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ALF BILTON
Whitehorse, Yukon
About Alf Bilton
Alf Bilton's web site

Recognized as one of

Lariat Laureate Runner Up
for his poem, "When Walls Forgot"

 

 


When Walls Forgot

Her voice banished walls, and "coyotee" calls
Would wash newer noises away;
I'd hear eagles scream, and mountains would gleam
On distant horizons each day.

Revived by her words, the buffalo herds
Again roamed the prairie she knew;
Were slaughtered again, plain seeded to grain,
When "sodbustin' farmers" came through.

She often retold how "Charlie" was bold
Enough to set blooded studs free,
To join a wild bunch, 'cause he had a hunch
Their "get" would remount cavalry.

They could have sold more, "come the Civil War,"
But left a seed herd running free;
And "Young Charlie" wed my grandma instead,
And started his own "fambily."

A found "massacree" became real to me,
As things that she kept on her shelves.
Her stories went on, but wilderness gone,
The plains were like ghosts of themselves.

When pierced by the rails paralleling old trails
That horses bestowed on the West,
And worse yet fenced, the prairie commenced
"Tuh shrivel, 'n' shrink," like the rest.

Then she'd story North, where they had gone forth
On a quest for more untamed land,
Of Saskatchewan, and how they'd gone on
To the Yukon's promising sand.

The mustangers died, but seed scattered wide
Carried on in a world they spurned;
Where wild things are lost, and few heed the cost
Of values we see overturned.

What I am today, I owe in some way,
To stories she pulled from the gloom;
To cowboys and kin who lived once "ag'in"
When walls forgot Grandmother's room.

© 2005, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Alf told us about his inspiration for the poem:

Like many others who write cowboy poetry, I grew with movie heroes like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. There was nothing unusual about this in our neighborhood, but unlike my playmates, I had a supplemental supply of cowboy stories available. My grandmother on my mother's side of the family had lived through much of the "classical" cowboy era in the western United States before moving to Canada, and she frequently lived with us. Between her own stories and those of people she had known personally, her background provided ample fodder for a seemingly endless supply of tales about family members and those they had known. Better, she loved to tell stories as much as I liked to listen, and had the patience to relate favorites over and over again. The result was that I, as a preschooler, was introduced to American history through stories about my own ancestors. It was only much later that I began to realize she had been passing along information about more than just two generations of the Palmer family (my mother's maiden name). Part of that confusion no doubt resulted from the family's habit of naming someone in each generation Charles. It became my own middle name.

My mother and an aunt or two got interested in genealogy at one point, and claimed to have traced the family back to within about thirty years of the Mayflower's landing. I seem to have come by my own fiddle-foot honestly though. It seems every time somebody started talking about new land farther west, one or more Palmers was driven to go see for themselves. When they ran out of dry land at the Pacific, the family doubled back, then turned north and was soon wandering all over Canada. The stories came with them.

We asked Alf why he thinks Cowboy Poetry is important, and he commented: 

I write cowboy poetry because I cannot seem to stop writing it.

Writing poetry has for most of my life been one of the ways I processed experiences and internalized memories or thoughts. It is a creative activity that has long since become something of an addiction for me. That being the case, I suppose it is only natural that when I write, some of the things I write about belong to the cowboy world. My mother's side of the family had a long history of involvement with the lifestyle, and I was lucky enough to enjoy a few years of personal experience with it.

The community of cowboy poets is sharing something akin to my grandmother's tales of the West as she had known it. Her memories, her values, and perhaps something of her quirky sense of humor, were passed along to my generation even before we realized they were something to be treasured. Cowboy poets are a group of like-minded people pooling individual memories and talents in an attempt to preserve and transmit to even more generations something that began, for me,
in my grandmother's room.

I believe that as our society moves ever deeper into an era typified by urbanization, values of convenience, and licensed lifestyle; as the wilderness succumbs to technology and activist ignorance; and as rural areas sink deeper into a quagmire of bureaucratic incursion; preservation and transmission of such stories to new generations is becoming even more important. Those stories are the key to understanding a different way, the way of the pioneer, the individualist. It is the way of those who paradoxically strive for self-reliance while remaining ready to help others.

It is the way symbolized by the cowboy.

You can email Alf Bilton.

Visit Alf Bilton's web site

 

 

The Pixie Horse

.........................................

              It's the cowboy way to admire fair play and abide by the spoken word,
              So it's  hard on some guys ain't  yet realized that there's horns in a verbal herd.
              Many verbal stampedes have left a man treed by the words that he loosed as a joke;
              'Cause it's mighty durn few of the boys in the crew that'll stand fer the code  bein'  broke.

.........................................


      There's always at least one Shorty in any ridin' bunch,
      An'  I'll bet ours coulda beat all yours at bein' the first to lunch;
      Or when it come to talkin'.  He sure could stretch a tale.
      He'd make a chipmunk's tiny track sound like a grizzly trail.
      Still, when his mind was on it,  the man could surely ride;
      An' a smoother loop no other threw, nor a tighter diamond tied.

      He overbid fer one wee horse both Sam and I had eyed,
      That understood our human talk as well as you or I.
      Pixie cost him 'way too much,  but he wanted braggin' rights,
      Though she never seemed to like him,  an' she sometimes tried to bite.
      She'd wait to catch him nappin', then dump him with disdain;
      He got real good at summersaults still holdin'  both the reins.

      Now, Shorty had one nasty quirk fer which I'd little use,
      When tempered up where none could see, he'd 'teach' with real abuse.
      I was in the barn with drill in hand, when I heard him gettin' mean,
      Behind a big high stack o' bales where he thought he'd not be seen.
      He was kinda small to swing at me,  though I kinda hoped he would;
      But instead, he reckoned to justify takin' up that chunk of wood.

      Some other hands had heard the row and arrived to listen in
      As, pinched fer gut an' long on wind, he tallied up her sins.
      "Fer one plugged nickel now,"  he swore,  "I'd sell thet waste u' skin!"
      ... An'  that doggoned little Pixie horse, looked straight at me ... an' grinned.
      So I drilled an'  I plugged up a five-cent piece, while his lips got white an'  thin;
      An'  I paid the price asked fer the Pixie horse with her silly stuck-on grin.

      Back at home,  that horse was good as gold, trusted with kids an' kin.
      An'  Shorty they say, no matter how mad, never beat on a horse again.

       © 2004, Alf Bilton
       This poem and commentary may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf Bilton adds:

"The Pixie Horse" is a combination of several factual elements woven into a fiction.

Shorty was a real man, and had many of the qualities attributed to him here, though also many better ones not used in my fictional invention. He was a valued friend of mine until his death a few years ago, though we did have our differences. Our dispute regarding the use of a club, let alone one heavy enough and jagged enough to actually damage the animal didn't happen quite as portrayed here, but did apparently result in his abandoning the practice.

Pixie was a real horse he owned, though not the horse that took such great delight in catching him napping.  That summersault trick I saw twice when we were jogging along talking and his mount suddenly stopped dead.  Both times, he wound up breathless and flat on his back in front of the stationary horse with the reins still in his hand.  Neither of us ever betrayed any secret interest in owning or even using that particular animal;   though it was never known to even try that trick on anyone else.

The plugged nickel business is from a story I heard in a mining camp on the shores of Great Bear Lake. It was apparently manufactured by a millwright tired of listening to a friend brag about his headache after paying an enormous fee for two contraband bottles of whiskey smuggled into a dry camp.  I cannot personally vouch for its veracity, but believed it myself as, when I arrived, the whole camp was still laughing about the price asked and paid for the second of the two bottles.

And as for the grin ... well, anyone who's been around horses very much knows that sometimes they will launch a grin or even a horse-laugh at you under circumstances that really make you wonder.

The preamble, you say? Well, that was a commentary to explain to those who've never had the privilege of knowing men like these, why anyone might be expected to live up to his word under such circumstances, much less take pride in the fact he had. Shorty was such a man. Beyond that, the preamble was something of a failed experiment. It was meant, among other things, to duplicate the shift in rhythm one hears when a running horse does flying lead changes, but has never been spotted as such.

 

 

The Freight Musher's Tale

 

      The old Dawson run wasn't very much fun, when winter bit down hard;
      When an icy death begrudged each breath of man or canine pard.
      And if she blew, the trail-wise knew they'd best just camp and wait;
      So they'd not be lost in the swirling frost, and mush past Heaven's gate.
      I recall one storm, even worse than norm, that blew out Christmas Eve.
      It died so late I thought I'd wait... for dawn, before I'd leave.
      By a nice warm fire, I'd soon retire to rest like my sleeping team...
      Then my eye was caught, by a bright red dot... No, it wasn't a dream!
      Out there all alone so far from home, thinking no one else around;
      I'd no inkling yet just... who I'd met; though by now I heard the sound.
      How he cussed and swore hauling back and forth, untangling harnessed deer;
      One with a nose that, simply glowed, up front where he could steer.
      I rebuilt the fire, piled wood on higher... called out; "Fetch your cup!"
      When he'd tied his deer and... did come near; we were ready to coffee up.
      He'd a long white beard looked... kind of weird, tangled and, full of sticks;
      A torn red suit with scuffed-up boots, and... the look of a man near licked.

      He flipped a lip and, took a sip, from his blue enameled mug;
      Brushed a log to sit and, paused a bit... then gave that beard a tug.
      "Been trying for years to mush beyond here, without using noisy dogs.
      Tried moose and some hares... a caribou pair... all left me sitting on logs.
      When we get to the trees they... tangle you see. The tree line's the thing has me humped.
      Now I know even deer can't get me past here. Tonight, the whole sleigh has been dumped.
      They'll not pull as one and... it's really no fun going nine different ways all at once.
      And that lead reindeer, I now greatly fear is naught but a... gilded dunce!
      So I guess that's that; goll-durn and drat!...Now I'll have to hoof it again."
      Then his breath caught, "Well, I'd better trot but; thanks for the coffee, friend."

      "But wait!" said I, inspired to try and... help him if I could. 
      "Why don't you fly? Once in the sky you'd... sail right over the woods.
      I've a sled full of beans and... to me it would seem, hot gas being lighter than air;
      A flatulent deer might. fly out of here; if stuffed with a big enough share."

      I'll keep the tale short, no details report... suffice to say, launch was a go;
      Though... hitched nose to tail, those deer got so pale they couldn't be seen in the snow.
      Now on a cold night, folk not knowing right, think freezing pops trees apart;
      But that cracking sound that we hear around, is really just... reindeer fart.

       © 2004, Alf Bilton
       This poem and illustration may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

(This poem is included in our Christmas 2004 celebration of poetry)

 

Waiting For Nightmare

A young midnight sun was, having great fun, playing peek-a-boo down in the peaks;
And the last of the rain had, moved on again, having swollen the rivers and creeks.
Though now she must wait, by an old corral gate, my daughter's eyes shone with delight.
She thought of the mare we'd come to see there. If she liked it, she'd own it tonight.

Just the name of, Nightmare, had already scared older riders and buyers, away;
But I could surmise in her ten-year-old eyes, not a trace of such worry today.
The black Morgan mare just, hadn't been there, on the evening we had arrived;
They'd some riders out late, again she must wait. Hardly breathing, she somehow survived.

From when she could talk or, for that matter, walk; she had longed for a horse of her own.
She'd put reins on her trike, wanted spurs for her bike, kept longing through all the years flown.
Always horses she talked; faked a bow-legged walk; and sent her first letter away
To a famous relation lived 'cross the nation; Olympian rider, Jim Day.

Then Dad had agreed that, it seemed a real need, not a whimsical game just for fun;
But the contract she had with her, soft-headed dad, said first there were things to be done.
She should first realize why, a pony's no prize, for riders outgrow such a mount.
She'd get a real horse; when she'd, grown some of course; and they'd haggled the inches to count.

Most important of all, she must keep up a stall, learn to groom, to pitch, to work;
For such four-legged friends need help at both ends, and it's help that no owner should shirk.
She must learn to ride, so the horse could be tried, and her skill would be part of that test.
Dad knew from the grin, that his closest of kin figured, this was the part she'd like best.

For a four- legged pard she had pledged to work hard'n' wait 'til the inches were grown.
And she had learned to ride, and done chores on the side. So now Doubting Dad had been shown.
From the lake past the trees, a loon warbled pleas, to the powers, in this lonely land;
And the thought crossed my mind that, I hadn't been kind. How much could this little girl stand?

When dreams are fulfilled, something else may be killed, something hid, helping shape who we are;
Achievement can cause other dreams to be lost if an, unforeseen change, goes too far.
Fulfillment's a door can be closed evermore, if we step out to take the great test;
But if we never try, we'll never know why; nor if wanting or having is best.

Now my daughter's first door, I could see there before that, rustic old log corral gate,
But seen only by Dad in the, thoughts that he had, encountered, while sharing her wait.
Then the drumming of hooves, and the glimpses of moves, through the limbs of a nearby pine!
... Running horses swept in with a thundering din ... a black at the front of the line!

Now, it's many a year since, last I was here and, stood leaning against the old gate;
While a kid and a mare took a spin, right out there, ending their long lonely wait.
The door seen as closed, the one that had posed such a, problem, for me, near the end;
Here today I can see as, what it has been: something opened, to let in a friend.

© 2005, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

The Wrangler's Hat

"Beneath this broad-brimmed hat of mine, I've always felt at home;
Wuz only while it, hung somewhere, I ever seemed alone.

It weathered life's indignities, bore all the ups an' downs;
An' though it sometimes, drooped a bit; it never let me down.
Without complaint, or mean advice, it shared my hopes an' fears.
No other's ever proved that true, throughout the many years.

So keep yur shiny halo, Pete!   If my hat can't go through,
I'll side a pard already tried an', you can ... toss me too."

© 2001, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf says: So what else is there to say about a breed of men seldom seen without their hats?
A cowboy's hat really is usually the first clothing on and the last off, perhaps because he is outdoors so much. They have even been known to step into the shower before remembering to remove it.

I was told one time that the hat though, is not a real good tip-off between drugstore and working cowboy unless you can get close enough to sniff for woodsmoke without getting your nose wiped, that the real test is the presence of string in a pocket.  According to the grand old lady that told me this, unless you catch a cowboy in town in his Sunday-go-to meetin' clothes, he'll almost always have a piece of sting on him somewhere.  I was on my way to town myself when I heard this, and decided to test it.

At the coffee shop, I dropped a piece of baler twine on the table in front of two friends and asked them to match it.  Both looked quizzical, but one produced a matching piece within moments.  The other headed for the door saying, "I'll be right back, just realized I left my jacket an' wallet in the truck."

 

 

Trails North Advisory

      Some folks are brought up on hot dogs while others are raised on paté.
      (Looks kinda like gunk from raw wiener, squished an' the skin thrown away).
      Things got ugly when they intermingled, right here on the infamous day,
      When a new kitchen crew, acting haughty, looked like huffing our coffee away.

      That new Canuck cook an' his pearl-diving buddy, a Yank, both aspiring grace,
      In the kitchen conspired to risk being fired, just to upgrade the "class" of the place.
      ........................................................................................................................................

      We're a red-necked bunch that show up for lunch at the old Trails North cafe;
      We like whiskey served neat, an' our waitresses sweet, an' coffee just made the old way.
      Those you don't mess aroun', when the boys are in town, or else there'll be Hell to pay.
      But that new kitchen crew seemed to miss every clue, an' decided to serve us Latté.

      Though the waitress did try, to warn the new guys, she just couldn't and finally flew;
      So, she wasn't there when that devious pair tried to launch their new milk-sotted brew.
      Well, the pearl-diver served ... an' every head swerved, as a hush fell across the whole room.
      The concentrate glare curdled milk everywhere. Too late then, he recognized doom.

      We'd two outriggers slung, an' the hangin' rope strung, an' was fetchin' that miscreant pair;
      When old Sergeant McPhee, of the R.C.M.P. bellowed, "Boys, you'd better take care!"
      "Though I fully agree, such a dastardly deed rates a hangin', right now an' right here;
      If we hang 'em high, don't be thinking just I will do paperwork all of next year."

      "There are dudes 'way out East, pants neatly creased, pulpin' forests for forms that we'll fill,
      I'll just bet what you wish, we'll have no time to fish, or to hunt, or to ski-do the hills.
      Though no judge in this land wouldn't quite understand, what we're doin' needs doin'; there's still
      All those forms to fill out, hangin' even one lout. But, you boys just do what you will."

      Well, that did give us pause, for though not fearing laws, we all had a common worst dread.
      There was not a man there wouldn't pick grizzly bear, over paperwork, to loom o'er his head.
      The discussion commenced; for though everyone sensed that justice must somehow be done,
      We'd be victims again if this durned hangin' led, to our loss of a whole year of fun.

      Then the Sergeant proposed, "Do you boys suppose, that a warnin' might better suffice;
      Somethin' else hung on high, warnin' those who might try, such crimes have a pretty stiff price?"
      In the end, what we hung was neither durned one; that pair was turned loose on the nation.
      We hung two flags you see.  It's called "effigy". One's Canuck, an' one's of Yankee persuasion.

      Now, some other stops too hang that warnin' for you,  up an' down the Alaska Highway.
      Where the two flags you see, you can even get tea,  but ... it's best you don't mention Latté.

       © 2001, Alf Bilton
       This poem and illustration may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Alf told us: I'm afraid Trails North Advisory owes more to whimsy than to inspiration.
It was likely the result of too many quiet hours looking at the unusual apparatus used to fly two flags over at the truck stop where I work sometimes (photo below).  That and thinking about the excitable collection of cowboys, truckers, miners, and the like who hang out there to swap stories and suggest solutions to all the world's problems.  A few are such dedicated regulars that they beat the waitress to work most mornings.  In return for the cook's kindness in granting them predawn access and already having the coffee pot on, they usually even set the tables for her.

There's an audio version of the poem on Alf Bilton's site, right here.


 

Sylvia

      To the hills above Whitehorse, that cradle Fish Lake,
      Came a short gritty woman for the home she would make.
      With two outridin' daughters, one 'fore an' one aft
      Of her team an' ol' wagon, though some thought her daft,
      She trekked up the Alcan with rubber-shod stock;
      Cuttin' horseshoes from tires so the horses could walk
      All those miles on the highway without splittin' hooves;
      Set a record in passin' for bold Northern moves.
      On a sorrel called Red Fox she prowled the whole land,
      What was lackin' in stature, they made up in sand;
      Blazin' trails we still follow right through to Primrose
      When we're takin' horses where better grass grows.
      She dragged up a fam'ly, can't really say raised,
      Her methods were different an' not often praised;
      They turned out a good bunch, with grit an' stout hearts;
      Some took to her lifestyle an' some, other arts.
      Her living room forest, her carpet fresh snow,
      For a ceiling she'd bright lights that Northerners know;
      For a pantry, the wildlife, or ridin' to town
      For a shower an' shop some, then turn right aroun'
      An' back to the mountain, the lake, an' the chores;
      To trail ridin' tourists, an' dude saddle sores.

      In the hills above Whitehorse, that cradle Fish Lake,
      There's a grave an' a marker you might think is fake;
      They are real as the blue tint in clear northern air,
      Just as real as the cowgirl that came to rest there.

       © 2005, Alf Bilton
       This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Alf told us: In 1959, Sylvia trekked up the Alaska Highway from Anaheim Lake, in British Columbia, with a covered wagon and three kids, all under the age of ten. She told me once that the authorities gave her a pair of 'Slow Load Ahead' signs for her daughters to carry, one ahead and one behind the wagon on saddle horses.

She founded the Sky High Wilderness Ranches operation at Fish Lake in the hills above Whitehorse. There, she and her partner, Ian McDougall, created one of the most worthwhile tourist experiences the North has to offer. 

One of the outridin' daughters, Wendy, started a similar operation at Sunshine Valley Ranch farther down the valley and is now a partner in the Sky High venture with Ian and others. The other outrider, Penny, grew up to become the Yukon's first official Poet Laureate, P. J. Johnson, author of Rhymes of the Raven Lady.

 

     The Sad Saga of Parsimonious Murray

      Parsimonious Murray could never be hurried when thinking of spending a cent,
      And if it cost two before he was through, that penny would never be spent.

      When he heard of the gold to be won from the cold in a faraway Klondike place,
      He was off like shot for the wealth that he sought, one of the first in the race.
      He did lose some time while saving the dime on train fare down to the coast;
      But assured of his prize, he figured it wise, having taken a lead at the post.

      Though it took a few days to walk such a ways, he finally got to the dock;
      But when he inquired of boats to be hired, the price was an awful shock.
      Next seen on a log going North in the fog, bold Murray evaded the fare;
      Pursuing the dream launched so many schemes in a way that no other would dare.

      It was getting near dark Parsimonious parked his log on Skagway's beach;
      And scuttled through town never looking around with the Yukon now within reach.
      At the top of the pass he knew he'd be asked to produce a whole pile of things,
      With no ton or two, he'd not be let through, in pursuit of the metal of kings.

      "I am here to get gold and not to be told how to spend any money of mine.
      When I get to the top, I'll circle the cop, and continue along doing fine."
      So he gave them the slip, though it lengthened his trip a bigger bit more than he'd planned,
      Beyond the street lights, out where the bug bites, lost Murray just wandered the land.

      Where a life is the cost for most who get lost unequipped for the Yukon's way,
      Bold Murray came through, to himself staying true, too thrifty or stingy to pay.
      It was Dawson he sought and to Dawson he got, some eighteen summers too late;
      Then just hung around on the edge of the town, as if he'd a reason to wait.

      When the very next year, they called volunteers to go fight the Kaiser in France,
      Parsimonious Murray was finally hurried, as if he'd awaited the chance.
      The boys took their leave from a crowd looking grieved and I,  in the shade of a tree,
      Just had to smile, for after a while thought, "One ... wants a ticket home free."

       © 2004, Alf Bilton
       This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Alf told us: The Klondike gold rush launched a tidal wave of humanity into the Yukon wilderness in 1898, few of whom had any real idea what they were getting themselves into, and very few of whom were properly equipped to survive. To stave off disaster, the Canadian government had the North West Mounted Police establish check-points at the border crossings to enforce an impromptu regulation limiting entry to those considered adequately equipped. There were still many individual tragedies, but the move prevented what would otherwise have been a catastrophe of naive self-destruction on the scale of some mythical lemming migration.

Of those who did reach the gold fields, few knew anything about mining and fewer actually found anything but disappointment and hardship. There were, of course, no social services available to care for those who went broke, so one claim was set aside and operated by the authorities for that purpose. Those in desperate need were permitted to work what became known as "Poverty Bar" for a predetermined number of days. Whatever gold they found formed the nucleus of a new "grubstake" for them until they could find work or arrange to leave.

The pace and rhythm of this fictional piece was heavily influenced by the flickering, fast-paced images of the Klondike recorded on early motion picture equipment. Some authentic film of the early Yukon has been archived and, of course, there is also a Charlie Chaplin classic at work here.

 

Beyond This River

If other hours and other days await,
Beyond this river beckon hills unseen,
Unwalked, untraveled yet; but here's my fate
On water writ between these banks of green:
It's here I'll fail, or best the current and
Hone my skills to best effect. I will sound
This crossing's bitter temper, learn to stand
Alone in Fury's path and hold my ground
('t may serve me well another time and place
Beyond this ford, beyond this test and text).
I'll not be ruled by Boredom's golden mace,
Forever foreseeking what's coming next.

I'll chance what joys and pain this world can give;
I'll win a shore unknown, and knowing, Live.

© 1967, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Alf told us: At the mouth of the Yellowknife River on Great Slave Lake, there is a rocky hill on the western bank that was very special to me. That was my thinking rock when I was young. From it I could look out to the big lake or up the river explorers had traveled in bygone years. Below was the bridge built to carry a road that as yet went nowhere much beyond Prelude Lake, a popular fishing location. The bridge had been built only shortly before our family moved to the area, and something about a bridge for a road going nowhere, particularly in such a historically significant place, drew me back there many times.

It was there I went one afternoon after a medical for the Vancouver School of Art had revealed the fact that I was red-green color blind. That pretty much eradicated my top three choices for a career. I had to decide what to do next and had just lost the goal that had guided such decisions until that point.

My attention kept drifting to that river and my thoughts gravitating to the men who had first crossed and traveled it. They hadn't known where they were going either, but had won for themselves experiences and precious memories they must have treasured for the rest of their lives.

Somewhere up on that rock, I lost my sense of urgency about career planning. Without that, it was a simple matter to resolve whatever else I might do, I would try to shape my life in such a fashion as to collect worthwhile memories along the way.

I penned the first draft of this sonnet before running out of cigarettes and heading for home. A few months later, I left Canada to begin my own yondering years.

 

That Ride!

A time when the blood's up in horses and man,
When hoof beat and heart beat thud hard as they can,
When sanity, caution, and couth fly away;
Berserker-like joy's turning sober eyes fey.

The herd's into timber and not slowed a lick,
We're racing full tilt where I know it's too thick,
We're taunting the Fates who will flip the next card;
But there's joy in the madness and riding this hard.

Frustration's behind and the fear never rose,
Elation's the spur now that's shredding my clothes;
We plunge through a gauntlet of flailing green limbs,
The forest so dense here the dawning light dims.

The wind's singing by me and hat hits the string;
I'm being slapped silly, but don't feel the sting;
I'm high on the saddle and drunk with the speed,
At one in a union of tree, man, and steed.

It's dancing, this weaving that seeks to avoid
The lances and lashes of trees we've annoyed;
It's graceful and rhythmic as any Strauss Waltz;
And so far, we've danced it without any faults.

They're slowing, we've turned them, we all settle down.
The madness is passing, I feel myself frown
At chances we took with what's left of my hide.
But Heart, Lord, insists we thank You for that ride!

© 2005, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Alf told us: I've always figured that every life should include occasional moments of pure idiocy. The trick is to survive them.

This incident occurred just after daybreak one morning when I was trying to dig a herd of playful horses out of a really bad place. Frustrated, I finally just gave Red Lady her head to see if she had any better ideas. Her solution put all of us at risk, but gave me the ride of a lifetime. For a few minutes, she and I became caught up in the exhilaration that gripped the spirited herd. Later reflection on what happened, and the fact that I actually enjoyed that ride too much to think of pulling her in, reminded me of the Viking term berserk. It must have been a close cousin to what I felt. That was the last time I ever went for the horses without taking the dog along.

Though all ended well on this occasion, I worried about what Old Sylvia, my employer, would say when she realized I'd lost it and chased her horses through such a place. There could be no hiding the tattered condition of my clothing when I drove the herd into the yard that morning, and she was too experienced not to grasp it all at a glance.

That grand old lady was ahead of me again. I was still trying to think of something to say when she walked over and started to look me up and down with great deliberation. Called away just then, she grinned and said only, "Don't get addicted!"

 

On Reflection

Each river forded, I recall, seemed first
A torrent fraught with dread. But all
Those struggles, soakings, scares, taught me to thirst.
I thirst for Living, hearing rivers call.
While Age is sleeping, I escape my bonds,
Flee beyond rivers there's no way around.
Rejecting the stillness of beaver ponds,
I plunge through currents warding safer ground,
Follow strayed horses up the pass. Seeking
New view points, better grass, I tease old friends
Weren't really dead; feed foxes come peeking
And trust my camp. Then wake! Such dreams have ends.

I slip Time's hobbles, dream again I'm free,
To flee the years with the cowboy in me.


© 2005, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 


This image may not be printed or reposted without the artist's written permission.
"On Reflection" by Aili Kurtis

Alf writes: The blame for this one goes to a pastel painting by Aili Kurtis, an artist who is fast becoming one of Canada's national treasures. She has the rare gift of the true master. She can so deftly inject mood into a realistic rendering that the result beggars even photography at its best. Most of her work is from nature, and her web gallery makes a great place for browsing a
virtual wilderness when weather forces me indoors.

One of her pieces, "On Reflection," features shaded old logs, some dappled with unmelted snow, brooding across a pond from younger forest out in the sunlight. There's even a something in that pond makes me itch to dig the binoculars out of my saddle bags. A lesser artist might have abandoned realism to dispel that little mystery. No doubt she knows what it was, but I hope she never tells me. "On Reflection" haunted me for some time before I realized that it seemed to capture the light of that moment between day and dusk, or between mist and clarity. Now, I've experienced such moments many times, but they usually occur only once a day, and not every day at that. I'd have thought it would take an artist years to capture one.

"On Reflection" seems to have caught my muse's attention too. The sticky-fingered little critter seized on the weathered logs as a symbol of reluctant aging, stole her title, and started clamoring something about a companion piece for Beyond This River. The result reflects on some of the same issues from the perspective of an older man almost forty years later.

 

Is A Cowboy Still A Cowboy?


"Hey look, Ma! There's a cowboy," said a kid the other day;
And i wondered, "What's a cowboy?" as i went on my way.
Ever wondered, "What's a cowboy?" and how to spot the fakes?
If you're a big-hat dandy or, have what it really takes?

What i see in this mirror, is a man and not a hat.
(Good thing too or i betcha, i'd hurt where the razor's at!)
That guy that's lookin' back at me, knows what i really am;
i sometimes wish he'd tell me more, but he don't give a damn.

Is a cowboy still a cowboy, beneath a baseball hat?
Or fannin' gears 'stead of pony rears, movin' cows like that?
Is a cowboy still a cowboy, head bared in Sunday suit?
Or afoot down at the stock yard, sortin' with gate and chute?

Is a cowboy still a cowboy, that never owned a cow;
That maybe worked with horses, and too old to do that now?
Is a cowboy still a cowboy, if he now lives in town,
And bellies up to store-bought beef, so wants the prices down?

Is a cowboy still a cowboy, while seedin' hay and grain;
Or comin' back to get it, on a tractor once again?
Or keepin' a grip on the food chain herdin' woolly sheep?
While diggin' Her a cellar, where apples and such will keep?

Is a cowboy still a cowboy, decked out in uniform;
Huggin' a gun they tell him, might hold off a comin' storm?
Is a cowboy still a cowboy, wrecked somewhere overseas;
His bones at rest in foreign soil, without a prairie breeze?

Is a cowboy still a cowboy, when only three feet tall?
And are cowboys sometimes women, not even male at all?
"I think," says guy in the mirror, raisin' his coffee cup,
"He's somethin' seen in anyone I'd trust to, cowboy up."

© 2006, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf Bilton comments on the poem: It's kind of from nowhere and everywhere at once, the product of decades of musing about the image and issues, a reflection on both personal experiences and encounters with other folks' stories, opinions, and comments.  Many moments of suddenly "relating" to things found in conversations, literature, and occasionally even movies, contributed to this piece.

Examples would include my own trudge through drizzle in northern Italy many years ago to visit and photograph the grave of an uncle reputed to be the best bronc rider from my mother's side of the family, and recognition of real kids I've known on encountering the precocious little ranch hand who lets a crippled girl try to mount his horse in Robert Redford's movie "The Horse Whisperer."  The timeless moment of another youngster encountering a calf in Victoria Boyd's poem "Lil Buckaroo" is in there somewhere, along with contemplation of Sam Jackson's "Prestige," a product of his "One Shepherd Crusade."

Some women live far beyond the ranch wife role, itself a thing deserving considerable merit, and prove themselves quite capable every chore a cowboy encounters.  I would go so far as to suggest the term "cowboy" applies to such women if only to forestall the possibility of someone reading devaluation of their credentials into the term "cowgirl." Two such women would be Edna
Zigenbine
, described in Jack Sammon's poem of the same name; and Sylvia McDougall, who I knew myself.  This whole issue rose in my own mind because one of Sylvia's daughters, on having completed a partsman's course a number of years back, shook the Yukon Territory's educational system to it's smug roots when she challenged anyone's right to issue her a diploma as a "partsperson" or "partswoman" instead of "partsman."  The upshot was that she was issued the same diploma as everyone else who graduated that course; but I strongly suspect that if I were to check today, those with less respect and understanding of either merit or language will have arranged to have only partsperson diplomas issued to anyone.

As for the young lad quoted from our encounter in a grocery store, I never did get his name.

 

Wall Thoughts

Ain't really so awful splayed here on the wall,
'Cept fer the knowin' that I'll hafta fall.
What with my head bein' closest ta dirt,
An' both boots above me; that is gonna hurt.

Like Wile E. Coyotee, I hang here a bit
With time to foresee it, an' judge where I'll hit.
I've time to regret now, with all of my heart,
Not waitin' ta saddle, back there at the start.

Them calves that got out woulda made some good veal,
But likely too old by the time that I heal;
That nag is still pitchin' all over the place ...
They's some kinda grin there on her evil face!!!

Shore glad they was no one around here ta see
That thump in the flank she got from my knee;
Or me on my belly across her bare back
While she done her buckin' 'tween here an' the shack.

Too bad that such ridin' won't let ya draw breath,
Else I coulda rode the durned cayuse ta death!
I'd planned me a dismount real well but then, darn,
What with the spinnin'; lost track o' this barn.

I reckon this wall don' like cowboys at all,
Now it's yanked back its grip, I'm startin' ta fall;
But slowly, so slowly, nose inches from dirt....
Somehow I just know it; this one's gonna hurt!

© 2006, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Alf Bilton comments on the poem: This was one of those fool moments a guy doesn't really like to remember, let alone talk about much; but too funny to be kept to oneself.  Suffice to say, about the only thing not true about this one is the dialect, borrowed from an ex-Texan who now lives and works here in the Yukon.

I never cease to be amazed at how time slows in a situation like that.  If my mind hadn't been elsewhere just then, I swear I'd have had enough time to do the first two or three drafts of the poem before that wall and I parted company.

 

Red Lady

Likely missin' Alberta an' sweet prairie hay,
That bunch of new horses was determined to stray;
So the boss said, "You watch 'em, an' fetch 'em each dawn!
But you'd best use my red mare an' not what you're on."

Well, she looked kinda puny fer riders my size,
But her gait was as gentle as fluff in blue skies.
Then we left outta there at the speed of a thought,
An' I started to wonder if she could be bought.

She was nimble an' quicker than even spooked deer,
Just as pretty to look at as icy cold beer,
Sure-footed an' trail-wise, an' surprisingly strong ...
Right from the beginning, we got right along.

She could tote me 'way higher than any tree line:
With the sheep gettin' nose-bleeds, Red Lady was fine,
Up where eagles got dizzy while just wheezin' by,
An' I'd scroonch in the saddle to stop brushin' sky.

She was likely the best horse that I'll ever ride;
Though I know there's a lot yet that I haven't tried.
A friend an' advisor, an' a good watcher too,
I just never found anythin' she couldn't do.

We followed those horses an' a couple new foals
Even into the deepest of God-forgot holes.
Once she kicked a red devil right offa the trail,
Gettin' through to a colt with a arrow-shaped tail.

Boys, I know you've seen nothin' like what I described,
An' now Bucky is wond'rin' just what I imbibed;
But I'll swear on the Bible that any man's brought:
I will always regret Lady couldn't be bought.

© 2006, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Alf told us the poem is "...based on a real experience though a few details may have been stretched a tad...The trouble with using a ranch horse instead of sticking to your own string, is very similar to using a new loaner or rental car while your own vehicle is in the shop.  Once you've tried something obviously better, what you were perfectly happy with before is likely to suffer by comparison."

He added, "The lady was having a bad hair day and likely didn't anticipate her picture being made public."

 

 

The One That Was Waitin' At Home

The pad of the pup follows me an' the mare
Is nearly as soft as the snow in the air;
My friends an' companions, this brave hairy pair;
Another one's waitin' at home.

Durn cat's in my face now, to lodge a complaint;
The weather's all wet an' his water dish ain't,
An' though he's bin patient as any ol' saint,
We're long overdue gettin' home!

He mutters an' grumbles an' carries on some,
Of pendin' disaster or worse that'll come,
If I ain't more careful 'bout leavin' my chum,
Stuck mindin' the place here at home!

That fire's bin out now, so long I am told,
That him an' the mice have a truce for the cold;
An' all of em's sure that the shack should be sold,
For somethin' stays warm like a home!

No mention of times that I took 'im with me;
How he hated the tent, but loved runnin' free;
Or eagle convinced 'im he'd much rather be
The one that was waitin' at home!

© 2006, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

If You're Gonna Be a Cowboy

 Sure as cats is senior kittens, learned dignity an' such;
 If you're gonna be a cowboy, son, you'd oughtta know this much:
      
 It ain't all fun an' freedom, big hats an' ridin' high;
 Or even just in tippin' hats as you pass the ladies by.
 It's lotsa work with little rest, an' lotsa lonely too;
 'Cause mostly when you'd like to play, there's too much work to do.
    
 Sure there's days out on the ranges, big part of what you'll do;
 The bond between a man an' horse, an' skies of denim blue.
 But it ain't all done in sunshine, there's  rains an' blizzards too;
 An' though you're wet, an' sore, an' cold, there's still the work to do.
    
 It ain't all done from horseback, an' it likely never was;
 There's wounds to tend an' fence to mend.  It's what a cowboy does.
 You'll find that you have little time for fun an' sleepin' too.
 That ride to town is just too long.  There's too much work to do.
    
 There are calves to pull an' nursemaid, bad bulls to be dehorned;
 There's hay an' feed to pitch an' pile; so best that you're forewarned.
 It ain't quite like in movies, with the dull bits skippin' through;
 Real cowboys know forever means, there's still more work to do.
    
 There's some who feel more peace of mind out here than when in town,
 An' find that lackin' luxuries don't ever get 'em down.
 They see a time when sun comes up to find that now they too
 Can smile as they get saddled up, 'cause  they have work to do.
    
 But:
 
 Sure as snakes all pluck their eyebrows, an' hiss thei Howdy-doos;
 If you're gonna be a cowboy, son, you're gonna pay some dues.
 

© 2007, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf told us, "Most of what we write seems to overlook or make light of the downside to the
cowboy business, the part of it that keeps a lot of young folks from going that route. One friend of mine who grew up on a ranch, but chose to become a truck driver instead, claims this piece pretty much sums up what prompted him to jump the fence at an early age."

 

 

Be It Elko Or Eldorado

 Don hardly knew heifer from hondo,
 But somehow his fevered mind
 Saw Elko as Eldorado,
 And knights in the cowboy kind.

 Still seeking that something much better,
 All dreamers are sure they'll find,
 He shook off Reason's harsh fetter,
 Sure that his critics were blind.

 Don traded his hard hat for Stetson,
 Retrained his puzzled old mare,
 Just ignored his neighbors' bets on
 How long he would last out there.

 His tin pants were swapped for blue denim,
 Silk shirt for more underwear;
 Then Quixote, Lordy bless 'im,
 Tackled windmills wearing hair.

 The odds looked a little uneven:
 Windmills, all longhorns and quick;
 Vaquero, a greenhorn, unseasoned;
 Some said, a little bit thick.

 Don's heeler compadre, called Sancho,
 Turned out to know cattle tricks;
 That dog bought his Don time to know
 'Bout hooking and vicious kicks.

 Don stuck it all out and got better,
 Though too old to make top hand;
 Then took to rhyming each letter,
 Written 'bout life on the land.

 Seems right about then, the word "Elko,"
 Came to the old rhymer's mind;
 (Mystical place old cowboys go,
 Welcome to hang with their kind).

 Don never came back from that gather,
 Hired on with Service and Clark;
 Some say they're still rhymin' blather;
 Still heard, when dusk turns to dark.

 Be it Elko or Eldorado,
 Some folks will follow a dream
 Far past places the cautious go:
 MAKING things be as they seem.

© 2007, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


With apologies to Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, the community of Elko, longhorn cattle, windmills, and anyone else who may have been unintentionally annoyed, slandered, or otherwise discomfited
by this little fiction.
 

 

 

The Home Place

In the lines on his face there's a map of the creeks;
It's carved in deep contour to record all the weeks
He spends freezing or frying, midwife to the earth;
While he's catching, in sluices, the gold she gives birth.

Most at home with the wild things when he's not alone,
He is awkward with herd-folk in populous zones.
He's inclined to be stubborn and set in his ways,
Like he's been on his lonesome for too many days.

There are lots who don't know him, who don't understand,
That the old placer miner is part of this land.
It has held him, and fed him, and sculpted his face
'Til he speaks of what shaped him as just, "the home place."

© 2007, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


 

Alf comments:

I worked on one of the smaller placer operations for a few years, and  noticed that the boss always thought of his home being the claim, not the place in town where he wintered.  His home was in an interesting neighborhood. Though we frequently saw no other humans for weeks at a time, his other neighbors often dropped by ... fox, caribou, grizzlies, ptarmigan, and occasionally even sheep or buffalo.

Like ranching, placer mining tends to be more a matter of lifestyle than vocation. Most of the still-active operations tend to be very small, consisting of an owner with one or two hired hands. Others are family
businesses staffed primarily by two and sometimes three generations of the same family. A relative few are larger concerns with more equipment and a greater number of employees, but even with these the "home" and "family" aspects play an important role wherein the same people tend to hire on year after year.

 

 

The Morning That Pedro Blew

'bout a hell an' a half full of spiteful rage launches the squeal of hate
That declares me dead as he drops his head an' tries to kick down the sun!!!
My leather deck tips, my horizon slips into line with the trees nearby,
But with boots in his ears an' my head on his rear I somehow survive that one!!!

Now he tries ag'in, adds curlyque spin! I'm up on a headless horse!!!
Leanin' back so far ... that my shoulders are ... near slammin' his ... risin' rump,
Ag'in I stay stuck!! But this horse can buck!! ... An' I ain't no rodeo man!!!
On the ground ag'in, four hooves dug in, ... ducks aside as he ...dodges a stump!!!

That dang near worked, ... that sudden jerk to the side came ...unexpected!!!
Must stay on reflex, 'cause whatever ... comes next, ... I mustn't take time to ... ponder.
No time to think, ... just trust instinct! ... an' don't give 'im any more slack!
Buckin' straight ag'in ... no room to spin ... 'tween bank an' ... pond that's ... yonder.

Pullin' up his head ... seems he wants me dead!! ... He's gonna come up an' back!!!
Stingin' hat between ears so now he'll fear just luck avoided more hurtin'.
... but we're stood upright!! That hat-bestowed fright stole his balance... blunder, ,,, stumble!!
Back feet gettin' ... wet! ... he'll topple us yet!! ...we're gonna get dunked for ... certain!!!

Deep breath, feet free, death grip with the knees ... he staggers, but doesn't fall!!!
Four hooves on the ground, ... surprised that it's sound! ... just stands! ... startin' to shake.
I fake a calm tone, say ... “Horse, we're alone, so why don't you quit showin' off?"
... I allow him to drink ... quits just as I think I must rescue that little lake.

He too pretends calm as we move along, now that man an' mount are tested.
But we'll both take care with the other there, knowin' neither was really bested.

© 2008, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf comments
:

Pedro was one of eighteen head of new stock brought to a tourist operation I was working at, and the my first experience with a horse who really knew how to buck.  From the very beginning, it was obvious that I wasn't dealing with just another one that liked to work out the morning kinks with a few crow hops.

For his first trip out of the yard, I was using him to ride drag on a group of tourists someone else was leading up the mountain (our usual routine for testing new stock and teaching them the trails and routines).  As he started acting up, I dropped back farther and farther to avoid exciting the other horses.  It was when I started him forward again that he decided he'd rather go back to the yard, and our clash of wills really kicked into high gear.

Though I didn't know it at the time, we were still in sight of the trail riders.  They watched the altercation from atop a nearby ridge.  Consequently, our little rodeo wound up in folks' home movies all the way from Japan to Germany.

 

 

Sunset Gold

“There's gold in the sunset,” the cowboy had said, “You can see it as clear as the pines.”
We sat by the fire with coffee in hand, talkin' old days, an' cowboys, an' mines.
The horses were settled, the camp was set up, old-timer and I were at ease.
We had been talkin' of when he was young, an' green as the mountains an' trees.

I was wary of windies, an' reckoned a few had been fannin' the fire at my feet.
He said he'd known Dalton, an' Soapy, an' Reid; seen Dawson with only one street.
He said he'd rode drag on the first Dalton herd, at least up as far as the Post;
Been left there to work on the buildings, it seems, with others came up from the coast.

“There's gold in the sunset,” the cowboy opined, “It augers a change for the best.
But now if you'll 'scuse me, I'm gonna turn in. This cowboy's in need of his rest.”
He rose to his feet then, drew back from the fire, an' disappeared under the trees.
I sat there an' pondered the ways of the world, an' how he could lie with such ease.

First time that I saw him, already old, a tamarack twisted but true;
Fence-rail skinny an' crusty as bark, his jeans were a used-to-be blue.
But believe he knew Service, a banker back then? Or rafted with Sam McGee?
As likely as workin' for sunset gold, with sunrise a bonus for free!

“There's gold in the sunset,” the cowboy had said, that claim was staked out in my mind.
An' now that I noticed, it seemed he was right. It was pretty as any you'll find.
The sunrise that followed was brighter somehow, an' for once I was first to the fire.
I grinned as I waited to tease him a bit, I'd hint he should maybe retire.

The pot rattles failed an' the coffee smell too, I finally knelt at his side.
That cowboy would rest forever it seemed. Sometime in the night he had died.
I wrapped 'im an' packed 'im an' gathered his things; not many as maybe you've guessed.
I checked out some letters was almighty old, an' they put my doubts to the test.

“There's gold in the sunset,” the cowboy had said, “You can see it as clear as the pines.”
Seems now that I'm older, I see what he saw, the values behind the two lines.
I think he knew Service, a banker back then, and rafted with Sam McGee;
And here I am workin' for sunset gold, with sunrise a bonus for free.

© 2008, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf comments
: Before mankind gets too excited about nearing a successful conclusion to the long search for a Theory of Everything, I reckon Steven Hawking and the boys will have to set aside investigation of black holes and the like to ponder some other universal mysteries. No Theory of Everything will be deserving of the name until it accounts for why many women seem driven to accompany each other to the powder room, and why anyone with a choice takes up the cowboy life."

 

 

The Campfire Olympics

Both moon an' star have seen from afar
(An' maybe up close, like it's claimed),
Flung riders that soared fer light-years afore
Bein' drawed back to earth, untamed.

A cowboy's worst wreck, that don't bust his neck,
Becomes a war story to tell.
Boys at the fire judge who went higher,
An' flapped in best form as he fell.

Their scars are compared, an' bones bin repaired;
The gettin' embellished with pride;
Each pretend stoic sounds as heroic
As any ain't right up an' died.

They's no prizes won, 'cause each mother's son
Beds down feelin' deep in his gut,
"Shore he's black an' blue; but ... that cain't be true!
His story's on steeroids, that's what!"

© 2006, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Alf told us, "There's something about stories concerning the long and the tall and the maybe of it all, that just naturally fits the campfire environment. And apparently there's something about cowboys that suits them to take advantage of that fact at every opportunity.

"The first draft of 'Campfire Olympics' was surreptitiously scribbled out in the mountains after one of those sessions, but lay around unrefined  and unfinished for some time. It was only after seeing a miniature of the poster used for one of Elko's Cowboy Poetry Gatherings a couple of  years ago that I was drawn back to complete the task. That poster featured a  painting of just such a cowboy campfire gathering in session."

We expect that was the 1998 poster that featured William Matthews' 1998 painting:

(William Matthews' painting, "Waxed Jacket," was our 2008 Cowboy Poetry Week poster image and an Art Spur subject.)

 

 

The Free North

I once loved a free land, just south of the pole,
And wept as she perished in foreign control.
They'd no wish to keep her in sickness or health,
But only to own her and access the wealth.
With rules and excuses they came to the North
To bind her and cage her and carry her forth;
To put her on show for those could afford
The price of admission to see "The Free North."

Generosity wasted, real treasures unclaimed,
She died of exposure, no doubt feeling shamed.
Her hide was then mounted and kept on display,
It still draws the ghoulish to this very day.

Those of us loved her, and witnessed her pain,
Depart feeling sorrow, and won't come again.

© 2004, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf comments:

Eventually each region passes in turn from the status of frontier into something perhaps better termed a newly developed area. Such are yet frontiers of a kind, but these attract a different sort of person. Less tolerant than those who came before, those drawn to newly developed areas do not cherish individuality and freedom. They fear these things. They feel duty-bound to force conformity on their neighbors for the good of their group.

When any frontier undergoes this particular transition, there comes a time when there is no place in the new society for the forerunners, the individualists. Then comes the time of personal choice, the time when each decides in accordance with his solitary circumstance whether to stay or flee. To stay is to hazard the ongoing rage of a great personal loss experienced as injustice, perhaps to fall into an endless cycle of clashes with the new and deeply resented authority figures. To flee begs the question of a destination.

from "Frontier In Transition," © 2004, Alf Bilton
Read the entire essay here at Alf Bilton's web site

 

Rendezvous


Three fingers high in the midday sky hangs a weakened winter sun
While sun dogs stray every which way chasing rabbits just for fun.
Noon shadows creep from their homes to keep their promise of pointing North
As the mercury dives, and a lone man drives ten dogs on a journey forth.

From Frances Lake, any trail you take into Whitehorse takes a while,
But days slide by and carry him nigh the start of the final mile.
Just after dark he'll finally park his tuckering team in town;
Rent a real bed, enjoy being fed, maybe drink some whiskey down.

He's furs to trade, and the claim has paid at last with yellow gold.
Those months alone, where the mountains groan and tales must go untold,
Have him all primed and arrival timed for this year's winter spree.
At Rendezvous he has things to do and some longtime friends to see.

The sun has set, but he's mushing yet by slippery satin sheen
Of Northern Lights keeping watch these nights, where he is and where he's been.
Diamond stars from near and afar have burst out as if to greet
Their twins down here for the town is near. Now the team is on Main Street.

The Whitehorse Inn! He's starting to grin, for there's someone coming out.
Sled's through the door, on carpeted floor, then stopped with a final shout!
"Hantawn Mawnee," yells Maitre D' , and laughs at his latest guest.
"For you," he states, "De usual rates. Nod henough rooms for de rest!"

© 2005, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf comments:

Anton Money, a sourdough who lived many years in the Francis Lake country, really did mush his dog team right into the lobby of the Whitehorse Inn at the end of a trip to town. When I first heard the story, the desk clerk's reaction was always an integral part of the tale, and boosted its status from anecdote to near legend. Today, that part is all too often left out on those rare occasions when the story itself is remembered and retold.

The old Whitehorse Inn is gone now, replaced by a parking lot and a bank. [See a photo here from the 1940s.]

Though we have cowboys aplenty hereabouts, the land and rural lifestyle is not like that usually associated with the image. Sage, for example, purple or otherwise, is something we seldom smell except on the annual "turkey days" like Christmas and Thanksgiving. I was somewhat bemused by that simple fact when I once spent a couple of years tending livestock in Saskatchewan. That Christmassy smell seemed to me both omnipresent and out-of-season all summer long, almost as hard to get used to as having it get dark every night. In the Yukon and Alaska, the smells of pine, spruce, sun-baked lichen, and pungent muskeg are more common in the warmer months—and you can read a newspaper by sunlight pretty much all night long. In winter, the differences are even more pronounced. Horses are an unfeasible option for winter travel here except where a road or good trail already exists. For off-road travel, snowshoes, skis, dog sleds, and snowmobiles are far more useful for winter work. Thousands of horses perished during the gold rush before that simple fact took root as common knowledge.

When I was younger—and that in the era before snowmobiles became ubiquitous—anyone on a winter drive along one of our northern highways was likely to encounter almost as many dog teams as motorized vehicles. Then still in common use in the back country, the sled traffic gravitated to highways as safer than frozen waterways for longer treks to or between communities as opposed to local travel along trap lines or between neighbors. One seldom heard of a musher and team lost by falling through a highway, but even today we occasionally lose one
through the ice on lakes and rivers.

"Rendezvous" is one of the pieces I wrote trying to create a glimpse of that other world, the winter world, that made mushers of so many erstwhile cowboys in this neck of the woods.

 

I Have Known Cowboys

I have known cowboys paid more fer a saddle
Than other folks spent fer a car;
Who showed lotsa courage with horses an' cattle,
But, only braved love from afar.

I've seen 'em long-winded, full of opinion
'bout anythin' seen on the range,
Graceful ahorseback; but tongue-tied with wimmen,
So awkward the girls thought 'em strange.

They's lotsa near misses, cowboys like kisses,
So most of 'em do find a girl.
Some get ta like dancin', even romancin',
But fear givin' marriage a whirl.

Hardest of targets, I 'd say are the cowboys,
I lose lotsa arrows that way,
Hard-hided, well balanced, really good dodgers.
It's tough ta be Cupid today.

© 2008, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

The Call of the North

The snow is drifting deep tonight
And the lights are sweeping low;
The pines are etched in silver and pitch
On the North Wind's lonely soul.

The lynx are not asleep tonight,
Just gazing up in awe
At shimmering silken drapes of light
The Arctic night has drawn.

Even the wolves are silent now,
Though the moon is round and bold;
The hissing drifts slide all alone
Through a world of crackling cold.

In a faraway land of dust and heat,
I start at a distant moan,
And the ghostly touch of a frosty night
... the North Wind's lonely soul.

© 1968, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
 

Alf comments: Homesickness was an occasional affliction during my yondering years. This was penned while I was employed on the sugar cane harvest near Calen in Queensland, Australia. That "ghostly touch" was quite real, and rather disconcerting for the couple of heartbeats it took to realize it was a manifestation from within, not something stalking the velvet dark of a tropical night.



Kin to the Cowboy

Dread ocean a nightmare behind them,
They land with their hopes for the West,
Then gather to hear out a redneck,
One of those did a job for the rest.

There are places out there where you just wouldn't dare
Think a bad thing or start to complain,
Where the awe fills you up like an overflowed cup
Leavin' no room at all for your pain.

There are forests so thick it's a pretty good trick
For a real skinny breeze to get through,
Then there's plains are so broad that your shadow gets odd,
Kinda lonesome an' clingy with you.

There's some rivers so fast that their future's their past
As they laugh and cascade from a cliff;
But they've cousins so slow in the marshes you know,
That they stagnate and get pretty whiff.

There are mountains so high that the stars going by
Have to climb 'em or else go around,
You can see where the snags left the loftier crags
Wearin' stardust like snow on the ground.

There's some lakes are so deep that the fishes must sleep
More than once comin' up for a stare,
Filled with water so clear that you might even fear
Raft an' you are afloat in the air.

Behind them a hundred years building,
And a civil war's barbarous test;
Again they will follow a redneck,
One of those did a job for the rest.

Have you seen a moose rub raw velvet loose,
And hone his new rack on the trees?
Or seen where he tore up an acre or more
While fighting before the big freeze?

Have you stood in awe at size of a paw
Print left by a griz in the pass?
Seen fox kits at play, and smiled at the way
They bounced to see over the grass?

Have you ever seen where some rabbit's been
Airlifted away by an owl,
Obit wrote in sand by Nature's own hand,
And lost when the wind starts to howl?

Have you seen a night the stars were so bright,
Orion had string on his bow;
When mountains stood out from shadows about,
With snow-laden peaks all aglow?

Have you wondered why some men, such as I,
Spurn comfort for something so cold?
It's for love, you see; we still want to be
Part of it though we're growing old.

Behind them the building of fortunes,
Safe to scoff at the way he is dressed;
They snear at the one with no mansion,
Mocking those do a job for the rest.

Waal, maybe I am an ol' redneck,
An' a hick when compared to you swells;
But my kind has always bin leadin'
In things where it's character tells.

It's us has the land in our bloodline,
Yeah the ones who bin aged by the sun,
The ones thet you've turned to forever
When there's somethin' new needs to be done.

We kep' you an' fed you fer eons,
Jes' the fact thet you're here can atest
The value of those like the cowboy,
All the ones did a job fer the rest.

We're drovers, an' rovers, an' tradesmen;
Maybe freighters, or plumbers at best;
Butt of jokes, until really needed;
Then the ones do the job fer the rest.

Ain't clothes thet will make a man cowboy,
Ain't a buckle, a saddle, or mount;
The inside has got to be cowboy
Or the rest o' them trimmin's don' count.

The ones go ahead to each yonder,
Be it new place, idea, or test;
They're each of them kin to the cowboy,
One of those do a job for the rest.


© 2009, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

Alf comments about the poem's inspiration: "... bits and pieces of that one have haunted me for years and it was only recently that I realized they were all part of the same thing, but different voices from different times. That led to a serious peace-keeping mission to get them all pulling in the same direction. With four voices in there already though, about the only excuse I can offer for writing it is that My Pen Made Me Do It."
 

 

Workin' a Verbal Herd

A poet confronted with the unruly mob of words that constitutes a first draft is like a wrangler approaching a herd of unknown horses. He has to get those words to quit galloping off in all directions and pull together toward his own goal instead. Like horses, words are fleet skittish things with a built-in ramble instinct, capable of going almost anywhere. They are useful because of it, but only if we can harness them for our own purpose. Left to their own devices, words would just mooch around from dictionary to dictionary for years accomplishing little for themselves and less for us. They need to be caught, corralled, and trained to do our bidding. If they are not, anything they are used for is likely to be a lumpy read at best.

The similarity of horse and word can be used quite effectively by cowboy poets. Anyone familiar with horse behavior is likely aware that there are always two ways of dealing with the critters—an easy way and a hard way. And those who have worked horses are highly unlikely to mistake my use of the word “easy” for meaning they don't have to work at it at all. It is easy only by comparison to the hard ways, the worst way of all being trial and error. About the only way words and horses differ greatly in this regard is that horses will teach us if we don't teach them first. Words won't do that.

The “easy” way to get a verbal herd under control, at least for me, is to treat them like I learned to treat horses. Then I can use my carefully perfected laziness to advantage. True laziness is an art worthy of diligent study and planning to refine technique. Without that, the art degenerates in the absence of craftsmanship, and the result is then indistinguishable from common procrastination.

Dedicated to the development of my laziness skills, I aspire to find easy ways wherever I am, whatever I am doing—even if the easy way sometimes involves what looks like extra work first. That "extra" work can then be at my own pace, at a time and place of my own choosing. Granted, the payoff has to be deferred, but I'd rather do a little work now than a lot of work later. What truly lazy person wouldn't? Just such a situation arose when I took a job with an outfit that takes tourists on horseback trips into the mountains. I'd not had to deal with horses in such large numbers before, and regarded one aspect of the job with considerable foreboding.

The horses there were turned out to feed every evening, but trained to return for breakfast at a given time each morning. Only new stock had to be rounded up and driven in, and that only for a few weeks. That impressed me no end. What I didn't like the sound of though, was the idea that if a horse strayed from a party in the mountains, it would be a cowboy who walked out, not a tourist. Such is the way of things on dude ranch operations. Cowboys there are expected to step up and shoulder responsibility for all kinds of foolish client behaviors, including losing their mounts. The cowboy's only alternative then, would be to somehow catch the strayed horse. And he would likely have to do it afoot as the party would move on as per whatever schedule they were signed up for.

Now, I'd always thought it would be a terrific experience to participate in a wild horse roundup, to thunder after a chosen cayuse, fling the loop (as many times as necessary), and (finally) catch the critter. But I never did thunder very well afoot. No matter who lost the horse, I didn't want to exit the mountains that way, so I set about finding ways of making any horse I had to work with easy to catch.

I started by ransacking memories of my grandmother's old stories about mustanger ancestors, but also read anything relevant that I could get my hands on, and dug more stories and opinions out of any older hand I could catch with a lip free. What I wound up with was a few simple principles, and some rules to go with them. Were I able to tackle that line of work again tomorrow, I would start using them again. It should be remembered though, that I am talking about domesticated stock here, stock that is at least halter broke. What follows presupposes that you have a first draft already, and that the horses involved are at least halter broke.

First, of primary importance, and the only rule I intend to discuss here before resuming the discourse on wrangling words—I learned NEVER to chase a horse I wasn't eager to chase again tomorrow. I wanted the horse to come to me. If I had to have that horse right now, I was already too late, I should have started yesterday or better yet, last week. Horses are fleet afoot and love chase games. They can think of nothing more fun than having some clumsy human chase them … unless maybe it's someone they know is poor with a rope chasing them with another horse. Liking such things is part of a horse's job description.

Fortunately, there are also things in a horse's job description that can be used to evade those situations if we prefer to use head instead of heels. Horses are sociable, curious, and as eager as children for praise and treats. If they think there is even a good CHANCE of getting to socialize with someone who can satisfy their curiosity about something, and who sometimes gives them both praise and treats at the same time, their running is usually toward that person instead of away. For safety's sake I'll take a moment here to emphasize that I mean that quite literally. I don't want anyone else having to learn the hard way that having anywhere from ten to thirty horses racing each other to ransack your pockets can be an intimidating experience - even if you are still young and nimble enough to keep your feet from under theirs when they arrive.

I started by making it my business to spend a few minutes socializing with each and every horse tied in the yard on a daily basis. Feeding didn't count. They expected that. And I brought them treats. But not always. When I approached each one, I would be looking into my hat, then let them look too. Sometimes there was a treat there, sometimes not. Within just a couple of days heads were coming up every time I took off my hat for any reason. By the end of the week, all I had to do to gather even new stock was ride out into a clearing near them and let myself be spotted staring into that hat. For my part, I learned to either stay on my horse or close to some trees when I took it off.

It was a useful trick for everyone when I let it be known, but we had a couple of hands who couldn't be bothered carrying horse treats, so their hats were always empty. And they couldn't be bothered catching horses any other way while the trick worked, so they over-used it. The horses were very democratic about it. They took to responding to all hats with equal indifference. But within another week, I had them coming to me again if I took off my hat to catch their attention AND rubbed a shirt pocket. The second time around, I was far more selective who I shared the signal with. And I learned to look around first to see who might step on my foot if I reached for my cigarettes.

As with a herd of horses, a herd of words can be managed easier with a little preparation— particularly if one is aware of a few guiding principles and the rules that go with them. And as with horses, the trick is to plan ahead and be prepared though never unwilling to try something different, maybe even break a rule if a specific situation warrants it. Writing is a slippery slope at best, and lyric poetry likely the most heavily greased path to disaster of all. The good news is that writing wrecks usually result in lumpy literature instead of a lumpy author—unless said author is a cowboy poet fresh from a ranch wreck. Writing while recuperating is a special situation frequently called rant, and with rants all bets are off.

So, if it's not a rant, what IS a lumpy poem? Well, to call it a poem at all is to indicate it has considerable redeeming value, but the adjective infers that it is somehow flawed—perhaps quite badly. It may tell a good story, perhaps illuminate some universal truth or feeling in a particularly vivid fashion, even maintain a superlative rhyme scheme. But if it is totally lacking the sense of rhythm and flow that comes from consistent meter—lumpy. Or it may be a masterpiece of rhyme and rhythm that flows like water, but really has nothing to say or illuminate. Either way it can be totally deserving of the moniker “poem,” but attract polite qualifiers like the adjective “lumpy” the way a stable attracts flies.

Unless lumpiness is a deliberate feature being used to emphasize something like a rough ride, a rewrite is probably needed. If so, the word herd likely needs to be culled, and some alternatives will usually have to be rounded up. Even when a team has been selected though, care will have to be taken that kickers and biters aren't tail-tied where they can indulge their hobbies.

When I begin a rewrite, I usually begin by studying the word herd for lines, verses, or even images that seem to be already working well—and stand out because of it. I try to keep those little groups of words together as I work on the new draft. Within horse herds are little cliques of individuals that hang together, each usually led by a dominant mare. Each clique works out its own pecking order and is accorded a sort of group status within the herd as a whole. Using a group of horses that all belong to the same clique is always easier than attempting to do the same thing with a mixed group, particularly if one is aware of the clique's established pecking order—and respects it.

Starting with my chosen "best" clique from the word herd, I next start counting the syllables in each line and jotting the number of each in the margin. It's not a good idea to start working a herd of either horses or words without knowing how many you've got. It makes it too easy for a bunch-quitter to wander off, or a neighbor's horse to wander in. That isn't to say there is never a time to let a troublesome one go, or put an extra one to work. But it should be done knowingly and for a purpose. In the meantime, I will be trying to transform all or at least most other parts of my piece into the pattern of my selected best bit. The qualifier is necessary because I frequently find it useful to distinguish sections as "voices" or "themes" by giving each a characteristic "pattern" of its own. Sometimes a short rhymed introduction of this sort can eliminate the necessity of a much longer preamble to set the stage, as it were, for a story or situation. A commentary in italics is one approach to this, but to my own mind it is far more effective presented as italicized verse. And if I am using dialog, I like to indicate a change of speaker with a change of "pattern" in line length, rhyme scheme, rhythm, or the like. In those cases, I look for a "best" to represent each, then treat each of those to its own "matching" process. On the whole, this part of the redraft procedure is very much like selecting one or more teams or pack strings from the herd knowing full well that some will need more work than others.

Again we seem to be talking about extra work, but again it is a question of doing a little now or a lot later. Taking time to properly train a pack horse or team takes a lot less time and effort than cleaning up a mess every time one or the other goes ballistic on the trail. And checking out an excellent resource like Rod Miller's essays on poetry and poetry tools (and learning to use them) is a lot easier than spending months or even years trying to iron out the sticky bits of a lyric poem by trial and error. Rod's essays are not just thoughtful and informative, they are highly readable and sometimes entertaining—about as painless as it gets acquiring new knowledge. Taken as a whole, that little collection of essays amounts to a job description for the verbal herd. Those who choose to use it are unlikely to ever again pack their eggs on a literary horse that likes to single-foot unless they actually want said eggs scrambled.

At this point in my re-write process, about all I can add to Rod's excellent comments on rhythm is to emphasize that even line breaks, punctuation, and abbreviations can be used to squeeze an unruly line or verse into a targeted pattern. Rod has already supplied enough examples to cover the topic without my adding more here. Suffice to say that these are the kind of things I watch for and try to perfect as I examine and rework each of my selected sections.

Next comes a total reevaluation of the new draft. But not today. And not tomorrow. Sometime next week at the earliest. When I've been working on a piece for a while, I reach a point where I'm no longer reading what's in front of me, but what I think is in front of me. I'll not see it clearly again until I have forgotten all the changes I've made, remade, and just thought of but never actually made. That seems to take about a week at best. At the end of that time, viewed from a more or less fresh perspective, it's sometimes almost embarrassing to see the number of obvious flaws that leap right out. When that happens, changes are necessary. Then another waiting period and another reevaluation. Eventually, those errors or unsatisfactory bits quit ambushing me, and I think it's done. Sometimes. And sometimes it is.

© 2009, Alf Bilton
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


 

 

Old Things

 
The leather's stained to almost black, the rigging's frayed and wore,
That saddle slung from the farthest beam:
We don't need that no more.
This bridle here—too stiff to sell—just garbage on the floor;
And that matted felt thing over there,
Was a Stetson that he wore.
Boot with the upper chewed away, down there behind the door.
Dog ate the other one long ago ....
Now, how did the chaps get tore?

Take the rusty spurs hung over there, crusted filthy brown,
See? Dirty old stains all down the wall.
He did it to get me down.
Why, course I miss him; just like you!  But now he's dead and down.
He's planted happy in dirt he loved,
And we'll be happy in town.

Now don't be mindin' the kids, boys, just load up these old things.
Don't know what they're missin', but I do.
I'll see what the guitar brings.
Don't reckon they'll mope forever—Tin cup with all the dings.
This place is sold—My, the wind is cold—
We're headed for better things.

© 2009, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



 

Wounded or On Writing Cowboy Poetry

Spurring for safety, I flee to the past.
As I cross the summit, I see her at last—
A valley sun-tanning beneath the stern gaze
Of rugged old peaks peering down from the haze.

Four ravens are chasing an eagle aloft,
But what noise they're making is distant and soft
As breezes that kiss me when I reach the crest.
Again I am welcomed, again I can rest.

Tomorrow I'll go back to that harsher world
Where all of the best things are coming unfurled;
Where mischief and money conspire to undo
The magic of living where skies are still blue.

I've outrun their gutters, their grime, and their walls:
Those forces can't follow when this valley calls.
This mem'ry protects me, it's both sword and shield
Whenever, soul-wounded, I've need flee the field.

© 2009, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf Bilton comments,
"I never really thought about it much before I started hanging around the Bar-D, but the question of why I write cowboy poetry has more or less haunted me ever since. Though I've come up with various answers before, each true enough in its own way, none of them has ever seemed quite complete. Maybe this one will lay the ghost."

This poem is included in our collection of poems about cowboy poetry.

Tombless

Unmarked and dug in Time Itself—lost graves of long ago:
In high-up hidden valleys where hush and lupine grow,
In slowly sculpted lowlands where nameless rivers flow.

Each took a hand and played a game he thought he knew about;
The cave-man and the native, the pioneer, the scout;
The miner and the cowboy who sought the country out.

While even weather took its toll, an ace in Nature's paw,
Some fell beneath the weight of years and more to fang or claw;
Misfortune, mishap, or mistake—all fatal cards to draw.

Denied a graven headstone and robbed of all he planned,
Each long-forgotten nameless one devoured by the land
Lost betting more on fickle fate than any poker hand.

Or was he maybe winning, each taken tombless dead—
Unbound by any fences, resting free instead,
With Nature fetching flowers and mountains at his head?

© 2009, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


Alf comments:

This world has a lot of unmarked graves, and not all of them particularly ancient. Even when humans aren't preying on each other, nature is stalking the unwary. In wilderness areas frequented by those like the cowboy, miner, and others mentioned here, tragedy frequently shuffles the deck.

The urge to comment in this form at this time was likely a culmination of recent memorial services and reading some old letters and notes of my grandmother's. Among her reminiscences were stories of people and children who simply vanished. And of course I've known several who disappeared in the course of my own life.

Tin-horn Tale Number 1001

The Cowboy Way or the Tin-horn Trail
is a choice confronts us all;
An' there ain't that many can start down one
then answer the other's call.

Those trails are diff'rent as night an' day,
unlike as mirage an' lake;
One of 'em's stable an' clearly real,
the other a shifty fake.

"That Quicksilver Kid From Queens," he claimed,
"Is glib as a guy can get."
But the Kid's new name was bogus too,
so maybe he's nameless yet.

See, he couldn't ride, an' he couldn't cull,
an' he'd never rolled a smoke;
He couldn't cuss, an' he couldn't cook,
an' he thought our work a joke.

'Course this tin-horned triple-threat was last
to roll out ev'ry dawn,
But the first one back to camp each night—
or to have somebody on.

Now, no one knew where the Kid come from,
nor even really cared;
But we knew durn well from his tinhorn tales
it was no place we had fared.

He kep' that kilt o' his hid away,
kinda like with his real name,
An' to ask a man 'bout things like that
just ain't the Western way.

But sly, sorta snide, near-sneers dished out
was makin' it hard to grin;
An' this takin' hisself a new name each day,
—that was wearin' mighty thin,

Our crew was a sortuva tolerant bunch,
an' a bit short-handed then,
So we tried to put up with the tin-horn's dance
'cause we had us a herd to pen.

Then there come a night with glowering clouds
an' a breeze that boded storms,
The herd was shifting, restless, ripe,
in the gloam just roiling forms.

The Quicksilver Kid was sent that night
to help us to sing 'em down;
An' a greater mistake ain't never been made
since the Lord sent Satan down.

Kid snuck his kilt an' some pipes along;
—first notes of his lullaby
Launched lightnin', horses, herd, an' crew
from froze to flyin' by.

Remuda just vanished before our eyes,
there was cattle climbin' trees,
Most of our crew is religious now
—dropped Cookie right onto his knees!

By the second bar of that Campbells tune,
well, there wasn't a critter left;
From the air dropped cowboys, lightnin', rain,
—like even the sky'd bin cleft.

While crew was agatherin' 'round the boss,
with a lynchin' 'bout to begun,
Kid kept aplayin' out there alone
—smartest thing that he ever done.

Boss calmed us some with a plan he had
before the Kid come back;
An old idea, one tried an' true,
send a piper pipe 'em back.

We never did see that Kid again,
we lost 'im when sky turned pale;
Some's say he's out there pipin' still,
but I reckon that's tinhorn tale.

© 2009, Alf Bilton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.


 


 

Read Alf Bilton's poem, The Arts, in tribute to Rod Nichols

and

The Search Party

in our Art Spur Project

and 

read Alf Bilton's essay, "Rules; An' When to Break 'Em" here.

 

 

  About Alf Bilton:

Still in his sixties, Alf is already determined to sit down one of these days and decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He claims to have been too long prone to wandering, wondering, and worrying about things that don't seem to bother anyone else. Among those things are the changes he sees as the North undergoes settlement and the same "civilizing" influences that have long since overtaken the rest of the West in both Canada and the United States.

Alf finished high school in Yellowknife, then promptly took off to see for himself whether the world was really flat or not. He managed to turn twenty-one on the other side of the globe during a long stint in Australia. His folks moved while he was yondering overseas. "My father though, a woodsman from 'way back, had made the mistake of teaching me the rudiments of tracking. I caught up to the family again in the Yukon." He has been returning to the Territory whenever there was work to be had pretty much ever since.

There were a few years in Alberta attending university and then teaching school. Eventually, he remembered he greatly preferred jobs that got him outdoors and stayed at work when he went home. He also spent some time in Saskatchewan when a friend and he tried crossbreeding a yak bull and some Highland heifers. Alf's was to be mostly sweat equity and he spent the next couple of years alone with the livestock most of the time. Those years cemented his respect for working cowboys and ranchers.

"Horse, heeler, and I were all out of our depth with that Yakland venture. I wasn't long concluding that what made a pretty good bush horse in the Yukon wasn't the best for working cattle. It took a little longer to admit I was as out of place there as my horse was. The dog caught on quickly and turned out to be the only competent one in the outfit. Of course, we started out with her mad at me for a long time because it was obviously my fault that cows could kick sideways."

Alf claims the best description of the result came from an old cowboy who had tried the same thing. "He opined that the highland-yak cross results in a longhorned flying shag rug with a bad attitude. Anyway, the cattle seemed to be having more fun than we were, so when I heard of a mine reopening in the Yukon, I was a lot longer packing the truck than deciding what to do."

Among many other things, like picking fruit, cutting sugar cane, and selling computers, Alf has worked mine mill and placer mining, wrangled both horses and tourists, drove truck, operated heavy equipment, even pumped gas to stay on the food chain. And, he says, "Once in a while I write."

"When I write poetry, a few words or phrases seem to infect my mind first and the rest just somehow grows from that. It's like some tune I can't be rid of until it's done, and done a certain way; some tune like the one Tom T. Hall sang about in That Song Is Drivin' Me Crazy."

"Sometimes it all comes quickly. Other times, months or years go by with occasional additions or modifications presenting themselves out of the blue until the day something 'clicks' and my scatter-brained muse is finally satisfied. At that point, it feels more like I've released something than created it. "

 

You can email Alf Bilton

Visit Alf Bilton's web site for more of his poetry and some good links to others'.


 

www.cowboypoetry.com

 

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