The Indestructible Cowboy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

The Indestructible Cowboy
By Larry Burke

We are, it is safe to say, a nation of cowboy fanatics. Whether it's Eastwood or Autry, the Virginian or the Marlboro Man, no hero has a firmer purchase on the American imagination than the leathery guy on his steed, threading through the sage. Even though the reality of cowboy life may seem a bit tattered these days (with cattle ranchers widely assailed for environmentally dubious practices and their fondness for government subsidies), we still seem to reinvent the old icon whenever we lose our bearings. The nineties have delivered what are perhaps the oddest mutations yet, with the cowboy coming to us in the improbable forms of Billy Crystal, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Bad Girl Drew Barrymore. Millions of urban cowpokes do their part by country line-dancing with a devotion that shows no sign of weakening. Intrigued by the undeniable elasticity of the buckaroo myth, we've put together a special section, "Cowboy Nation. " Here you'll find Tim Cahill saddling up at the country's premier "cowboy clinic" in Utah, Ed Zuckerman doing the Walkin' Wazi on the sweaty floor of an L.A. country-and-western club, and Lynn Snowden turning buckle bunny at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. As William Kittredge muses in the section's preface, "It's our current version of ranch-hand make-believe, and it makes us feel better."

Over the past few months, however, another mythic creature from the American West, the wolf, has been generating the real headlines. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 29 Canadian gray wolves into the Rockies as part of an intricate plan to restore the ancient predator that was exterminated 70 years ago. On the day of the final release, we summoned photographer Raymond Meeks to central Idaho to witness this national allegory about man, nature, and the ambiguity of second chances. And as "Return of the Hunted" suggests, it's a tale that is far from over.

From the Rockies, we take you to postapocalypse Rwanda, where Joshua Hammer meets José Kalpers, the Belgian-born primatologist who, a decade after the death of Dian Fossey, has become the world's foremost champion of the mountain gorilla. Hammer follows Kalpers as he attempts to pick up the pieces of his conservation work in the wake of the horrific civil war that sent millions of refugees streaming through the primates' jungle habitat. Hammer's searing account can be found in "After Rwanda."

Elsewhere in this issue: Todd Balf visits the one and only Greg LeMond shortly after the three-time Tour de France winner announced that he suffers from a rare muscular disease that has forced him to throw in the yellow jersey for good. Contributor Rob Buchanan journeys to Hunza, a paradise lofted in the mountains of Pakistan, where the longevity of the locals is exceeded only by their penchant for spinning tall, tall tales. Finally, Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and the recently acclaimed Family, takes a picaresque ramble down the Mississippi, scouring the banks for plastic bags and other tree-borne uglies deposited by the flood of 1993. By the time Frazier and his merry band of tree-cleaners have completed their rounds, we think you'll agree that America has just minted itself an entirely new kind of mythic hero. Git along, little baggies.

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