Wyoming Agriculture from an Outside Perspective

Written by Joel Kowit

A biology professor from Boston, Mass. and a rancher on the E.O. Bischoff Ranch in Lovell, Wyo. – worlds apart? One might think so, but it ain’t so.  From 1991 to 2010, I spent a week or two most every summer cowboying on the E.O. Growing up near the ocean in a suburb of New York City watching Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers – in black and white. I wished I were a cowboy but never got near a horse. Then in 1990, at the age of 47, I decided to start riding, worked with a horse trainer and rode locally nearly every week.

Then, in 1991, I made arrangements to spend two weeks with John Nation – cowboy, rancher, outfitter and friend of the Bischoff’s – “helping” to move cows. The first few years, I think the cows were helping me, but over time, I got the hang of it. On one trip, Max Bischoff, John and I had gathered half a dozen cows and were moving them up the trail from Winter Hill toward Dugan’s cow camp. Max and John decided to go off in another direction where they suspected some cows were hanging out and left me to keep pushing the six cows along the trail. Soon, I came across a dozen or so not far from the trail. I gathered those and continued with my small group, then came across another dozen or so and gathered those into the bunch. The problem was, I didn’t know what our destination was. Max and John were nowhere to be seen. Rather than move the cows where they weren’t supposed to go, I turned around and rode back a few minutes, looking for my mates. Then, they called from behind me – back where I had left the cows. I rode back and, somewhat proudly, told them how I had gathered these cows all by myself, but by this time the animals had all disappeared – I had no idea where.  Max listened to me, then turned to John and said, “He’s lying!”  Western humor, eastern humor – it’s all the same.

One of the many wonderful folks I met out here – or there – was a young man named Ben. I’ll leave out his last name. He rodeoed in the local rodeos and once loaned me his calf roping horse when someone handed me the Wyoming State flag to carry into the Cowley rodeo in the grand entry. The stirrups were too short for me, but I didn’t dare change them – it was his roping horse. As soon as we started to gallop into the arena, my hat flew off, my feet slipped out of the stirrups, and I prayed that I wouldn’t fall off. It would have been the most embarrassing moment of my life.

I saw Ben briefly over several years, but we never spoke more than a few words. Then, one year, Ben and I were asked to trail five horses out of Dugan’s cowcamp to the trailer parked near Sheep Mountain. It was a few hours on horseback and a couple more in the pickup and trailer, and we had an intense and personal conversation about our families and our sons.  Worlds apart – maybe in miles, but we had the same concerns and the same caring for our families. 

And that was one thing I learned in all my trips out West. Boston and Wyoming may be worlds apart in some ways – ocean versus mountain, city versus country, politics – but my western friends still share the values of hard work, loyalty to friends, caring for family, struggling with finances, illness, death, loving the land – or the sea and showing warmth and hospitality to strangers in a strange land like me. 

Of all the rides I remember, one stands out the most. John and I were aiming to start on the cows in the morning, but a broken tractor required his attention. It took all day to deal with, finally, by stealing a part from another vehicle on the ranch. We didn’t get started riding until around 5 p.m. and finished around 9:30, ending up at Dugan’s cabin. There were a bunch of folks there, and John wanted to hang out with his friends. I was exhausted and wanted to return to the Moss where John, Jim Bischoff and I were sleeping. John told me to go on ahead, and he would follow later in his pickup. So, I mounted up and rode the seven miles or so in the dark. There was no moon, and it would have been pitch black but for the stars and the Milky Way, which was as bright as I’ve ever seen it. There were no sounds but the wind, the horse’s footfalls, the creak of saddle leather, the ring of my jingle-bobs and the insects. I couldn’t see the trail but knew vaguely where I was from the silhouettes of the mountains against the sky, having ridden this way many times before. I’ll never forget this night.

About an hour into the ride, I thought I saw someone riding towards me – just making out the cowboy hat and horse in the dark.  Who the heck would be riding out here, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere? It took me a few seconds to realize that I was looking at myself. John had left the cabin in his pickup truck, and from a distance, his headlights were shining on me, casting my shadow on the side of a hill. He drove on by, and when I reached the Moss Ranch around midnight, I could see a welcoming orange glow coming from the windows. Jim and John had cooked dinner for me, waiting for me to show up.

In Wyoming, I rarely talked about my job in Boston.  But back in Boston, my Wyoming experience influenced my life as Professor of Biology. Specializing in immunology – including antibodies, vaccines, infectious disease and cancer – I occasionally did consulting work for large pharmaceutical companies, offering courses in immunology to their research scientists. Lecture slides of antibodies always included a photo of spurs I had made with the classic antibody logo on the heel band and a photo of chaps made with the same logo. 

The horse trainer I worked with took a course in biology. I helped her write a paper on “Maternal Antibodies for the Newborn Horse” dealing with colostrum and plasma treatments for foals with transfer disorder. She got an A+. 

And I rode almost every week. Horses out here are boarded in stables, which are very costly. Luckily, I was able to ride other folks’ horses to give them exercise. After my last visit to Wyoming, I stopped riding – recovery from spinal fusion surgery. I kept my old saddle on a stand in my school office. Students would stop in anytime with problems or just for a friendly chat, and a few chose to sit on the saddle for our meeting.  When I retired last year, the chairman – a close friend – asked to have the saddle for his office, and there it sits. 

Joel Kowit is a retired biology professor at Emmanuel College from Boston, Mass. After reading an article on E.O. Bischoff Ranch in the Roundup, he sent us a number of stories from his adventures in Wyoming, including lessons he learned and similarities he observed form his experience in the West, saying, “I left part of my heart out in Wyoming." Keep an eye out for more stories from Kowit over the next year.