C is for Cowboy

Cowboy (n.): a man, typically one on horseback, who herds and tends cattle, especially in the western US and as represented in westerns and novels.

For the last few months, my daydreams have been dominated by the idea of running away and becoming a cowboy.  The allure here is undeniable for me, even though the rationale is a bit opaque.  I’m from Indiana, sure, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.  I pet a goat at the zoo once, but I’ve never milked, let alone wrangled, any cattle.  I have ridden two horses in my life, though both rides clocked in within a week of one another, and for each experience, I wore a bike helmet, which doesn’t quite possess the sex appeal of a Stetson ten gallon.  I’ve never hauled anything in a Dodge Durango, I don’t own a lasso, and I didn’t even listen to country music until recently. As you can see, the extracurriculars section on my application for the Arizona Cowboy College (a real place) would be quite sparse.   Yet, as I snake down 280 in the pitch black, a day of tutoring in the ultra-urbane setting of San Francisco complete, I find myself belting out that all-important question alongside Paula Cole: Where have all the cowboys gone?

Though I seriously lack any experience in the concrete, there are aspects of an abstract cowboy that I’ve caught glimpses of within myself—and every time I do, I yearn for more.  It goes without saying that I don’t aspire to literally become a gunslinging outlaw, but I am consistently impressed with the core traits of the cowboy, whether they be fictional or flesh and bone.  

I envy the calm, even demeanor of Clint Eastwood as he rides into a town where he is unexpected and unwelcome.  He sizes up his surroundings, not allowing anyone else the satisfaction of seeing a single sweat bead on his brow.  He remains alert, but also relaxed.  He is completely present, absolutely unshakable, and masterfully unbothered.  He maintains this sense of placidity in the face of imminent physical danger.  Compare this to me on an average day—sending a well-deserved email invoice tosses me into a turbulent struggle, an unsettled state that causes me to freeze in fear, convinced that I’ve angered or upset someone.  I can fling myself into the throes of anguish over being five minutes late to an appointment, and I’ve been known to actually cry over spilled milk.  This makes Clint’s nonchalance in the face of open hostility all the more desirable. 

These Western cowboys don’t seem to overthink their problems, either. I’ve not encountered many instances in cinema where a cowboy has much time to dissect the issue at hand.  When his back is up against the wall, he can’t call three of his closest friends to meet for cosmopolitans in order to psychoanalyze how he had gotten involved in his predicament.  Usually, he doesn’t have anyone else to reaffirm his choices or to participate in his pity parties. He certainly doesn’t post about his pickle to social media, because in his world, there’s never time to second-guess, to waffle, or to be victimized by his situation.  He acts, or doesn’t act, and then responds accordingly.  It’s not cerebral, it’s instinctual. This is so different from the world I wearily inhabit, this one that exhausts my patience.  In my world, people yearn for connection so much, they find a poor facsimile on the internet, screaming their interests, anxieties, and fears into the void. It’s en vogue to be a compulsive oversharer.  Of course, we don’t call it that.  We give it many different trendy names.  “Being real AF.”  “Being vulnerable.” “So relatable.”   I won’t throw rocks in my glass house, darling dears.  I know I am so guilty of this.  I have made it my job to share all things, both good and bad.  My real qualm isn’t sharing with others, but our collective fixation on the problem aspect—our desire to focus attention on calamities, catastrophes, and tragedy of all sorts, without creating any type of actionable solution.  We can learn another lesson from Clint here.  He doesn’t seem to care how many desperados are filed in line to foil his plan.  He can very literally stare past his problems and focus on his desired outcome, all the while staying cool as a cucumber.  If this even-keeled, introspective, zen attitude can be accessed in an outnumbered bar fight or while tied atop some train tracks, steam engine careening towards a delicate skull, I’m certain we can find little ways to reprioritize our own focus.

I recognize that these Hollywood cowboys are imaginary creatures—as much as I admire them, I hold the real people who dedicated their life to the land in even deeper reverence.

I think about the men of the western plains, riding lonesome trails for long days to herd cattle, alone and unencumbered by fences.  Cattle drives could take months to complete, and required both strength and focus.  What about this makes me covet such a lifestyle?  Space, vast, wide-open space.  These men had space in spades.  Space to reflect, space to be themselves, space to turn around and not have ten people sidled up on all sides of them, crammed into a sixty-plus building apartment complex.  They had room to move, both literally and figuratively.  I think that when we are given that kind of physical space, it provides an opportunity, a gift of perspective.  How easy it is to take our tiny problems and make them big when we are shoved into our compact cars that we drive to our city supermarkets, only to put our food into our apartment-sized fridges.  The process of getting a grip on our issues becomes simpler when we are gifted uninterrupted views of the horizon.  In God’s country, you no longer have the physical feeling of control, as you do in your own home.  You are subordinate to the land.  You are the part of a grander plan.  Those problems, which are only left to fester and stagnate within the confines of city walls, will dissipate and drift away when exposed to the raw power of open space.  It’s science.  

I know that space comes at a price—hard labor.  I’m not scared of endless days of hard work, either. You might even say I yearn for it.  I know the sheer number of hours that cowboys could put in—sixteen hours a day or more of pure physical labor.  That sounds appealing.   Herding cattle, fixing a fence or two, raising barns—that’s the kind of work you can look at after you’ve finished and say, “Hey, now I’ve really done something.”  You’ve moved animals from point A to point B, you’ve fixed a ragged hole where the fox took the chickens, you’ve built a new home for your trusty steed.  The virtual work we are all so accustomed to here in Silicon Valley?  Sometimes, I think its importance pales in comparison.  When I’m toiling away on my book, and I’m retyping the words for the sixth time, I struggle to locate the point of it all.  

Most of all, cowboys exude a quiet confidence—they have to, or else the animals in their care would sense their fear, presumably.  Cowboys have swagger—and not the modern, superficial kind.  They have a quiet, soulful swagger.  The kind that comes from spending so much time alone with yourself, you’ve got no choice but to believe in your abilities.  There’s a stillness within them, a reliable logic that develops only when you’ve been forced to problem solve on your own for a long, long time.    

As mentioned before, I have ridden a horse exactly twice in my life, which is not counting the odd handful of sad ponies I sat on at county fairs.  Both instances occurred in Montana, Big Sky Country itself.  Now, at the ripe old age of fifteen, Montana was not my ideal summer vacation spot.  I had been invited to travel to Florida with my then-boyfriend, and was denied passage to the Sunshine State by my family, who cited this aforementioned trip to Montana as the more important of the two.  It is worth noting that I traveled to Montana by rail, the first and only time I ever had done so.  I’m sure train travel was glamorous in a bygone era.  Even that phrase, “traveling by rail,”  conjures pictures of gold-plated forks and plush private cabins inhabited by debutantes in fascinators soaking themselves in champagne.  My thirty-hour trip to Montana was not this romantic—not even close.  We didn’t get a sleeper car, so for a full day and half the night, I sat straight up with my grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, and my little sister as we progressively became sleepier, achier, and definitely smellier. This only solidified in my mind that this bizarre trip to Glacier National Park was not worth my teenaged time.

My mindset shifted once we got there.  Mickey Mouse has got nothing on the Rocky Mountains.  I was mystified by the unfamiliar terrain.  We spent most of our time outdoors, usually engaging in activities that moved us from one place to another—canoeing, hiking, helicopter rides, and yes, horseback riding. The first trip out was an intimate group—just me, my sister, my grandfather, and a very relaxed trail guide.  We stuck to the foothills of the mountains and the wide open plains where you could get unobstructed views of everything around you. We rode at sunset, and peace was with us.  For the life of me, I couldn’t come up with a single unsolvable problem on that horse.  I was confident. I was in control.  For a moment, I was a cowboy in a Huffy bike helmet.   

We signed up for a longer, harder ride later on in the week.  I was ready and willing to do the damn thing, given the lasting high the first time had provided.  Every inch of this ride was different, though.  First, the group was much larger—there were fifteen or so of us embarking on the trip, which was up a trail, not in the foothills, that spiraled round a mountain.  There were more guides, and they had a lot more anxiety-provoking rules.  I was skittish, and therefore, so was my horse.  On the trail, I felt constrained and I felt concerned. We were a long line of horses, and I was near the back.  I felt like I was being left behind.  Eventually, all my anxiety came to a head when I lost control of my horse—it made its own pathway off the trail and up the side of a mountain.  I ended up clinging to the top of a tree as one of the trail guides calmed both me and my horse back down.  After that, my resting heart rate hovered at about 160 BPM for the duration of the trip.  I can’t even tell you what I saw at the top of that mountain, to be honest.  My mind was so concerned with survival, the natural splendor was completely lost on me.

What accounts for the difference in these trips, these horseback riding experiences?  Maybe it wasn’t the horse itself, but the cowboy sitting on top of it.  Sure, we can all be thrown a bum filly or a tough trail from time to time—but what really matters isn’t that horse, but our attitude about mounting it.  

I remember this, now.  When my life is a runaway stallion, disregarding the marked signage and trying to make its own path, usually through a thorny thicket,  I visualize that first ride—my quiet confidence and innate control.  I don’t want to live my life in survival mode.  I don’t want to miss the panoramic view each time I make it to the summit.

It comes down to this: life has little to do with the horse we are riding.  It’s all about our attitude in the saddle.