Near the end of the morning meal, the vaquero nudged his plate off to the inboard side of the table where the waitress couldn’t slip off with it without his noticing. The time for the precious ritual involving the application of jelly upon the final wedge of toast would be put off ’til later.
The talk that morning had been mostly of trails ridden since last we caught up the comin’ and goin’ of his ranch north of Hamilton in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and the spread he more recently put his arms around close by his kinfolk south of San Antonio.
And, horses, of course. Always horses and the "starting" of colts. And, with the impending gathering of word wranglers in the Heber Valley next week, what has come to be called "cowboy poetry." It is at this confluence of colts and poetry where Ben Quinters is most in his element.
Somewhat telegraphing his punch, he leaned forward in the saddle. He had a point to make and, as usual, it would arrive comfortably wrapped in equal parts wisdom, art, history, and humility. And, also to be sure, it would punctuate what had gone before.
It was during the most recent Chinese calendar Year of the Horse, he explained, that, in celebration thereof, cowpoke and poet Joel Nelson had raised the bar of the genre with an epic piece entitled "Equus Caballus." Penned in the first person from the herbivorous quadruped’s point of view, the poem begins early in its evolution. Ben’s strong, quiet voice turned out all the lights outside the booth.
"I have run on middle fingernail through eolithic morning, I have thundered down the coach road with the Revolution’s warning. I have carried countless errant knights who never found the grail. I have strained before the caissons and I have moved the nation’s mail.
"I have made knights of lowly tribesmen and kings from ranks of peons, I have given pride and arrogance to riding men for eons. I have grazed among the lodges and the tepees and the yurts. I have felt the sting of driving whips and lashes, spurs and quirts.
"I am roguish I am flighty I am inbred I am lowly. I’m a nightmare I am wild I am the horse. I am gallant and exalted I am stately I am noble. I’m impressive I am grand I am the horse.
"I have suffered gross indignities from users and from winners, I have felt the hand of kindness from the losers and the sinners. I have given for the cruel hand and given for the kind. Heaved a sigh at Appomattox when surrender had been signed.
"I can be as tough as hardened steel as fragile as a flower. I know not my endurance and I know not my own power. I have died with heart exploded ‘neath the cheering in the stands – Calmly stood beneath the hanging noose of vigilante bands.
"I have traveled under conqueror and underneath the beaten. I have never chosen sides I am the horse. The world is but a player’s stage my roles have numbered many. Under blue or under gray I am the horse.
"So I’ll run on middle fingernail until the curtain closes, And I will win your triple crowns and I will wear your roses. Toward you who took my freedom I’ve no malice or remorse. I’ll endure This Is My Year I am the Horse!"
First came the point where you realized you hadn’t been breathing for a few minutes. The point that high art can exist comfortably within the rural vernacular not a recent one came later. When imparted anew through the oral tradition of Ben Quinters, however, it’s an essence hard to ignore. Can your breakfast do that?
There are the inherent line spaces of the poet’s voice, the subtle inflections and accents, not to mention the eyes where depth is nuanced and paradox rides bareback through long-shadowed sage towards some staked-plain horizon. As you may have noticed, Ben’s eyes are metaphor-rich.
The talk turned to writers and books and how some of them flat-out make the western ethic come alive. William Kittredge was about to visit a book festival down in Salt Lake and, to tighten the hitch on the subject at hand, be joined in conversation by Hal Cannon, who had first gathered cowboy poets in Elko back in the day. Plans were made to meet on the trail.
Concentrated for the most part on Kittredge’s recent novel "The Willow Fields," the dialogue dealt with a thousand-mile trail drive that "Rossie," the male protagonist, takes early on in the story from Nevada up through Idaho and into Montana with a couple of hundred horses.
Time is about all that separated Ben from Rossie but it was space that would rope off Quinters from Kittredge. Irony, in the form of some mules-in-training not paying attention to their lessons in the real-time West, once again raised its untimely head. Ben had to keep the donkey-horse hybrids after class and couldn’t make it down. It was during the Q & A that his horse-sense was most missed.
An almost over-the-top flashing sign high on a post outside the diner advertises a "Colt Starting Clinic" featuring Ben and Jim Hicks during next week’s Heber City Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair. As Ben often hangs at the corner of Cult and Celebrity, this time the irony is perfect.
So while for the most part ignoring his smiling face flashing from the sign outside, he returns to that home on the range where the toast and the fruit jelly play. Along with getting to ride over "some fine country" through the years, it’s one of the perks that comes with being Ben Quinters.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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