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The Men Who Ride No More

By April 2002Comments

Horse-breaker Joel Nelson tries to carry paper wherever he goes, and the second a line hits him, he has to scribble it down, putting whatever he is doing on hold. It’s a good practice that led to his poem “The Men Who Ride No More.” En route to Hawaii to break horses for a ranch, he stopped in Merrysville, California, to visit an old cowboy in a nursing home. It was Nelson’s first trip to a nursing home, and the sight weighed on his mind. A few months later on his way to work, the line “the men who ride no more” came into his head, and he pulled his truck over on the side of the road to jot down the lines as they came. When he returned from work that evening, he took out the sheet of paper and perfected the following poem.

“Bronc to Breakfast” calendars hang fading on the walls
There’s a lost and aimless wandering through the corridors and halls
Of slippered feet that shuffle on a waxed and polished floor
And vacant stares of emptiness from the men who ride no more

Men who once rode proudly—men with long straight backs
Men who covered hill and plain with steel shod horses tracks
Now pass their idle days in rooms with numbers on the door
With orderlies and nurses for men who ride no more

Time was when spur rowels jingled when boot heels bumped the floor
Dawns with hot black coffee and saddling up at four
With feet in tapaderos and broncs between their knees
And silken neck scarves snapping as they turned into the breeze

From full-blown living legends true to riding for the brand
To the scarcely mediocre who could hardly make a hand
They would gather for the branding or the shipping in the Fall
Now it’s walker, cane, and wheelchair in the antiseptic hall

And they all have their mementos on the table by their side
Like a cracked and fading snapshot of a horse they usta ride
Or standing with the wife beside a thirty-seven Ford
A high-heeled boot hooked nonchalant on a muddy running board

Just instants frozen from the past that somehow give a clue
To who and what they were before their riding days were through
Horseback men with horseback rules from horseback days of yore
Their one and only wish would be to somehow ride once more

To once more rope a soggy calf and drag it to the fire
To long-trot for a half a day and see no post or wire
To ride a morning circle—catch a fresh one out at noon
And trot him in when the day was done to the rising of the moon

To put in one more horseback day and have just one more chance
To ride home to a pretty wife and drive her to the dance
To take her hand and hold her close and waltz across a floor
Before the time to join the ranks of men who ride no more.

Copyright © 1997. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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