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Irons in the fire: It’s a hard life, but it’s a good life

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 February 2021

Back a decade or three ago, I took my first post-college job on a ranch in the wilds of White Pine County, Nevada. I spent a couple years there, and although it was a bona fide big cow outfit, it never attracted the big-time buckaroo types who tend to bounce from one Great Basin ranch to the next.

Instead, our cowboy and hay crews consisted mostly of temporarily sober guys who lined the halls of the job service offices in nearby Ely or the occasional drifter the ranch owner would encounter on his frequent trips to and from Salt Lake or Vegas.

One such wannabe was Randy. Randy was a decent little dude who was about as handy around a horse and a cow as I was (am) around a kitchen. That’s not to say either of us couldn’t “talk the talk,” but our practical competence around the respective bovine and culinary arts left much to be desired. Randy liked to endlessly blather on in the current buckaroo lexicon, though he rarely, if ever, had the slightest clue about his subject matter. One thing he often said, however, is a little phrase I adopted as my own, and one I often repeat, tongue planted firmly in cheek, when ranch life is sliding off the tracks – as it is prone to do at my place. Randy’s little gem is this: “The life of a cowboy is a hard life, but it’s a good life.”

It’s a handy little adage, and it can be readily applied to nearly every minor calamity or 14-hour day a hapless ranch family may encounter. I use the phrase like Chapstick. It’s a balm of levity, and though I’m sure I overused it to the point of exhaustion as my kids were growing up, it was often the last-gasp gadget that kept the light flickering long enough to see us through to the end of an endless day trailing cows, doctoring sick calves or repairing prolapses.

Occasionally, when I’m trying to mesh plans from one facet of my life with another, someone will ask me if one season or time of year would be preferable to another, in regard to the convenience of taking on some imperative project. Usually, my thought is that any season besides the current one is the best. And, when the appointed season arrives, I’m reminded that very little of anything truly worthwhile is convenient. The life of a cowboy is a hard life, but it’s a good life. Little Randy’s oft-repeated buckaroo wisdom really is a gold nugget in the manure pit that life so often is.

Whether you’re a puncher, a wannabe, an investment banker or an order taker at McDonald’s, I think it can be shaped into an eternal truth or two – which finally leads me to my point. As winter slowly inches toward spring, and basketball season slips into calving season, and I trade one set of chores for another, I’m thankful for the moments that help me grasp the good life that springs from the hard life.

The other day, one of the girls whom I’ve been blessed to coach throughout her high school basketball career asked if I’d write a letter of recommendation she could use as she applies for college scholarships and transitions from one season of her life to the next. Though in my usual procrastinating manner, I have yet to produce said document, I have certainly given it some thought. As I’ve pondered and ruminated on how best to tackle this little project, I’ve thought about what impresses me most about this shining star of a girl and the cadre of other stellar young ladies whose paths have crossed mine in the form of a small-town high school basketball team.

In an amalgamation in my mind of the dozens of kids whose lives and character have been molded by the trials and triumphs of growing up in the Heartland, here’s what I discovered.

She’s an excellent student, but she’s not always at the top of her class. From athletics to FFA, cheerleading to rodeo and church service to choir, she takes on more than she should, yet she does it all with her best effort. As often as not, her best effort doesn’t result in the top run, the top score or a team win. As valuable to her as the wins are the losses and the knockdowns.

She’s gotten up from every defeat and every kick to the teeth with a smile and an ever-stronger resolve to keep on. She lost her place as a starter, but she’s the loudest, most encouraging voice on the bench, and she never takes a play off in practice.

She’s the manager who didn’t make the team and the senior who fills the water for the junior varsity team. She’s a winner, and she’s a loser. She’s sometimes the best, but sometimes she’s not. She knows how it feels to do her best and win and how it feels to do her best and lose, but she always does the best she can.

She cares about others more than herself. She wins with humility and loses with grace. She knows the blessings of a generous community and the value of failure.

She knows what a hard life is, and she knows what a good life is. And most importantly, she knows that sometimes they’re both the same thing. end mark

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter at @pm_inthefire, or email him at

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

Paul Marchant
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