Pulitzer Prize winning reporter John Branch will speak about ‘The Last Cowboys’
The Wright family live the cowboy lifestyle.
Led by Bill and Evelyn, the family — with13 children and more than 37 grandchildren — runs a ranch near Hurricane while their five older boys compete in the rodeo circuit.
This family’s plight and the history of cowboys in southern Utah are told in “The Last Cowboys,” the most recent book penned by John Branch, a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times.
Branch will talk about his book and sign copies of it at 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 20, at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium. The event, which is sponsored by the Park City Library and Rebecca Marriott Champion, is free and open to the public, but RSVPs to Malena Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org are appreciated.
Branch’s former Fresno Bee editor, Charlie Waters, first pitched the reporter on the idea for the book over lunch.
“Charlie talked about the ‘Wright Brothers’ who were dominating the sport of rodeo,” Branch said. “He talked about them and the rodeo the way a sportswriter would talk about Archie Manning and football.”
The more Branch learned about the Wrights, the more he thought was bigger than rodeo.
“The story was (also) about a family trying to build a ranching operation, and that struck me as (establishing something from the) late 19th or early 20th century into the 21st century,” Branch said.
Branch, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which recounted a 2012 disaster that claimed the lives of three skiers in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, met the Wrights in December 2013, and visited them off and on for more than four years.
“I would fly down on the weekends or hook up with them when the boys were competing in rodeos, especially when they were at National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas for four years in a row,” he said. “I would also jump in the truck or go camping with them.”
Branch enjoyed writing about the family’s rodeo competitions.
“I have had chances to cover rodeo for a day or two here and there, and I’ve always found it fascinating,” he said. “I’ve always found the athletes very open, colorful and quotable.”
What Branch didn’t realize was just how tough the athletes needed to be.
“It comes together when you get up close into the chutes and see these guys getting injured and fighting through injuries because they don’t get paid if they don’t get on the horse the next night,” he said. “I’ve been covering professional sports for 20 years, and I’m not sure if there are any athletes like them. Their guts, their gumption and pain tolerance are extraordinary.”
Branch was taken aback by the athletes’ passion, too.
“The devotion and love they show for the sport is rare, and it’s kind of thrilling to be part of it,” he said. “They will literally drive a thousand miles just to ride one horse, without any guarantee they will make any money, and then they’ll drive home or drive to the next rodeo,” he said. “Then they may break their sternum during the process.”
Branch was also able to clear up some misconceptions about the treatment of animals in rodeo while following the Wrights.
“I’m not rodeo apologist, and I certainly hear from people who write me about rodeo’s treatment of animals,” he said. “But I have to tell you I think what people don’t realize is that this is that the rodeo is the cowboys’, cowgirls’ and stock contractors’ living. So it would behoove them to take care of the animals.”
Branch found that especially true with the saddle bronc competitions.
“The top horses are worth a lot of money and they are bucked usually once a week,” he said. “The rest of the time they are grazing in pastures. So, they do about eight seconds of work once a week and then hang out. So I didn’t see anything that was cause for alarm. If I did, I think my journalism antennae would have gone up.”
Branch also found the Mormon family’s cattle running touched a nostalgic vein.
“It’s a small operation — maybe 300 heads of cattle,” he said.
Branch said his ranching experience with the Wrights just outside of Zion National Park felt “very throwback.”
“It felt old-fashioned and familial,” he said. “Everything they did centered on family, and that connectedness is rare.”
By connectedness, Branch explained that of the Wrights’ 13 kids, 12 of them live within a 40-mile radius.
“They live close together and have found common interest in the cowboy lifestyle and cattle,” he said. “They have somehow kept a cohesiveness that doesn’t happen a lot today.”
The crux of “The Last Cowboys” is keeping that cohesiveness and passing down their traditions, according to Branch.
“Bill is trying to build a cattle operation for his kids if they want it,” he said. “His biggest dilemma is can he do that on the same land his family has had for the past 150 years, because he’s surrounded by development and Zion National Park. He is also restricted by federal land laws all around him.”
Branch found that Wright is weighing the idea of building something for the future, while holding onto the past.
“That’s a tough tug-of-war for him, and for countless others who are trying to pass something down to future generations,” he said. “The questions are is it the land, or the business? Or is it the culture? These are the questions that percolate through his mind and through the book.”
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