An Ashland buckaroo

It was an hour before daybreak on Sept. 8, 2001, as I drove an RV out of Ashland, towing a trailered Chuck Wagon (c. 1880) up Dead Indian Memorial Road. In fact, the RV was our real Chuck Wagon, and the one towed a backdrop for some filming for a public television special about the buckaroos of the Great Basin. I met up with some crew members near Klamath Falls, then continued to Lakeview for some ice and groceries before moving on to Plush, which sits at the base of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Three-quarters of a mile above us was a flat expanse of high desert and, for those of us who like to sit in hot springs and soak up the stars while spinning a tale or two, a perfect ending to a long, hot day.

Cattle drives took place in the United States as early as the 1790s, though the chuck wagon did not begin until after the Civil War. It was then that the demand for meat could be hauled by train to the east coast, if cattle could be driven from Texas to Abilene. The need for a mobile kitchen became immediately apparent as these cattle drives called for many men, all with big meals on their minds.

Chuck was then a slang term for food. Chuck wagon food included easy-to-preserve items like beans and salted meats, coffee, and sourdough biscuits. It was common for the "cookie" who ran the wagon to be second only to the "trail boss" on a cattle drive. The cookie would often act as cook, barber, dentist and banker. If you crossed the cookie, you cut your own hair, pulled that aching tooth yourself and could only borrow dirt for a night on the town.

After breaking camp the next morning we continued on to Roaring Springs Ranch, 425,000 acres that spill west down from Steens Mountain and into the Catlow Valley, which millennia ago was a large lake. The following day we went to the summit of the mountain and peered into a finger of the Great Basin, the Alvord Desert, some 4,200 feet below. Near the top we stopped and hiked up through the aspen and alder and viewed and read some authentic arborglyphs""a tree carvings made long ago by a lonely sheepherder to communicate with other sheepherders. What I saw consisted mostly of ribald accounts of times spent with prostitutes who visited the Basques who tended the herds, while eating and sleeping in a canvass-covered wagon, as did Wally am, who invented the Airstream trailer based on the blueprint of the modest mobile wagon.

As a shepherd boy, Wally lived out of a small, two-wheeled wagon covered with cloth and towed along at a walking pace by a donkey. At night the wagon would be unhitched and propped up by its tongue. The tail board let down to disclose a mat for a bed, kerosene cook stove, food and water, and "all the other necessities of life"""a wash pail and some books.

The Great Basin of eastern Oregon, northern Nevada and northern California is one of the only places left where you can still see the old vaquero-style buckaroo gear and traditions. You find keepers of the old ways on ranches and at ranch rodeos throughout the region. Look for silvered-up bridles, fancy silver bits, beautifully trained bridle-horses, big loop roping with 50- to 85-foot ropes, fringed chinks and the flat hats worn by many who live the lifestyle.

In the Great Basin, ranch hands aren't called cowboys, they're called buckaroos. The word "buckaroo" comes from the Spanish word vaquero. (In Spanish, vaca means cow.) In the early days of settling California, the Spanish landowners used vaquero to describe their herdsmen and horsemen. Buckaroo is the American version of vaquero. Today, buckaroos are men and women who ride horses on the range and work with cattle.

I found a shady spot under a tree and was soon drifting through the Old West, eating my meals from a chuck wagon and spending the nights inside a sheepherder's wagon. It seems my Airstream has some country to see as it pays homage to the Basque imagination.

Ewe first.

Lance may be corralled by carving out a message to

Share This Story