N.M. rancher exemplifies new genre cowboy verse Reciting scared him more than bulls

March 20, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

CHUPADERO, N.M. — In Saturday's editions of The Sun, the home of cowboy poet Leon Autrey was incorrect. He lives in Chupadera, N.M., which cannot be found on a map. It is located within the Mountainair, N.M., postal district, about 70 miles southeast of Albuquerque, N.M.

The Sun regrets the error.

CHUPADERO, N.M. -- Home on this range of mountain and mesa, pinon and cedar, Leon Autrey scouts for a bull with a swollen hock. He pulls porcupine needles from a cow's nose, stones from its feet.

Here, where the deer and the antelope play -- sometimes in the front yard -- the man who owns and breeds the cattle must doctor them, too.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

On this 20,000-acre spread, 18 miles deep in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains, Mr. Autrey is the rancher and the foreman, the chief wrangler . . . and poet.

Two years ago, a friend of the family saw a poem that Mr. Autrey composed for a cowboy who broke a leg. An invitation to appear at a cowboy poetry gathering in Colorado followed.

"They told me it was like going to a branding," says Mr. Autrey, who also plays guitar, writes songs and draws cartoons.

"I rode some pretty bad bulls and broke some pretty bad horses and fought some pretty bad men, but I was never so scared as that day. I vomited."

Until two years ago, only Mr. Autrey's friends and family read his poems. Now, he's among the men and women featured at cowboy poetry gatherings in such places as Elko, Nev., Silver City, N.M., and Alpine, Texas.

"I love what I do. I live on this land.

"My spirit is free. It's under God's hand.

"Creation is pure. It comes from the sand.

"I'm just a simple cowboy. But I am my own man."

Born and raised amid the stark, arresting beauty of central New Mexico, Mr. Autrey, 51, began writing what he calls "little sayings" soon after he got his first ranching job.

He was 13 then, working cattle in Santa Fe for $60 a month, plus room and board.

Nose-to-nose with longhorns

Except for a four-year stint in the Air Force, Mr. Autrey has always been a cowboy. He often sees the world from a unique vantage point, nose-to-nose with a longhorn under a big sky. His poems reflect a saddle-weary soul with simple wisdom and rawhide wit.

Like when he writes about the banker counting a rancher's herd to ensure his collateral:

"When we got back to headquarters, it had been a long day.

"I said, how did we come out, was the count OK?

"His eyes showed a question mark, also some scorn!!

"He replied -- 21 paint cows, best ever born.

"But tell me how seven of them have the exact same broken horn?"

A cowboy's fear of doctors, a child's query on why mountains have trees, a greenhorn buying a blind horse, these are the subjects on which Mr. Autrey builds his verse.

It is rough-hewn language punctuated by simple rhymes that may not embody the grace of Whitman or Frost.

Declining breed of men

The poems chronicle a breed of men who are fast declining as land prices soar, credit becomes less affordable, endangered species compete with cattle for range rights and rancher's children look for an easier way to make a living.

Unlike some so-called cowboy poets, Mr. Autrey writes about "what I've lived, what I've seen and what I've heard from the old timers."

He looks the part in his Wrangler jeans, cotton shirt buttoned at the neck, calf-skin boots and a hand-made Western hat worn low on the forehead.

His eyes are as ice-blue as the gamma grass that powders the land in a chilly hue. The face is creased with lines that dance like a snake.

Cows come like puppies

When Mr. Autrey's red and gray pickup stops in a seemingly empty stretch, cattle emerge from the brush and lope toward their master like eager puppies.

"He can go into a crowd of 200 cows and know exactly which one's missing," says Darla Autrey, the rancher's wife for 31 1/2 years, a petite woman with salt-and-pepper hair and green eyes.

Mr. Autrey works a land of sun-scorched hills and yucca-filled can yons that his daddy bought in 1951 from Manuel Ulbarri, whose family settled here in 1901.

The ranch still carries the UL name and the 300 head of cattle the UL brand, which the former owner handed over when Mr. Autrey was still a teen-ager.

With his two sons now grown and pursuing their own careers, Mr. Autrey runs the ranch with his wife, who rode her first horse soon after saying, "I do."

Until 1981, the Autreys cooked on a wood stove, bathed in a No. 3 metal tub with rainwater and cleaned their clothes with a washboard. A telephone was installed several years after the indoor plumbing.

Days begin before sunrise. In winter, Mr. Autrey drives around the ranch delivering bales of green hay and a concentrated food mixture to the cows, bulls and springers (pregnant cows). He checks water levels in the outdoor tanks, repairs corrals and gates, delivers calves.

Lunch is on the table by noon, dinner served at six.

A harsh life

"We started out with $60 and now we owe half a million," says Mr. Autrey, whose dusty chaps and scuffed spurs (two pair) hang on a hook near the backdoor of their 6-room adobe house.

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