The town where I grew up was comprised of two worlds, the College world and the Cowboy. I belonged to the College side of things, with my dad putting on his cowboy boots and his felted wool hat and walking not so many blocks South to the campus each morning, where he taught people to build roads and fought for the best ways to keep the water clean. In my earliest memory I find snapshots of gathering eggs on the farm, timidly feeding carrots to the horses (one of them bit) and a sorrowful moment when the neighbor’s German Shepherd got into the chicken coop. But we moved to town before I started school, so most of my childhood was spent walking the tree-lined sidewalks of a quiet college-town, riding my bike through campus in the summer when the students left and the population suddenly dipped– leaving the streets lazy-silent. The air was clean and the blue of the Big Sky spread out endlessly. I must confess, I did not own cowboy boots after I outgrew the little red pair I had when I was five. Still, we were a college town embraced by acres of ranch land and the cowboys, they were the “real Montanans” and the West was everywhere you looked. It takes something special to endure Montana winters and you could see it in the weather-worn faces of the men who gathered at the Cowboy Cafe just off Main Street in the mornings. If you drove very far in any direction, you’d find split-log fences worn silver-grey with age and barbed wire running along both sides of the road and you’d see the horses, standing in sweet clover in fields that seemed to last forever.
It has been so many years, and maybe I’ll never know why suddenly the desire welled up in me the way it did. I planned the evening out, all excited to show these three kids a little part of my history, my roots that are twined a few hundred miles to the North of us–all wrapped up in the Lodgepole Pines and chain-saw grizzly bears, the Carhartt jackets and 4×4 pickup trucks with lab mixes faithfully patrolling their weather-worn beds. And I can see how I’ve slipped in my parental duty to show these kids just where their mother came from when I share my plans and the youngest, she just looks at me and says:
“Wait, you mean people actually pay money to watch guys get catapulted to their deaths off the backs of bulls? I thought that was just a myth.”
Oh, I think we’ve been living in the city just a little too long.
So we eat dinner and we pick up some State Fair tickets and we meet up with friends and take six city-raised kids to the Rodeo, and I suddenly realize just how much I’ve been missing cowboy hats and boots and the smell of cattle. And for some reason, when two cowgirls ride around the arena with flags unfurled and they play the Anthem and we all sing I find that I am wiping tears off my face with the back of my hand.
The kids, they warm up pretty quick and the rodeo clown has us laughing and singing along with music that I remember well from my own childhood. The girls have always loved horses and their eyes are fixed on sleek bodies moving with wild grace over the turned earth of the arena, a flurry of bay and roan and chestnut. When they set up barrels I lean to Youngest, sitting next to me, and whisper “this was always my favorite part” and I see her sitting up in her chair to watch in rapt attention as cowgirls race around the barrels and I can see how she’s picturing herself on one of those beautiful animals. This is no myth.
In the years since I left, my hometown has split even further….the College and the Cowboys have had to move over for the Tourists. The Cowboy Cafe still exists, but I’m told its clientele wear cowboy boots with no mud on them and have been known to drive away in sports cars rather than rusty Suburbans and Blazers and GMC trucks. Still, the West is out there and the Real Montanans shake their heads at the wine bars on Main and they let the tourists try on their over-priced Stetsons and pretend to be cowboys for the long weekend.
And maybe I’ve become the same sort of voyeur, sitting here in the bleachers crying at the flying flags and the cowboys tough enough to wear pink. But maybe I just needed to see some good, black dirt and smell the livestock and watch the muscles ripple under shiny chestnut coats. Maybe I needed to see the manes and tails flowing out like banners raised high, hooves pounding and heads tossing and for a moment, to feel the West tip its hat at me and wink.
And to show these three, sitting beside me under indigo sky and blazing arena lights, a little piece of what’s inside them too. Roots tied up in open spaces, the image of a lone cowboy on a fine horse silhouetted there on the horizon against a crimson-orange sunset burned into the Big Sky.