Family branding.

There is nothing in American culture more romanticized than the life of a cowboy. And although the pressures of modern ranching have reined in the free-spirited life we idolized in movies and ballads, there are still days when genuine, born-to-the-saddle cowboys are pretty darn romantic.

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photo by Annie Griffiths Belt

On American ranches, traditions born of necessity have now become a precious remnant. Nowhere is that more apparent than at an annual family branding. Because branding takes a village of volunteers, it has become a raucous social event in the life of any ranch—bigger, in many ways, than Christmas. Well before sunrise, neighbors arrive from surrounding ranches in pick-up trucks loaded with hot food, cold drinks and sleepy volunteers. The day begins with coffee and biscuits and ends with steak and beer. In between, a hell of a lot of good hard work gets done. And boy is it fun.

Shortly after daybreak, the cattle arrive in a great whirlwind of dust, wailing and bawling, driven by a dozen or so cowboys on horseback. Like shadows, the horsemen vanish and reappear in the dust as they separate the calves from their mothers. Lariats sail through the air and helpers on the ground wrestle each victim to the dirt for branding, castrating and vaccinating. Steer testicles are tossed into buckets, which the younger kids carry to the kitchen to be deep-fried. It is both macho and mandatory for any visitor to sample one of these “prairie oysters.” Locals down them like popcorn.

In my years at National Geographic, I’ve been lucky enough to photograph several family brandings. In 1986, I was invited to a big branding at the Vinton family ranch in western Nebraska. Their ranch was so remote that I arrived a day early and spent the night in a guest bedroom. At dawn, I was awakened by a sudden light through the bedroom curtains. I looked out and saw that the sunrise had ignited cornrows of luminous clouds over the horse pasture. I grabbed my camera and tore downstairs and out the door. A dozen horses wandered the pasture, baptized in unforgettable light. I shot as fast as I could, thrilled at the scene in front of me.

As the light faded and the horses moved off, I threw back my head and hooted. It was then that I realized I was not alone. Behind me stood a line of cowboys, leaning against a fence and staring at me with amusement. Consummate professional that I was, I had run out of the house in nothing more than my t-shirt and undies. I wished them good morning, and marched what remained of my dignity back inside to put on a pair of jeans.