The Judge of the Tobacco Valley
Two years ago, I joined five friends on a once-in-a-lifetime cattle driving adventure. It was described to us via email this way:
You guys will be working with 140-150 heads of cattle and will be doing vaccinations on this trip. Mills says this trip is actually his favorite and he thinks this is the best season for you guys to be going so it sounds like it will be amazing.
The weather is getting quite chilly at night. Down into the 30s. Daytime temps are in the upper 60s to about 70. Pack layers for sure. There will be a heater in your tent, but you’ll have to leave the tent to use the outhouse so be prepared to bundle up.
It was all of that, for sure. Outhouses and cattle drives and bourbon.
Lots and lots of bourbon.
But more and more it became about the people we met there. And the person who really knocked our socks off was The Judge.
We met The Judge on our first day of driving cattle. It was his herd and we had to move them from one place to another.
That’s what we paid for. ‘Real cowboy stuff.’
I’m not sure how to adequately describe The Judge. He wasn’t a loud man…until he needed to be and then his “HOOOOOOW-UP!” to get the cows moving could wake the dead. It was basically the loudest sound any of us had ever heard come out of a human being.
While the herd was moseying along at a bovine clip, he’d ride alongside you and listen to your woes and chuckle softly. He had presence. You always knew when The Judge was nearby. He sat on his horse like he meant it, and was as comfortable there as you or I would be on a sofa. Laugh lines on his eyes and quick with a warm smile, he seemed to take you in and accept you in one glance. That’s who you are. Okay.
The Judge was tough. Tough as the roots of a mountain. Rough as a rusty nail. He had hands that knew real work and eyes that never missed a thing. I remember sitting on horseback, talking to him and a stray turned off behind him at like 6 o’clock and he just whistled and it came back to the herd. I was like damn. Daaaaaamn. How’d he see that?
We were a bunch of artists on holiday. A director, a novelist, a photographer, a screenwriter, an entrepreneur and one idiot who writes on the web. To us, being around The Judge was like riding into battle with Charlemagne.
As we got to know him more, he got even better. It doesn’t always go like that. As the layers of his life were uncovered, we heard more and more about his days as a Judge, and being a school guidance counselor and the things he loved about Montana and the city of Eureka where he lived and worked and raised a family and made a life, ten minutes south of the Canadian border. He loved that high country.
The more we asked the more he told: and we asked about everything. He was fascinating. You could hear real pain in his voice when he spoke about people he’d had to convict, about how hard he tried to get them help, to give them chances, but how some people couldn’t get out of their own way. He was a fount of hard-earned wisdom. I can’t remember another human being I’ve ever met like that, where I was hanging on his every word.
Magically, he seemed to genuinely like our gang. That was like being inducted into the cowboy hall of fame. He hung out with us after ‘work.’ I remember we had purchased a bunch of various types of alcohol when we arrived in Montana, and when we had the yankee indecency to offer The Judge some orange-flavored moonshine, we thought he’d politely decline.
Instead, he was like “Sure! I’ll give that a try! I’ve never had that before.”
We poured him a finger and he sipped it and smiled and enjoyed every last drop of it. He surprised us like that time and time again.
When several of us were tossing a football at a bush in an impromptu accuracy competition, it was The Judge who was like “hell with this! Let’s play some real football!”
My friends and I looked at each other. Uhhhhh…
We were camped on a sloping mountainside with rocks jutting out of it like dinosaur teeth, and as my friend put it “ankle-breaking fissures” everywhere. It was a hospital visit waiting to happen. That didn’t stop The Judge. He went out for a pass, executed a textbook stop & go and my friend hit him deep for a gorgeous, arcing touchdown.
The Judge. He was approaching seventy years old at the time.
The Judge brought us to his home. We met his wonderful wife, Sue, who was an angel on earth and clearly well used to The Judge being one of the boys. She drives the school bus in Eureka. And we saw the mountain lion that The Judge had shot dead as it stalked his herd. He has it in his house. This is a picture I took of it.
That’s another world to me. First, killing a lion, and secondly, having it in your home. You would have thought it would be creepy, but it wasn’t. It all just sort of…fit.
The Judge brought us to a Eureka Lions football game, where his son was the Varsity Football Coach. I remember wondering what a boy would be like who was raised by this man. He was basically the ideal human being. Strong, smart, handsome and kind. A true chip off the old block. But at that game we finally saw the dark side of The Judge. There was something that he hated with every fiber of his being:
The Libby Loggers.
The team from Libby, Eureka’s archrival. Libby is a city. Eureka is a town. The Libby Loggers think they’re hot stuff. Damn if The Judge didn’t hate those ‘knotheads’, as he called them.
He was gracious and kind and comforting and capable, but he had nary a kind word for the Loggers.
By the time we left, The Judge felt like family. I asked my friends what they remember of him and they all reflected my general feeling that he was one of a kind. One of them wrote this:
“I think it was day one of the cattle drive that we went out to move his cows from A to B.
But it was day two, I think, where I saw the thing that has stuck with me most about The Judge.
We were moving cows down a paved road next to a fenced in field. And one of the calves got himself on the wrong side of the fence and was about to get all tangled up.
The Judge, casual as can be, hopped off his horse, over the fence, and lifted the calf up and over it — untangling the little fella at it was bleating for its mommy.
The calf went happily clomping away. The Judge got back on his horse and trotted past my slack jawed face.
This was a man who was almost 70 years old.
I remember thinking — and I think I actually said this to someone — that what I just witnessed was the most manly thing I’d ever seen. And was ever likely to see. And how I’ll never be a man like that. My god.
But mostly I just remember what a good person he was. Easy to laugh. Kind eyes. Hard working. Alive and awake to the world. Simple without being plain. Honest. True.”
We got word, earlier this week, that The Judge had passed away in his sleep.
We sent flowers, of course, and did the thing where we share memories via email, but I felt like a man this amazing needed one more final goodbye. I wanted more people to hear about how kind and honest and intelligent and true to a code that he was. He loved his wife the way you’re supposed to, with his whole heart. He adored his children and grandchildren. He led by example, and walked the proverbial walk without ever needing to talk about it. He redefined what the word ‘cowboy’ meant to us.
His name was Terry Lee Utter and he was a legend. A man among men. Someone who spent his entire existence on this planet helping, teaching, protecting and doing good. Though we only knew him for a short time, he left a lasting impression on all of us. His memory will always inspire us to be better human beings, better fathers, better partners and better sons.
He’ll be laid to rest tomorrow in Eureka, Montana. Home of the fighting Lions.
As we walk the road of life, certain people make an indelible impression. Certain people come along and change a part of you forever. Eureka has lost a Lion that they can never replace. A man from a different era, carved out of rawhide and iron. But because of who he was and what he represented, those of us who knew him will always walk a little straighter and scoff at adversity.
I hope I’ve done him justice by bringing him into your lives, even for a moment.
Y’all would have loved him.
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