I saw a five-year-old cowboy the other day. He had on a fringe vest, a holster, boots and all. He sauntered when he walked. It was in a parking lot - not out on the range - so there was no horse. I smiled when I saw him. He started to smile back, but then got stoic instead. I nodded at him, in a "I see you are a cowboy" sort of way. I think he wanted to tip his hat.
A friend of mine is an actual cowboy - a rancher actually, on the Great Plains in southeast Wyoming. He is strong and good, does not approve of my politics and loves me anyway. Once he let me ride the range with him. I helped round up a couple stray cattle who had broken through the barbed wire fence. He had me chase after one of the strays by galloping my horse up a hill where the stray had gone. He told me to race by the stray and cut him off. It caused the steer to startle and head back down the hill, towards the other cattle, my friend and his horse. It would have been easier for my friend to have taken care of that task himself. He graciously stepped to the side instead, to give me a chance to have the experience.
I have achieved many different feats in life, but this moment stands out as one of the most exciting - when I headed off a steer at the pass. It was the Cowboy in my friend that allowed me my memory.
There is something about the spirit of the Cowboy that causes me to have some faith that humanity can ultimately find its way. Cowboys are the mavericks, who live a zen kind of day, responding to the travails of the moment - its weather, its meals... The closest modern day equivalent for cowboys are Navy SEALs. But Navy SEALs are hand chosen based on quality of character and physique. Cowboys are self-selected - decide for themselves to join the forces that ride the range. And still they are more likely than not to help a stranger in need. Perhaps there is something in the title that draws to it the kind of individual who will help out another if the need arises. Perhaps it is the lack of humanity surrounding them on a day-to-day basis (out there on the range) that creates this tendency towards good deeds when they do happen upon another human being in need. The Lone Ranger is their superhero...
I went to Montana this weekend, to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. On my way, I crossed Lookout Pass - the mountain pass that must be crossed to go from Idaho to Montana on I-90. As I crossed into Montana, I recalled crossing this pass years ago, coming the other way. I was coming home from a trip to Arizona that included spring training book signings for my baseball novel, as well as a book signing at the Phoenix Airport. (Book signings at airports carry their own mysteries.)
As I got to Lookout Pass back then - crossing from Montana into Idaho that time, knowing I was just a couple hours' drive from home - a spring storm hit. Truckers were pulling off the road to wait out the storm. I'm sure they were radioing each other up and down I-90, warning each other not to risk the journey. I had no such wisdom. All I knew was that I wanted to get home. I kept driving.
I became the only vehicle on the road. The snow was blinding. I was terrified. I slowed to a crawl.
Suddenly a truck came up quickly behind me. The trucker pulled into the left lane and passed me at a dangerous speed. As soon as he had passed, he pulled back into the right lane, right in front of me, and put on his brakes - slowed to about the speed that I was going. He terrified me about as much as the weather did. I was pretty mad at him for what seemed to be his recklessness.
Then I realized - he was doing this for me. He was using his truck as a shield for me so that the snow wouldn't blind me, the wind wouldn't try to throw me from the road. I stayed behind him, protected, as we made our way down the mountain. He was in a sturdy truck and didn't have to go so slow - but I did, and he was staying with me until we got out of the storm. I realized the truckers must have radioed each other, saying there was a crazy lady in a little Subaru who was trying to make it through the Pass, through this storm - they must have worried I would die trying (a reasonable concern) - and this guy stepped up, radioed them all back, said he'd take care of it - he'd help me through the Pass.
As we got to the base of the mountain, and the storm had mostly cleared, he took off. I watched him disappear in the clearing fog and realized I would never be able to thank him, or tell him that I figured out what he had done. He likely would have enjoyed knowing it, but it wasn't needed. He had done what he had done because it was what he did. There was no horse, and I presume he did not wear a fringed vest. But he was a cowboy all the same. I wonder if he tipped his hat in the rear view mirror at me as he disappeared from view.