Cowboy country

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Just got back from a week in Wyoming, the kind of place where the magazine rack at the grocery store looks like this:

You can buy skulls on the side of the road from the animal on the state flag:

bison skulls for sale

And you wake up to this sight in the morning:

The cowboy life is a good one.

Cowboy poetry

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Remember that controversy a year ago when Harry Reid made a speech about the budget bill, and decried Republican cuts against the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts? And all people talked about was…cowboy poetry?

Yes, Reid had mentioned a yearly festival in his native Nevada made possible by the National Endowment of the Humanities. Unfortunately for him, the festival was a gathering of cowboy poets. Unfortunately for the cowboy poets, they were suddenly the butt of every joke on Fox News for the next several days.

I mean, c’mon, what’s up with tough cowboy dudes doing something lame like writing poetry? Surely there’s no way to legitimize a century-old American tradition. I’d like to see you try, Western Folklife Center!

  • Our work is a touchstone for the past, yet grounded in the present with a vision for the future of the West.
  • We provide a sense of belonging and connection for both a local and a far-flung audience, and we bring together people with a similar sense of personal meaning and interests.
  • Our efforts to research, document, present and preserve the expressive culture of the people of the West are vital to the region and the nation.
Oh, I see. You do have a purpose. So let’s pour one out for the good ol’ days when cowboys could ride around and write as much poetry as they pleased without provoking any patriotic ire. What do you say to that, anonymous cowboy poet?

When I think of those good old days, my eyes with tears do fill;
When I think of the tin can by the fire and coyote on the hill.
I’ll tell you boys, in those days old-timers stood a show,–
Our pockets full of money, not a sorrow did we know.
But things have changed now; we are poorly clothed and fed.
Our wagons are all broken and our ponies ‘most all dead.
Soon we will leave this country; you’ll hear the angels shout,
“Oh, here they come to Heaven, the camp-fire has gone out.”

How to be a cowboy

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What you’ll need: boots, chew

Songlist: Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys by Willie Nelson

Further reading: Cowboys are My Weakness by Pam Houston, Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

It’s strange to live so far inland, surrounded by plains, when my heart lies somewhere divided between the Caribbean Sea and the Tetons Mountains. The reasons are the same for all three of these facts: family and childhood. I spent the majority of my childhood in Minnesota, but visited family in the much more thrilling scenery of the coral reefs off the coast of St. Croix and the jagged peaks of Wyoming. I’m in Minnesota again now, indefinitely, but I can feel that same old restlessness stirring to return to nature.

Happily, I’m heading to the mountains soon.

When I was 17 I spent the summer on a ranch just up the [dirt] road from my aunt’s house. Our days as junior wranglers started at 6 am with a pot of coffee. The head wranglers and cook were always already up, and had already been to see the horses or started the ovens to prepare breakfast. When we were lucky we were chosen to go on the daily trail rides with the guests, in which case we’d eat our breakfasts early and go down to the stables to saddle horses. If we were unlucky we’d be chosen to bale hay with the head wranglers. I was never that unlucky.

On Tuesday nights we’d go into town for the square dance, a weekly occurrence at the Rustic Pine Tavern. The same caller always sang the same three songs with the Salty Dog Rag interlude just before the third square. We danced with cowboys, the kind that started chewing tobacco at age 8 and wear jeans, boots, cowboy hats, and plaid shirts to every event in their lives.

We wore plaid shirts and jeans and cowboy hats, too. Almost every day, even during the wedding that happened on the ranch. The bride wore cowboy boots. They were gorgeous.

I painted a lot of watercolors that summer, of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers, the Tetons, the sunset over Whiskey Mountain, the glacial Lake Louise, the smoke that rolled in from forest fires in Yellowstone. I knew all the horses, and a few of the rats. I tasted rattlesnake stew, made from a snake that the head wranglers killed just outside the kitchen lodge. I was thrown from a horse I was riding, Rusty, and got back on. I sat on the back of a horse, Jane, as she swam through the stream just up from Ring Lake Ranch. I Tennessee-trotted with Togwotee up the side of a mountain.

It was one of the best summers of my life, and I sometimes miss the rock that I sat on to paint watercolors. And the horses I loved (especially Rusty). And sometimes on Tuesday nights I get this little itch to start square dancing. Those cowboys I once danced with are probably still there.