Why can’t I be one? I was raised on matinees, on Saturday afternoons, lookin’ up at Hoppy, Gene and Roy, oh boy! An’ I grew up a-thinkin’, the best a man can do is to be a rootin’, tootin’, straight shootin’, cowboy buckaroo . Should we be the way we are, or be how we could be? Could illusion become reality? I’ve got to ask the question, cause the answer’s overdue: Why can’t we all ride out together, and be cowboy buckaroos? Mason Williams, 1970 By Ken Dessain L The litany Houston Why can’t I be one? A national litany, native to the breed, which has been calling us toward the real and mythological West for more than a century. “To follow a scooter plow in the stumps, bare-footed, all day,” confessed a Texas farmer’s son born shortly after the Civil War, “didn’t suit a would-be cowboy.” And long after the wild and woolly range has expired, we still follow the tracks of Teddy Roosevelt and Gary Cooper and all the lesser pretenders to that high, wide, and handsome life. To wash dishes in a dive in Big Spring, Tex., won’t suit a Midnight Cowboy, and off he rides. “Are you a real cowboy?” the cool Manhattan chick asks him. “No, Ma’am,” he drawls, “but Ah am one hell of a stud!” Why can’t I be one? I heard the call early last spring, far from my Texas home. It came to me in the dungeon-stacks of the University of Chicago Library, where I was collecting PhD dust, poring over adventure-filled tomes on the Old West. Why can’t I be a real cowboy? I wondered. I began to conceive an odyssey almost as addled as that spun out of knightly romance long ago on the Spanish plain: I would go out there, out to the sparse regions of West Texas, saddle up, and ride the trail again. I would observe the profile and posture of men who live in the shadow of the Cattle Kingdom; ride in the leathern imagery of their past dusty vest and bandana, old, worn A-frame saddle, and all the rest of the faded gear of the trail and get their reaction to the image of the man whose life once cut through their fences; become a stud mounted cowboy, and get a lot of pictures of myself. “That’s great,” my fellow historians-in-training said of the venture. “You can test Webb’s Great Plains thesis in an area largely unchanged by technology.” “Worth analysis,” commented my sociologist, political scientist, and inter-disciplinary siblings. “You can gather field data on socio-political models in an environment of high neo-traditionalist inciden ce.” Hell, yes! I thought. Why can’t I be one? I called New York City, to my friend Rex onetime schoolboy jock, follower traveler of the Argentine pampas, nowadays ghetto social worker. Rex \(I call four years in the third-floor mezzanine stacks, musing over the reflections and refractions of the Western persona, but, like the would-be cowpuncher who quit the farm in the 1870s, he was ready to turn his mount into the sun and ride. He didn’t wait for any eastern smog breathers to express delight in the fresh perspectives that the trip would bring. “Shee-it, Snake [he calls me Snake] , we can ride out in the sun, shake loose the cobwebs, and b e cowboy bucka-ROO-HOOS FACON! ” Facon? Well, you see if Rex is no bookshelf cowboy, he may be something of a bookshelf gaucho, steeped in Borges, Martin Fierro, and Don Segundo as I have been doused with Cooper and Teddy Blue of the Diamond M. 11. Makin’ hands What’s that? a dust whiff near the butte Right where my last trail ran, A moving speck, a – horses! Thank God, here comes a man. trail song May 3, 1969, on the west bank of the Pecos River. The sun’s last streamers silhouette two dusty cowhands, likely for no one to see. The riders and their mounts move in a slow dance, timeless as a land which nature has stayed in her orneryness. Drooping moustaches and manes, nodding backs, they make their lonely pace toward the bluff. Who are those guys? Luckily for us Sunday vaqueros, there is a great distinction between being a mounted cowboy and tending cattle. Butch and Sundance never cottoned to hustling beef; neither have Rex or I ever smelled steers’ hindquarters. No matter: as cowherd the trailhand was only another dull-witted toiler, descended from the dullest wits of Crete and before. But as horseman! As horseman the cowboy became the buckaroo, fitted onto the waveless prairie ocean. The mounted plainsman assumed a moral, aesthetic, sexual posture, suitable for framing on Remington’s canvasses. Once he forked his thighs over horse flanks, he absorbed the stallion spirit, even to snorting around the cowtown whorehouses where he mated. The cow was a cussed thing; but his horse the cowboy loved and lived with in creatural communion. It was life in the saddle, not cow work, that formed the posture of the original cowboys and sustained the mimics who have followed in their trail. We chose Loving County, Tex., and the Pecos River to ride over, partly because they bear the tracks of so many range riders. We had also been encouraged by the friendly correspondence of Buck Jackson, a local rancher and veteran announcer of the Pecos Rodeo. He told us to come by and visit with an 82-year-old cowhand named Wilson “who’ll fill your head with stories.” But mainly we chose it because, as the most sparsely populated county in Texas, it offered a lot of room to ride, to be outlined by the sun and command entire horizons, the way the old trail hands did. WHO ARE THOSE guys on the rise? Buckaroos, most likely. We reined up on the bluff to rest, slipping into the landscape. Only in intimate focus did our movements show: Rex stretched his toes in his boots and leaned against the saddle horn; I rolled a cigarette casually with one hand and, licking it shut, tugged on the cantle string July 10, 1970 5
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