Feature | True Grit: When rough rider Mike Bartlett and The Springville Livestock Association drew down, someone had to bite the dust. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Feature | True Grit: When rough rider Mike Bartlett and The Springville Livestock Association drew down, someone had to bite the dust.


Mike Bartlett sheltered under a pine tree, watching a prone, first-calf heifer giving birth in a snowstorm. First the hooves, then the blood-and-fluid-slicked body slid out onto the ground. While huge snowflakes drifted down around the cowboy hunched up in his coat and hat, the cow licked her calf clean. It sucked its mother’s teat and then was up, bucking in the cold.

“I was about to freeze to death,” the wiry Bartlett recalls, “and I knew with a 100 percent certainty whatever was taking care of that calf that night would keep me sober.”

That was more than 20 years ago, shortly before Bartlett stopped drinking for good. A few years later, in 1995, the now 50-year-old recovering alcoholic with a telltale blueberry-black chew stain on his lower lip got the job “I’d wanted my whole life”—caring through the summer for 944 cows and their calves belonging to 10 members of the Springville Livestock Association.

For 12 years, Bartlett’s routine never wavered. Every May 15, he mounted his horse and began preparing the 55,000 Forest Service-supervised acres of Hobble Creek canyon, on the edge of Springville in Utah County, for the cattle. He’d trim back growth from trails, fix troughs, and lay down salt blocks across the ridges to control grazing. “The better you are at putting the salt out, the better the range is utilized,” Bartlett says.

Drawn by the salt, the cattle graze up the hill, lick the reddish-brown bricks and, thirsty, graze back down the hill to a nearby stream. On June 10, Bartlett started trailing them up into the mountains, cared for and doctored them. At the beginning of August, he moved them from one of the three allotments they were allowed to graze on to a second. In October, he trailed them back down to their owners.

But, on May 14, 2007, Bartlett suddenly had desperate need of whatever spiritual force he found up in the mountains that cold winter night the calf was born. That was the day he quit the job he wants back as badly as the 19-years-sober alcoholic still wants a drink.

“There’s far more to the job than just playing cowboy,” the 50-year-old Bartlett says. Along with being a horseman, he’s a cowman, a forester, a veterinarian and a weatherman. “I am a prideful, egotistical bastard to a fault,” he says. “If I’m going to do a job, I want to get it done right, perfect.”

So when Springville Livestock Association president Craig Sumsion told him to delay putting out the salt blocks as he’d done for over a decade and help with fencing instead, Bartlett refused. Sumsion did not return calls to City Weekly for comment.

“Craig, I ain’t never had to put up fences,” Bartlett said. Indeed, it was a chore the grazing permittees did, Bartlett says, and was not in his contract.

Things were different now, Sumsion, owner of a trucking company and more than 100 head of cattle, told him. “The days of you going up there and doing what you think needs to be done are over and done with. I’ll call you every morning and tell you what to do,” Bartlett recalls Sumison telling him.

“I don’t think so, Jack,” Bartlett spat back.

The cattlemen met that evening. Bartlett went to his son’s baseball practice. His cell phone rang. They still wanted him to put up fences and put salt out at the beginning of June, cutting by two-thirds the time he dedicated to what he regarded as a key element of caring for the cattle.

Bartlett got a fresh can of Copenhagen, loaded up the association’s equipment and drove it to the association treasurer Justin Diamond’s house. “You sure you want to do this?” Diamond asked him.

“No, I’ve got no choice,” Bartlett recalls saying, almost in tears. “I’ve argued with these guys until I’m blue in the face. I’m not going to do it anymore.”

None of the permittees, many of whom count Bartlett as a friend, question his work. “He done a real good job,” Hobble Creek permittee George Hutchings says. Which just frustrates Bartlett all the more. If he was doing things right, why change? Permittees say they just couldn’t afford to pay him what he needed. So they hired 22-year-old sheepherder Gustavo Gomez for $900 a month and free board and lodging, Hutchings says. He did the fencing while the cattlemen did Bartlett’s job and trained the sheep man to eventually replace him. In June, Gomez returned for his second summer on Hobble Creek.

In 2007, Congress passed a bill banning domestic horse slaughtering. One consequence of that bill was the collapse in the value of horse meat in the U.S. Horse meat prices set a baseline for speculative horse purchases. Horse traders could no longer buy and sell horses, due to the cost of shipping the animals to Mexico or Canada to be killed. This was one more nail in the coffin of the cowboy way in Springville, and, in fact, across the entire country. In the last 18 months, central Utah’s two livestock auction houses, where Bartlett supplemented his meager Hobble Creek income selling horses, closed.

The auction barns were also victims of technology like Internet cattle sales. Bartlett, on the other hand, was caught between cheap immigrant labor and a new generation of cattle owners who’d rather enjoy the cowboy lifestyle—at least after hours—than employ and do battle with the real thing. He seems as much a casualty of his own exacting standards as his stubborn belief that over a decade on the mountains trailing cattle, makes him the indisputable authority on the land and stock that grazes there. Bartlett admits he’s a dinosaur, one of a dying breed. He’s also a symbol of a battle the West clings to, and never ceases to fight.

“Anybody who’s an honest-to-God true cowboy,” Bartlett says, “is always at the mercy of some farmer, rich man or cattle association.”

As a child in Provo, Bartlett remembers the family car passing under a highway bridge. He’d touch the car ceiling, his father would honk the horn, and the boy would make a wish for a horse.

Raised a Mormon, by the time Bartlett attended high school, he was nevertheless smoking and drinking. For four years, he had what he calls a “society says” job in neighboring Mapleton, running a backhoe. His drinking and staying out all night killed his first two marriages. “I was going to be dead or incarcerated for the actions I was taking,” he says. On Oct. 1, 1989, he quit alcohol. It’s been day-to-day ever since. “Hold your breath for five minutes,” he instructs. “You want to take a breath as badly as I want a drink.”

All his life he yearned for the Hobble Creek riding job. In 1995, the roughrider at the time, Jim Diamond, was set to retire. The board offered Bartlett the job. The livestock owners back then, argues roughrider Burdel Olsen, “really appreciated him,” because Bartlett knew every square foot of the country. He wasn’t like the cowboy of today, who puts on a show “of flash and flair,” Olsen adds. Many of the 1995 board members made a living off their cattle, unlike the current ones, who have other jobs and view the stock as an investment. “Flair means something to them,” Olsen says.

So the new generation of boutique cattle owners would come up for scheduled cattle moves, and, as Bartlett puts it, “John Wayne the hell out of things for a few days.”

For some permittees like Hutchings, whose blue eyes blaze out of his swarthy, trail-dusted face following a long afternoon moving cattle, the association is far more than a chance to play cowboy. “I have boys, and I wanted to raise them doing something like this.” That’s a refrain Bartlett understands, having raised most of his children up in the canyons, helping out with the herds.

Hutchings’ great-grandfather was association president in the 1940s. That was shortly after the Taylor Grazing Law came into effect in the 1930s. This allowed cattle owners to lease federal land for a yearly fee for grazing rights. To secure a Springville Association permit, cattle owners currently pay a one-time fee of $500 per cow for the right to use Hobble Creek until they sell it. Former president Kent Murdoch sold his permits two years ago in an unsuccessful attempt to get out of debt from his years of cattle ownership. “I had some bad luck along the way,” he says. A train hit eight head of cattle. Others got into a hay field, ate some green alfalfa, tipped over, “and were dying just as we were watching,” Murdoch says.

Diamond worked with Bartlett his first few months, showing him the ropes. Bartlett learned what each owner’s herd needed in the way of pasture and care. “It don’t work worth shit if you don’t know your cattle,” Bartlett says.

He thought he had a job for life, though it paid only $9,500 a season when he started in 1995, and $15,000 when he quit. Out of that, he had to cover ever-rising fuel costs and horse feed. He was contracted labor—no workers comp or health insurance for a job that once saw his horse fall on him in terror at a charging bull, half-crushing Bartlett in a freezing river against boulders. He broke several ribs.

“Change of any kind was hard to put into Mike’s head,” permittee Hutchings says. Bartlett, however, says the association wanted more and more from him, removing him from essential care of the cattle. Bartlett refused in May 2007 to put up fences with the permittees or install the rodent escapes in the troughs the Forest Service insisted be put in, unless he was putting out salt at the same time. The contractors weren’t happy.

“It was the tail wagging the dog,” ex-president and former permittee Kent Murdoch says. “Good grief—if there’s a job to be done, it’s got to get done.” The association stood its ground and Bartlett quit. So the cattlemen hired young Gustavo Gomez, who, Murdoch says, does as he told. “He was tickled to death to do fencing,” Hutchings says. Hutchings and some of the other permittees did Bartlett’s job for wages of $65 a day.

If the problems between Bartlett and the association came down to money, Bartlett demands, then why did it rack up $3,000 more in operating expenses in 2007 than it did in 2006? Hutchings, who during the day is a power lineman for Provo City, says the day wages he and other permittees earned would have amounted to the same whether working on the seven miles of fences or putting out salt. The $3,000 expense increase over the previous year, he adds, was money well spent. They hired a helicopter pilot who specializes in herding wild mustangs with his chopper. The pilot brought down to the mouth of the canyon a number of strays they had been unable to find last October.

Bartlett spent most of the 2007 summer, he says, in a lawn chair, sitting under a tree. His credo had been if you live your life “by the purest form of the truth, your life will work.” After he quit Hobble Creek, his life stopped working. For a year until the following spring, he had to live with a terrifying possibility: He might never be paid to ride herd again. Prone to depression over seasonal changes as the months inch through winter, Bartlett says, “It was a daily struggle just to keep from hanging myself, or shooting myself.”

One night, he says, he stood outside his barn, about to feed his horses. He knew if he went in, he would throw a lariat over a rafter with a noose at the end. He called one of his sons to feed the animals instead.

Come spring this year, several permittees wanted Bartlett back.

“Some of the guys would stop by when Mike was working on a horse,” says Kim Bartlett, his third wife. “They were talking about it, getting his hopes up.”

Which left Bartlett waiting for May 15 once again.

After urging from Bartlett’s advocates at the association, Hutchings went to talk to the cowboy. A two-hour conversation left Hutchings unenthused. “I felt like I’d heard everything I’d done wrong and I thought, ‘Do I really want to hire this?’” Hutchings says money was an issue for Bartlett. “He told me ‘I can’t even work for $20,000 with the price of diesel and hay.’ That kind of wages ain’t there.”

Bartlett disputes that a specific figure was discussed. “I told him, ‘What about the money? As bad as I want to go back to work for you, I still can’t do it for nothing.’”

At the association’s annual meeting in April, Hutchings told the permittees that he and two other members had talked to Bartlett and “it looked good.” One permittee, whom Hutchings won’t name, stood up. He said, “I’ve run a business for 40 years and my business would never tolerate somebody running it without me telling them what to do and how to do it.”

Hutchings said to the permittees, “So I take it we’re gonna find another herder besides Mike?”

They agreed. That was the end of Bartlett roughriding for Hobble Creek for another year.

Hutchings says Bartlett’s two advocates at the association called him with the bad news. Bartlett and his wife say they heard nothing for a month.

“I don’t think any of them want to take responsibility,” Bartlett says.

Unfounded rumors around Springville and Spanish Fork that Bartlett had been offered the Hobble Creek job and turned it down didn’t make it any easier for him to let go of the canyon. It took a ride up the trail to do that.

One warm early August morning, he took a reporter on a ride up Hobble Creek. The association was preparing to move the cattle to another allotment within the canyons. Bartlett wondered how they would fare without him, half-hoping they would flop, half-hoping they would succeed for the sake of the herd and the land they grazed.

He took his dogs Louise and Skipper and meandered up through the canyon, passing places he’d once left salt. Under the clear blue sky, as he rode trails he knows so well, clouds of grasshoppers erupted with the clop of his horse’s hooves. The silence of the canyon settled around him. No interference, no static from the outside world. Out there, he could get things sorted out in his head, at least for a while.

Bartlett stopped to look across the canyons at a lush spot of grass on the lower Clark benches. He’d taken a nap there once, the breeze rustling the tall, uncut grass. One day, he says, when he isn’t of use anymore, he wants to come here and get kicked in the back of the head by a horse, then just fall to the ground and return to his maker.

Bartlett followed the trail he would have used to take the cattle to the next allotment. No sign of the reddish-brown salt blocks. The other day he had found 30 head of cattle fruitlessly looking for salt on a bushed ridge he had always used.

He stopped to look over the canyon from another vantage point. Not a house, a trail of dust, the sound of a car or a human voice. It was a miracle that with all the country he was in charge of—still his, always his—he had got back home with one cow.

Two riders approached up the hill. Bartlett waited by the side of the trail. Up they came, inexorable in their slow, steady advance, unintelligible voices floating up before them.

The young men wore ironed shirts, elegant Stetsons and white leather gloves. They rode straight-backed and spoke Spanish. Bartlett doesn’t speak Spanish. He sat there in silence while the accompanying bilingual reporter asked the riders who they were. One rider introduced himself as Gustavo Gomez. His 18-year-old cousin, who had arrived in the United States three days before, kept his distance. Hutchings says Gomez has a two-year work visa.

Both sheepherders from Mexico, only Gomez worked for the association. “It is a lonely life,” Gomez said. “These are the things you do when you come to this country.” The association’s permittees, whom Gomez described as “vaqueros” or cowboys, were teaching him, he said. After the cows returned to their owners in October, Gomez said, he was going to work for association president Craig Sumsion. His unemployed cousin would work for Hutchings, something Hutchings says he was unaware of.

While Hutchings said a few days later he wanted Gomez to look after his cattle in the winter, it appeared, the permittee explained, that Sumsion also had his eye on the young herder to work full time for him. Instead of Gomez resolving the association’s labor problems, he apparently had unwittingly sparked an internal struggle over who would employ him. This left Hutchings and other permittees exasperated at the thought of having to start training a new hand to replace Gomez.

Bartlett leaned over and touched Gomez’s horse. “You like the horse, es bueno?” he said. It was a horse Bartlett traded years before, in the days when horses were worth far more than their current value of a nickel a pound with the head off.

Ya, very good, the horse,” Gomez replied. Then the cousins rode on.

As Bartlett descended the canyon, swaying in his saddle, Gomez’s translated comments angered him. While he said nothing, his rigid back spoke volumes. He had long suspected the association had pressured him with their demands, hoping he would quit. Now he learned that men he regarded as friends might have hired Gomez not only to save money while tending Hobble Creek, but also to meet some of the needs of individual permitees for winter cattle care.

Finally Bartlett found a salt block, with two deep long grooves left by cows’ tongues. It was halfway down a trail, in a clearing, as if discarded as an after-thought.

Former association president Kent Murdoch and Hutchings both wonder if, when Gomez’s command of English improves, as Hutchings puts it, he’ll “be hanging sheet rock and pounding nails, because it pays more money.” Which takes them back to Bartlett. “Somebody’s going to be up there because they really want to be up there, not because the wages are that good,” Murdoch says.

If Bartlett wants his job back at Hobble Creek, he could have it for the asking. All he has to do is bow down. “If Mike wants to be up here, he’ll come to me or Justin Diamond and say, ‘Listen, whatever it takes, I want to come to work,’” Hutchings says. “And, until he does, I don’t see it.”

Neither does Bartlett. “If I was of the temperament and personality to say what they want, I wouldn’t be of the temperament and personality to get up there by myself, pack salt, doctor cows, and take on the responsibility of a $2 million investment without any help from them unless they gave it to me freely.”

For now, Bartlett shoes horses for $60 a head and breaks horses for ranchers like Oregon-based Chris Meyers. Meyers drove 900 miles to bring Bartlett several quarter horses to break and, in one case, castrate. Meyers praises Bartlett’s intuition, his ability to get into a horse’s mind. “He’s an unbelievable horse trainer,” he says.

Bartlett takes the time to study a horse. That, however, is his undoing when it comes to making a living. His friend, Burdel Olsen says, “There’s no money,” in horse breaking unless you can break 10 at a time. “No way in God’s creation a guy can ride 10 horses and do them justice.”

For cattlemen, fall is a time for optimism, for profit. Their cattle come off the pastures and they can sell their calves.

Mike Bartlett doesn’t like the fall. Every October, when the leaves start changing and frost appears, his insides ache. When he was drinking, each fall he’d go on a bad running drunk. Sober, the drop in temperature isn’t any easier to endure.

One late August morning at 2 a.m., a fall breeze came through the window, waking him up. It made his soul sad. All he wanted was to be up doing his job, that job.

But, after meeting Gomez, something fell into place. Bartlett chose a new perspective—everything’s going to work out. And he has that deep, unfathomable connection with mother earth, with his god to draw on.

So he lay there in bed, watching the breeze rustle the moonlit curtain as it announced the changing seasons, and thought, “Things will be all right.”