Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Searching For Cowboys in America

The Ottawa Valley did not have any cowboys around when I was growing up. I watched them instead on television, in westerns like True Grit and reruns of Gunsmoke. John Wayne and James Arness wore badges, rode horses, and were constantly taking off their dusty hats to say a polite hello to the passing ladies. I learned early on that a Cowboy had a deep, mysterious understanding of chivalry, adventure, and the difference between good and evil, no matter what side they were on.

As I got older, Cowboys got replaced with James Bond and Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. They were also cowboys, but looked and acted different (although Indy still cracked a bullwhip). Later on, there were other cinematic cowboys embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. With all of them, there was always a trail to follow, a mountain to climb, a rough river to cross, or a road to travel, whose end was always uncertain. These were all the source materials for my friends and I playing in the woods, chasing one another on bikes, and facing off against each other in the playground. Our imaginations always ran wild, our ideas never ran dry, and our energies never ran out.

Years later, I saw movies and tv shows making fun of cowboys. Maverick, Lightning Jack, and Wild, Wild West all stick out in my mind, but City Slickers (1991) is the most memorable. Take a bunch of misfit urbanites and put them on horses, and watch the comedy just flow naturally. I was already a city slicker by then, without truly realizing it, and happily cocooned myself in all the technology, creature comforts and automation I could find in the world. Just like Billy Crystal, I became a slave to cubicles, a lover of portable grinders, and an indentured servant of VHS players. I did not yet know the simple pleasures of being home on the range.

Over twenty five years later, I've been able to live among cowfolk. The term "cowboy", oddly enough, is simply a romanticized form of ranch hand, someone who herds cattle for a living. Legends over time, campfire stories, and the immortal power of the silver screen transformed the humble cattle rancher into a larger than lifehero for the ages. They are all still here, of course, in the flesh. The ranches and deserts and corrals - and vintage bars - still call to them. But they are a far quieter and passive breed than the trailblazers of yesteryear. And they are no less compelling or mesmerizing, and their stories and adventures still carry the weight of gold.


Most cowboys drive cars now. Or trucks. And that's ok. We weren't expecting them to canter along the highways on horseback, anyway. As we passed through Tulsa and continued west, we drove through some amazing countryside until finally reaching Elk City, home of the ultimate Route 66 Museum, which included detailed exhibits for "cowboys" of all shapes and sizes: farmers, ranchers, rodeo rustlers, and drivers of history - passionate individuals dedicated to exploring the roots and folklore of the proverbial highway itself:

Elk City Barn & Ranch Museum

Elk City Route 66 Museum

Elk City Route 66 Museum

Elk City Route 66 Museum

New Mexico

In Roswell, you can find cowboys and aliens. After you leave the UFO museums and gift shops behind, there is only the road that remains, with desert tumbleweed on either side of you. Everywhere you look, there are road runners and jack rabbits and coyotes chasing them both. The days are warm and the nights are cold. The landscapes go on for what seems like forever; on the road that stretches for miles, a mountain range can stare back at you for hours. At every turn, the colours of the hills change with the setting sun, and with each night that follows, the stars seem to get bigger and brighter.

On our way to the Valley of Fires State Park, Chantal and I passed through the tiny ghost town of Lincoln, the home and stomping grounds of Billy The Kid, the folklore legend that inspired many a Saturday matinee, including Young Guns (1988). In the movies, the Kid is a reckless, jovial, impulsive youth, but the actual Kid and his fellow Regulators were outnumbered victims of property wars. Tourism plays a part in stretching out these stories, of course, but the characters nonetheless remain worthy of cheering.

Lincoln, New Mexico

North of Las Cruces, near the Mexican border, we discovered a hidden RV community called simply The Ranch. Located in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert and part of a working cattle farm, the facility is surrounded by cattle guards, frantic road runners and nomadic coyotes that cry out irritably whenever the train roars past blowing its deafening whistle. The people who live here are tight knit and are veteran RV travellers. They trade stories like they are scars, they laugh at death like they are old companions, and they watch each others's backs like they are their own. They meet daily on the long porch of their main house. They are ready to celebrate but also treasure the quiet. It is called the Ranch because it behaves as such; who would have thought that RVers could become cowboys.

The Ranch, SKP RV Park in New Mexico

The Ranch, SKP RV Park in New Mexico


Even without snow or jazzy mall music or twinkling lights everywhere, you can tell when Christmas is near. At the Grand Canyon all it took was a visit to the old chalet gift shop near Mather Point, where a beautiful fireplace was on display, along with amazing decorations dressing up their village hotel lobby:

Mather Point, Hikers' Rest in Grand Canyon National Park

Hotel Lobby in Grand Canyon National Park

Hotel Lobby in Grand Canyon National Park

Further down the road, we found a neat Christmas concert on a Saturday night at an old recreated frontier town called the Blazin M Ranch. The food was ration style and the entertainment was fantastic. Cowboys, it seems, can sing and play the guitar and piano, too:

Blazin' M Ranch, near Dead Horse State Park in Arizona

Blazin' M Ranch, near Dead Horse State Park in Arizona

We also came across a small town called Prescott, where a vintage bar tavern called the Palace Saloon, dating back to 1877, still stands. It was here that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday played some cards while on their way to Tombstone.

Prescott, Arizona
There's something magical and timeless about encountering a saloon, the other place where cowboys are born, I suppose. The entry sign even showed three shadows of mysterious ghosts, standing in waiting, guarding a bygone era preserved by vintage d├ęcor and stories passed down. I started thinking about all those movies again, and all the television shows and stories and pictures over the years. And suddenly the sign became something else: a time machine of sorts, a chance to visit another way of life, a way of life that our RV adventure had made possible in the first place.

Chantal finally got her chance to get tough and stride through those iconic swinging wooden doors of a saloon and enter the long lost world of the western frontier. How many movies, funny or dramatic, have started this way? Beyond those doors, we knew what to expect: shot glasses, sneaky card players, dancing girls on stage, and a long row of squeaky barstools....
...Or just a nice dining room, too.

And then, of course, there was the actual Tombstone. Nothing could have prepared us for that first stroll down the main street, where you could only walk or stroll on horseback. Both sides were draped with those old rickety wooden boardwalks, and saloon doors at every corner. And, near the end of the square stood the famous OK Corral, where that famous gun battle took place:

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone, Arizona

Tombstone, Arizona

Of course, these are the cowboys of yesteryear, long gone from memory now, kept alive in folklore and dime novels and adventure movies. At one point, the western genre was thought long dead and buried until Clint Eastwood and other modern filmmakers made them mainstream again. But, in truth, the western genre and the frontier myth and all the cowboys and adventurers that came with them were always there. The cowboy has simply evolved into other forms: the astronaut, the gangster, the race car driver.

As we began to conclude our adventure in Arizona, I began to wonder why had been searching for cowboys in the first place. They had no interest in me, and I really had no need to find them, either. I saw this long lost and forgotten loner and persona in other characters I had come across in other chapters of this crazy journey, and many other times in countless other chapters of my life. They had been there all along, right in front of me, when I had not been seeking them out. The wandering hero without a quest had once been a character study I had discovered in a university classroom, in a course designed to explore the roots of one’s own creativity. Some part of me sought out these traits in people that had passed through my life time and time again. And now I was really searching for the cowboy within myself, disguised ever so thinly as a writer, and a fan of movies, and an observer of human nature. And also as an RV traveller.

In Sedona, we stopped at a visitor center to get maps and brochures and a few tips from locals. As we entered, we saw a Santa Claus working one of his final shifts before his big run on Christmas Eve, which was only days away. He was dressed as should have been, but he spoke with a slight southern drawl. I approached him and shook his gloved hand. He looked tired and sweaty.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to him. He smiled back.

“Merry Christmas to you, young feller.”

“Santa, what do the kids leave for you at night when you visit houses on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh, depends,” he answered. “Usually, biscuits and gravy, I guess. Maybe a glass of horchata.”

A couple walked in just then, and the husband smiled and joined our conversation. A horchata, as I came to learn later, was like a milkshake made with fermented rice and vanilla extract. I leaned in closer, as this Santa spoke quieter than usual. He was also without his usual “Ho Ho Ho” jubilant laugh.

“Santa, what do cowboys do for Christmas?” I asked him.

The husband next to him chimed in first. “Spend time with his horse, I think.” Santa nodded and chuckled a little bit, but the man’s answer didn’t feel like the end of a joke. Maybe cowboys no longer had families because they no longer had ladies to rescue or bad guys to chase out of town. Maybe all they had left was indeed their horses, their only remaining companions. Cowboys didn’t need Christmas trees or shiny presents or chestnuts or Rudolph and Frosty. They just needed their horses to stay on their path. A path that led away from an organized, civilized world that once needed them but now only mentioned them in passing.

Not long after, Chantal and I decided to walk through parts of Sedona, the rocky trails that led to Cathedral Rock. With every step I imagined a posse riding through on horseback, or a team of wagons passing through on their way to Tucson, or Bisbee, or Tombstone. This was a way of life back then, but for us today it was simply a recreational activity. All around us we saw other tourists desperately taking pictures and videos and selfies and posting them all onto social media to keep up with the race for digital immortality. I took pictures, too, but I was looking for something else, some magical trail of dust left behind in the reddish horizon lines. The rocks and hills and winding paths seemed to go on forever, and I felt as though I were becoming lost in that blurry infinity. Whatever panoramic shot I took, whatever low angle I tried, whatever slow zoom I focused on, the camera could not find what my eye wanted to see so badly.

Cathedral Rock Trail in Sedona, Arizona

That night we drank lots of wine and had dinner on the patio deck of a noisy restaurant that faced those same rocks that stared back at us in the distance, keeping their secrets. After dinner, the town square shone a movie against the rocks that suddenly became a giant screen for our amusement. The movie was like a light show that showed holiday colors and gentle snow kids waiting for Santa to arrive, but sadly there were no cowboys to be found there, either. Still, it had been a fun night.

At another state park called Karchner Caverns, I found an old paperback dime novel left behind on a shelf outside a laundry room. It was called Who Rides With Wyatt, a retelling of the famous shootout between the Earps and the Clantons at the OK Corral in Tombstone. The book claimed to be an authentic and true account from a man who had known these men, but the author – an old Westerner named Will Henry – had been known to embellish a bit. The story was first published in 1954 but the story was first told to him in 1933 by an old man who referred to himself only as “the kid”, and the story he tells implies that he was, in fact, Johnny Ringo, a thief and an outlaw and once a good shot that hung around with the Clanton and McLowry gang over fifty years earlier. I read the book in four days. What was interesting about it was that Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo had once been friends, ever so briefly. Earp had seen something of his younger self in this Ringo kid while they rode across the open ranges spreading from Dodge City to Tombstone. The two never fought at the OK Corral, but Earp did hunt him down years later, or so legend suggests.

Almost a hundred and fifty years later, this famous shootout between shadowy lawman and reckless outlaws in a mining town barely able to govern at all still holds up in countless tales of folklore almost bordering on poetic justice. The near obsession with these unruly characters is both fascinating and horrific, almost like a slow motion train wreck. But the reasoning is simple: for good or bad, win or lose, it seems that Americans love a good fight. But, even more than that: Americans love a good rebel fighting the system. This is the courageous spirit that was born in their Revolution and moved his way west to discover and claim new frontiers. This is the untamed heart of the American traveller. This is the soul of the wandering loner. This is the lifeblood of the restless searcher.

When we finally did arrive in the real Tombstone, I couldn’t help but put on my own cowboy hat. The hat itself has its own story, of course, and it comes from Africa, not America. It bears more resemblance to an Australian frontier type fedora rather than a traditional cowboy hat, but it fits me just the same. I felt as though I would not be allowed to walk down that famous main street without it, and I used it for the entire day we were there. I was allowed to indulge even more at an old bar called Big Nose Kate’s, where I was given a trenchcoat and permission to play bartender to a cast of unruly drinkers. Thankfully, I was not given a badge or a loaded pistol and holster. The OK Corral re-enactment was fun to watch and played out in real time, which barely took all of forty five seconds. The gun shots rang loudly and scared all the young children into a fit of crying and hysterics. We sat in the bleachers with all the parents and their bright eyed kids and whistling grandmothers and cheered when the battle was over. The cowboy actors lined up and bowed, and mentioned a few charitable foundations as we filed out.

OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona

A few days later, we arrived in Old Tucson, a working film studio and living museum haunted by the ghosts of cowboy heroes long gone, according to the tour guide who met us at the gate. It could have been just a dusty old relic of a town, if it were not for all the souvenir shops. But the time machine feel was still there, as creaky stagecoaches strolled by, and rustlers nearby prepared to stage a battle at an old mission church. There were tours on John Wayne, a seminar on old grocery stores back in the day, and there was even a tryout show for new dancing girls in the main saloon and hotel. Best of all, there was a studio where anyone could dress up like their favorite characters from yesteryear. In the long run, it seemed better to give up the search for cowboy outlaws and simply become one ourselves.

Old Tucson, Arizona

Old Tucson, Arizona

Old Tucson, Arizona

Old Tucson, Arizona


Here you can find cowboys in front of cameras and billboards. Also, they ride motorcycles instead of horses, and leave behind their helmets and let their ponytails fly in the breeze as they weave through traffic on the highways. They refuse to be stuck in traffic, like the rest of us; instead, they ride the shoulders or just cut in front of everyone. Everyone has somewhere to go in this state, and they stop for no one. But the modern cowboys here also find quieter roads, and there is still plenty of desert to shut out the hum of urban life. One such desert we found in the wide open space of Joshua Tree National Park, not far from Palm Springs:

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park

Further north, we explored San Diego and San Francisco, and into the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, all places where discovery and adventure and solitude are not limited only to cowboys and western frontier heroes.

Turtle Point in Sequoia National Park

Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park

Golden Gate, San Francisco

After roaming across four states and digging up the cowboy myth wherever we went, we saw so many things and found so many answers for ourselves. The Cowboy is still very much alive and well, and has evolved in ways that one point were thought impossible. Two hundred years ago, the West opened up and gave birth to the curious drifter and courageous family, who in turn yielded the lawman and the outlaw, who in turn helped to settle the American West with a blend of adventure, moral struggle and hard work. In the past fifty to hundred years, the cowboy has transformed into so many forms: the farmer, the soldier, the sheriff, the gangster, the loner, and, of course, the RV traveller, all of whom keep society going but, at the same time, seek to escape from it and follow new paths, wherever they may lead. Good luck to all cowboys out there on the road.

Have You Seen These 2 RV Outlaws?

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