“We don’t pledge allegiance to real estate…we take a constitutional oath to an ideal.” Peter Levenda
“It was like following in the wake of a demented giant who’d sown the earth with crazy dreams. If I could only have seen a horse or a cow…” H. Miller, Air Conditioned Nightmare
For the longest time (between a while and ages ago) I’ve been failing at writing a paean to vanished cowboys/cowpokes. I’ve hogtied a wild herd of information—everything from the origin of cows to who performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. I read stacks of my dad’s old dime store westerns (the cowboy version of a Micky Spillane novel, but with Stetson hats, saloons, spittoons, spurs, & chaps), flipped through copious coffee table books showcasing Remington, C. F. Fly, and Charles Russell, and pulled multiple all-nighters viewing Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns. I played with and discarded titles, like Stable Relationships are for Horses, not Cowboys; How the West was Hung; or How the West was Tamed, Maimed, and Drained? There’s a cowboy expression, ‘speak the truth, but ride a fast horse.’ I left no tumbleweed unturned. Still, I got nowhere—fast.
My infatuation began around age four when I watched Rin Tin Tin (1954-59) on TV. We’d just moved to Canoga Park, California; my dad promised if I was very good, he’d introduce me to Corporal Rusty, Rin Tin Tin, and Lieutenant Rip Masters. Cue in Sound of Music song, where Maria sings ‘somewhere in my wicked childhood, I must have done something right…’ That’s me. I met the entire cast at Corriganville Movie Ranch in the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains. Cue in beloved, crumpled picture of yours truly and Corporal Rusty.
From that moment until my 20s, it was a steady, red meat and fallen feather diet of Have Gun, Will Travel; Gunsmoke; Bonanza; Rawhide; John Wayne westerns; Lone Ranger & Hopalong Cassidy, Maverick… Though we didn’t live on farms growing up, my bro and I got horses, boots, and the occasional blue ribbon for barrel racing. My sister’s got a pony. My TV/movie viewing became slightly more sophisticated in the 60’s: Wild, Wild West; High Chaparral; Butch Cassidy; The War Wagon; The Wild Bunch; Cat Ballou; The Searchers… My parents bought acreage atop South Mountain, Maryland, built a house, and a barn for the horses. Dad bought a clever, beautiful Arabian stallion that could do more tricks than the dog.
I moved away; horses were replaced with a boyfriend’s horsepowered muscle car, then a child’s hobby horse. People started denigrating cowboys and westerns. I wondered why. The basic elements folks once enjoyed in classic westerns were still present: multiple clashes (people, ideas, morals); dis/respect for the land/nature; wild west justice/ civilization vs lawlessness; and tradition vs technology (iron horses, guns vs arrows, & telegraph vs smoke signal). Still, cowboys were out; hippies and yuppies were in. Cowboys were deemed uneducated hicks, saddle bums, loafers. Girls that liked them were labeled buckle bunnies, dairy queens, or cowboy chattel. Films like Blazing Saddles and Urban Cowboy poked fun.
Around that same time, my dad asked why I didn’t visit my aging horse or ride it through the old trails. I searched for an answer in books, rather than within. Dad deserved a better reply than I’d outgrown the whole wild west, rugged cowboy, rodeo shtick. He reminded me horses and a love of nature was part of my heritage. That made me scratch my head? By this time, my bro and youngest sister literally moved out west, he to Arizona, then Colorado. My sister moved to Tahoe and later to Vegas.
Why had I abandoned horses, exchanged my thick heeled, pointy toed cowboy boots for flat heeled/round toed English ones and a pair of jodhpurs? Why had I stopped watching westerners? Did it have something to do with there being no place for me there? I didn’t want to be a cowgirl/hand/poke, saloon girl (though I had real potential), gunslinger, cattle rancher, rodeo trick rider (had accidental skills), or golddigger (happy to say no affinity for gold digging—ex’s can confirm).
Cowboy roots trace to Spanish and Mexican Vaqueros, Criollos, and Mestizos. Amazingly, there was also an Irish version, and one of the earliest cattle drives began in Boston in the 1650s. It included Puritans, Irish immigrants riding Irish trail horses, and a motely group of immigrants. What did the Wild West look like in the 1700-1800s? Where did the frontier begin? I learned folks that traveled westward to find a better life were often desperate, had nothing to lose. With few tools and no resources, they improvised, endured hunger, thirst, the elements, disease, and the untimely death of people they loved. This was nothing like what was romanticized in the movies.
Frontier justice was swift and final. Jails were often the last thing built in the fledging towns that dotted the landscape. Cowboy justice was slightly different—did it confine, define, or undermine? I tried to sum up cowboy essence in just a few words. Was it mud, blood, guts, and glory? Or whisky, dust, sunstroke, pain without fame, similar story? Or did my earlier attraction relate to the mystique of a man that was part gypsy, part nomad, part centaur? Cowboys typically worked hard, weren’t paid well, and received no pension or medical benefits. They got room and board and work was often seasonal. The gypsy part intrigued me; both sat around campfires, were wanderers, told stories, and sang ballads. Cowboys branded things; gypsies were tattooed. Just what was the allure?
Perhaps it wasn’t the cowboy but the frontier I found intriguing? The frontier was an imaginary line separating the known from the unknown. It encompassed the 37th parallel, aka the Paranormal Highway; secret underground tunnels and hidden caves; and five pointed sheriff badges. Many aspects of it were curious. For example, why were so many prisons built atop Indian burial grounds? Why were nuclear facilities constructed near ancient mounds? Were there answers in folk tales, like Pecos Bill or the Lost Dutchman Mine?
The Wild West lasted about a 100 years—roughly the same amount of time in which Sleeping Beauty and Rip Van Winkle snoozed. It spanned the period from the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition (early 1800s) to the birth of the modern world. It took 100 years for the Wild West to be begun, hung, summed, and done—in. Did the ugly beauty of technology kill it and the cowboy—or did something else? Was it Glidden’s fault? Did he kill the open range cowboys depended on? Joseph Glidden invented what the Indian’s called the devil’s rope—barbed wire. What had killed my abundant interest?
Did it have something to do with always routing for Native Americans, buffaloes, outlaws, and wild mustangs? I had sometimes called cowboys and colonists interlopers. Does what’s left of the west reside with its original inhabitants—those west of the Mississippi that cherished, honored, and respected the land—its indigenous people? The cowboy was blamed for killing off America’s indigenous people. It’s true, some did, however, soldiers and hired guns did most of the killing. Even loner, black hatted cowboys, the ones that drank upstream from the herd, had a code of honor (cue in Lone Ranger music) and there were borders they wouldn’t cross.
My enthusiasm began returning a decade ago, though I was cautious. I binged new movies and TV shows—Magnificent Seven remake, Bone Tomahawk, Hateful 8, The Revenant (another remake), Let em Go, Blackthorn…Longmire and Yellowstone. I dusted off my pointy toed boots and got back in the saddle (‘courage is being scared and saddling up anyway’ J. Wayne). I also brushed up on cowboy zen: don’t let yearnings get ahead of earnings; never a horse couldn’t be rode, never a cowpoke couldn’t be throwed; and my personal favorite never corner something meaner than you. A new image emerged after a visit to Durango to see my brother.
In the ensuing decades since I’d put boots, bandanas, horses, shirts with snaps, and frontier folklore out to pasture, I’d learned a thing or two: the beautiful and the awful could occupy the same space and that song Arlo sang about ‘this land was made for you and me,’ was tongue in cheek. We were the perpetrators of violence, makers and followers of bad laws (Manifest destiny, 1830 Indian Removal Act, Railroad and Homestead Act, Trail of Tears…). We weren’t often intrepid explorers, or tamers of wild things; we were thoughtless murderers, butchers, the worse kind of criminal. We killed the grandeur of the west as sure as sparrow, with bow and arrow, killed Cock Robin (and was hanged for its crime).
Today’s cowboy/girl is an endangered species. You’ll find them working on large ranches, a few hard scramble spreads, at livestock auctions, or competing at rodeos. You’ll also find cosmic cowboys—folks that say they’re comfortable in the saddle amid the saw grass, or in the city atop a mechanical bull. Today, you’re more likely to hear about a gun fight in the city or burbs than the open prairie—if you can find one. I concluded I was a few dozen cow chips short of an answer.
I started planning a long road trip out west. Not to see what the characters talked about in the recent film Nomadland; I’m taking a journey that’s ½ Lewis and Clark adventure, and ½ a tilting at windmills Steinbeckian Travels with Charley reconnoiter. I’ll skip over Kerouac’s On the Road and substitute it with a steaming ladle of Henry Miller’s Air Conditioned Nightmare, and a tin cup full of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Until then, my novel Grave Goddess remains unfinished. Until then, the hangman’s noose for my jury of one must wave in a pinyon pine scented wind regarding the Wild West’s degree of done-in-ness. Stay close to your telegraph wires. Calamity Jo be getting a wiggle on to giddy up this gig.
Great Miller quote that had me chuckling. What’s your take on Cormac McCarthy? He had a cowboy story or two on a particular frontier.
Thanks, I first read Miller when a teen, mouth open, and have loved the bawdy balladeer ever since. I’m also a McCarthy fan; I read he changed his name to Cormac to avoid confusion with the ventriloquist and because Blarney Castle owner was named Cormac. Though born in RI, he’s spent quality time near where I live, Smoky Mt foothills. This is also where James Agee lived. My only criticism of his writing is occasional religiosity and bleakness. I didn’t like All the Pretty Horses, but thought No Country for Old Men, The Crossing, and The Road were grand. He doesn’t use commas much and has some other quirks, but strong southern gothic writer! I did pull out my copy of Blood Meridian while writing this article. It’s violent, powerful, and ambiguous IMO. I think movie Blood Tomahawk resembles bones of the book. He sums up his philosophy in this quote, ‘no such thing as life without bloodshed. The notion species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.’ Interesting Irish American??? What’s your opinion of McCarthy?
I’m today’s cowboy, a city-slicker with horses. Will be our building a box-rest stable this evening. Like you, loved Westerns as a kid, connected me up to older, smarter people who loved them too. Then, somewhow, the attraction faded, but has returned of late. Shows like The Mandalorian are just Westerns in disguise. We’ve had a number of different views of the West, revisionist, traditionalist, nihilist, and I think it’s specifically due to our interst in story and myth. There’s various reasons that Westerns were huge in the 30s, 40’s and 50’s, and now we have different genres, but the same stories lie buried inside. Have a great trip out West, just remember to stop when you get to the ocean.