ON SNAKES, ROOTS, RAIN AND GENERAL MISERY...
When was the last time you slept on the ground, in the rain, in rattlesnake country? Been a while has it?
I've been surprised by how many readers of West from Yesterday have commented on the descriptions of physical discomfort that were simply an unavoidable aspect of a cowboy's life -- such as sleeping on the ground for months at a time, Or sleeping on the ground in a driving rain storm. Or sleeping on the ground also the home of western diamond back rattlesnakes.
As a young man who slept in a comfortable bed all of my life except for weekend camping trips I was, shall we say, "unprepared" for the discomfort of sleeping in the dirt without cover until I joined the Army and learned the pleasures of life in the Infantry. I learned very quickly the basic tenet of that brotherhood: "Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never stay awake when you can sleep." Also, "never miss a chance to eat" and "never volunteer for anything."
Years later, my sons wanted to "play Army" with their pals and asked me for suggestions on how to add accuracy to the experience. Without so much as a pause I said "well, wait until it's been raining for a couple of days and the ground is saturated and the rain is pounding. Then get a shovel and dig a hole three or four feet deep. Then lay down in the hole and try to sleep..." They were not amused.
Today, campers and soldiers alike have self-inflating sleeping pads and water-proof clothes to provide a modicum of comfort to their outdoor experiences. Cowboys of the 1860s, on the other hand, approached rest on the prairie with little real chance of finding anything approaching comfort.
On a cattle drive, a drover picked-up his bedroll from the chuck wagon, spread his stinky saddle blanket on the ground, rested his head on the hard leather saddle and covered hinself with either a woolen blanket, a canvas shelter half or both, depending on the weather. No pillow, No clean sheets. Not even a corn-husk mattress.
Think you could get your beauty rest in such conditions? Me neither. But, as I learned in the infantry, extremes of fatigue can produce near catatonic slumber regardless of the rocks or roots upon which one has collapsed. Some cowboys on a cattle drive so feared falling off their horse in front of everyone they were known to rub hot sauce in their eyes to stay awake. Others allegedly put sandspurs into their gauntlets and would apply pressure to their fingers to trigger the pain as an anecdote to slumber in the saddle. And when they got the chance to dismount and lay down, sleep came quickly.
Physical misery was a major factor in the demographics of cowboying in the old west. Bearable, if not enjoyable in a perverse way, pain, aches and other ailments were just part of the job to be borne without complaint in return for one's dollar a day. But not many rode the range after their 30th birthday --- if they lived that long. The allure of a roof, a potbelly stove, that corn-husk mattress and a quilt proved irresistible to all but the most stoic of cowboys who wanted little more than to die with their boots on, preferably also in the saddle.