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WESTERN ROMANCE NOVELS GOT IT ALL WRONG, GENUINE COWBOY POET SAYS

SHARE WESTERN ROMANCE NOVELS GOT IT ALL WRONG, GENUINE COWBOY POET SAYS

If you want to meet a real cowboy - a cattle-driving, calf-branding, horse-breaking cowboy who remembers the days when vast cattle drives thundered through Utah on their way to Durango - go see Vern Mortensen.

He'll be the first to tell you: Louis L'Amour got it all wrong. "There's not a thing right about (his writing.) It's interesting reading though."Mortensen was born a few years after this century was. He grew up in the days when electricity was "new and spotty." As a youngster, he herded sheep and worked his parents' farm near Parowan.

In the 1920s, he worked on cattle drives for the Hurricane Land and Cattle Co. - six cowboys, a chuck wagon and 1,000 head of cantankerous cattle.

They were not the cattle drives romanticized in Western fiction, television series and movies.

"If being tired and dirty and sleeping on the ground in all kinds of weather and having no sanitary facilities is romantic, it was romantic," Mortensen said.

Mortensen was so disappointed by the popular portrayal of the American cowboy that he wrote his own book, "The Making of a Cowboy."

He certainly had the training for the task. Mortensen has been reading and writing poetry ever since those first long days in his youth alone on the range with several hundred sheep.

He and his wife, Metta, published his book for their children and grandchildren.

"It didn't sell worth a damn," Mortensen said, without any rancor.

It's the same humor he displayed when Time magazine printed one of his poems and identified him as an Arizona poet. An error of merely 100 miles, Mortensen said.

Robert Frost took certain pride in noting that he was in his 40s before his poetry began receiving any acclaim. Mortensen could teach Frost patience. He was in his late 70s before people began to recognize a lifetime of poems.

He was one of four Utah poets invited to participate in the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada a few years ago.

His latest book, a collection of poetry called "Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust," sold better than the first. Then, of course, there was the brief nod from Time.

Mortensen treasures those accolades. At 82, he's not sure how many more there will be.

He had a stroke a few years ago and since then "it just hasn't come together good for me. I started a book, but it's been two years since I touched it. I'll never finish it."

The loss of abilities is but the fading of light proceeding a sunset. Mortensen is spending those sunset years with the wife he still treats like a sweetheart, their children and his rich memories. All the makings of a splendid sunset.

He can still recite every word of the first poem he memorized, a lengthy narrative called "Lasca." He has a storehouse of anecdotes - funny, scary and tender - about life on the Utah range in the 1910s, '20s and '30s.

He's been ill-at-ease in the world since then. "The things I learned to do were about done by the time World War II was over. It was a whole new world."

His range training left him ill-prepared for that new world. He tried his hand at construction work, sheep shearing and various jobs for the county - anything that would provide for his family.

And he kept writing his poems. Dozens and dozens of poems that capture the spirit and experience of a real cowboy.