A chilly predawn darkness blankets the small cowboy camp called Twin Buttes, a cedar-covered knoll in the high desert of northwest Arizona. Another day of the fall roundup at the Double O Ranch begins as six sleepy cowpunchers stir from their bedrolls and head for the campfire's warm glow. Beyond the flames is the covered cook wagon, sides of beef hanging outside and a bag of flour sitting within. After wolfing down biscuits, meat and gravy, the six men pull on their chaps and walk slowly to the corral to saddle the horses and head 'em out.
Cowpuncher Ross Knox stays behind, watching the coming dawn. Daylight reveals a clash of cultures, old and new. Less than 50 ft. from the fire stands a pickup truck that hauls the cook wagon from camp to camp. In the distance, 18-wheelers fly down Interstate 40. As his friends ride off to round up cattle, Knox ambles back to the fire for another cup of coffee.
Like the pickup truck and Interstate 40, Knox fails to fit Hollywood's western stereotype: he is a cowboy poet. Despite the apparent oxymoron, verse has its place on the range, and Knox and his fellow horseback balladeers capture well the cowboy's changing world.
Long fences now divide ranches that once ran over unbroken plains. Trailers haul horses from one job to another; those long treks in the saddle, sometimes upwards of 1,200 miles, are a thing of the past. Beef prices have plummeted. Notes Knox: "You sell a cow for $300; you got $600 in her. It's hard to make a living that way." With salaries ranging between $500 and $800 a month, cowboys don't get rich either, a fact that recently prompted Knox to move from solely punching cows to shoeing horses and doing daywork.
After working some 30 jobs in nine Western states in the past 14 years, Knox understands the modern cowboy, and his poetry speaks the plains' truths. As he writes in a poem called The Dying Times: "Any man makin' a living by punchin' cows/ Will know what I mean when I say/ The good times that's been had are comin' to an end;/ Friends, we've about reached that day." His voice is not alone.
Research for a recent anthology, Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering, by Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center in Salt Lake City, turned up about 5,000 poems by contemporary cowboys (known in their slang as waddies) and ranchers. "If you got to talking to most cowboys, they'd admit they write 'em," says Knox. "I think some of the meanest, toughest sons of bitches around write poetry." The first poem Knox penned more than a decade ago describes a barroom brawl he lost, and he's been at it ever since.
Until about 18 months ago, Knox was a nomadic cowpuncher. His rambling philosophy: "There are only two good ranches--the one you've left and the one you're goin' to." Though he's settled with his wife Joni in a corner of Arizona, his cowboy blood still runs thick. With great pride, he pulls his battered steel spurs from the tack-room wall and brushes away the dirt. As he points out the silver-inlaid design and the gold initials R.L.K., he smiles at all the times he's worn them with a swagger. He hangs them on the wall with a jangle, his eyes passing again over his bridles, bits and well-worn leather saddle.