The Pastures of Beyond
An Old Cowboy Looks Back at the Old West
by Dayton O. Hyde
Arcade, 264 pp., $25
THE AMERICAN WEST OF THE 1940s was not much different from the West of the previous century. Rural electrification and telephone service were new or didn't yet exist. Roads were primitive, and working cowboys spent as much time in the saddle as in a pickup truck or on a tractor. Even a social trip to town on Saturday night was usually done "a-horseback." Dayton O. "Hawk" Hyde's picaresque memoir is full of methodical day-long, fifty-mile rides to round up stray cattle, court a woman, or do a favor for a friend. Hyde is the author of 18 books about the West, and is a noted photographer.
At 13, Hyde ran away from domineering Michigan parents and rode freight trains to his uncle Dayton "Buck" Williams's ranch, called "Yamsi," in the vast eastern Oregon desert country bordered by California and Nevada. At first, Uncle Buck didn't know what to do with the cocky youngster, but since family relations were strained, he let Dayton stay, and handed him over to his "waddies" (cowboys) to serve an arduous apprenticeship of hard work and long days. In those days, huge cattle outfits such as the "MC" and the "ZX" (along with the "Yamsi") dominated the Great Basin ranch economy with spreads measuring not in deeded acres but deeded square miles, and with access to literally millions of acres of leased federal grazing land.
By the time the author was in his late teens, he was helping to drive herds long distances in all weathers, and expertly handling cattle and horses, spending as much of his life in the saddle as a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. He captured and broke wild horses to replenish ranch stock, and in the summers, competed in local rodeos. More prosaic, he learned to irrigate pastures, and helped "get in" large amounts of hay each summer. These latter chores drove home the point that most of the work cowboys did was not romantic. For all its imparted joy in examining a way of life, there are no John Wayne-style Hollywood myths to be found in The Pastures of Beyond. Just a lot of brutal work.
World War II arrived, and Dayton was at first left behind because of his age. Uncle Buck lost most of his waddies to the military and, when he went south one winter, left Hawk to run the ranch and supervise the remaining collection of colorful transient (and sometimes alcoholic) elderly hands. Hyde's narrative is infectiously readable, thanks to his exposure to these loquacious Twain characters. He also cowboyed and rodeoed with Indians who came from nearby reservations, and was in awe of their skills, yet harbored no illusions about their lives, which tended to be nasty, brutish, and short. One comic but scary piece in the book recounts the cowboy singer Rex Allen entertaining a whiskey-fueled post-rodeo party "on the Res," where he sang and played to avoid being stabbed ("the big Indian stropped the edge of his hunting knife on his thigh").
Dayton soon had the opportunity to enlist in the Army Signal Corps, and was in the later waves of troops to hit the Normandy beaches. He served in General Patton's army as it stormed across France and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Hyde's postwar service saw him participating in a USO-type rodeo put on for the troops--in the ancient Roman amphitheater in Arles, France, of all places.
Hawk's rodeo career took off after the war, as he competed around the West as a saddle bronc rider and rodeo clown, riding with such legends as Casey Tibbs, Ross Dollarhide, and Bud Linderman. Linderman was a man who enjoyed barroom brawls as much as getting tossed over a fence by a bucking bronc, and died young. There were also Slim Pickens and Montie Montana, two cowboys who later went on to western B-movie fame. (Pickens, of course, was the Wild West Air Force pilot in Dr. Strangelove.)
With these men, and many others, Hyde shared a camaraderie in a dangerous sport, where riding a wild bronc or bull offered someone a sensation akin to "dropping a matchstick on a spinning phonograph record."
Photography had become a hobby while Hyde was hanging around rodeo arenas, and by 1948, he was sending pictures to magazines. This earned him a contract with Life to contribute his offbeat, strangely angled photos, the result of his crazy modus operandi of lying in the dirt and catching the action closely while shooting up. Needless to say, this was exceedingly dangerous; but Life's photo editors were ecstatic with the results, and a number of these photographs are included in the book. Nobody had ever before shot a "sunfishing" bronc--where the horse's four feet all simultaneously leave the ground--from below. And it could be argued that Slim Pickens's road to Hollywood, and his notorious ride on the hydrogen bomb, began in the viewfinder of Dayton Hyde's camera.