Learning to “Cowgirl Up”

Ready to Ride

If that’s a “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels tapping across polished granite toward the exit, there’s no question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just the Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, concerts, and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone.

With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort turns up wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who generally equate beef with the ribeye on their plate begin discussing the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail  behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, a ballerina, or a nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I could learn to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, incessant whining wore down my parents, and I received a passionately longed-for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a lovely pair of six-shooters and a beautiful, faux tooled-leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody in their Streets of Laredo,  I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

I had my outfit, and loved it so much that I outgrew it before I stopped wearing it. Still, despite the outfit, I was no cowgirl. It took a new life in Texas to move me beyond childhood fantasy to a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl might entail.

Long before I became friends with some real Texas cowgirls, I began to hear stories of the famous ones. In the Coastal Bend,  Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a first book, Cryin’ for Daylight. The title came from a statement made by Will King, an itinerant cowhand: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – always saddle your own horse – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. When I found her words painted on a cedar board that had been washed or purposely wedged into a pile of rocks along a deserted stretch of the Sabinal River, I smiled, knowing she would have been pleased.

And then there was Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death. Through a combination of classic sharp-shooting, political skill, quite ordinary town jobs, and the syndication of a newspaper column, she managed to become one of the largest of the larger-than-life ranch women who populate the American West.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” still can be spotted on Texas streets, since it was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville,


It’s true that, as author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.”  But one of first women ranchers I knew personally had known Hallie and, as she put it, “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I had no idea what she meant by the phrase. Later, I was told that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute — “cowboy up” — meaning that the rider was seated up on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning, suggesting someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “cowboy up!” means, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One of the most vivid examples of a woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming. During the year of her reign, she traveled the country, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, the NY Times reported she would entertain 15,000 Girl Scouts during their annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, of course, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. From all accounts, Helen Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. With no email, Twitter, Facebook, or Skype to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was used by Debbie Little-Wilson as the basis for her print, St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email.  When I saw Debbie’s Cowgirl Saints series, there was no question that St. Helen, along with Debbie’s interpretation of her importance, would have to come home with me.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s artfully enhanced image hangs above my computer desk, next to the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from traditions still living in the far reaches of an unfenced country: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

It may even be that roping calves and wrangling words have more in common than we imagine. Certainly, the solitude of riding the range and the solitude of writing are related, and the fact that so many cowgirls, ranch hands, and vaqueros also are accomplished songwriters, historians, and poets stands as evidence.

In any event, the Smothers Brothers’ humorous parody makes the point obliquely: an “outfit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for successfully riding the range. As generations of ranch women have made clear, all that is needed for success is a good horse, a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up”.

Comments always are welcome.

Analog traveling, Part 2 ~ Landmark and Lifemarks

pawneeblackPawnee Rock ~ George Sibley’s “remarkable rocky point”

Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.

Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by  circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.
Continue reading

Analog Traveling, Part I ~ Mr. Sibley’s Chain Gang

sibley1Crossing the Cimarron desert

While not precisely in the Middle of Nowhere, William Becknell found himself roaming the eastern slope of the southern Rockies in the fall of 1821, conducting trade with Indians in lieu of more lucrative, but forbidden, commerce with Mexico.

Encountering a group of Mexican soldiers one sun-soaked afternoon, Becknell learned that Mexico had won independence from Spain, and trade once again was possible. Seizing his opportunity, Becknell traveled directly to Santa Fe, arriving on November 16. It was a profitable decision:

After a month of trading, Becknell and his party left Santa Fe on December 13th. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned approximately $6000 in coin. The men returned to Missouri safely in January, 1822.

Wealthier and more experienced, Becknell resolved to return to Santa Fe the following summer, but along a different route: rejecting the difficult mountain passes in favor of a diagonal dash across Kansas, through present-day Council Grove, Dodge City, and the Cimarron Desert. Continue reading

After Inauguration: A Poem for Us All

peopleyes Fireborn
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother.
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise.
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”
excerpted from “The People, Yes” by American poet Carl Sandburg

Continue reading

Ringing Out the Old, Ringing in the New

bells

Church bells. School bells. Sleigh bells. Cow bells. Dinner bells and bicycle bells.

Poe captured their variety and vibrancy perfectly: that tintinnabulation that rang and clanged through a different, non-digital world. Generations were introduced to onomatopoeia through his rollicking, unforgettable verse:

Hear the sledges with the bells,
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars, that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Continue reading

Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part II

Cousin Jimmy shares his bicycle with me

I didn’t know my cousin Jimmy’s father, although I knew his name: Red Conrey. He and Aunt T divorced before I was born and, in the way of children, I simply accepted the answer I received when I asked why Jimmy didn’t live with Aunt T and Uncle Harold: “Your aunt was married to Mr. Conrey, but they aren’t married any more. Jimmy lives with his dad.”

Still, the family was close, and there didn’t seem to be any lingering resentments. Each time she arrived from New York, Aunt T made a point of visiting Jimmy at his home in another town, or he came to stay with my grandparents.

Red was working as a house painter when he and Thelma married. Raised in nearby Knoxville, he may have met her there after she graduated from high school and began working at the Marion County Treasurer’s office. When my cousin Jimmy was born, Red was as proud as any father could be. One of the earliest photos of Jimmy, taken in July, 1938, shows him in his father’s arms.

Unfortunately, the photo accompanied a headline that had all of south-central Iowa in an uproar. Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Songbirds

Eastern Kingbird (Click for greater clarity)
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                      ~ Emily Dickinson

Around 1813, Emily Dickinson’s grandparents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, built what may have been the first brick home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Fowler Dickinson, an attorney who participated in the founding of Amherst College, soon had company in the house other than his wife. In 1830, the Dickinsons’ son Edward, also an attorney, moved with his wife and young son into the western half of the Homestead. It was there, on December 20 of the same year, that Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, her sister Lavinia was born: also at the Homestead. Continue reading