Brenda Negri’s memoir The Big Out There pays tribute to buckaroo life in the West in the 1970s and ’80s.
Back in 1987, photographer Kurt Markus published Buckaroo, his second of three monographs on the life of the contemporary American cowboy. It was preceded by After Barbed Wire and followed by Cowpuncher, all observing the life and work of stockmen and -women in different regions of the American West. It was groundbreaking work for cowboy culture.
On page after page we are greeted with glorious images in color and black and white of the capable on horseback, doing the work of the horse and cattle business. On page 61 appears a black-and-white image of a young woman and her dog. She is seated cross-legged against a simple canvas background, looking firmly at the camera from just under the brim of her bound-edged hat. Her dog is putting up with the pose but looking like he would rather be anywhere else and probably chasing something.
The book is a collection of images Markus took in the Great Basin region of the West that encompasses areas of Idaho, Nevada and Oregon—referred to by the buckaroos who live and work there as “the ION.” It was and is a tough place on men, women and horses. The woman pictured is Brenda Negri who came to the region some 10 years before the picture was taken, leaving her life as a gallop girl for Thoroughbreds at Oregon’s Portland Meadows race track, heading east to pursue her dream of being a buckaroo on a working cattle ranch. It was a tall dream for the time as very few women found they could make a living working as a full-time buckaroo unless they were already part of a ranching family.
So Negri went about it the only way she knew how by knocking on the front doors of ranch headquarters from Nevada to Idaho. Greeted with a “no” more times than not, she was undeterred, and finally got a job at a feedlot in Idaho. From there, she went to work on ranches across the West including for Tom Marvel, first doing chores around the ranch and then riding for him, living her dream. It’s a story of perseverance. And we are fortunate that this consummate Westerner has just released a memoir about her life immersed in the buckaroo culture that seems always on the edge of disappearing.
Her self-published tome, The Big Out There—all 300 pages of it—gives us a window into a West that is mostly gone. It’s a picture, for many at the time, of a little known region of America and the people who worked in it on horseback from the 1970s thru the 1980s and beyond. It is filled with her photographs and charming illustrations that describe the unique difference of working stockman from not just different outfits, but different states. Those drawings and her narrative help give the reader a sampling of the personalities and places that brought people from all over to this region of the high-desert West to work for room and board and little more than their own satisfaction of living a life outside the civilian world of city life.
It’s a compelling read that is both romantic and nostalgic, filled with insight, tributes and vignettes of the people she worked with, most taking her just as she was, giving her a chance.
Throughout the book, Negri is generous with her descriptions of the people and places she came in contact with and that called her there. “The Big Out There,” she writes, “it’s the land of extremes, roughly encompassing the terrain west of Salt Lake City, south of Boise, north of Tonopah and east of Bishop. Oh, sure you can argue some about the actual boundaries, but its really the place where, as you’re driving along, you slowly begin to feel very small and extremely insignificant. . . . truth be told, you can be here most of your life, and still never cease to be awed, shocked, bored, scared, or have your mind blown to pieces by it. It’s that kind of place.
“It started out slow but not for long,” she remembers. “Suddenly the Internet was talking about it, aghast, shocked and hysterically crazy. . . . (it) pissed many off, just as many if not more laughed, made folks cry and sad . . . (people) loved it, hated it and somewhere in between.”
This book was not Negri’s first foray into publishing. Back in 2007 she hatched an idea to create an online outlet for all the drawings and writings she was creating that could speak to a specific yet broader audience that might understand the life she gave herself to. She created the Buckaroo Guide website anonymously not revealing who or what was behind it. The site was eclectic, filled with humor, satire, and criticisms, plus drawings, poems and photos of people, regional hotels, polar bears and an all-knowing lizard, a sort of mascot, named “Green King.”
The Buckaroo Guide was the launch point for the creation of her book, and it seems to have helped Negri significantly in bringing her stories and remembrances into clear view. Her many drawings from the Buckaroo Guide era help define the chapters on various buckaroo and cowboy types along with some of her favorite ranchers and artists she admires. One chapter, “Buckaroo and Cowboys and How to Identify Them,” shows a series of drawings from a spiral notebook described with tongue planted firmly in cheek as “a guide for the neophyte cowpuncher, the morbidly curious, Western Artists, and those just too dumb to know the difference.”
The drawings are actually pretty helpful. Several chapters are devoted to the Marvel family, her dear friends who took a chance on her. There is much more. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll scratch your head, but through it all Brenda Negri leaves the reader with hope, especially for young women who may have a hankering for a life horseback.
“If this book serves one purpose,” she writes, “I hope it is more than capturing time and places that are now gone, but also, to serve as an inspiration to those—particularly women—who are drawn to this type of work and life, and thinking about setting forth, and doing it. . . . There are still a few places where you can lose yourself in the buckaroo life and be not sorry for it.”