SALT LAKE CITY — Four years ago, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter from the New York Times named John Branch found his way to what he called "the forever landscape of southern Utah" to do a story on a ranching family that kept producing world champion rodeo cowboys.
For his article, Branch embedded himself with the extended family of Bill and Evelyn Wright — at their various homes in Milford, at their ranch on Smith Mesa next to Zion National Park and at rodeo grounds throughout the West, including the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
The story he wrote, a 6,000-word opus titled "The Ride of Their Lives," ran in the Times in March of 2015.
The Wrights figured that was that. But not Branch. He was just getting started.
The family had intrigued him, and it wasn't just the rodeo, it was their way of life and the way they pursued it.
He asked the Wrights if it would be all right if he wrote an entire book just about them.
Evelyn Wright remembers her initial reaction.
"How much more can you write about this family?" she wondered. "People are going to be falling asleep."
"Oh, no, I've got a lot more stuff I didn't use," she remembers Branch responding. His newspaper piece, he told her, had barely scratched the surface.
So the Wrights, who had grown to enjoy the journalist as much as he'd grown to enjoy them, shrugged, said fine, and in true cowboy fashion, went on about their business — with no strings attached. They didn't say they'd have their people get in touch with his people. They didn't draw up a contract. They didn't lay down a bunch of rules. They didn't ask what was in it for them.
They asked for no editorial control over anything Branch wrote and no share in any royalties.
The result is "The Last Cowboys," published in May by W.W. Norton & Co. of New York — a book that rings as true a portrait of the West as a C.M. Russell painting.
Branch reminds us with his spare, elegant prose that cowboys like the Wrights are still out there. To paraphrase Chris LeDoux, you just can't see them from the road.
And their stories are as authentic and as real and as romantic today as they ever were, with equal doses of triumphs and trials.
"I truly believe that they are heroes of the American West — people living lives that are, at turns, both ordinary and extraordinary, all with a quiet dignity in a changing world," Branch said of the Wrights. "To me, they represent countless others trying to make a go of it, sticking to tradition and family and roots as the landscape shifts around them."
The author, who grew up in Colorado and California — he just happens to write for a newspaper back East — confirmed that there were no deals struck when the Wrights gave him the green light to write his book.
"We never talked about the story, and what the book would include or not," he said. "As a journalist, I felt a strong obligation to paint the full, unvarnished picture, without censoring their words or actions, and now that the book has been released, I feel that is what makes the Wrights likable — they're portrayed as the real people that they are.
"I know there are details that made them uncomfortable, including some of their personal struggles. But I've spoken to a few of them since the book's release, including Bill, and they take the view that if their own experiences can help others, then that's a good thing. I'd like to think so, too."
"He didn't pull any punches," agreed Evelyn Wright, reached for comment on her front porch in Milford. "He was a straight shooter. He didn't sanitize it at all."
"It's weird to read about your own life, and a little unsettling," she said. "But it was the truth. Bill said he'd thought about asking John to not be so brutally honest, but then he thought, you know what, we are not perfect in any way, shape or form, we have our trials and our good things and we're blessed beyond measure and you can't get those blessings if you don't get through the hard trials."
The book juxtaposes Bill's never-ending and increasingly difficult struggle to make a go of it as a cattle rancher on land that has been in the family since his Mormon forebears first came to southern Utah in the 1850s with his sons' and grandsons' uncommon success as saddle bronc riders on the professional rodeo circuit.7 comments on this story
On five separate occasions over the past 10 years, a Wright has reigned as world saddle bronc champion cowboy — Cody in 2008 and 2010, Jesse in 2012, Spencer in 2014 and Ryder in 2017. In addition, Cody was runner-up in 2003, Jesse in 2011 and Jake in 2013, while Rusty finished third in 2015 and son-in-law CoBurn Bradshaw finished third in both 2016 and 2017.
This year, no less than seven Wrights (counting Bradshaw) are in contention to finish the regular season among the top 15 and qualify to compete for the world championship at the NFR in December.
No family in history has dominated a single event in rodeo quite like the Wrights. Or, for that matter, had a book written about them quite like the one John Branch just published, either.