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Write 'em, Cowboy

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Wally Neibart

How did cowboys become American icons? They aren't exclusively American. Other places in the world — Argentina, Mexico, and Australia come to mind — have guys who ride horses to herd animals. And not all of the animals they herd are cows. Some wranglers would more accurately be called "sheepboys." Thanks to Brokeback Mountain we know about them. In a summer job I rode horses to turn off irrigation pumps. "Cowboy" or "pumpboy"? The latter sounds like an overspecialized superhero. In their post-Civil War prime, cowboys were a scruffy lot, leading hard lives. They seldom fought Indians unless the Indian was a fellow cowboy. Why idolize someone who makes a career sitting on a horse?

An approaching event prompted these musings. Before summer is out I will sit on a horse for the first time in a quarter century. How long I stay and how I leave are open questions.

The last time I rode one was a long trek into a national monument for which I delusionally listed myself as an "experienced rider." That entitled me to an equine sociopath, the most passive-aggressive creature I've known without being related by blood or marriage. In that respect, he resembled other horses I'd met, the aptly named Diablo and his colleague, Molly. Her specialties were feigning pregnancy and massaging a rider's leg with barbed wire. In what I hope is not a preview of things to come, I rode part of the way to the monument in a horizontal position, rather than the preferred vertical one.

Back to guys who, according to Hollywood, are always vertical on horses and only horizontal when drunk or dead. My musings made me realize that I grew up with the remnants of cowboy culture without recognizing them. That was because the people I knew who rode horses didn't fit the image of real cowboys — those on movie screens. These men sweated, didn't wear silly little ties or carry big guns, and they weren't in love with their horses. Their watering hole wasn't Miss Kitty's Saloon; it was Pearl's Okie Flat. To judge by its parking lot, their favorite mounts were Cadillacs and pickup trucks. If they sang, it wasn't to a pretty woman. It was to no one in particular, off-key, and off-color. When they were deadly, it was behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, not to bad guys in black.

Movie cowboys and living ones are still with us, but it's not the same. Movie ones appear in the occasional, much darker, western that opens to good reviews and bad box office. These cowboys are more complicated and don't sing. That's progress. People still make a living herding large animals, sometimes on horses, but now with helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, and global positioning satellites to help the little doggies get along.

If so inclined, you can even hang out with contemporary cowboys. Go to Elko, Nevada, in late January for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. If you are an Ezra Pound fan, you won't like it. It is hard to imagine William Butler Yeats writing a poem on reincarnation that has a sidekick returning as horse excrement. A cowboy did, and so might Tonto. At its best, cowboy poetry is cheeky and fun — but hard to imagine coming out of John Wayne's mouth. Would a gunslinger attend workshops on poetry and rawhide braiding along with one on artisan bread making? (Maybe, we don't know a lot about what went on in those lonesome bunkhouses.) Clint Eastwood's cowboys didn't talk much. A week of cowboy poetry might make you wish his kind hadn't ridden off into the sunset.

I'm not sure the Cowboy Poetry Gathering would answer the question of how guys who ride horses became American heroes. It would, however, raise another question. Why go to Elko in late January?

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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