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Until We Meet Again: Giving Thanks to the American Cowboy

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Posted on Nov 24, 2010
Flickr / Clay Junell (CC-BY-SA)

By Deanne Stillman

Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.

Once upon a time, a cowboy saved my life. I think of him in certain moments, at the sight of red rocks, for instance, or the hint of a desert storm. Now, the time has come to tell his story. He wasn’t named Ike, Rowdy or Dad, but he was named Tex, and I met him shortly after I had a first encounter with another Western icon—a giant tumbleweed blowing across the highway in New Mexico. Tex was living in the Grand Canyon. Along with a friend named Peter, I had thumbed a ride to the canyon from Albuquerque, and somewhere along the trail to our reserved campsite, Tex joined our hike. He was big and beefy, over 6 feet tall, or at least that’s how I remember him. He knew a lot about the outdoors. And he told great stories—like the one about being wanted for unpaid alimony, which was why he was hiding out in a national park. Once, he had made a living wrestling Brahma bulls in rodeos, but with the law after him, well, a guy just had to get out of Dodge. 

Down at the bottom of the canyon, Peter and I decided to camp in a no-camping area—more remote and no people—so we wandered off the trail and found a spot, in a grove of cottonwoods, somewhere along a bank of the Colorado River. We said adios to Tex, who told us he’d be camping nearby, and set up our tent. Two nights later, we sat on a riverbank and gazed at the stars. The canyon was all lit up and the sky was a ceiling of glitter. But then came the galloping of hooves, and voices shouting—“Hey, where’s the dancing girls? There she is!”—and three men on mules blocked our escape as one closed in, twirling a lasso and then dropping it around my shoulders. I screamed and tried to break free of the rope. Suddenly Tex appeared, leaping out of the brush, grabbing the bridle of the mule that carried my attacker, and flipping man and animal to the ground. I broke away and Peter followed. We raced across starlit paths, finally spotting a trail, and then ran back toward where we came in, hoping for a lifeline. 

We soon found a ranger station, and there I blurted out a strange tale—“Drunk men on mules tried to lasso me! They’re beating up our friend!” After convincing the ranger that we weren’t lying, we saddled up three horses at the station, and headed back to our campsite, somewhat difficult to find as Peter and I didn’t really know where we were camping. But when we heard the sound of men laughing and saw smoke from a campfire, we figured we were in range. Once there, we found a curious sight: They were all sitting around the fire, sharing a bottle of Wild Turkey. “Hey, guess what?” Tex said. “We’re all from the same town in Texas!” A few days later, I learned that the three men were guides who led the tourist mule packs up and down the park trails. I filed a complaint against them, and the last I heard, over 20 years ago, it was being processed. 

As for Tex, he came to visit me in Albuquerque a few times, and he told me about his life. He couldn’t make enough money on the rodeo circuit, he said, to keep his wife happy. He liked living in national parks, especially the Grand Canyon, because you could stay down there for a long time and the world would leave you alone. But one thing was really bothering him—more than anybody or anything, he missed his horse. He had lost him in his divorce, he said, and there’d never be another one like him. There’s nothing as heartbreaking as seeing a tough guy on the verge of tears, a wet veil crossing his eyes like a desert cloud, his body twitching with a distant rumble. The storm passed quickly and then one day, he left, just like Shane in the movie—except he was on foot and embarrassed to say goodbye.


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Over the years, I’ve met variations of the man called Tex. Some are working on ranches and others are between jobs; they crisscross the West in their old pickups, carrying their gear—their saddles, their veterinary potions, a weapon or two—and to a man, they wonder where all of it has gone, where are the animal nations, the rock tribes, brother eagle and sister bear, even though they know the answer, and know in their hearts that they—and we—have all been a party to the vanishing of what once was here, and had been here in the timeless time when the ancient ones lived in canyons. 

Sometimes I wonder what happened to Tex. Is he breathing his last breath under a cottonwood grove as the Colorado whispers and rages on by? Are his boots on or are they stashed away in some Flagstaff pawnshop? Or is he dancing with some senorita in a roadside mirage?  Chances are, he never made it to the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and, most likely, he wasn’t featured in the Ken Burns documentary on national parks.

But Tex, if you happen to be sitting in an Internet cafe and find yourself reading this column, I’d like to say that I hope you got your horse back. And thanks for the assist, cowboy.

Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West,” a Los Angeles Times “Best Book ’08” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Her book includes an account of the 1998 Christmas horse massacre outside Reno, Nev., as well as the story of Bugz, the lone survivor of the incident. Her previous book was “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave,” the cult classic which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer. It’s now out in a new, updated edition. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Orion, National Review Online and other publications and is widely anthologized. Her plays, including “Star Maps,” have won prizes in theater festivals around the country. She is currently writing “Mojave Manhunt” for Nation Books, based on her Rolling Stone piece of the same name. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.

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By Comrade Phi, November 27, 2010 at 12:32 am Link to this comment

My Granddaddy was a Texan. He was born in the 1890s around what is now Tyler. I used to go and spend summers with his first cousin as I was a child in the 1950s. We would drive from our home in Tenn and after a visit we would go and see a few other cousins in Oklahoma.  It was an age ago and life for everyone was different.

There aint no particular cause for everything having gone the way it has.  A lot has to do with the lack of infrastructure being built in the West.  America sort of just happened.  There never was any real planning and make a buck was the motivation for creating our cities out of our more successful towns.  Cycles of boom and bust have been the way since this country was founded.  Projects begun in booms are usually never completed, if a bust occurs before they are finished.

Now, we face the downturn created by a lot of different cycles coming to an end all at once. We fight our neighbors for crossing an imaginary line some rich men drew on a map, in order to get a little richer.  We spoil air, earth and water in order to make a buck. We follow politicians and persecute actual leaders who could show us the way out.  We have become so afraid that we allow anything to happen to any creature (including our fellow humans), on the off chance that we might be left alone.

It can’t be allowed to continue.  If it does we may all find ourselves living like Tex, if we are lucky or worse if we aren’t.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Mitakuye Oyashin

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By Peter Albertson, November 26, 2010 at 9:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What can I say? It’s a lovely, lovely piece. Thank you Stillman.

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By REDHORSE, November 25, 2010 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

It’s a matter of Heart and Human Moral Value. I was raised by and knew many born in the late 19th Century. Jung, Hemingway, Graves, R.Jeffers, and others from that time all reflected a Consciousness in which the dimensionality of the bloody nose human and the Transcendent Spirit lived, breathed as one, and informed the recognition that human aspiration and human frailty are twins.

    A Century is nothing in the span of time. It is easy to see forward and backward a hundred years. D.Stillmans article lets us stand for just a moment outside the present madness. I pity the poor fools in Washington who have made American Heart their enemy.

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By martin weiss, November 25, 2010 at 8:32 am Link to this comment

My travels throughout the 48 states, Canada, Europe and Jamaica have taught me that 99% of people are more than decent—friendly, and generous, and will go out of their way to help those in need, including horses, stray dogs and cats, even wild animals and birds.
Without knowing the Lakota expression,
“Mitakuye Oyasin”—all my relations,
most folks acknowledge our kinship with all life on earth. I never could have made it this far without them. All the Tex’s are valued and needed, and there’s no shortage of horses, campers or writers to extend the hand of friendship. Ninety-nine percent of six billion people lived in peace today, lived and let live, and rose above dog eat dog to be just like Tex.

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By Rob Pliskin, November 24, 2010 at 11:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks and a Caution

Don’t get yourself on a government coin
like Indian, bison, or horse,
Stay out riding fence
And spare the expense
Cause town is just getting worse.

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By gerard, November 24, 2010 at 9:59 pm Link to this comment

Cowboys—and “Indians”:
  This might be a place for another story.  When I taught at a Japanese university, four Navahos and an Apache came to a local park as entertainers, to earn money to cover their travel expenses. I saw an advertisement, went to the park and invited them to visit all my classes.  They were glad to meet kids their age, and spent an entire day with us, talking about their lives.  The exchange was very rewarding for everyone. 
  As the visitors listened to the Japanese kids talking among themselves, one of them said, “They sound as if we ought to be able to understand them.”  Years ago an anthropologist,  Clyde Kluckholn, in the course of investigating had concluded that Japanse and Navaho languages may have come from a common root, which seemed to justify the “land-bridge” theory.
  After classes, the boys played two basketball games, one in the gym (which the Japanese kids won) and one on a weedy outdoor court in disrepair. This time the “Indians” won hands down.  The difference being, of course, due to what the two “sides” were “used to,” revealing unhappy discrepancies between Japanese economic conditions and the disgracefully severe deprivation all-too-commonly suffered on the “rez.”
  A handful of students brought the “Indians” to my house and cooked curry rice for us all for supper.
  As TaoWalker might say, Hokahey!

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By morongobill, November 24, 2010 at 9:20 pm Link to this comment

This is a great story and a nice break from all the politics.

A west that no longer exists probably which is too bad, as Tex would be the first to admit.

There aren’t too many like Tex around anymore,I am sad to say.

Vaya con dios, Tex, where ever you may be.

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