OVANDO – Over 50 years of dude-wrangling, Jack Hooker has spun a yarn or two.
But he’s rarely had one of his own stories crawl out of the desert and pop up in his mailbox.
Back in 1955, Hooker was hard on the hunt for a world championship bronc-riding year. He’d been stacking up belt buckles all over the West, including a silver Nevada state championship shiner he picked up in a tie-breaker with another cowboy.
The challenger suggested flipping a coin, but Hooker called for a ride-off. The two men took five rides at the finale of the circuit, and Hooker took home the buckle.
But he also got hurt that season, and being 30 years old in a young man’s game, Hooker opted for an easier career. He switched to ranching on the Nevada high desert.
That went more or less fine until one day in 1959, when Hooker and fellow wrangler Art Cook got a job rounding up wild horses on the Wine Cup Ranch 60 miles out of Montello.
The first day after setting up camp, the men rode for two miles across Bureau of Land Management lease land before they found a wild herd. Cook and Hooker each picked a horse, and they charged in. Cook laid his lariat around a buckskin mare and took off over the hill. Hooker had targeted a yearling stud colt.
Then things went south.
“I was busy trying to keep my horse from bucking as I spurred him on toward the young stud,” Jack recalled. “I finally got close enough to throw the lariat on him, then my big brown saddle horse went to bucking and bucked over the rope – which was around the stud’s neck, under my horse’s belly and up to the saddle horn. I realized that we were in for one awful wreck.
"When the rope came tight, I turned everything loose preparing for the inevitable, which came with swiftness and violence. My saddle horse was flipped on his side. I was thrown clear, landing on my left elbow and shoulder and finally losing my hat. When I got up, my horse and the mustang were running off in the distance.”
Hooker also realized he had shattered his elbow. He had to walk a mile to find the two roped-together horses. After cutting the mustang free, he rode his saddle horse back to camp. Then began the 60-mile drive to a doctor in Wells, “over the bumpiest road in the West.”
They found the doctor drunk in a bar, but capable of wrapping a cast on Hooker’s broken arm. They drove back to camp the next morning. Hooker was out of the riding-and-roping business for a while, but his cooking skills kept him employed.
Somewhere in the catastrophe, he popped off his Toppenish Saddle Bronc championship buckle.
The Toppenish, Washington, rodeo buckle was one of the many Hooker had won in 1955. Unlike the silver Nevada state buckle, this one was made of sturdy nickel and better suited for daily ranch wear. But gone is gone, and Hooker moved on.
He got into the outfitting business, first in Oregon and then at the Whitetail Ranch outside of Ovando. Along with two shots at the Iditarod sled-dog race (finishing 15th in 1976 and ninth in 1977), he spent the next four decades leading hunting and camping trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness outside his back door. He wore that silver buckle enough to nearly polish off his engraved name along the bottom.
Meanwhile, back in Nevada, Nick and Kenny Burbidge took their father out for a rifleman’s holiday.
“On Sunday, March 29, 2015, to celebrate my father’s birthday, we went out shooting and hunting jackrabbits on BLM land just north of Montello, Nevada, around an outfit called Wine Cup Ranch,” Nick Burbidge wrote in a note to Hooker. “While walking through the sagebrush, my brother Kenny came across an old bronc rodeo championship belt buckle belonging to one ‘Jackie Hooker.’
“A quick Google search of Jackie Hooker from Washington didn’t give me many results, and I was getting frustrated thinking I wouldn’t be able to find who the buckle belonged to. Fortunately, I finally found an article about a horse-breaking, ex-rodeo cowboy who now runs an outfit in Montana.”
Hooker said never knew how the “Jackie” nickname came about, but he couldn’t get rid of it for years. It’s the one on most of his rodeo buckles. Now 84, everyone calls him “Jack.”
Burbidge continued searching and eventually tracked down Hooker’s address. Then he put the gray-green buckle in a box and shipped it to Montana. Karen Hooker opened it a few days later.
“I had a great time reading about everything Jack and Karen Hooker accomplished over the years,” Burbidge wrote. “My brother Kenny and I grew up on being outdoors, hunting and fishing, and I just found it great to be able to track down the person the belt buckle belonged to. It’s in a little bit of rough shape, but definitely something that belongs with its owner or one of his kids/grandkids.”
“That was a good year,” Hooker said. “It was the year I won Calgary (Stampede in Alberta), too. But it was all in the past, and I hadn’t given a thought about it. This really brought back neat memories.”