Westerner. The word brings to mind a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing the famed cowboy hat and boots, and riding a horse across the horizon in front of a setting sun. Hollywood has idolized the westerner—whether they be cowboys, ranchers, or frontiersmen — in epic films about survival, loyalty, and honor. Large-scale rodeos have solidified the image of the cowboy riding bucking horses and bulls, and wrestling steers to the ground while hundreds and thousands of people cheer them on. But for many, the true westerner seems to be no more than an entry between the dust-covered pages of an old history book. With every revolution of the earth, mankind takes another step forward. But somewhere along the path to progress, values and idealisms are being tossed aside as the true westerner fades into legend and myth.
Wyoming is a staple of the American West and the original westerner, having served as territory to famous cowboys and outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Here, cowboy hats and boots are as common as a blade of grass on the Great Plains. Here, the westerner’s way of life is more than a story told to children and read about in books. It is real, and it is less than a stone’s throw away if one would only take the time to seek it out.
Steve Bricker and his wife, Linda, live a quiet life on a 2,000-acre ranch just outside of Gillette, near the Freedom Hills subdivision and the massive Wyodak Power Plant. When Steve approaches, he moves in long, determined strides. He is dressed in a plain button-up shirt, dusty ball cap, blue jeans, and a pair of worn cowboy boots. His handshake is firm, framed by the rough calluses built up over a lifetime of hard, honest work.
Linda is motherly in appearance with kind, welcoming eyes. Everything about her, from the way she smiles warmly and offers her greeting to the way she stands, is inviting. She doesn’t even have to do it, but she does anyways — she invites a stranger to sit and stay awhile with her and Steve.
In other parts of the country, hospitality is difficult to come by. With so many untrustworthy people lurking in the shadows, most homeowners are hesitant to invite a stranger into their homes. But at the Bricker Ranch, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Steve pulls up chairs onto their patio, beneath the shade of a large tree and several umbrellas. Once the stranger is seated amidst the peaceful singing of several song birds, Steve offers him a glass of iced tea or water. He ducks into the house and returns a few minutes later with the beverages, including one for himself, and settles in with a satisfied sigh. But within a few moments, the song birds are crying out in alarm — there is something sinister lurking in the soft green grass.
In an instant, Steve springs to his feet while hollering, “I know what they’re making a fuss about!” Quick as a cat, he scoops up a garden shovel and darts around the side of the deck. The snake seems to have just started contemplating the best route to climb the side of the house when Steve descends upon it.
With practiced movements, Steve thrusts the head of the shovel forward, killing the snake almost instantly. Meanwhile, the stranger sits in his chair, blinking several times in surprise as Steve nonchalantly carries the dead snake to the nearby trash bin.
“I don’t like any kind of snake in my yard,” Steve explains, perhaps taking in the stranger’s surprised expression.
While killing snakes, wearing the clothes, running cattle, and riding horses are certainly a significant part of the westerner’s way of life, there is so much more to it than that. From Steve, the stranger learned that the westerner lives his life as part of a heritage, a culture, awash with cherished values and hard-learned lessons.
The westerner’s way of life has been handed down through multiple generations filled with wonderful people.
“I feel like I’ve been very blessed to be a part of that, to be associated with a group of people that founded this country, and that raised meat for this country,” Steve said. According to him, westerners were among the first people to settle Wyoming.
Steve was born a westerner, saying that his mother carried him in the womb while riding on horseback, her swollen belly resting on the saddle horn. When he was born, on the very ranch he calls home today, Steve learned the way of life from his father, who had learned it from his father before him.
The circle of life moves in a never-ending cycle on the Bricker Ranch. As one generations enters and works the ranch, another generation leaves it. Steve said that his parents lived out their last days on the ranch while he alone ran their cattle and saw to the everyday demands.
Time may have moved on from the early frontier days and the original cowboy may be fading from history, but the way of life continues to live on in people like Steve and Linda. Though what may happen to their ranch when they move on from this world remains to be seen. Steve said that the market’s prices have made it difficult for his way of life to continue in his children and grandchildren.
“For them to make a living at that way of life, it’s getting so hard that they can’t do it,” he said.
All of their children have moved on from the westerner’s way of life. They attended colleges and sought employment away from the ranch. Four years ago, Steve and Linda sold most of their cattle and followed the example of their neighbors by leasing portions of their lands to others. But even with the difficulties of running a ranch, Steve wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s been a good life,” he said with feeling.
A westerner’s culture is unique. It is filled with trials, errors, love, passion, and is built upon the foundation of the past. Growing up, Steve realized that the westerner’s way of life was a simple one, dominated by two things — work and school. From the moment he woke up, he had a number of chores to complete. Once complete, he went home, changed into his school clothes, saddled his horse, and rode to the old school that once stood in the shadows of the Wyodak Power Plant.
After the school day was over, Steve rode back home to complete more chores. But no matter what, Steve never did his chores alone.
“Families were together and families did the chores together,” Steve said. Even his mother, when she was pregnant with him, helped his father defrost the cattle gates so that the cattle couldn’t escape.
Back then, the school year was shorter as well, running from sometime after Labor Day to May 1st. After which, Steve’s father would tell him that school was done and it was time to tend to the fences.
“We worked hard,” Steve recalled. “You get out there on the fence line like we were this morning, it’s hot. There’s no easy part to it, but we were together.”
Steve was raised to be a problem solver for the equipment and buildings on the ranch.
“You didn’t run to town, you figured out how to fix it,” he explained. Living so far from town, it just wasn’t realistic for any of Steve’s family to head in to find someone to fix a piece of equipment.
But living the westerner’s way of life isn’t just about working hard, it’s also about playing hard once those chores were finished for the day.
“When he got done, we had iced tea and we went to the reservoir and played and splashed,” Steve said with a smile. He and his siblings armed themselves with BB guns and .22 rifles and set off across the property to see what kind of trouble they could get into.
“We played in the dirt, we made our own fun. We were turned loose with .22 shells, .22’s! I got in more trouble for shooting mom’s chickens and running them over with stuff. That was the kind of trouble that a country kid would get in,” said Steve.
At night, Steve and his family would sit and eat around the supper table, every meal. It’s an uncommon notion these days, Steve felt, as most families elect to eat on their sofa’s and watch TV.
Learning never stops for a westerner from the moment it begins. For Steve, that learning started with his father, who taught him valuable life lessons from a young age.
“I learned a lot about livestock and, I think you learn a lot about life from livestock and dealing with livestock,” he said.
Through the numerous livestock on the ranch, Steve learned about life and death, reproduction, and even the personalities of people.
“You grow up with it, it’s natural,” said Steve. “Being raised in the country and the way of life I was raised in, you get to see the different facets of life and then you can compare that to people.”
There are good cows and bad cows. Just as there are good people and bad people. Some cattle may be leaders, others will be followers. Livestock have personalities, and Steve learned how important it was for him to understand that.
“I was very fortunate to learn from my dad before he passed away,” Steve said.
But not all lessons were learned from the livestock, some Steve had to learn off the ranch, such as learning not to steal. When he was in grade school, Steve was taken to Sheridan by his mother to visit a dentist. While there, he saw a brightly-colored object that he thought was a pack of Bazooka Bubble Gum at a dime store and asked his mother if she would buy it for him. Of course, she told him no and that should have been the end of it. Steve said he took it anyways, shoving it out of sight deep in his pocket.
On the way back to Gillette, Steve crouched in the backseat of the family vehicle unraveling his prize, expecting at any moment to access that delectable piece of candy. What he wasn’t expecting, however, was to have that piece of candy explode in his hands with a loud Bang!
It had been a noise maker and it definitely made quite a racket.
“Mom about had a wreck and boy, did I get a beating,” Steve laughed. “That ended my career on thievery right there. That’s it, no more thieving. You don’t steal stuff, you get in trouble every time!”
Perhaps the most important thing Steve took away from his upbringing was an ironclad set of values. First and foremost, Steve’s father told him that if there was one thing he needed to do in this life, it was to keep his word and to take care of his name.
“He said you don’t have anything else in this life,” Steve said. “You come into this life with nothing and you go out of this life without anything, but he said the in-between time, how you take care of your name is what’s most important in life.”
Steve has spent a lifetime trying to adhere to this important value pressed upon him. If he says he is going to do something, he is going to do it.
“I tell you I’m going to sell you that glass of water for five dollars, and maybe it’s a hundred dollars over there, I’ll sell it to you for five dollars. You honor your word,” he stated.
Another value his father taught him was to respect women, which meant not swearing in their presence and opening the door for them, among other things.
“That’s one thing that I miss about this generation,” he said sadly. “I’m not just throwing these young kids down because I’ve seen people my age disrespect women and things, but we have lost something.”
Steve calls women the fairer sex, and believes that they deserve nothing less than respect and honor.
“It will not change in me,” he said flatly. “If you believe in opening your own door, fine. I’m going to be standing there opening the door, too.”
A westerner never turns away the hungry. No matter who they are, Steve said, if they come to the house hungry he and Linda will offer food.
“We trusted you until you proved you weren’t trust worthy. That’s just the way we were raised. Feed them,” Steve said.
Linda and Steve were both brought up with a willingness to do hard work, something that, to them, is notably absent from the younger generations.
“We do not see these young people wanting to put in the work that it takes to make life good,” Linda said. Before Linda met Steve, she had raised three boys into their teens by working several jobs.
Steve, for his part, worked a double career for many years. Whether he was working in the oilfields or in the coal mines, he came home after his shift and worked the ranch — he lived for it.
“I feel really blessed to be in Wyoming, in Campbell County, here,” he said. “There are things, and I’m sure anywhere you’d want to go, there’s going to be things you don’t like. But I love the open space, I love the smells, and I love the families here.”
The stranger and the westerner
For nearly two hours, the stranger and the westerner sat in the shade and conversed with one another. The sound of laughter filled the air as they shared stories, experiences, and ideologies. Never once did Steve ever make the stranger feel unwelcome. On the contrary, as the encounter came to an end and the stranger stood to leave, he found himself wanting to know more. More about the westerner’s way of life, about value, and how to live a life that would hold a light to the many years lived by Steve and Linda Bricker. The stranger wanted to stay, just a little while longer. But the Brickers are a busy couple; they have jobs to do, both in town and at the Ranch.
As the stranger climbed into his car and drove away along the dusty road, leaving the peaceful scene of the Bricker Ranch behind him, he realized that he wanted to return one day and sit beneath a tree with Steve and Linda once again. Perhaps, one day he will. Only time will tell.
By: Ryan R. Lewallen for 82717