Friday, July 02, 2004

My Old West

In my neighborhood when I was a child there was just one uneven step down from the world of post-war
starter homes into the magical craggy world of, to me, the old west, weathered hillsides of sandstone and limestone, remainders of no long-vanished inland sea but rather only the nearby former boundaries of an ocean within easy sight and hearing. We kids called one deep gully "Skull Canyon," not from our imaginations but from the animal bones lying all about. At one corner of these hundred or so acres was an actual stable with horses for hire where I could ride. Stretched alongside the stables was an area perhaps a mile long and a half a mile wide, an area I roamed alone in all directions with my cowboy hat, bandana, and Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. (I was a nonviolent cowboy, but you never know.) At night I pored through books of cowboy lore, studying brands, saddle parts, barbed wire, clothing (only a greenhorn called them "chaps" instead of "shaps"), and the many ways that the clever application of said bandana could make one's life better, filter dust from long trail rides, soak a hot brow, or apply a poultice to one's trusty pony, come to mind. I knew many cowboy songs, "Your mother was raised way down in Texas / Where the prickly pear and the cholla grow," which I sang everywhere and, in this empty land, at full volume. One day a herd of horses escaped their fenced pasture two blocks from our house and galloped down our street. Who wouldn't believe in the magic of the west?

I lived this happy, solitary life for about six years. Then the canyons and the gullies, the short grasses and the long, were graded to unnatural smoothness and developed into subdivisions. When they marked the outlines of an elementary school on one of my ranges, I spent my outraged energy by pulling up every surveyor's stake.

But the west as I knew it was gone. The sturdy pinto horses with their big leather saddles loaded with conchos and straps disappeared to be replaced further up the hill by large registered animals wearing small leather pads and carrying strangely English-looking riders, no denims, plaids, or roping heels in the lot of them.

Only a few years later, when the best friend I made during my first year in college was getting married at the end of the term, I spent much thought and effort towards getting her the perfect gift: a pair of saddlebags. What could be better, I thought, for that long ride into the unknown? Among the stunned silent guests at the reception I stood alone, thinking, "Yeah, what a great present!"

My old west travels with me always. The songs are still mine, the always remembered smells and cowboy lore, and, especially, in every place I've ever lived or visited when I automatically pull on my shoes and go for a long roam about the countryside.

Come and get it
'Fore I throw it out!

34th birthday, on Chico