In the early 1970s, noted Texas historian Joe Frantz offered Bill Wittliff a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to visit a ranch in northern Mexico where the vaqueros still worked cattle in the traditional ways. Drawn to this land-out-of-time again and again, Wittliff photographed the vaqueros as they went about daily chores that had changed little since the first Mexican cowherders learned to work cattle from a horse's back. In the tradition of the great cowboy photographer Erwin Smith, Wittliff captured a way of life that now exists only in memory and in the pages of this book. Here you'll find photographs that reveal the muscle, sweat, and drama that went into roping a calf in thick brush or breaking a wild horse to the saddle. Wittliff's evocative text recalls the humility and pride of men who knew their place in the world and filled it with quiet competence. John Graves brings his own memories of the vaqueros to the text, writing about the kinship between the vaquero and the cowboy and about how "the old, old ways," which Wittliff preserves in these "lovely and meaningful photographs," still tug at the modern imagination.
The hub of the vaquero's life in the chaparral is his campo. It is here that he takes his meals from battered tin plates; here that he makes his bed. It is here that he catches his horses from the remuda to begin his day's work; here, too, that he will stand or sit before the campfire as the world grows dark to smoke and sing and talk of good and bad horses with compadres who know, as he knows, what this life is like. Whatever its site, el campo is the place as close to a home as the vaquero is likely to find in the chaparral.
The morale of el campo is dependent on el cocinero del campo—the cook. Traditionally as salty as the tasajo—jerky—he hangs out to dry in the sun, the cocinero must be both versatile and durable, for his duties include everything from preparing three hot meals each day in as many different campsites, each often miles apart, to repairing wagons and men.
El campo moves almost daily, following the cow work, by means of el carro del campo—the chuckwagon. This movable commissary carries the vaqueros' bedrolls, food, water, and extra gear, as well as the cocinero's tools and cooking utensils. The chuckwagon is not a Mexican invention; rather, it evolved during the early days of the big Texas roundups. Charles Goodnight was credited with giving the chuckwagon its greatest refinement: the chuckbox. Within a short time after Goodnight introduced it, this durable cupboard with its drop-down worktable became standard equipment on the grub wagons of all the big cow outfits, from Montana to Mexico. In matters pertaining to cow work, inventions have moved south as well as north across the Río Bravo, with little regard to national origin.
Bill Wittliff, of Austin, Texas, is a distinguished photographer and writer whose photographs have been exhibited in the United States and abroad. Cofounder, with his wife, Sally, of the highly regarded Encino Press, he is also a past president and Fellow of the Texas Institute of Letters and a recent recipient of the Texas Book Festival Bookend Award. As a screen writer and producer, his credits include The Perfect Storm, The Black Stallion, Legends of the Fall, Lonesome Dove, and others.
"It would almost certainly be impossible to find such a group of traditional vaqueros [now] . . . doing their beautiful, strenuous work with horses and cattle in the old, old ways. But at least they can be found here, in Billy's lovely and meaningful photographs. We are most fortunate to have them."
—John Graves, from the Introduction