don't mean to be immodest, but it's commonly accepted that
I strike a rather cosmopolitan figure. It generally takes people aback
when I tell them that I'm not from London or Monaco, but from the high
desert county east of the mountains, right here in Oregon. It takes
them further aback when I tell them that I grew up on a cattle ranch,
that I was once, like my father and his father before him, a genuine
This is invariably assumed to be a joke, and we all have a good chuckle.
But every so often I find this amusement annoying. Is it really so difficult
to believe that I was once a cattle roper? People do change. After all,
Anne Heche was once a lesbian. Michael Jackson used to be black. Why
is it so unbelievable that I was once a cowboy?
Let me tell you what happened just yesterday. An older gentleman sat
down next to me on the bus. Actually, the term "gentleman"
is generous. The old coot's cowboy hat looked like it had been rolled
in the mud and then baked, the piping on his "western" shirt
was coming unraveled, and he reeked of cheap booze. His only saving
grace was his boots, a sturdy, well-turned pair I could tell had been
treating him well for some years. They were first rate, and I told him
"What would a ferner like you know about proper
I explained that I was actually a local boy, not a "ferner,"
and that I had not only grown up just over the mountains, but had spent
the better part of my youth in the saddle and therefore knew a proper
pair of boots when I saw them.
"Well, hell. No offense pardner, but that's a boot that jist don't
fit. You look more flannel-mouthed shave tail than genuwine cowpoke.
So stop pullin' my leg! You don't know a heifer from a hound dog."
It's difficult to explain my emotion at that moment. Perhaps impossible.
But if you are to understand at all, you'll need to know something of
my background and how I got to be where I am today.
Despite what you might assume from my current persona, I really did
grow up on a ranch. I was the youngest of five sons born to a fifth
generation rancher in what today seems a distant era. From an early
age I took to the cowboy's life like an otter to water. I was in the
saddle by age three and had roped my first steer by age five. At ten,
I went on my first cattle drive, and I never missed another until I
left the life years later. And I've never since discovered anything
quite so satisfying as the spring cattle drive.
Hitting the range at dawn with my pa, my four older brothers,
and 5,000 head of cattle just as a sweeping golden sunrise envelops
a spacious sky. In every direction a windswept sea of grass stretches
to the horizon. Me and my gentle Appaloosa, William, working in
perfect harmony, shoring up our flank of the herd, keeping it
orderly and moving in the right direction. Here and there a calf
finds a bit of open space in which to frolic while its weary mother
lumbers along lowing mournfully.
Dusty and spent after a full day's ride, we set up camp and feast on
pork and beans. With a bottle of rye making its way around the campfire,
older brother Jake starts playing his mouth harp. At first the music
is melancholy. But as the whiskey gets warm in our bellies, his songs
become increasingly lively, until we all join in, proclaiming loudly
to the full dome of the night's stars the bawdy exploits of Sadie the
Seersucker Whore, or Shane, the Sheep-Loving Cowboy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ma and Sis are making bacon, tending
their potato rows, and laying up mincemeat so that when we all return
there's a feast waiting. Over steaks the size of our canteens, we swap
stories, my brothers and I poking gentle fun of John's flatulent horse,
and Ma telling us about her trying work with the Ladies Christian Society
bringing Christ to "those poor pagans over on the reservation."
Yes, it was a sweet life. But as these things go, our pastoral idyll
would not last forever. I can look back today and realize that many
events contributed to my eventual decision to leave. But I believe the
beginning of the end was marked the day my brother Hank and I ran across
that strange young man wandering around behind our barn.
I say "man," but at the time, we weren't
what we'd stumbled on. Its hair, which was longer than
was so unkempt I thought maybe we'd strayed upon some
feral dog. But I've never known a dog to wear tattered
And I've never known a dog to yell at approaching
Purple elephants. Trippin'. Hey, purple elephants, can
of you spare a tab or two?"
We looked at one another, not sure what to do. I reminded Hank what
we'd do to a dog that acted that way. But after a few moments, he jumped
down, wrapped the delirious cretin up in a saddle blanket, and threw
the whole package on the back of his horse. Ignoring the muffled cries
from his horse's ass "Help, I'm being kidnapped by worm
people" we headed over to the sheriff's office in town.
Sheriff Cooper greeted us at the door with a howdy and a handshake,
but after Hank showed him why we'd come he seemed less than pleased
to see us. I asked him if he knew what the hell it was. He spat in the
dirt, and politely kicked dirt over it with his Tony Lamas.
"Yep, I know."
"You aim to fill us in?"
"Why don't one of you boys leave 'im in the
take care of it." Apparently not.
The whole incident seemed to put the sheriff into a foul frame of mind.
He didn't even say good-bye when we left, though he did bother to call
after, "Best burn that blanket."
It turned out that our loon in longjohns was a member of some religious
cult that had recently bought the Jensen ranch and imported a few thousand
members to live on it in small huts. They were all disciples of some
egomaniacal guru who believed he was the current incarnation of Christ
and whose idea of religious discipline was to take drugs and have sex
with anyone you wanted.
Shocking as this was, it might have been no more than fodder for wry
dinner conversation (after the youngsters had gone to bed, of course).
But the group had imported so many followers and promptly registered
each of them to vote they were able to effectively take over
the county. Within six months, they had replaced every elected official
in the county with one of their own.
As you can imagine, this changed the tenor of the town considerably.
For example, Sheriff Cooper was succeeded by Sheriff Wajiloo, a
stout former dentist from Salem who dyed her sheriff's uniform
purple and refused to arrest anyone. She liked to keep the jailhouse
free for parties.
We tried to pay as little attention as possible to the goings on over
at the Jensen place. What happened in town had little impact on our
own lives so we thought. Though we didn't know if yet, our halcyon
days were numbered.
The next spring, we set out on our cattle drive as usual. For a cowboy,
there's nothing better than riding the range. It's just you and thousands
of miles of open country. Climbing into the saddle that year, what with
all the goings on in town, was a particular relief, like the world had
been lifted off your shoulders.
As always, our first landmark was the river. Once we'd crossed that,
we were off our own land and into open country. But we were in for a
surprise. When we got there, the river was a shadow of its former self,
a mere trickle. There wasn't enough water there to scare a cat. We found
out why soon enough.
We were sitting there scratching our heads when Sis came flying
up on her old mare Bessy. She was yelling something and waving
the morning's newspaper. Turns out there was an article on the
front page explaining that the state had agreed to lease California
the water from the river our river! and had
diverted it south. We sat in stunned silence.
But that wasn't all. As if on cue, Wajiloo drove up in her sheriff's
car: "Good morning fellas" fellas? "I'm
afraid we've got a problem. There's a law that says you can't drive
a herd of cows closer than 100 yards of the river." what
river? "Cows pollute waterways and pose a grave risk to
several endangered species. I'm afraid I'm going to have to follow the
law on this one."
"I thought you didn't arrest people?"
"Oh, I'm not going to arrest you. I'm just going
you a twenty thousand dollar fine."
That shut us up. All except first born Rudy,
hell is our river?"
"You know, I couldn't say for sure. But last week His Holiness
did buy himself a dozen Rolls Royces and a pair of congressmen."
Looking pleased with herself, Wajiloo climbed back in her sheriff's
car (recently enhanced with freshly tie-dyed seat covers). As she was
pulling out, though, she rolled down her window. "Oh, I forgot
one thing. I hope you fellas weren't planning to take those animals
across that river. That's federal land over there. I'd hate to
have to report you to the FBI."
Why, of all the nerve. Our family had been grazing cattle on that land
for generations. If that two-bit dentist thought she could push us off
our land, she had another thing coming.
In the end, though, we weren't given much of a chance to demonstrate
our willingness to fight. It didn't really matter whether the
government allowed us to graze on their land or not. It had already
become impossible to make a living raising beef cattle on the
open range. Market forces had finally rendered such a life impossible.
No, the new rancher used scientific methods of animal husbandry,
which boil down to a few, easy-to-follow guidelines: raise the
cattle in vast warehouses; feed them corn instead of grass, the
natural food of ruminants; inject them with enormous quantities
of hormones so they will grow fat as purple elephants; and give
them copious antibiotics so that their modern lifestyle won't
To help facilitate the family's transition to this new life, my father
sent one of my brothers to college so that someone in the family would
understand how to think about a cow as if it were a watermelon. To help
out with finances, my mother accepted a job from the poor pagans over
on the reservation dealing cards in their new, multi-million dollar
Me? I just couldn't stomach it. I mulled it over for a few days, but
when I'd made up my mind, I decided to have a talk with Pa.
I found him out in the barn oiling his saddle. "Pa, I'm going
to cut straight to the quick. I don't think the modern cattleman's life
is for me. You brought me up to be a cattle man, not a feedlot foreman.
I've decided to do something else; I want to go to school."
Pa looked up from his work. He fixed me with a long stare, while he
carefully weighed his response. "I can't say as I blame you, son.
What kind of school did you have in mind?"
"Well, I've been debating between mechanical
and drama, but I'm having a hard time deciding. What do
He opened a tin of grease and scooped a generous amount onto his polishing
cloth. "Those are two excellent choices, son. But my advice is
to be practical. Everyone knows that mechanical engineers do pretty
good. It pays well, and it's honorable work."
Applying the grease to the saddle in slow, even strokes, he continued.
"But a successful drama expert can really make a name for
themselves. You've heard of Joel Grey? Of course you have! Mary
Martin? I don't even have to ask. Now, quick! Name me a mechanical
engineer. Stumped, aren't you? I'd say your choice is obvious.
You have my blessing to go to school, son. But you have my encouragement
to become an expert dramatist."
Of course, he was right. I traded in my Stetson for a black beret,
my flannel shirt for a brushed cotton J. Crew button-down, my boots
for a stylish pair of suede Kenneth Coles, and headed off to a small
college town in the Midwest. I even sold William and used the money
as a down payment on a darling 1966 Corvair. Once at school, I learned
to ask for hefeweizen instead of Budweiser, to prefer smoking Gitanes
to dipping Skoal, and to describe a humid summer evening as "damp
as Blanche Dubois's handkerchief" instead of "hot as a whorehouse
on nickel night."
Though I do admit to a certain wistful nostalgia whenever I find
myself underneath a dome of stars, or see a man in chaps, I don't
regret trading in my former life roaming the vast expanses of
the western wilderness for my current one navigating the rocky
terrain of the Western Canon. And it was all so long ago, what
difference does it really make? What's done is done.
÷ ÷ ÷
So I hope now you can see why that old codger on the bus who
couldn't believe that I knew my way around the corral would get
on my nerves. I suppose it's not fair to blame him, though. If
I've so successfully transformed myself from dusty cow roper into
worldly aesthete that a fellow cowboy fails to recognize me as
one of his own, I should just take it as a compliment.
So I turned to the old man, and, smoothing my khakis and closing
my copy of Fast
Food Nation, responded, "The difference between a heifer
and a hound dog? What's a heifer?"