I was born in western Canada where the skies are big, and the horizon stretches out as flat as can be like God’s big table in the wilderness. There is something about that endless blue sky that just makes you feel all alone in the world in a good way, like you have some grand secret compact with the maker of all things. You are a child of the universe in solitary possession of your own skin. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on the back porch watching tumbleweeds roll by. Ranching was still a viable means of employment in rural communities and it was not unusual to see pickup trucks blow past, loaded front and back with young guys in cowboy hats. Just like the joke, we had both kinds of music, country and western.
My first hero was the Lone Ranger, so cowboy runs deep in my blood. A cavalcade of spaghetti westerns and cowboy themed shows on TV throughout my youth only reinforced this fixation. You cannot beat the formula. There is a moral challenge. The public weal and the safety of women and children is in peril. Someone has to stand up and do the right thing. There is always that moment where the cowboy steps up, all alone it would seem, and that is when things ‘get real’ bigtime.
Looking out at the world, a lot has changed. We are beyond the days when shows like Bonanza, Gun Smoke, and the Lone Ranger ruled the airwaves. Modern movies sometimes borrow from the cowboy grab bag, but it seems that to be on the safe side, programmers mix them in with other genres like vampires and aliens, or fix them up with more trendy social justice themes to make them current. Those who market movies just cannot believe that anyone would watch a western for a western’s sake.
And yet, I still like cowboys. I used to like them purely from instinct. Nowadays I can put some flesh to that, and say I like cowboys on purpose and for all the right reasons. A cowboy is the everyman, the triumph of the individual all alone in the world. He is purity of intention, the fruits of honest toil, the power of personal choice when placed up against malice, graft and corruption. He is man against society, the individual as a remedy and a cure. In the presence of a lady, he is a defender and a gentleman. He is proof that nobility is not tied to money, wealth and power, but is seated in a person based on the choices he makes.
Age and experience adds some nuance to life, to be sure. It is not as much a black hat and white hat world as we thought growing up, and seeing real life in action chips away at our most cherished hero myths. Though I know the world does not always function like it does in the movies, it has its moments nonetheless. Perhaps it boils down to the instincts which drive us.
I was happy to see a YouTube clip which was shared widely, about a supermarket robbery, I am assuming in a southern state. The guy already at the counter buying something is sporting a big wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a handlebar moustache and boots. He is old. He has a gut. Suddenly a kid about twenty years old comes in and points a gun, first at cashier, then at the cowboy. The cowboy doesn’t do anything at first. He just takes off his glasses and puts them on the counter. Next thing you register, he has grabbed the kid, knocked the gun out of his hand, and the whole scene ends when everyone else in the store suddenly find their balls. They pitch in and clothesline the kid in a classic wrestling move while he is trying to make a beeline out the door. One lesson kid. Shouldn’t have messed with the cowboy. Beyond the big Texan hat and the beer gut, his instincts were about right. And stepping up, encouraged everyone else to take a stake in what was going on.
There is something about this I really like, and I am still betting on the cowboy. His departure into the sunset eats at the gains western civilization has made against Thomas Hobbes’ claim that life is necessarily ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The cowboy and all he represents is a ballast to this great entropy because someone has decided to make the world a better place. Every time a man chooses to do the right thing, that cowboy gets right back on up into the saddle and tips his hat.
I still like cowboys for all the right reasons, and that is not something likely to change any time soon.