Cowboy Nation: Introduction

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, April 1995

Cowboy Nation: Introduction

Whatever the decade, whatever the mood, we always have Shane in our hearts. A salute to the most dependable and deconstructed American hero.
By William Kittredge

Before I could read, I learned to imitate buckaroos and revere cowhorses and pay attention to cookhouse manners. At the end of the 1930s in our sagebrush corner of the Great Basin, we still inhabited a horseback dream of the right life. It was a world without much in the way of law, but with ironbound traditions. There were proper ways to live, and the most proper involved taking care of your horses. A man who mistreated his horses was regarded as useless and less than a man, since his horses were bound to be no good.

After horses were domesticated on the high steppes of Central Asia some 4,000 years ago, a couple of different cultures evolved. One was made up of farming people, who stayed home to tend crops. Their villages evolved into cities and kingdoms and all that. The others were horse people, who followed the herds and never stayed home. They were warriors, employed by the kingdoms.

The buckaroos I grew up around sort of thought of themselves that way; they were the warriors. When I was maybe 13, after a season on the sagebrush deserts of southeastern Oregon with my grandfather's chuck-wagon outfit, I was accorded high honor: I was allowed to help herd 20 horses from the MC remuda over the mountains to the town of Lakeview for the Labor Day rodeo.

People lined the streets as we clattered along, townspeople and ranchers and kids who were jealous of a boy like me. We unsaddled and went uptown to the bars, where I was served a bottle of beer without anybody making any fuss about it at all, and for that little while I could deceive myself into believing that I was a buckaroo.

It was not to be. I was one of the owner's kids; buckaroos were hired hands, rootless men who wanted to see what was down the road, their most powerful opinion an ancient disdain for settlers. We went our ways.

These days I live a taxpaying life in a sweet community. But I still have longings for some of the old blowing buckaroo wind. It's easy to understand the attraction. We are, after all, creatures who evolved in a wandering life. People who left Europe for America and our East Coast the nineteenth-century West were searching for simple things: adventure, freedom, possibility. Those who stayed behind turned stories about adventuring drifters into legends of heroes. The chivalric tradition runs in a direct line from Lancelot to Buffalo Bill to Claude Dallas; from Ronald Reagan in the White House to Sharon Stone, if you can believe it, in The Quick and the Dead.

Many of us, in our comfort-bound existences, like to think of ourselves as radically individual, addicted to living on edges, staring some devil dead in the eye. Inside our circumscribed routines, we yearn to lead clean, well-lighted lives--like cowboys. It won't work, of course. Our situation is not going to get simple, and cowboys usually aren't what they seem. Driving along willow-lined creeks in Idaho or Wyoming or Montana, I've cursed ranchers whose cows have tromped the streamside to mud and dust. It is, I thought, a goddamned sorry way to do business.

Still, we ride on into a solacing dream. There aren't many old-time cowhands left, and those who exist are pretty much beside the contemporary point. What we've taken from them is a myth, a story to inhabit.

Part of the story was real, but most of it was created by bad literature (Louis L'Amour), by advertising (the Marlboro Man, Ralph Lauren), and by movie stars (Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, and those strangers in paradise, Billy Crystal and John Travolta). Every decade brings a new mutation, a new way for us to play cowboy. (Jerry Spence, Billy Ray Cyrus, and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are testaments to the versatility of the myth.) But the story would have died without our desire to inhabit a straight-spoken world with solvable problems. And why not? There's a playful side to it all, and one of the functions of art is to divert us from melancholy.

"When America is confused," wrote Aaron Latham in Ballad of the Urban Cowboy, "it turns to...the cowboy." And so the nineties find us in love with our hero once more. He rides the pages of Cormac McCarthy and lures us to movie theaters in an unflagging stream of westerns. He inspires us to dress up in funny ways: We walk the streets of Manhattan in wide-brimmed hats and yellow slickers and hit the dance floor in snakehide boots and skintight Wranglers. It's our current version of ranch-hand make-believe, and it makes us feel better.

What follows is a look at modern-day cowboying, both real and imagined--from range riding to line dancing to steer wrestling on the Las Vegas strip. Also included is a tribute to singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, which brings it all the way home for me. On a recent album, Tyson laments the selling of the MC horses, the great remuda my family once owned. "The people they come from everywhere," he sings, "just to bid on them high and low, and thereby own a piece of the legend." I'm left with memories of running that herd down the crowded boyhood streets of Lakeview, our summer of work behind us, on our way to the rodeo.

William Kittredge is an Outside correspondent and the author of Owning It All (Graywolf Press) and Hole in the Sky (Alfred A. Knopf).

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