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  • Scotte Burns

The Cowboy's Sunset

- Scotte Burns

Every town in America is historic. Their welcome signs say so, as do the folks who live there. Roswell, New Mexico, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and Deadwood, South Dakota, weave their well-known pasts into tours, street names, and marketing campaigns. But riding the country’s blue line highways means also discovering the pride of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of the world’s first elevated concrete water tank, and Concord, New Hampshire, builders of the first stagecoach in 1827. Riverside, Iowa, defies the tyranny of linear history by claiming to be The Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. Every town, like every person in them, has a story and reasons to be loved.

Throttling the bikes down as we pass the stockyards and then the city limits of Dodge City, Kansas, I lament that my students may never know a country that creates places worth caring about over the long march of lifetimes. They’ll enjoy unimaginable virtual adventures and technological experiences, finally enjoying the flying cars and household robots promised by a long-ago era we called the Space Age. But lives are more transient now, with several careers and numbers of short-time homes the norm. Building places that matter - at least as far as hometowns and the lands under them go - often no longer do, and there isn’t much thought for why they ever did. They are still visible from the saddle of a motorcycle, though. From there, you can still smell the rain on brick streets, hear cicadas in the old trees at sunset, and a stillness at night when the only traffic sound is a train’s horn in the distance. Though we delight in the hopes of what America will become in the future, we see the frontier and hometowns of her past fade, unlikely ever to return. But we refuse to give them up without honoring their echoes because they still have stories to tell.

While riding through Utah and Nevada, I devoured Gary McCarthy’s Our American West, a four-book compendium of the colorful and slowly vanishing stories of frontier America. McCarthy tells tales of the native people, ranchers, prospectors and cowboys, Basque sheepherders, Chinese rail workers, suffragettes, showmen, and criminals who comprised a history that is unique in all the world. As a lifetime denizen of the American West, familiar as a kid with Kit Carson and Crazy Horse, the Donners, the Earps, and Belle Starr, it was a romp through pages of adventure and revelation. I grew up in a place with streets and towns named for the Uintah, the Osage, and other indigenous peoples of the mountain west. Yet I hadn’t understood the humor and art that helped define their own ideas of home or how determined these nations had been to balance their relationships with the whites who eventually mined, fenced, and treatied them off their southwest mountains. It’s right and long overdue for America to have largely moved on from stereotyping our indigenous peoples. Yet, popular media have often swung too far, romanticizing and thereby oversimplifying them as well. So, McCarthy’s books brought those faces and their humanity back to life in the context of the places that mattered to them.

Similarly, I’ve enjoyed the sketches and old tintypes of frontier settler’s Conestoga wagons. Still, I hadn’t appreciated the scale of the “prairie schooner,” stretching up to twenty-six feet long and weighing over four thousand pounds dry. It’s hard to fathom the tenacity and obsession required to wrestle that creaking hulk and its team of oxen or draft horses across every imaginable terrain and climate for months, with a family, through sometimes hostile and predatory lands, all with little more than a rifle and a hope.

The violence and corporate greed of the Johnson County War, the entrepreneurial spirit behind Wells Fargo’s green windows, the vision of western artists Frederic Remington and George Catlin, the ingenuity of the Pinkerton men, Doc Holliday’s cold fury, the touching devotion of an aging Sitting Bull for his adopted daughter, shootist Little Annie Oakley - all made me realize just how proud I am of this part of the country and its heritage. They also show how in the end, folks is just folks, each of them only doing all any of us can: Our best to build a home for our hearts and make the most of the time we’ve been given. Their tales also brought the melancholy of genuinely understanding how the last of the cowboys in the 1890s lamented the passing of their era.

Like them, I see the sun setting on a way of life that will never return and on a proud age in America that will be recorded and studied for a while but will never again be felt and lived the same way. The “greatest generation” is nearly gone. Wal-Marts have replaced Main Streets, libraries are mostly virtual rather than brick, and the combined knowledge of all history and humankind is available on mobile devices more often used instead to take pictures of ourselves. That’s not to say that whatever is to come won’t be grand and will likely be seen as relatively better by those whose times they will be. But I sense the silent passing of things that should still be honored, at least so far as remembering them well and telling their stories.

Like the cowboy, who sat his horse on a ridge and watched the railroad, then the telegraph, and finally dirt roads and automobiles slowly tatter the fabric of life as it had been measured, I see a pioneering and proud part of America edging toward the horizon. In its place are increasing numbers of cyber-entertainments, social media experiments, and people seldom looking up from glowing screens to see the sky or stepping out of their cars to set foot on their heritage and wonder from where it came. So, I will enjoy what’s left of it enough for all of them, drive my students crazy with stories about riding through places that mattered and what they meant, of heroes and times that now blow like tumbleweeds, barely noticed in a virtually more appealing and instantly rewarding world. I will do it all with hope voices will rise above the tiny screens and buttons once in a while to ask, “Mr. Burns, why did it matter?”

Pushing up the brim of a metaphorical Stetson, I’ll happily take them down that dusty trail to sunset, saying, “Drop the phone and pull up a chair, kid. I’m real glad you asked.”


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