Lee Whitlock celebrated his 89th birthday today. That's not such a remarkable life span these days, but suppose we tell you he's still doing the same job he's done for three-quarters of a century? And suppose that job is being a cowboy? Now that's a story.
Whitlock rides for the Baker Ranch out on the Utah-Nevada border. We can't say for sure if he's the oldest working cowboy in the west; he told us he knew some in their 90s, but they're all dead.
As a hired ranch hand, he's been riding herd nearly eight decades. He's not as sure-footed as he was, and his hearing's not what it used to be, but Whitlock still knows a good horse when he sees one. When it comes time to get those cows moving, Whitlock gets back in the saddle again, ready for action.
"Sometimes it's easier than other times," he said. When we reminded him that plenty of people his age can't walk up one flight of stairs, his reply was, "Well, stairs, they're not the easiest thing for us old people."
What is easy, apparently is riding, and punching cows. "It's been my life. I mean, I never did anything else but work on a ranch," he said.
Whitlock started as a hired cowboy when he was 13, more than 75 years ago. He says, "I rode bareback for quite a few years." He's been riding horses ever since. "I just grew up with them, and I love them, you know."
Ranch owner Dean Baker said, "I wish I was holding up that well. I'm a lot younger, and he's holding up better than I am."
Whitlock has been on Baker's payroll for a third of a century. "Well, as far as I know, he's the oldest operating, functional, productive cowboy around," Baker said.
Most people consider it an accomplishment to go 100,000 miles in an airplane. Well, the cattlemen's association gave him an award for going that distance on horseback! And that was 15 years ago!
"I doubt if there's a day hardly goes by in his life that he doesn't get on a horse," Baker said.
In his early years, Whitlock was a rodeo cowboy and did a lot of roping with partner Ladd Davies. Davies said, "We won our share. We roped kind of the top-end of amateurs and a little pro. But we won our share of money. He's the top. You don't find them better, I guarantee you."
You've got to wonder what a guy like this will do when he gets to the end of the trail and can't ride anymore. No one has a good answer.
Baker said, "You know, somebody asked him when he was going to retire, and he said, 'When they throw dirt in my face, I'll retire. Otherwise, I'm working.'"
Whitlock told us, "Well, as long as I can get up and go, why, I'm going to go."
All we can add is, Happy 89th Birthday, Lee. And Happy Trails, wherever they take you.