'Mornin' on the Desert', Unknown

 

Morin’ on the desert, and the wind is blowin’ free,

And it’s ours, jest for the breathin’, so let’s fill up, you and me.

Split by Route 50, also known as the ‘loneliest road in America’, the Great Basin Desert is a solitary and unforgiving place. With no sign of life for miles in every direction, the landscape is weathered by searing hot summers and winters that drop well below freezing. Hundreds of miles away from the fluorescent playground of Vegas, the ranchers live in an empty Northern part of the state, devoid of technology and the clamour of the digital world. Eking out a living amongst the arid sagebrush, this hardy group of men are America’s last cowboys.

For these few individuals who live out in the wide, open part of the Great Basin, life is hammered out by the rhythms of survival and hard labour. Passed down from generation to generation, is a complicated way of life that has come to a standoff with modernity. For photographer Adam Jahiel, he has likened his three-decade observation of these cowboys to “peeling away layers of an onion, where you peel away and there’s more and more and more and you keep going”.

The Call of the Wild

 

The image of the cowboy as the noble frontiersman, roaming the open range, is one of America’s most enduring myths. It is a myth steeped in the romanticism of a sensibility untouched and fierce self-reliance. Recalling big blue skies, fenceless horizons and the scent of earth that rises from the ground as you ride through the sagebrush, Jahiel explains, “being out in the weather and working with your hands, you realise you’re out there in the middle of nowhere and that nature controls every aspect of your life.”

Throughout history, humans have been drawn to the call of the wild and its promise of freedom. Taking time out from the concrete jungle, surrendering to nature has been proven to have a profound effect on our wellbeing and strengthens our connection with our selves. In the wild, we are able to return to our natural rhythms and reflect on our personal journey through life.

Back in the 60’s in protest to man’s treatment of the environment, the sculptor Man (Manfred Gnädinger) famously lived out his years on the shores of Galicia, building a towering private world out of the rocks and driftwood that surrounded him. His actions aligned him with his beliefs.

A man who shares this admiration for the passion of the hermit is the French author Sylvian Tesson. Inspired by a childhood dream of living in the wilderness, the author self-imposed a six-month retreat to the shores of Lake Baikal in 2010. What resulted was his novel Consolations of the Forest, a meditation on returning to nature and rediscovering the luxury of being alone. In his solitude, he reaffirms his ideas, finds solace in worldlessness and looks to nature as a shining moral example.

Stranded in the middle of the desert, Jahiel observed how the quiet rhythms of the ranchers were not only deeply rooted to the land, but also bound to each other. From the cook to the boss, each man stood steadfast to his post. Rising long before the sun came up, working hard and steady until the light faded, the photographer noted a rare level of trust and dependence that evolved from living in such close quarters.  “It’s taught me to be honest about my dealings with other people,”  he remarked. “I have become much more straightforward with people because when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you’re having to depend on each other it’s just really important, that you trust them and they trust you.”

The last cowboy

Adam Jahiel

That’s what they did all their lives, and they died with their boots on.

 

Bodies in the desert, enduring the harsh climate of the Great Basin breeds two distinct types of individuals – the gritty seasoned veterans, and the young and innocent. Away from the comforts of modern living, life in the desert is unimaginable to most and seems a far cry from the Hollywood myth. With the days rolling into one, the passing of time marked only by the changes in season and the thawing out of the earth. Scratched into an abandoned bunkhouse wall an anonymous rancher records his story, 10-6 rode in lower reservoir, 110 pairs. Rained all afternoon – cold.

 

Not only is the environment punishing, the relentless manual labour exerts a profound physical toll on the body. The career of a cowboy is short, tiring and underwritten with struggle. Over decades of observing generations of families on the ranches, Jahiel has watched the steady decline of a lifestyle that struggles to keep up with the times. With the passing of each generation, the value of the land increases as the value of its inhabitants falls. And so, as each year passes the surviving generations of cowboys are starting to appreciate the appeal of an easier life in the developed towns nearby. 

In many cases the ranches have shrunk down a handful of cowboys who steadfastly carry on the traditions of their fathers. Whilst some families choose to stay out on the land, others travel up from the nearest town, leaving their families and putting the city job on mute for a weekend to lend a hand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, almost a third of cowboys were listed in the subcategory of “spectator sports” making their income from performances at rodeos, circuses and theatrical venues.

 

The Fate of The Cowboy

Doc Holliday, Tombstone (1993)

There’s no normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life. Get on with it.

 

“The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time,” the early Western film star Tom Mix once said. “It’s a state of mind. It’s whatever you want it to be.” For the cowboy, the freedom of a life lived on the fringes has come into threat. As big ranch conglomerates take over, the traditional American cowboy is slowly fading into myth. Facing each new storm head-on, whilst the times have changed, their line of work is one that still extols the virtue of solidarity, hard work and self-reliance. The pull of the wild exists in us all, and by observing the lives of the ranchers in the outreaches of Nevada we have learnt not to ignore its primitive call.

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BIOGRAPHY

For years, photographer Adam Jahiel has been photographing the cowboys of the Great Basin. Probably one of the most inhospitable regions of the already rugged West. These people represent one of the last authentic American subcultures, one that is disappearing at a rapid rate. Cowboying as an art is almost obsolete; still the cowboys hang on, with ferocious tenacity. In Jahiel’s images, these cowboys aren’t “remade” into a Hollywood image. Instead they are found images, in keeping with the spirit of authenticity that permeates the best keepers of this tradition.