By Lee Pitts
You probably know me from the syndicated column I’ve been writing for 40 years, but it is just part of what I did to make a living. In addition, I owned and edited a livestock newspaper, wrote books, ranched, traded cattle, worked ring at auctions of all types all around the country, was the announcer for monthly sales for a major video auction company, restored saddles, did leatherwork and engraving, and in my spare time, I was a feature writer.
I’ve written stories for everything from a large country western magazine, which meant I got to interview dozens of country music stars, to writing stories for an Italian magazine about our western lifestyle. I’ve written features for breed magazines and livestock newspapers, have contributed stories and reports to countless book publishers and have written hundreds of feature stories for periodicals of all kinds about the West.
In many cases, I’ve written these feature stories after interviewing subjects on the phone, and there was one big advantage to doing it this way – I didn’t have to open any gates.
But, invariably, the best stories were ones in which I traveled to the subject’s home and met the people face-to-face. I was able to pick up little nuances and learn much more about them than I did in a mere hour of yakking on the phone.
My favorite stories included one in which I went out with the wagon on the famous Bell Ranch where I slept on the ground, helped gather the cattle and drank out of the same bottle as we gathered around the fire at night. Another was a story I did on Nebraska’s Haythorne Ranch in the Sandhills. By going there on annual visits I got to know the fine family. I’ll also never forget the story I did for the Hereford Association on the Hearst Ranch because I met and became friends with several members of the Hearst family, including one of William Randolph Hearst’s daughters who later had me do some writing for her.
My all-time favorite assignment was when my friend Phil Stoll asked me to write eight feature stories for his big summer magazine in which I traveled to every corner of Texas in one week’s time during which I fell in love with the state and its people.
I had a blast, but by the end of the week my body was in shambles from opening up gates of every description from heavy steel panels with baler twine hinges that I had to hoist on my shoulder, to wire gates which when I finally got them closed all the leaning posts and weeping wire stood tall and tight for half a mile in either direction. I closed wooden gates, which were only still standing because all of the termites were holding hands.
I opened oilfield gates on which 15 padlocks were linked together, and the owner would hand me his keyring and say, “It’s the big brass lock.” But, when I got to the gate there were 10 big brass locks.
At one ranch, the gates were so bad the owner, who always drove the pickup, apologized and said he was in the process of fixing them, but when I visited him 10 years later he hadn’t fixed a single one.
I wondered why it is ranchers are so unwilling to construct easy-to-open gates, but then it dawned on me – they don’t fix them because they never have to open them. They lay in wait for suckers like breed reps, magazine writers and supplement salesmen and ask them, “Wanna go for a little ride?”
They even do it to their wives saying, “Honey, I know how hard you’ve been working around the house and with your full-time job in town. You need a break. Let’s go for a little ride.”
They make it sound like it’s a 10-day cruise, but then they make their better half open and close eight terrible gates twice and thereby get the opportunity to check every cow on the place without moving from the seat of their pickup.
So next time a rancher asks, “You wanna go for a little ride?” merely reply, “Only if I can drive.”
I guarantee you’re gonna sit at the kitchen table drinking iced tea instead of going for that little ride.