Pinned under a panicking 1,300-pound horse in a narrow irrigation ditch, cowboy Gary L. Williams struggled to keep his head above the brackish water.
“I was trying desperately to get up, but he was propped upsidedown on top of me,” the San Miguel resident recalled. “I figured I was going to die right there.”
Suddenly, the horse leapt, giving the cowboy just enough room to climb out of the ditch, grab the animal’s bridle reins and help him regain his balance. Then, soaking wet and covered in mud, the two went back to work.
“I’ve been through enough wrecks in my life that it really didn’t bother me much,” Williams explained.
That story and many others appear in Williams’ memoir, “Lessons from the Range: Adventures of a Working Cowboy,” published in December by Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Institute. In the 244-page book, he shares wisdom gleaned from decades of roping and riding.
“Basically I wanted to put history down (on paper) for my family,” Williams explained, “because this is kind of a dying profession.”
Realizing a dream
A rangy, bearded man in a white straw hat, faded Wrangler blue jeans and dusty brown boots with spurs, Williams is the very picture of a classic cowboy. He and his wife of 21 years, Elissa, share a 10-acre Independence Ranch property with five horses, roughly 30 dogs and a few chickens. (He leases about 700 acres in the Atascadero and Creston areas for his cattle.)
Williams, 65, first discovered an affinity for the horseman’s life during his childhood in western Washington.
“My dream from the very first was to be a cowboy, and I stuck to that goal and that dream my whole life,” Williams said.
That ambition was fueled by his family’s friendship with legendary movie cowboy Roy Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans.
“Every time I went to Roy’s ranch in Apple Valley, he’d take me around and show me every horse he had,” Williams recalled. “He’d say, ‘Jump in the Jeep, Gary,’ and away we’d go.”
In fact, Williams’ first horse, Pal, was a descendant of Rogers’ trusty steed, Trigger. He started training horses and dogs at age 12.
“The Lord has just given me an ability with dogs and horses, so I’ve loved doing it,” said Williams, noting that dogs have a desire to please, while horses require a firmer hand.
“Horses come from a herd instinct (and) get direction from the leader of the herd,” he explained.
“You have to be the leader. You have to be the driver. You can’t be the passenger.”
Williams moved to Butte Falls, Ore., in 1971 to start a cattle ranch with his parents, first wife and eldest son. (Williams has three adult children — Jake, Becky and Jess — plus a stepson, Cory.) After selling that ranch in 1975, he worked at an Alturas ranch for seven years.
Following his divorce in 1981, Williams loaded up his horse and spent three carefree years traveling across the western United States.
“I’d see a big ranch, and I’d just pull in. ‘Need some help?’ ‘Yeah!’ ” he recalled. “I’d shoe horses or ride colts or fix a fence or do whatever they needed done. When I’d get tired, I’d say ‘See you later’ and drive down the road to the next ranch.”
Next came a stint at the now-closed Bovine Test Center in Oakdale, followed by gigs as cowboy and ranch manager in Shandon and Paso Robles.
Since 1990, Williams has worked as a “contract cowboy” whose duties include gathering, roping and branding livestock; raising cattle, American Quarter Horse Association horses and McNab dogs; and capturing spoiled and wild burros, goats, sheep and other ornery critters. He’s also served as a mounted training officer for the county Sheriff’s Office.
Over the years, Williams, who bought his San Miguel mini-ranch in 1995, has matched wits and wills with wily buffalo, stubborn cattle and ill-tempered llamas.
“I have a motto,” he said. “ ‘They can run but they can’t hide.’ ”
Williams acknowledged that cowboy life comes with certain risks — including road rash, runins with rattlesnakes and countless broken bones, sprained ankles and dislocated shoulders. Still, he’s never been deterred by the danger of his job.
“The afterthought is usually what affects me,” Williams said. “A lot of times I’ve come down off these really steep, steep, steep hillsides, roping cattle that are wanting to kill me.
“After I get everything done and I’ve got the animal tied on the ground, I look back up and (go), ‘Did I really come down that?’ ” he added with a laugh.
Although his wife and friends have been pushing Williams to write a book for years, it took a trip “down south” with a client to finally persuade him to put words to paper.
“A week later comes this package in the mail with this voice recorder and a note (from the client) saying, ‘I want your first book,’ ” recalled Williams, who placed the device on his truck’s dashboard. He recorded stories during “windshield time,” later using a Lenovo ThinkPad to transform those anecdotes into a manuscript.
So far, he said, he’s been amazed by the positive reaction to “Lessons from the Range.”
After being complimented by a client, he asked, “ ‘Specifically, what was it that inspired you in my book?’ She said, ‘Not once in the book did you have the word ‘struggle.’ ”
Williams said a no-nonsense attitude is necessary for his profession, noting, “It’s a tough job, and the pay is not that great.”
“I’ve never been one for money or popularity,” he said. “I’d rather be with my animals out in the middle of nowhere doing what I do.”
BOOK SIGNING MARCH 15
Gary L. Williams will sign copies of his book “Lessons from the Range: Adventures of a Working Cowboy” from 2 to 4 p.m. March 15 at the Paso Robles Pioneer Museum, 2010 Riverside Ave. in Paso Robles. Call 610-1362 or visit http://www.cowboydogtrainer.com .