Books: The Marlboro Man's Lament

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1994

Books: The Marlboro Man's Lament
By Andrea Barrett

Biting the Dust: The Wild Ride and Dark Romance of the Rodeo Cowboy and the American West, by Dirk Johnson (Simon & Schuster, $22). In the rodeo version of the American cowboy myth, Marlboro men confront mortality astride bucking broncs and vicious bulls. Crowds cheer in the stands as the ESPN cameras grind; oilmen sip drinks in skyboxes and hope to see a little blood. Denver journalist Dirk Johnson shows us how any cowboy can be a hero during his eight-second stab at glory--and how, for all the remaining seconds of his day, he's mostly lonesome, often broke, and sometimes desperate, his life "a constant struggle against biting the dust." Meanwhile the real American West slips away as rural life disintegrates and developers carve out toy "ranchettes." Johnson followed a handful of bronc and bull riders through the yearlong rodeo circuit, which culminates in the glitzy National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. A cowboy trying to earn one of the prized finalist slots may log 100,000 miles in a year, competing in more than 100 rodeos from Spanish Fork, Utah, to Medicine Hat, Alberta. But this is a sport of cruel economics--the only one, as Johnson notes, "where the bulk of the wages come straight out of the competitors' pockets" in the form of entry fees ranging from $25 to more than $300 per contest. Living in trailers and cheap motels, dreaming of earning enough to buy ranches, many riders barely break even. Johnson's scattered portraits of individual riders make them seem more emblematic than real, but he scores with his disturbing group shot of men performing like Depression-era marathon dancers before audiences eager for vicarious thrills. Only a few of the trails here are happy.

A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon, by Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin, $24.95). Bookshops along the Nile still carry copies ofLetters from Egypt, a classic travelogue that inspired hordes of Victorian tourists. The woman who wrote it--Lucie Duff Gordon, bourgeois British wife and mother turned intrepid solo traveler and heroine--is the subject of Katherine Frank's fine biography. In 1862, tuberculosis drove Gordon to leave her husband and three children in England and head for the dry heat of Upper Egypt. What she found was not a cure--she died seven years later at the age of 48--but unexpected freedom. Her passion for Egypt and its people eventually led her to transcend boundaries of class and gender, to write a splendid book, and to try her best to ameliorate the sufferings of the fellahin around her. In her mud-brick house above the ruins of Luxor Temple, amid papyrus and egrets and oleanders, Gordon cropped her hair, shed her stays and her old ways, and lived like an Egyptian. Her neighbors called her Noor a la Noor, or "Light of the Light," grateful for her skill with the slim resources of her first-aid kit. Frank's tenacious, inspired account illuminates the life of a true multiculturalist who opened the eyes of imperial England to the beauty of another race and place.

The River Stops Here, by Ted Simon (Random House, $23). Thank a rancher named Richard Wilson for the fact that northern California's beautiful Eel River isn't obstructed by a giant dam. In 1967, in a scheme reminiscent of the water-grabbing deals that created modern Los Angeles, bureaucrats proposed to dam the Eel and turn Wilson's home of Round Valley into a reservoir, shunting water to the thirsty south. Wilson dug in his heels for a fight pitting rural values against unchecked urban growth. In this history of one of our generation's significant yet unsung environmental campaigns, Ted Simon details the improbable triumph of Wilson and a handful of hardworking helpers armed with little more than phones and copiers. Well-organized letter campaigns, skilled lobbying, and a secret document leaked at a critical time stymied the Army Corps of Engineers and Governor Ronald Reagan. The struggle helped give teeth to the environmental movement and generated California's "Wild Rivers" bill, which protected the Eel and other northern rivers for 12 years and temporarily saved a significant chunk of wilderness. Now that the Eel is threatened again--this time by indiscriminant logging--Simon's clear, well-balanced reconstruction of a successful grassroots movement seems particularly resonant.

Wild Love, by Nan Richardson and Catherine Chermayeff (Chronicle Books, $14.95). This slim volume isn't a guide to a wilder nightlife, but it's guaranteed to appeal to your animal self. Among the 36 photos--all showing animals in acts of courtship, foreplay, or copulation--are tortoises clasped in high passion, lions snarling suggestively, and sea horses impossibly intertwined. The slivers of text accompanying each photo are far too sentimental but still convey certain provocative facts: Hippos, for example, copulate for an hour, while "the female submerges, her tightly shut eyes and relaxed bubble-blowing conveying a distinct impression of pleasure."

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