The Legacy of Cowboy Joe

Our family met Cowboy Joe the summer of 2004. Some of my family were trekking in a three vehicle caravan from California to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and then over to Glacier National Park in Montana.

yellowstone trip 001The trip quickly filled with interesting moments. Like the day we spent at a truck stop trying to get the Suburban fixed when a trucker noticed three of the family playing guitars outside while we sat and waited. He gave us some ice cream from the load he was hauling.

We spent a day with my niece who was working The Geyser Grill at Yellowstone Park for a second season.  Her hug was so tight it meant so much. Her “I love you” to me made me glad we had connected—she needed it more than we did.  The candle she gave me, just heavenly, with a choke-berry scent and deep purple coloring.

I talked with my brother late at night while he read to me from his journal a passage he had written about my sister Lois, who we lost many years before.

We had a church service on the shore of the lake as we viewed the beauty of the mountains at Glacier Park. My sister-in-law played the guitar as we sang an assortment of choruses and hymns. I found myself listening to her instead of singing, absorbing the moment. My brother shared a passage from the Bible. Paul talked about humbleness based on a scripture passage from 1 Corinthians.

yellowstone trip 002Eating meals together tasted heavenly, we were so hungry. Then a minor irritation with my son and his cousin who were always riding off on bikes when they were supposed to be in camp! Boys are that way, always curious and exploring the trails.

My thoughts would drift to a couple of weeks away, when I would start my new reading specialist position in charge of the District’s reading program and instructional aides. My anxiety and insecurity would be pushed aside in order to focus on the beauty of the countryside in our travels. My daughter’s college boyfriend was with us for the trip. Getting to know him better was part of the fun. One highlight stood out for me and I think for most of the crew.

It was Cowboy Joe.

cowboy joe 001We had stopped for the night at a free campground in the middle of nowhere, at least it seemed like that to me. It was an unlikely place to make a new friend. It was my turn to cook dinner so I was quite busy. I remember I made sloppy-joes that night.

The kids were observing an elderly gent riding on a three-wheel bike as he rode into a camp site. He set up a pup tent and made himself busy, unloading his gear from the trike to don his cowboy hat and walk a bit. It wasn’t long before some of the family met Joe. After dinner some gathered round him as he told us about the countryside and climate where we were at. We found out that he had been raised in the area when he was a young boy.

Now Cowboy Joe was no ordinary guy. He had made his living as a real cowboy. At age fourteen he was orphaned when his folks were killed in a car crash. At that point he had started working the cowboy circuit to support himself. The stories to tell—of his life as a cowboy riding trail, breaking horses, and traveling the west as a cowhand.

As I listened to Joe tell his tales, it seemed as if a gem of rare history was talking to us. It was fascinating to hear of his life and knowledge of the land, what it was like to work the circuit following the cows. I was pleased that my children would get a glimpse of his sort of western life.

The next day it was decided we would spend another day there. We hiked by a waterway, some kayaked the flow. It was relaxing after being on the road so much.

During our second evening with Joe, we learned that there was more to him than first met the eye. One of the family invited him to join us for dinner, I think the same thought was in all our minds, I know it was in mine. He was ever so polite as we said grace and sat around to eat the yummy dish my sister-in-law had put together. Joe graciously waited until most had been served before serving himself.

It was then he opened up about his faith in God. That evening my parents, my children, my brother’s family, and Joe, sat around the campfire. The guitars came out and we sang. It was not too long before we found out that Joe could play the guitar–and quite well.

Soon we were singing songs of the old west. Songs I remembered from my grandfather’s albums, old western songs sung by Eddy Arnold and Sons of the Pioneers. We sang Cattle Call and Streets of Loredo and others. These songs were new to our children. We found ourselves mesmerized by the beauty of the singing, the lonely loveliness of the sky with sun setting in mountain glory, the poignancy of the moment, . . . and Joe. He had so much to say and had lived quite a life.

Cowboy Joe had a noticeable limp, he favored a bad leg. He got that bad leg as the result of a hit-and-run accident a few years back. His medical expenses were such that he lost all that he had put away, all of it including his life savings. But Joe said, he did not bear a grudge, and he forgiven that person who had hit him–because he has a God who takes care of him.

Then Joe strummed the guitar and sang for us a song he had written. It was about life and God. We were touched and somehow saddened yet also we felt more enriched having Joe around. His humble outlook combined with his cowboy drawl was something we all took notice of. I felt a lump in my throat. I knew this was one of those rare moments that live on into infinity.

The next morning it was time to leave. In the short time together we had grown close to Joe, feeling some tenderness at saying goodbye. He was our friend. “Was there anyway we could contact him?” we asked, “Well. . .no.” You see, Joe is homeless. Every year he pedals his three-wheel bicycle from the state of Arizona all the way to the countryside in Idaho. He said he has it all mapped out where all the free campgrounds are on the route. In his travels up and back there are only three places he has to pay to stay.

Cowboy Joe has no permanent address, and he does not come through California where we live. It seemed unfair that we would never see him again, for he had become our friend. I thought of the song he had written that would probably be lost forever, for he at seventy-three had no family and had never been married.

Joe had nothing by the world’s standards. In fact, he made mention that he appreciated us not looking down on him. But he did not feel sorry for himself, he looked to the good in each day. There was a lesson in that, and it was good to hear.

He showed us that you can be blessed even when you have next to nothing. And we found ourselves looking in our hearts and the tendency we have to judge those who are down on their luck. We saw Joe’s dignity, his love of life, and his quiet faith, and we knew here was a man who was not weak, but strong.

I am glad we met Cowboy Joe. I don’t think we will ever forget him. We are the better for it.
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Excerpt from one of my WIP, Works In Progress, A Quiet Grace