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Down on the Farm -- Cowboy culture

Today, you can drive across the United States in all directions and stay in the same hotel chain and eat the same food in the same restaurant chain and drive on freeways that all look the same.

The scenery changes as you go, of course, as do the accents of the gas station clerks and the waitresses, but if you're just passing through it is possible to think that everything else is pretty much the same.

Wrong. Culture changes, too. But a person doesn't notice that until you stick around a while and get to know the locals.

Over the years I have spent some time in the cowboy town of Burns, Oregon, thanks to my Aunt Lois, who moved to Burns 50-some years ago for a teaching job, got married to Uncle Don and raised up a bunch of cousins.

To get to Burns, you either have to drive a real long way, or fly a long way and then drive about 200 miles.

Burns is located in the enormous Harney Basin, a broad plain surrounded by distant mountains and vast wildernesses, a 100-mile buffer of nothingness in all directions.

Protected by that buffer, a cowboy culture relatively unpolluted by outside influences thrives.

Last Saturday, I attended a wedding reception for a cousin near Burns. It was held in an arena 15 miles from town, an enormous building that is used for team roping.

Everybody wore their best cowboy hats and boots. A plywood platform served as a dance floor. They served beef by the bushel. Beer flowed freely. And outside the door, horses snorted.

But the thing that got me was, at the far end of the arena in a corral, a bunch of boys played football in six inches of dust. Naturally, they raised a cloud. The arena slowly filled with haze.

I was sure that the dust was going to settle on the beef and add some grit. I waited for somebody to put a stop to the nonsense. But nobody was bothered in the least!

In the Midwest, those schoolboys would have arrived in a nice shirt and pants and if they played football, they would have done so outside and gotten a scolding for making so much noise and getting grass stains on their trousers.

In Burns, the kids arrived at the reception a little dusty and left even dustier--and nobody got in a bit of trouble.

The incident illustrates the No. 1, ironclad rule of cowboy culture: You do not interfere with the natural rambunctiousness of the young--even if they raise so much dust that you get grit in your beef.

What a blessed contrast this live-and-let-live attitude is to the rest of the country, where kids are kept on a leash, surrounded by cushions, monitored by beepers, tethered to a cell phone, watched by video cameras, never let out of sight.

The difference? Perhaps it is that kids in cowboy country are in training to be ranchers. To be a rancher, you need to be tough, resourceful and independent.

The best way to train ranchers? Apparently, it is to just let the kids run amok.

Ranchers rope calves and brand them and dehorn them and shove pills down the throat of angry bulls and stick needles in enormous beasts that could kill you with a kick.

When the bull gets out, it doesn't matter if it is 10-below zero and the snow is four feet deep, you have to saddle up a horse and go get it.

Training to be a rancher starts young. At a local rodeo event there was, believe it or not, a division for those 3 years old and under. The tots rode stick horses, sort of the cowboy equivalent of T-ball.

The girls are as resourceful and rambunctious as the boys. Thanks to her Burns upbringing, my cousin Charlotte can change a major bearing on a swather as easily as she can bake a cake.

And she can take down a calf with one toss of the rope.

When I stopped at the drug store in Burns, the clerk apologized for his slow credit card machine.

"It's Burns," he said. "We're 20 years behind."

Yes, and let's hope it stays that way.