Western humor is all about adversity, braving the elements, surviving the landscape and stretching the truth. Call it polished prevarication. Not lies, exactly—more like embellishments. Stories that should be true, even if they’re not.
Pioneers came West, and over time each group told its own jokes—cowboys, loggers, Lycra-clad bicyclists—and everyone learned to laugh at each other and maybe even at themselves. Miners loved playing practical jokes and thought nothing of placing packrats in each other’s lunch pails. Cowboys always joked with each other, but especially loved tricking tenderfeet flatlanders. A Wyoming cowboy would fix a logging chain to a fence post and claim it was a windsock, which just might be true in the Cowboy State, where the annual Wyoming Wind Festival lasts from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Even children got into the act.
One very young wrangler took his city cousin on a high country hike. When they saw some deer run off and found brown pellets along the trail, he told his cousin, “Looky there, those are smart pills.” The cousin was skeptical and said, “How do you know?” The little cowboy just smiled and said, “Try one.” So the city cousin picked one up, put it in his mouth and began to chew. He spit it out and said, “My gawd, that tastes like deer poop.” The boy doubled up laughing and said, “See? You’re smarter already.”
Western politicians thought nothing of stretching the truth. William Gilpin, Colorado’s first governor, described western Colorado as a fertile area where “agriculture was effortless, no forests needed clearing, manual labor was not required…and to arrange fields for irrigation was no more trouble than fencing.” That sounds as sincere as the sales catalog that sold patented postholes to make it easier to fence your place.
The master of 19th century Western humor was Mark Twain, who traveled to Virginia City, Nev., and took a job on a local newspaper where he learned not to offend his readers. In his classic book Roughing It, Twain advised against getting into pistol duels because “the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either.”
Twain made his reputation with the The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, but the West has done him one better with our own indigenous animals.
Jackalopes immediately come to mind, but after an endless winter like this one you might also see the wampus kitty, which secretly opens barn doors and ranch gates and always leaves them open. There’s also the sidehill gouger. It looks similar to a mountain lion, but a leg in front and a leg in back are longer than the other pair, so in deep snow it easily straddles steep slopes. It doesn’t do well in a straight line, but the sidehill gouger moves fast around mountains.
Then there’s the fur-bearing trout. History professor Tom Noel at the University of Colorado, in Denver, says “the legendary fur-bearing trout dates from the earliest days of the gold rush. Shaggy miners used bear grease to slick down their heads and beards, then sat too close to the fire, burning their greasy hair. When a hair-tonic salesman came up to the hills from Denver, he carried the tonic in five-gallon glass jugs on a mule train. The lead mule slipped and all 100 jugs went into the creek. Trout ingested the tonic and grew hair. These fur-bearing trout thrived in Colorado’s chilly streams and may be seen to this day.”
As for me, I’m on the lookout for the Bucky-Jack-a-Pheas, which has the horns of a small buck deer, the body of a jackrabbit and the rear end and tail feathers of a South Dakota pheasant. This rare, endangered species is a distant cousin to the more common jackalope, star of a thousand postcards, which combines a jackrabbit with an antelope’s antlers. The “Bucky” stirs itself only at night and can be found at elevations between 10,440 and 10,450 feet where it is always looking for a mate.
So, yes, Western humor is full of boosterisms, exaggerations, lies and damned lies, but what else is new? It’s an election year. Get used to it.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.