WHAT IS THIS THING called the Wild West? John Wayne hunting Apaches? A faded denim jacket from the Don Imus catalog? Those who live there are forced to separate fact from myth. But in the Czech Republic, the myth remains untainted by reality. Czech tramps choose among happy clichés—footloose hobo, Marlboro Man, noble savage, GI Joe—celebrating wide-open America and throwing out the details. When I tell my new cowboy and Indian friends that I am from Santa Fe, New Mexico, the heart of Indian country, most of them seem to care not at all. They are more interested in showing me their new plastic pistol or horseshoe belt buckle.
Nonetheless, I don my armadillo bolo tie and head to the stark suburban neighborhood of Vestec u Prahy on the south side of Prague. There, in the middle of a cornfield, just beyond a row of housing projects, sits a weather-beaten ghost town called Westec City. Part theme park, part banquet center, Westec City represents the big-business side of Czech tramping; it pulls the ethos out of the woods and half-bakes it, hosting western-style barbecues and rodeos for corporate clients.
Tonight the partyers are from the Czech division of Microsoft. Cowgirls in cleavage-revealing western garb hand each guest a black cowboy hat and a mint julep at the door. Black-hatted executives and programmers line Main Street, a row of buildings labeled Saloon, Undertaker, and Post Office. As the sun sets behind the neighboring housing blocks, a tinny loudspeaker blasts the spaghetti-western theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and shutters creak in the wind.
A heat wave has descended on Central Europe, so I decide to wet my whistle with a drink in the Westec Saloon, hoping, as I've been promised, that I'll hear some good live music. Cowboys belly up to the bar, drinking the local brew. Faded wallpaper, round card tables, and a mounted deer's head make me feel like I've stepped into a scene from Kenny Rogers's The Gambler. A man in a cowboy hat is standing onstage, singing sad-sounding country-and-western songs in Czech, accompanied by a boom box. "What kind of music you got here?" I ask.
"Both kinds," says the barkeep. "Country and disco."
Through the window, I watch a man practice for the calf-roping event by tossing his lariat over anybody who passes by. I go outside and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Jaroslav Krchov, but his cowboy friends call him Dick. "That's spelled D-y-k," he says. Dyk, 33, has the callused hands of a cowboy. He sports a tattoo of his horse, Black-and-White, on his right arm. We arrange to meet the next day at the garage where he works as an auto mechanic and then drive out to his "ranch" on the outskirts of Prague.
When I pick him up in my minivan with Hana, Dyk seems a more subdued, blue-jumpsuited version of the gregarious cowboy I met at Westec City. We wind through narrow streets on the way to his house, past pubs and parks full of kids, and I ask him if anything is wrong. "I must tell you," he blurts. "My ranch is not like your ranches in the U.S. It is a very small ranch."
Five minutes later we are at the road's end, on a hill overlooking a busy expressway. "This is home," Dyk says, gesturing to a small, red-brick bungalow with a vegetable garden for a front yard. Behind it is a fence made of a few stakes and some twine. Four horses stand in stalls beside a pasture the size of a putting green.
Dyk walks over to his faithful Black-and-White, who is standing in the shade of a cherry tree. Wrapping his arms around the horse's neck, he recalls the first time he saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—the movie that made him, at age 19, a cowboy. Inspired, he found time apart from his mechanic's job to ride horses at a stable near his parents' home northwest of Prague and experiment with saddle repair. Over the next 14 years he built the stable behind his house, converted a delivery truck into a horse trailer, and began driving to rodeos in the Czech Republic and Germany. He spends a third of his $388 monthly salary on hay and oats, but his appearances at Westec City are for love, not money. Once a year he rides in the Czech Pony Express, in which horsemen race from town to town across the country, carrying real mail. He looks out across his quarter-acre spread and tells me that he plans to move his family to a bigger place farther from the city, with more space to practice his calf-roping and barrel racing. Capitalism has been good to Dyk and his clan. "It's much easier to be a cowboy these days," he says. "We no longer have to hide our cowboyness."