Contributed by Chip Ward, author of Stony Mesa Sagas, Torrey House Press (2017). This essay was originally published on Chip’s personal Facebook page.
Like most American kids in the fifties I grew up with cowboys, not the real ones who limp and spit but the heroes on television. Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hicock and other television characters too numerous to name taught me that the world had good guys and bad guys. In my developing childhood brain complexity was dismissed and the binary circuit that divides the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, was built.
The good guys won with guns. Guns were ubiquitous and although lots of guys got shot there was no blood pooling on the floor or spattered across the wall. Messy agony was also absent. Good guys got shoulder wounds and bad guys died dramatically but without screaming. Bystanders never got hit because collateral damage, after all, might muddy the clear divide between good and evil. Likewise, the inevitable gunfights between cowboys and Indians never involved women and children and the savages always started the fight. And the Indians who showed up on screen were mostly indistinguishable from each other and rode in whooping packs like wolves except for Tonto who had seen the light and became a good guy helper. All of this, of course, was pure bullshit. The themes and worldview of those programs had less to do with actual American history and were more about Cold War fears and ideology. A nation traumatized by a Great Depression and a Second World War was threatened by new unfathomably lethal nuclear weapons and so we retreated into a mythic past that was reassuring and inspiring.
Years later I moved “out West” and met real cowboys who worked on remote ranches on the rim of the Great Basin Desert. They were poorly paid for dangerous work without benefits like health insurance. The older ones suffered chronic pain from injuries on the job. Over the long run the strut of youth became the hobble of old age and their so-called independence was traded for undeniable charity. Historical cowboy heroes like Butch Cassidy, I learned, were actually laborers who were laid off and desperate when the cattle market collapsed in the Nineteenth Century from speculation and over-grazing. There was no safety net back then. Like unemployed inner city youth today who are cut off from opportunity they joined gangs and robbed and rustled to get by. Butch’s gang only looks romantic from an antiseptic distance. Up close most members were dangerous criminals. The posses that chased the bad guys were often little more than lynch mobs. And those noble settlers the TV cowboys protected were actually much like today’s refugees fleeing grinding poverty and miserable working environments back where they were born. The real Indians I met shared amazing Native American cultures and a tragic history of genocide and oppression but were, above all else, diverse and resilient individuals.
Despite the disparity between the reality of cowboy life and the mythology, the myth remains popular. I have neighbors who are never seen without their iconic hats. They wear them in their cars and at the dinner table as if removing them would leave them naked and vulnerable without a clear identity. Restaurants are festooned with paintings of men on horses and music extolling the “cowboy way” blares from pickup trucks and bars. John Wayne posters show up in burger joints and motels. The cowboy brand is on everything from football teams to truck commercials. For every actual working cowboy there are a thousand weekend wannabe cowboys.
I suppose it is easier on one’s self-esteem to think of oneself as a misunderstood and picked-upon victim rather than an ungrateful welfare recipient.
Western politicians subscribe to an ideology that is also the “cowboy way.” They pose as proud self-reliant loners who scorn the effeminate habits of Eastern and Left Coast metropolitans with their fluid sexual boundaries, touchy-feely relationships, bleeding heart ideals, and dependence on government rules to protect themselves. The faux-cowboy politicians say they don’t need government regulations and interference, except historically they relied on the rest of us taxpayers to build railroads, highways, dams, reservoirs, pipelines, power lines, substations, schools, civic centers, fire stations, medical clinics, cell towers, and so on. Cowboys don’t get paid unless ranchers get generous government grants while grazing their cattle dirt cheap on public land. I suppose it is easier on one’s self-esteem to think of oneself as a misunderstood and picked-upon victim rather than an ungrateful welfare recipient.
To live in the American West today is to navigate an emotional popular culture built on what can politely be called deep-seated cognitive dissonance. The mental tension required to reconcile myth and reality is often expressed as raging delusion and hypocrisy. Unmoored from the existential world by the beloved cowboy myth, any contradiction is possible. Thus the fake president is the real deal and the path to heaven winds through Trump’s gutter. Real news is fake news. Coal is clean. War is peacekeeping (thank you, Mr. Orwell). Fear and hatred are patriotism. Calling out racism is itself racism. You can loot the public treasury and call it a benevolent tax break or loot the future and call it prosperity and progress. And if you are a citizen in the American West and you join a conservation group with other citizens you are regarded by the powers-that-be as a special interest while gas and oil corporations are treated as clients. Land stewardship is performed with bulldozers and anchor chains while massive pipelines jammed with crude oil are considered compatible with watersheds. Because once you have divorced evidence from conclusion you can disconnect cause from effect and just make it up to suit your purpose. The ultimate reward of the hyper-individual cowboy is that he gets his own set of personally crafted alternative facts to fit any want he entertains.
In my novel Stony Mesa Sagas I tried to convey the challenge of navigating a culture that is in denial about its origins, its genocidal past, its independence, and its cost to the land and the land’s creatures. Maybe it was a karmic exercise on my part. I grew up with cowboys and it took me a long time to see beyond the myth. Stony Mesa Sagas is my way of saying ‘I’m over it now.’
CHIP WARD, after living for four years in wilderness, moved to the edge of Utah’s West Desert, an environmental sacrifice zone, where he organized and led several campaigns to make polluters accountable. He co-founded HEAL Utah and served on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance for several years. Starting as a bookmobile librarian, Ward ended his library career as the Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. His books Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, describe his political adventures. He is a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com and his essays on conservation have appeared widely across the web. An essay about homelessness, “How the Public Library Became the Heartbreak Hotel,” is the inspiration for the movie The Public now in production. As a spokesperson for environmental causes, he has been interviewed by CBS, CNN, NPR, the BBC, and more. Stony Mesa Sagas is his first novel. He lives in Torrey, Utah.