This old boy was born with the dreams of the old songs,
Riding the range and singin’ like Gene Autry
Watching Roy Rogers and Trigger right after Hopalong
I’d ride through my backyard prairie just like they taught me.
October 28, Wendell, Idaho
Those are the opening lines of “Horse and a Blanket,” Bill’s song about, as he puts it, “Growing up watching cowboys on TV and knowing someday I was gonna be one.” This is many people’s favorite song of his.
It’s easy for me to forget that Bill has a boyhood cowboy stored somewhere in the back of his head. I rode horses for years while we were together and he never showed any interest in getting on one himself. On a trip to the Southwest, he had to be more or less dragged into the red rock desert around Moab although once he got there he fell in love with the landscape. This was where many of his favorite boyhood shows had been shot, he said, and it all looked familiar.
We didn’t get anywhere near Moab or the red rock desert as we drove westward out of Wyoming and we crossed the northeastern corner of Utah quickly, spending only one night there. The next day, we saw a reflective glint on the horizon we thought might be the Great Salt Lake, and shortly after that we were in Idaho.
In some ways, Idaho was a lot like some other Western and Midwestern states we’d crossed: Long, largely uninhabited, windy. In another respect it was different: This was unquestionably cattle country. We saw them–the giant feedlots, endless expanses of brown earth and thousands of cattle–and we smelled them at the RV park where we spent the night. Even though we hadn’t seen a feedlot in miles when we pulled in, the very air smelled of cow. For the first time, I got an idea of how these feedlots and their methane could cause asthma in children hundreds of miles away.
For our first meal in Idaho we pulled off the Interstate where there seemed to be no restaurants or truck stops, and drove up a small side road following signs to a diner. Bill pulled our van-trailer contraption onto a wide gravel shoulder behind a horse trailer. Of course, I couldn’t resist peeking into the trailer and there was a lone horse, wearing a western saddle, standing patiently as though he did this every day.
“That’s a working horse,” I said.
Inside, the diner seemed to be a set out of a 50s sitcom with checked tablecloths and a languid waitress holding down the fort all by herself. It was clearly a neighborhood hangout, but there were few people, as there seemed to be in the whole state of Idaho. At the table next to ours were a couple of older gentlemen wearing cowboy hats, one of whom clearly belonged to the horse in the trailer outside.
Then yet another cowboy walked in. Worn leather jacket. Fringed chaps that ran all the way down his legs looking shiny from years of use. The real deal.
I had encountered real cowboys only once before, years ago, when I wrangled my way into a free passage on a horseback riding trip in Wyoming with a magazine assignment for a piece that wound up getting killed. We slept in a primitive camp in the mountains where you were not allowed to build any real permanent structures, or corral horses for that matter because too much grazing in one location would kill of the grass and make the land vulnerable. So every night our cowboy guides would let the horses go (you had to watch out for a few minutes there while they zoomed around camp in an excited herd). Then they’d rise before dawn and round them up again for the day’s riding.
Those were serious cowboys, but still, their job was to act as guides for “dudes,” as they called us all. Around here, I doubted that these were tourist-wrangling cowboys–there didn’t seem to be a tourist area for a hundred miles in any direction.
I looked at them with interest for a few moments and went back to eating my lunch. I was road-weary, I was, as always, scrambling to catch up on email and work every moment that we were stationary. Bill, though, was fascinated.
I didn’t know it until afterward, though, because gregarious Bill–he who walked up to Nicolas Cage, asked for a picture, then asked what kind of cigar he was smoking, he who flagged down Uma Thurman in a parking lot to tell her we both had the same cleaning person, he who was absolutely fearless in the face of celebrities and earth-shakers–he was too shy to talk to the cowboys. They must have been actually using horses to get around their ranches and manage their herds, like I had thought no one did anymore in this age of factory farming. The real deal.
“I wonder what they would have thought if I had played them my cowboy song?” he mused later on. I wish we’d gotten to find out.
Image: rarejacksonholerealestate via Creative Commons