Joe Back was an old time cowboy and horse-packer turned sculptor and artist by the time I met him in 1977 at the log home he and his wife Mary built on the banks of the Wind River. This was in the Dubois country of northwestern Wyoming. Joe shook my hand and said, "I come from a long line of pan-slingers and bull-slingers."
He was called "an interesting old cob," and one reviewer of his book, "Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails" called him a "natural born humorist, a sort of poet in a rustic way."
I still have two autographed copies of that book which he gave me when I interviewed him for an article in Wyoming Wildlife magazine, where I was associate editor.
Joe was born in 1899 and served as a machinegun instructor during World War I, then worked as a backcountry hunting guide and horse-packer before retiring at age 60 to his artwork. Today, I wish I had a sample of his sculptures, sketches or paintings, but at the time, I was making $1,000 a month before taxes. (I mention in the magazine article that Joe's sculptures sold for as high as $9,000! And, remember, that was 35 years ago!)
Joe told me he spent four years in the late 1920s at the Art Institute of Chicago where, to use Joe's words, he "damn near starved to death."
Joe had a pin in an artificial hip in those days, but with a sparkle in his eye he attributed his ailments to "riding the wrong horses" and "being in the wrong place at the right time for the horse."
He added, "Get kicked, rolled on an' busted up and bucked off an' pretty soon you're getting to be an old guy and you don't move so quick and the horses move quicker.
"You gotta out-think the horse all the time. A horse is a smart animal if he's an average horse. But the dumbest mule is twice as smart as the smartest horse."
He said he wrote and illustrated "Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails" because he never had seen a book devoted to horse and mule-packing..."how to put a pack on him and how to get along with him, and how to make sure the load was safe and didn't hurt the horse or mule....
"Every time I'd get tired of drawing, I'd do some writing. Then I'd get tired of writing and I'd draw another picture. I'd throw half of it away and start over."
The result was what many say is the definitive book on horse-packing. The illustrations alone are astonishing -- drawings of all sorts of horse tack and gear, packtrains, down timber, and knots. Most people can't tie the knots ... Joe DREW them! Throughout the book the reader gets advice on how to handle horses and how not to handle them, and he learns to tie a myriad of knots that are useful in packing. They tend to be complicated, but Joe insisted, "If you can tie your shoelaces, you can tie a diamond hitch."
A conversation with Joe was sure to include a colorful tale or two about horses and packers. Here's one tongue-in-cheek tale he told me: "I heard a packer once say that he packed for 40 years, but his partner called him a blamed liar. When these characters had got done arguing, they agreed that he had packed for only 20 years, the other 20 he had spent hunting for lost horses...when you tail or tie horses together, be sure they are friends, or at least tolerate each other...like people, some horses hold grudges easy and stay mad for a long time."
He operated long before the age of environmentalism, but advocated flattening cans and packing them out. A recurring theme in his book is that man and horse are both animals and that neither has changed a great deal over the centuries --" ... most problems encountered by the packer and guide in rough, isolated country are the same as if you packed 100 years ago," he wrote. "You may have better materials to use in the rigs you now have, but the horse is still the horse of yesterday, and you are your own grandpa."
That was Joe Back -- a genuine western character. I am glad I had the privilege to know him.