot-five frame would dwarf me even without his current position on top of his stallion. To my left is Robert Silguero, a calm man who sports a subtler figure. The even tone of his voice speaks of experience and leadership out here on the range. They are fourth- and fifth-generation cowboys (or Los Kineños—King’s men—as they are often called) respectively, and the life here is all they’ve ever known. “When I was a kid, all of my idols were cowboys,” Silguero explains. “So here I am.”
Alvarez gets sentimental about his life spent in spurs. “Our dads would take us out with the cattle all the time,” he says. “It started as far back as I can remember. Once we were able to start walking, we were in the trucks, riding around the pastures.”
Driving has become a more and more practical part of the cowboy routine. With fewer men and higher cattle counts, riding 30 miles on horseback just to reach a cattle pen is not an option. Alvarez has arrived in a three-quarter-ton Super Duty hooked up to a 24-foot livestock trailer. “I’ve got to put 10 to 12 cows in there—1,100 pounds apiece. You’re looking at quite a lot of weight.”
As the gatekeepers of the King Ranch cattle crop, both Alvarez and Silguero oversee herds of up to 4,000 head, and each keeps a watchful eye on roughly 30,000 acres of pasture. They are just days away from marking and branding a full herd, and they need to work each head through the pasture beforehand to beef up responsiveness and obedience.
Behind them, fellow ranch hands unload their horses from a selection of the nearly 80 signature all-white Ford trucks in service on the ranch and begin to saddle up. It’s time for a feed run.
As the ear-splitting dinner bell rings, a herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle are roused from their idle state and follow behind the food-dispensing cube wagon that is hauled from the back of an F-250. Calves trail behind their mothers and dash between the legs of bulls, hoping to scoop up the scraps of feed that escape their elders.
I’m soaking up this timeless scene with Dave Delaney, the Ranch’s General Manager of ranching and wildlife. A Virginia man whose thick drawl has taken on a hint of a Texas twang, he explains the importance of this ritual as it relates to the lay of the land.
“What makes cattle and wildlife so compatible is that they both use brush and forage together,” he shouts to me over the commotion of the feeding herd. “Stewardship of land is a huge part of our tradition—and what’s more sustainable than having cows on native range, eating grass for 159 years in the same country?”
In spite of the feeding frenzy that surrounds me, the cherry-red beasts are far from aggressive as I ride alongside the feed truck for a closer look. If anything, they’re skittish. Soon many of them will be providing nourishing dinners for families around the globe—supplying ribs to Japan or rib eyes to New York. But for now, Alvarez, Silguero and the rest of the crew carefully look after each head as it travels through this desolate southern landscape.
BUYING INTO HISTORY
The symbol of King Ranch is the iconic Running W, which is branded into the hides of the horses and cattle. The meaning of this emblem has somehow been lost to legend. Some say it represents a rattlesnake; others opine that it mirrors the shape of the Santa Gertrudis creek, or even the arc of a Texas longhorn’s sweeping mantle. Nonetheless, it’s instantly recognizable, and through the vision of the King Ranch Saddle Shop, you’ll find its trademark curls have been burned into everything from handmade briefcases to badges on Ford trucks.
Once the first mercantile store south of San Antonio, the King Ranch Saddle Shop is now a global name. Case in point: The shop’s General Manager, Rose Morales, while giving me a lift in one of the Ranch’s co-branded Ford trucks, informs me that I missed a visit to the store from Prince Albert II of Monaco by just a few days.
Everything in the store is made in house (100,000 square feet of leather flow through the fingers of the store’s craftsmen each year), but one particular attraction for many visitors is the work of resident saddlemaker Robert Salas.
Salas’s craft is done entirely with the brute force of his large, rough hands—each palm worn to its own rugged, leathery finish thanks to 39 years of labor. Each of his saddles is composed of roughly 120 individual pieces and can take anywhere from 65 to 120 hours to complete.
He takes a rare break to tell his tale, but even that is not time wasted. Salas recounts stories of 72-pound saddles built for professional quarterbacks and how state law enforcement recovered stolen examples of his work, never pausing as he oils old saddlebacks to their original shine.
“In this shop, a lot of the saddles that come in have been handed down over two or three generations,” he tells me. “These cowboys might have a saddle that was made in this shop back in 1950, and it’s still in very good shape. They are the ones keeping up the tradition.”
HOME ON THE RANGE
It’s 6:15 in the morning, and I’m riding shotgun with Delaney in his King Ranch F-150, freshly rolled bean and cheese breakfast tacos in hand. We’re driving toward Norias, the most isolated of the Ranch’s four divisions, where a new group of cowboys will be corralling cattle.
No more than 60 miles north of the Mexican border, Norias is cut in two by U.S. Highway 77. The west side is built on a series of pristine pastures and farmland; the east side is overrun with one of the world’s largest oak thickets, which thins out into the prairie and rolling sand dunes of the Laguna Madre coastline. The wild terrain seems to be lifted from the reels of Out of Africa, filled with expansive areas where no man has set foot.
White-tailed deer, nilgai antelope, javelina and Rio Grande turkey roam freely through these parts. Most of the 356 bird species that call King Ranch home (a count that rivals the Florida Everglades) can be seen nesting and flying throughout this vast wilderness.
This is the domain of Danny Rodriguez, area manager of the Norias crew of cowboys and a quiet fourth-generation King Ranch Kineño with a stout build and sharply trimmed goatee. His roots in Norias are so deep that they intersect with the days when Pancho Villa’s Mexican raiders rode through.
We rendezvous with Rodriguez long before the sun begins to rise over the brush. One by one, Super Duty trucks pull up—most rigged to gooseneck trailers, each hauling a handful of horses. “Riding through this country every day, it’s really something,” says Rodriguez, pointing at his crew cab parked a few yards from the cattle pens. “Every day you see something new, and you never get tired of it.”
Rodriguez’s crew will be corralling cattle into pens throughout the morning. One of the cowboys will work the gate link as a cattle conductor, using his lasso to direct calves through one gate and their mothers through another.
Over the course of the next few hours, hundreds of head are herded into these temporary quarters. As the parade continues, I follow my nose into the adjacent camp house, where a midmorning meal—a staple of the long days that come with cattle season—is being prepared. The standard pots of beans and rice are stewing on the stovetop. The smell of short ribs simmering over a mesquite coal fire wafts through the air. I walk up to a long wooden table on the camp house’s back deck and take a seat across from Robert Underbrink, CEO of King Ranch. He’s dropped in to check on his cavalry.
“These are cowboys that grew up and live on this ranch,” he says, pointing toward the pasture where a few of them linger behind, lassoing the last stragglers from the herd. “They’re real. They’re alive.”Underbrink has worked his way up through King Ranch ranks over 26 years. His office is in Houston now, but he tries to get on-site every few weeks—partly for business reasons, but also to fill a nostalgic void.
“We have that feeling of family from being around each other for so long,” says the homegrown CEO. “There’s a lot of pride and mystique with King Ranch, but you’ve got to come here to get that experience.”
From what I’ve seen, the best description for this place is “authenticity.” This culture is a living, thriving portrait of the past. And while I hear the rumbling engines of working trucks off in the distance, I can still picture myself a century earlier, sitting atop the hill where the Ranch’s Main House stands, watching Alvarez, Rodriguez or Silguero riding in for a day’s work.