I attended my first Western Writers of America conference because someone told me they'd heard Sam Elliott might be there. When I think of cowboys, I think of the actors that played them well. I think of John Wayne, I think of Henry Fonda, I think Tom Selleck and I think of Sam.
|Looks like a cowboy to me.|
But what is a cowboy, really? They don't always have the perfect mustache or the perfect kerchief around their neck. They don't always ride a tall horse with a tooled leather saddle. They sometimes don't even ride a horse at all. The F350 pickup truck looks like a mighty fine cowboy rig anymore. I drove a King Ranch edition Ford Expedition for awhile and called it my cowboy car. Even wrote a poem about it and called him Clem. But that didn't make me a cowgirl, or even close. Here's what Wikipedia says.
A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico and became a figure of special significance and legend. A subtype, called a wrangler, specifically tends the horses used to work cattle. In addition to ranch work, some cowboys work for or participate in rodeos. Cowgirls, first defined as such in the late 19th century, had a less-well documented historical role, but in the modern world have established the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. There are also cattle handlers in many other parts of the world, particularly South America and Australia, who perform work similar to the cowboy in their respective nations.
And below is a painting by Russell that is said to portray perfectly, the true cowboy.
I didn't get to meet Sam at that WWA convention. I think my friend told me he'd be there just so I'd go. But that's okay, I met someone much better. The western writer. Since that first WWA I've learned a lot about the west through the books of the many friends I've made who write about it. I've learned about guns and horses and cattle drives. And I think that most of these writers are the true cowboys of today, even though 75% of them don't own a cow or a branding iron. They travel the narrow back roads of America's western states in SUVs and Cadillacs now. They browse through the dusty book shelves of junk shops in the hopes of finding a rare edition western novel or a book on writing the west written by one of the first to the genre, or perhaps an old history book with descriptions and photographs of how it used to be. They're keeping the west alive, and in my opinion keeping the cowboy alive.
I sold Clem and bought Tootsie, a little red Mustang convertible. I thought maybe she'd make me young again. She's in storage now, and I'm traveling in my boring black little SUV to the Western Writers of America this June. Someone told me Tom Selleck might be there.