Disappointed by the dude

I once had a college roommate from New York City who could hold her own in a roomful of drunken sailors and made the Daytona 500 look like a go-cart race. But take her out to the country, and nine times out of 10, she couldn’t tell the horses from the cows. By the time she graduated, she had improved her record, slightly. And while it’s easy to make fun, the truth of the matter is, even after spending half my life here, I fair only slightly better in matters of a rural nature. Basically, I’m agriculturally illiterate. I’m not talking the ability to wax poetic on subtle nuances of farming and crop rotation. I’m talking the basic ability to tell the difference between a Hereford and a Holstein – simple things any self-respecting Westerner should be able to do – and at which I fail miserably.

Which isn’t to say I don’t have the utmost respect. I understand the vital role ag lands and operations play in maintaining everything from locally produced food to open space and the West’s heritage. And on a more personal level, I, like many Americans and Euros, harbor a certain romantic nostalgia for that most prominent of rural Western icons: the cowboy.

OK, I know it’s corny, loathsome even – especially to those who make their living from the land. But there is something about the notion of the lonely wrangler, sleeping under the stars and traversing the open range, that strikes a familiar, yearning chord of freedom.

No, this isn’t going to be a column on “Brokeback Mountain.”

Although, I guess you could say it will address the topic of cowboy love, or at least infatuation. Which is funny, given my aforementioned lack of knowledge on the subject. Although, in my defense, I did spend some time at a working ranch after college. This was no cushy dude ranch with a spa, cappuccino bar and gift shop. As far as I could tell, it was the real deal – the only amenities being doublewide caretaker quarters, cinder-block bunk house and corrugated-metal outbuilding. OK, so the bulk of my time there was spent racing four-wheelers during mud season, but it did afford me the opportunity to meet my first, official cowboy.

And before you let your mind wander, this was not an amorous type of affair. Give me a break – the guy was like 60. His name was Jake (no lie), and he was a man of small stature and even smaller words. A widower, he lived alone on the sprawling ranch year-round, preferring the company of the high plains of northwest

Colorado. His wore his lifetime of hard work on his face, with wrinkles sharper than barbed wire. At the same time, he had well worn laugh lines, suggesting he enjoyed a good joke as much as the next guy, yet forearms like tree trunks that made you not want to find out. I don’t remember much, except that when he finally did speak up – usually prefaced by a humble “I tell you what” – you listened, because it had to be something important for old Jake to break his silence. And there were those hands. Thick, gnarled, nicked and battered, they were as weathered as the branches of a 100-year oak. The hands of a true working man.

I couldn’t help but think of Jake recently, as I spied an older gent, bedecked in his finest going-to-town-on-Saturday-night Western wear at a local watering hole. He was sitting by himself near the bar, sipping a modest soft drink. I, on the other hand, had sipped perhaps one too many that night. And, although I don’t get out much, I figured the lonely cowboy, down from the hinterlands, probably got out even less. Before I knew it, I had pulled him onto the dance floor and was pulling his ear. I did my best to let him lead while making idle cowboy chit chat. How many head of cattle was he running? What had brought him to the big city? Wasn’t it a little early to be heading up to summer pastures?

Maybe it was the fact that we were two-stepping to techno. Or that his hands seemed to be those of someone who drove a car rather than cattle for a living. But, it began to dawn on me that perhaps my cow rustler was more of a cow hustler. Turned out my hunch was right. His name was Glen, originally from Vermont, who never ran a cow a day in his life. Turns out he was a traveling meat salesman for the tri-county area, and all his product actually came from the stockyards of South St. Paul, not far from my hometown. He soon produced a neat brochure, detailing his line, from brisket, T-bones and chicken to the newest addition, Alaskan king crab.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Glen was a nice enough fellow, and after exchanging a few more pleasantries, I bid him adieu with a promise to call once barbecue season got under way. But I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, not to mention foolish. Was I just another city slicker with silly, pie-in-the-sky visions of the Marlboro Man riding into the sunset? Was I searching for the Western equivalent of the unicorn? Perhaps, with the advancing march of technology and civilization, this is what the cowboy had become: a glorified Schwan’s man in Western wear.

But, the night was still young, so I refused to give up hope. Sure, I may not know the difference between Naugahyde and leather on first glance, but give me some time, I’m still learning.

– Missy Votel