THE COWBOY LIFE:
An American Metaphor
I have the pleasure of going on the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive this coming week, the week before the Reno Rodeo. It’s my 13th or 14 such event - I’ve lost track. They have all been fun, but one – my 8th - seemed to inspire a bit more reflection; perhaps because I figured it would be my last (tough on the old knees); or perhaps because I simply paid more attention to those things less obvious. In any event, it occurred to me that the reason for the timeless popularity of the cowboy way of life is that it represents America. It is a metaphor for the American way of life - at least what that used to be.
Hollywood notwithstanding, the "cowboy era" was a brief period in American history. It lasted from about 1850 to 1890, propelled by the gold rush in the West and a newly discovered national demand for beef. It lasted only until the advent of the railroad and barbed wire fencing across formerly open lands cut it short. In those days, cowboys would herd cattle hundreds of miles, 15 miles a day, moving perhaps 3,000 head with 10 cowboys and 4-5 horses each. The cowboy life is still alive today, but limited. Many are involved with "regular" jobs while some still work ranches, or rodeo. All share the same values. American values.
A month after the drive, we celebrate our Declaration of Independence. Cowboys take that seriously. Independence is a hallmark of their lives. Cowboy independence is not about being alone; it's about choosing with whom you spend your time. It's about socializing as you choose to, not socialism in which someone else chooses for you. It's about being who you are, not someone you're supposed to be. It's about taking risks - or not - because you choose to.
Some years ago on the cattle drive, a number of us standing in line at a lunch stop were startled to hear a whoop and a holler from high above the sheer mountain face that was our morning backdrop. There atop the sheer slope was Cecil Jones astride his horse. Cecil was a member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame - and 82-years-old. To the delight and amazement of the crowd below, not to mention a bit of terror, Cecil gave his horse a jerk on the reins and started straight down the slope, zigging and zagging and kicking up rocks and dust. He wasn't showing off; he was celebrating the right to be free. It was an incredible sight, and an even more incredible lesson in life about freedom, expressed by an old cowboy.
If freedom is essential for the perfection of man, then happiness is its first object. The Founders had it right: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Of course, there is happiness in simply being independent and free, but freedom also allows for the pursuit of higher objectives. Cowboys are happy because they are simple. They don't need a lot of trappings to add fulfillment to their lives. A good bedroll can make one just as happy as a million dollar RV - it's just a matter of perspective. When I was a kid growing up, people could be happy in a small but warm home, with a family car and little else. Today, a 5,000 SF house and two BMWs in the garage don't produce the same level of content. Kids have their own television, computer, cell phone, video game, and the latest clothing - and yet often seem miserable. The cowboy understands why.
The same cowboy riding a 2,000-pound bull can just as easily be cradling an infant son in loving arms. The kind of toughness that will fight to protect family and property, will just as easily become the strength to help a fallen friend to his feet or a neighbor rebuild his home. You see, in the world of the cowboy, it's not about being tough; it's about being strong. True strength is not about power - it is about character.
Interestingly, for all the hoops we jump through these days to ensure equal rights and opportunity for women, cowgirls don't seem to notice (nor do they take offense at the term cowgirl). They saddle their own horses, they buck hay and muck stalls; they can ride, rope and do most anything else. They ask for no special accommodation or preference. They exhibit naturally the kind of equality that so many others insist must be accorded to them by law. For all their "toughness," they maintain the loving kindness of the mothers and mates they most often are. Feminists could take a lesson.
A wagon train rolls along with the cattle drive, guided by teams of elegant draft horses and mules, and piloted by hard-working "teamsters." The wagons are as majestic as the beasts that pull them. One problem: if a wheel comes off or an axle or rein breaks, they can't call down to the local auto supply. They carry tools, and knowledge - and the self-reliance that characterizes their world - the world of the cowboy.
These folks don't ask for or even want a "bail-out" from some government agency when things don't go their way. They often don't have much, but what they have is theirs - and their responsibility. If something lacks a purpose, they don't need it; if it comes with strings attached, they don't want it. I wonder what life in the ghetto would be like if we turned it into a corral?
Cowboys tip their hat to a lady; they call a man they just met "Sir." It's not quaint; it's who they are. They are taught this by lesson and by example from the time they are young. Listen to some country music; now listen to some "Rap" or "Heavy Metal." Do you think there might be some connection? I don't recall ever hearing a country song that included the term "ho."
Respect is taught young in cowboy life, as it should be in all walks of life. By the time a person is five or six-years-old, either they have it or they don't. Respect for life comes from being around animals at an early age and learning the responsibilities we have to them - a respect for life in all forms. Respect is taught for God and country; for the elderly and the infirm; for women; for those in authority. It's such a simple concept, and yet seemingly few have much of it. It's rare in society generally, but pretty much commonplace in the cowboy world.
When you go on a cattle drive, you sign a waiver of liability acknowledging that you may be "injured, permanently maimed, or killed." In other words, along with your personal duty to pay attention to what you are doing, you are in God's hands.
There was an occasion on this year's cattle drive when one of the staff cowgirls took a spill from her horse. Being an excellent rider it was unexpected; but then cowboys are taught to expect the unexpected. It might have been faintness from low blood sugar. She hit her head when she fell - always a concern - and was taken to the hospital by helicopter. On the news of the accident, we were all gathered together and we did something we don't do much in public these days. We were led in prayer. We prayed for her safety and return to health, and in thankfulness for our own continued safety and good health.
Toward the end of the drive, another staff member was catching up to the herd in a lope when his horse stepped into a soft anthill and he was thrown. He wasn't hurt in the fall - typical cowboy toughness - but as the horse struggled to right itself, one of its hooves caught the cowboy dangerously in the head. Fellow cowboys, including medics, rushed to his aid and he was covered in blood. They tended to him as they could and called for the Care Flight which arrived quickly. He was taken to the hospital. Again, we came together in prayer. He was back that night.
Cowboys aren't so much God-fearing people as they are God-loving. Their work world is among God's earth and amidst all His creations. They have a respect for nature's God that was typical of our Founders, and they seek his divine presence in times of need. All they have on earth is wondrous, but they know there are times when their eyes and hearts must be lifted to the sky. They make no apology for their beliefs.
There were husbands and wives on this last cattle drive, as there had been before. There was a mother and her grown son, and a father and his. There were also sisters and brothers (mine included) and friends. When guests and staff returned from their week of western adventure, they were greeted at the Rodeo grounds by spouses and kids, friends and relatives. The only thing unusual about this was that it was so typical.
Cowboys aren't insulated from the troubles and tragedies that afflict families, but they seem uncommon in how they cling to the noble tradition of family structure and stability. They eat together. They ride together. They talk together. While family is at the center of the cowboy life, extended family is prized as well; there's always a seat at the table.
Most cowboys will tell you they don't know much. That's probably more humility than truth. Cowboys that I have known have an abundance of knowledge, including common sense. Common sense comes from just paying attention to the world around you, and since cowboys spend more time in that world, they seem to get a better dose of it than most. Kids might be better off with less time watching "reality" television and more time enjoying the true reality of the cowboy world.
At the start of each Reno Rodeo lineup, a group of about 20 young girls rides into the arena. These aren't just any young girls. They are top horse- women: sweet, smart, innocent, and hard working. They volunteer and pay the costs of their participation. When they come riding into the arena, they have an American flag in one hand, a pair of reins in the other, and a 1,200-pound animal beneath them. They come in at a full gallop; fearless, smiling, and proud. They are as much a symbol of America as the banner they carry. Between the thunderous response to them entering the arena, the saluting of Old Glory, and the singing of the National Anthem, there is little doubt as to the patriotic feelings of this crowd. There is not a hat on anyone's head; it's over their hearts. There is hardly a dry eye. But there is an overflowing of pride in their nation: a God loving, independent, family oriented, hard-working, tough, caring, kind, and giving nation.
There's a simple reason for this: cowboys don't just love America, they are America. The values of the cowboy are the values that America has held since its founding. Much of the country has misplaced those values, but as long as cowboys sit in the saddle and ride free, those values will never be without a home.
"I ain't got a dime, but what I got is mine; I ain't rich but Lord I'm free.”
“Amarillo By Mornin’”