Many in their mid-20s pine for adventure ala Mad Men, while clinging to modern perks like Wi-Fi, sonic toothbrushes and deeply urban penthouse apartments.
That isn’t the life Adam Miller, 25, ever envisioned for himself, opting instead to spend winters working on a ranch owned and operated by his in-laws and summers in the expansive wilderness near Elba Canyon as the Elba Horse and Cattle Association’s range rider.
In plain English: Miller’s a cowboy, through and through.
“I grew up on a ranch, trained horses and worked on ranches basically all my life,” Miller said. “In the winter I work for the 3 Bar Cattle Company and summers out here, for the last three years.”
The latter job is to manage 1,500 head of grazing cow/calf pairs in the Sawtooth National Forest, about 20 miles south east of his Albion home, working most days and nights away from his wife and two small children.
“There are 13 ranches within the association that run their cattle all together and it’s my job to manage them,” Miller said.
In “manage” Miller means making sure each animal stays within the range confines, eats and gains weight, has access to fresh water, is safe from predators and that poisonous weeds don’t become lunch.
Like all working cowboys, Miller doesn’t do the job completely alone. His trio of well-trained cow dogs are constant companions, hitching rides on Miller’s four-wheeler or trotting alongside one of the horses, depending on the terrain to traverse that day.
“I keep three horses at camp but there are more back at the ranch. Right now I’ve got a Paint gelding, called Paint, a Sorel gelding named Spider, and the third horse varies, but I’ve got a colt I’m starting out.”
Each relationship manifests differently and Miller enjoys the nuances, especially of those being broke, like a special, 30-second ritual shared between him and a young paint.
After settling in the saddle first thing in the morning, reins taut in Miller’s leather-gloved hands, the dance begins. The paint rears up and bucks, giving all it can to buck Miller. To the winner goes the spoils; a victorious horse remains in camp, but if defeated, surrenders obedience the rest of the day.
Most mornings, Miller awakes by 6 a.m., heats coffee over a fire and enjoys one of his two favorite times of day.
“I don’t know which is better, sitting in the tent door with a cup of coffee watching the sun come up, or drinking a beer and watching the fire burn,” Miller said. In between, Miller works. Hard.
“There is no such thing as a typical day,” Miller said. “It really all depends on what happens and basically I go to where the fire’s the hottest. Sometimes there is fence to fix, or salt to set out. I put out six ton of salt during the season. The salt is set out to draw the cows out of where you don’t want them to go, like into poisonous larkspur.”
The salt is also a dietary necessity.
“Other days, I’m getting the next unit ready, making sure the fences are ready or fixing the waters. I just spent two days fixing the water trough, that was pretty stressful,” Miller said. “You’ve got your mind on the problem but also worried about the cows, there’s plenty of water up there but it inhibits proper management.”
Some days it’s Mother Nature causing the headaches. This spring was rainy and wet. In June, a snow shower welcomed the cows to their new home.
“It was the first day they were out and the cows were not liking their new home. It got better pretty quickly but it was an interesting start,” Miller said. “Nothing to do but wait it out.”
Bruises and other injuries are commonplace, Miller said. The first-aid kit is never far away, nor are the barb-wire cuts and scrapes.
“If I had a dollar for every horse that has fallen on me I’d be retired,” he said. “Last year, some cow knocked my horse down on me and one of them, either the cow or the horse, stood on my back. It’s just part of the job.”
Miller relishes the wild, quiet and vistas offered in the Elba Canyon area. However, he does miss his family. Cell phone calls keep the family linked and service is spotty
“If I have to make a call there are several ridges where I get service,” Miller said.
He gets home as often as he can but never leaves the herd for more than a day.
“Sometimes, I just go home for an afternoon,” Miller said.
Most evenings are spent at camp, which is simple but immaculate. Inside his wall tent is a comforter covered mattress, elevated off the soft grass carpeting by a bed frame built by Miller out of smoothed pine. Dutch ovens and a chair sit nearby.
“There’s no running water unless you count the stream,” he said, which is dammed up so the horses can cool off after the day’s labor.
The association knows the job isn’t right for just anyone, but its tailor-made for a man like Miller.
“You have to find the right kind of man, a man you don’t have to boss or can be bossed,” said EHCA Board President Douglas Ward.
The 53-year-old rancher, with facilities in both Elba and Almo (with 208 head with the on-the-range herd) knows what it takes to be a cowboy. In his 20s, Ward rode the very land Miller does today. Those seven seasons were among the best Ward has had.
A range rider has to be “the kind of man that can handle horse, handle cattle and have the ambition to get off his horse and fix a broken fence or doctor a cow,” Ward said. “They have to be okay by themselves, out there in the wilderness.”
The cattle breeds vary but the large herd consists mostly of black and red angus. The animals start to arrive on the range the last week of May; by mid-October the cattle are escorted off the land and back to their prospective ranch home.
Miller’s summer job starts about two weeks before the cattle arrive. He’s got about 25 miles of fence to erect and camp to set up, too.
The range is broken into five sections, the boundaries defined by some of the many canyons in the zone. For the first few weeks, the herd settles into the southern boundary of Poison Hollow and Dry Canyon. Then the herd rotates into the Cold Springs, Flat Canyon and Stinson Canyon area, then New Canyon and Clyde Canyon and the swamps before wrapping up in the Cottonwood area.
Each area is marked by rough, rocky terrain, but filled with native grasses that are a desirable diet for beef that may very well end up served in a five-star East Coast restaurant.
As important as managing the cattle is, Ward said a range rider has to represent ranchers, dependent on their herds grazing public lands, in a positive light. Like many ranchers, the association has navigated its share of tension between other land users – such as campers, hikers and ATV riders – and governmental agencies charged with overseeing the grazing programs.
“The (public relations) may be the most important aspect of the job,” Ward said. “He is the face of the ranchers, the one that makes sure the cattle stay where they need to be and the one representing land management. It’s very important that we show we are as serious the land is managed properly as everyone else, and we are.”
As tall an order as it sounds, Miller’s work ethic balances the demands.
“I do my job the way I know it needs done,” Miller said. “Enjoying what I do, that’s a perk.”
One day, Miller would like to move beyond range rider to being a rancher. He’s already growing his own herd. The goal resonates with his wife Jaime, who grew up learning the ropes on her family’s ranch.
“We’re raising 20 to 30 head, and one day we’ll have more,” he said. “I want to make a place of our own, for me, Jaime and the kids.”
When that day comes, they’ll all be riding tall, keeping watch over their red and black angus, grazing tall grasses in the very same country.
For now, he’s relishing his role as a range rider. A cowboy, through and through.