A Young American Cowboy's Ride of Passage – Part I: From Boy to Man

September 26, 2018 - Comment

Note: We’re trying something new at aNewsCafe.com, a two-part coming-of-age memoir by Willy McCarty of Redding. Please join me in welcoming Willy McCarty to ANC today. – Doni  • • • To Dad, with love: His family called him Toots, the cowmen called him Mac. His given name was Leonard Daniel McCarty. He was an American Cowboy.


Note: We’re trying something new at aNewsCafe.com, a two-part coming-of-age memoir by Willy McCarty of Redding. Please join me in welcoming Willy McCarty to ANC today. – Doni 

• • •

To Dad, with love: His family called him Toots, the cowmen called him Mac. His given name was Leonard Daniel McCarty. He was an American Cowboy.

The year is 1958. I am 12, going on 13.

Bang! Awakened by the sound of a slamming screen door, my eyes open to see a thousand stars through limbs of a giant pine tree.

Where am I? Oh, yeah, Carl’s ranch. Dad drove us out here last night and we slept in the back of the pickup under the pines. It smells good. We’ve been coming here three years, since we moved to our new ranch on Mojo Lane in Redding’s Churn Creek Bottom.

“Billy, get up.” Dad’s voice calls over the sound of his cowboy boots on the cabin’s hardwood floor. It must be 4:30 a.m. Knowing Dad’s second call will be sterner motivates me to get up. I test the temperature by blowing out my breath from my warm sleeping bag.

Nope; can’t see it. It’s not that cold.

I unzip and throw back the covers. Now while grabbing my cowboy hat I crawl out to sit on the tailgate and pull on my jeans, long-sleeved shirt and boots. I jump down from the tailgate and put on my jacket while walking to a pine tree to take a leak and pee a big “M” on the bark.

The men are sitting in the kitchen as I stumble in, yawning. “Morning, sleepy head,” Carl teases, kicking the tin bucket at his feet, “Get us some water, will ya?”

I’m glad for an excuse to get out of the bright light and walk to Salt Creek, some 30 yards away.

I find the shallow hole in the creek bed by the light of a silver moon. Here I can scoop water without much sand and keep my boots dry. Setting the bucket on the bank and splashing water on my face, I listen to the sounds that surround me. Happy and aware, my attention is held by the peaceful messages babbling from the creek as it moves over and around rock. As I walk back, the full bucket splashes on my pants, and I smile in the shimmering light.

Returning, I am greeted by the smell of bacon frying in one cast iron pan, as potatoes and a dozen eggs sizzle in another. There is a thin layer of blue smoke from the food cooking on the wood stove, mingled with Dad and Slim’s cigarette smoke that hangs like a cloud from the ceiling, along with a brightly hissing Coleman lantern. Slim is in the middle of a story about a bull in a bog up in Mt. Shasta.

I set the bucket of water on the floor, moving to the stove to dry my pants. Slim finishes his story and they all laugh at my steaming pants. Knowing they like me, their friendly teasing is as warm as the fire.

Somebody hands me a hot coffee. This is my first place to drink coffee. Although it is too hot to drink, just holding it makes me feel like a man.

Dad sits talking with three other cattlemen. Slim, Carl — our neighbor from Churn Creek Bottom — and Carl’s brother, Archie, have been out here for a week or so. Carl’s winter ranch is in the foothills of the Yolla Bolly Mountains west of Red Bluff in the rugged California coastal range. It is thousands of acres, with many more leased from the Bureau of Land Management.

We winter our cows here where the grass grows hearty from October to April. We will ship them later this month when the leaves have fallen and the grass is “up.” We have spent a lot of time together; these old guys (mid-40s) and me. Every year I take time from school to gather cows in the spring. There is also branding, castrating, dehorning and ear-marking hundreds of calves on the weekends. It is hot, hard and dirty work. The physically hardest work is getting the bigger calves into the chute. They sometimes weigh over 250 pounds; tough work for an 80-pound kid. Branding the very young calves is tough in another way. They are so wide-eyed; pure and innocent.

Carl serves the bacon and eggs on tin plates. The men’s conversation about where we will go today is punctuated by clattering forks. My focus is on sopping up egg yolks with toast.

Carl and Dad will ride with me today. Slim and Archie will stay behind, “fixin’ to fix fences.”

We finish by sliding our plates into the steaming tub of soapy dishwater on the stove. The coffee is finally cool enough to gulp down as I step out into the day.

The dirt road leading to the corrals — and horses waiting in the barn — is brightly lit and easy to follow in the moonlight. Opening the door to the tack room, I am welcomed by the familiar smells of leather and horse sweat. Carl follows with the gas lantern. The saddles hanging from ropes around the room cast strange shadows on the walls.

Grabbing my gear and putting it on the fence outside, I stop to admire my saddle, bought with money from my first 4H steer sold at the Shasta County fair two years ago. Dad said, “Take care of it. It will last 50 years.” That seems like an impossible length of time; the next century.

Opening the barn door, a familiar whinny greets me. It’s my horse, Champ. I brought him in from the pasture last night. He will stay out at Carl’s until winter. We have been best friends since we were both 5. I scratch his ears as he rubs his head on my chest, leaving gray and white hairs on the front of my jacket.

We are both getting older. Together only on weekends for the next few months, my time with him is precious; especially knowing he is nearing his last roundup. He is a Morgan, brown except for one white lower leg and foot (called a stocking) and a white stripe down his forehead and nose (called a blaze). He’s Champ because the singing cowboy Gene Autry’s horse, Champion, had the same markings.

Tying a lead rope around his neck, we go back out into the morning light. Dad brings Champ a bucket with oats and he munches quickly. The rattling tin bucket reminds me of breakfasts’ clattering forks. Lifting his head to chew, he scatters oats for birds to find later. I lean down to whisper, “Eat well, this is a big day.” As he finishes I brush his back and belly with my hand to make sure there are no burrs. His hair is thicker. He is starting to get his winter coat.

Now I begin to “saddle up”. First, my Navajo blanket goes in the middle of his back, and now my great saddle. It is a man’s 45-pound roping saddle.

Knowing my life is changing fixes this day in my memory. This is my last year going to Pacheco Elementary School. Next year I will be playing high school football on these weekends.

After “cinching up” I wait a few breaths for Champ to let out his, aware that this is a strap around a horse’s most powerful muscle, his heart. He always holds his breath when the cinch is first tightened, and it must be re-tighten before I can swing into the saddle.

We walk to the pickup to grab my gear. In my saddlebags are a canteen of water, some peanut butter sandwiches Mom made* , matches, and a box of rifle shells. Now, from behind the Chevy truck seat comes my rifle. It was Dad’s 30/30 Winchester. He gave it to me last year. Proudly loading it, it is easy to appreciate the precision. Sliding it into the leather scabbard on my saddle I run my hand over the walnut stock with its many scratches from years of being ridden through heavy brush on narrow trails.

Dad rides up to remind me, “We will ride above Salt Creek for a few hours. The canyons are dangerous, so watch out and give Champ his head. He is sure-footed. You’ll both be fine.”

Nodding my understanding, we ride to the corrals.

The sky has brightened to a beautiful sunrise as Carl opens the only gate we will go through for the rest of the day. We will be riding on 50,000 acres of wilderness where Carl and Archie grew up. We begin by crossing Salt Creek several times, then riding the steep trails above the rocky creek bed.

Finally, sunshine warms our backs and I tie my jacket on the back of my saddle. I ride behind Carl, whose eyes never stop scanning the hills. He’s looking over land he’s known all his life for new shadows, movement — a buck. I copy his habit of breaking off dead tree branches and scattering the pieces along the trail.

This is my second year deer hunting. Last year, I came out a few times, but never pulled my rifle. This is the fourth ride this fall. However, this day is different. It feels as if it was made for me, the way the morning started with the men and the babbling creek including me in conversation. The way we ride the narrow trail in silence, patiently intent on getting somewhere.

I’m again aware of all that surrounds.

… To be continued: A Young American Cowboy’s Ride of Passage – Part II

• • •

*Author’s note: After finishing this story I realized my mother, Bernice Dolores, (maiden name Carlson) was mentioned to supply me with peanut butter sandwiches. She, of course, deserved much more tribute. Feeding me was only a small, albeit, powerful contribution to my becoming a man. She added to my life in every way, the most brilliant of which was telling me she loved me. She did not grow up on a ranch, so ranching had to grow on her. She brought balance to the cowboy code of Dad’s way or the dirt road. She was a warm and wonderful, creative, woman, beautiful and full of life. I love and appreciate her deeply.

Willy McCarty, 72, of Redding, is a notable character who has enjoyed an eclectic life, including stints as a commercial model for such products as Pepsi and Marlboro. A lifelong personal trainer, at his former gym in Sun Valley, Idaho, he trained such celebrities as Bette Midler,Cher and Brooke Shields, as well as baseball professional Don Mattingly. McCarty, who still boasts washboard abs, and cannot stand the concept of boot camp workouts, visits a Redding gym once a week where he has gained an enviable reputation for his “Easy Workouts With Willy” technique, popular among clients who want impressive results with little effort. Born in Los Angeles, as a child McCarty moved with his family to Widow Spring in Siskiyou County, and eventually settled on a 50-acre ranch on Churn Creek Bottom in Redding. He now lives with his wife, Deborah McCarty, and a menagerie of many animals. For the final chapter of McCarty’s life, the couple will soon return to the old McCarty ranch on Churn Creek Bottom, coming full circle to the place where McCarty recalls some of his fondest memories, such as raising Shasta County’s prize champion bull in 1962. Although officially retired, McCarty is still available as a model for photos shoots. 

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