I’ve always loved cowboys. The way they look has a great deal to do with it. The sight of the Marlboro man on a billboard can give me a jolt of longing as I drive through traffic on my way to work. I imagine that the way some men respond to the sight of a woman in seamed stockings and garter belt is the way I feel when I see a man in chaps. The rough leather directs the eye up the legs to the place where the leather stops, just below the groin. The tight fitting jeans, the boots with spurs, even the hat with its rakish, playful shape, contribute to an image that I find deeply appealing.
It’s an image that suggests ruggedness and wildness, cockiness, a sense of fun and an intimate power over animals. Until the summer of l993, however, I did not associate this image with a fine-tuned intelligence. I did not expect a cowboy to be articulate and well read, I expected him to possess a crude, right-wing dumbness, so that for a woman with a certain education, a romance with a cowboy would be a misalliance.
I was intrigued, then, when I heard about cowboy poets. I was writing and producing a Western t.v. series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, when one of the wranglers on the set showed me a poster for a cowboy poetry and music festival in Elko, Nevada.
The wrangler, Earl McCoy, had puffy jowls and a stomach that pooched out over his belt, but the cowboys on the poster were lean, muscular, perched on a fence rail with their Stetsons tipped down over their foreheads.
“These men write poetry?”
“Hell, yes,” Earl said. “Good poetry.”
“Where is Elko, Nevada?”
“About four hours East of Reno.” That was four hours East of not much.
He gave me tapes of them singing and reciting their poems, and after listening to them, I knew I had to go. I talked my friend, Jeanne Davis, a colleague on the show, into coming with me, and arranged to write an article about the festival so that if it proved a disaster, I wouldn’t be wasting a weekend. The other producers on the show joked that we were going to Elko “to get laid by cowboys,” and, of course, there was a seed of truth in this. I had an instinct something might happen in Elko but I did not put much stock in that instinct; I didn’t pack any form of birth control.
Two weeks later, I stood in my closet trying to decide what to wear. Jeans, obviously, but I had Calvin Klein jeans, I would look like a city slicker but that was unavoidable. I washed my hair and let it dry, fluffing it with my fingers. My hair was curly and when I was younger I’d spent painful hours trying to tame it, straighten it with crimpers, blow it dry or wind it on giant rollers with Dippity Do, but now I left it natural. Everything in my grooming routine was honed for efficiency and speed. I wore no makeup. I smoothed on skin moisturizer with sun block, pulled on the jeans and a teal-colored shirt from Banana Republic and Italian shoe-boots and I was ready to walk out the door.
I drove my daughter, Sophie, who was eleven, and my son, Gabriel, ten, to their dad’s house, opening the back of the station wagon to let Sophie out with her cat, Butterball. She was wearing a brown tank top, brown corduroy jeans and brown nail polish with gold polka dots.
“Why can’t I come with you?” she said.
“You know why. It’s your weekend with Dad.”
“If it’s all right with him, can I come?”
I hugged her. “I’ll be back Sunday night. I’ll bring you a present.”
Gabriel was dragging his skateboard out of the car, along with a bag full of CD’s. “Can I have money instead of a present?”
“I’ll take a present then.” He leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “Love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.” I watched them walk to the door and waited for it to open. “Don’t forget your reading!”
When I pulled up to Jeanne’s house, she was waiting on the sidewalk with two large tote bags. She’d once been a flight attendant and I knew that in those tote bags was everything we could possibly need: a travel alarm clock, three boxes of bandaids in three different sizes, containers of healthy Sun chips, regular and barbecue flavor, herb tea bags and an electric coil to heat water for the tea.
“Why are we doing this?” I said.
“It’ll be a hoot,” she said, buckling her seat belt.
“We have no idea what we’re going to find.”
She switched on the radio to KZLA, the country music station, to set the mood. “Earl goes every year.”
Heads turned as we walked through the airport in Nevada to pick up our rental car. Jeanne was five feet ten, with that long, dazzling, bright blonde hair you find on women in Sweden, and I was equally tall with dark hair and neither of us wore a bra. We did not look as if we came from Elko.
We drove across town, passing the Red Lion Motel which had two giant plastic steer in front, the Commercial hotel which had a white king polar bear rearing up over the door, numerous feed stores and Brenda’s Wedding Chapel, where you could get married with no blood test and no waiting.
When we arrived at the Elko Fair Grounds, however, we saw that the bleachers we’d expected to be filled with cowboys were packed instead with families–tourists wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying Big Gulp drinks. On the stage, a group of geriatric cowboys were singing “Tumbling Tumbleweed,” and one broke into yodeling. Jeanne looked at me. “We’re having an American experience.”
We left the stands and walked through an exhibit shed where people were selling cowboy crafts and gear. We bought tooled leather belts and silver necklaces, looked at hand-made boots and saddles and were nearing the end of the exhibit when a man called to me.
“New York Times,” he said, reading the badge I’d pinned on my shirt. “What’s that?”
I turned and looked at him. He was wearing a tan Stetson and dark aviator glasses, and had brown curly hair that tumbled to his collar. Did he really not know?
“Oh. I thought it was a mathematical problem.”
I looked at Jeanne and rolled my eyes.
“What do you do for the newspaper?” he asked.
He nodded. “Figures. You’ve got those beady eyes.”
Jeanne said, “Don’t you mean, piercing?”
“That, too,” he said.
I turned away, saying softly to Jeanne, “This guy’s a jerk.” She took a closer look. “I don’t know. He may be deep.”
Reading Group Guide
What was happening? How could I be so driven, obsessed, besotted by sex? I was almost fifty, starting on the path toward what the literary lionesses — Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette — extolled as the third stage of a woman’s life, ‘Triumphantly post-sexual.’ Not me. I was not going gentle down that path and I was flummoxed.
Questions for Discussion:
- Have you ever met someone at a party, a bar, or a public event, felt a spark of interest and turned away? Why did you walk away? Did you regret it?
- What made Sara receptive to Zack? If they’d met when they were younger, what might have happened?
- Why do you think the children reacted so violently to Zack’s continued presence?
- What does Cowboy suggest about contemporary parenting?
- Do you think it’s possible to have great sex without love? Why is the physical relationship in Cowboy so important?
- How did Sara expand and challenge Zack’s views?
- What did Zack offer Sara that she’d never experienced?
- Whose needs come first: your children’s? Your partner’s? Your own? Does Sara rearrange her priorities through the course of the story?
- What aspect of this relationship seems to represent the greatest hurdle: Money? Cultural difference? Class barriers? Conflict with the children? Which would you find most difficult to overcome?
- How do the events in Sara’s life affect her writing on the TV show? Does art imitate life or is life imitating art?
- What do you see as the prospects for this relationship in the future?
Endorsements and Interviews
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Author of Riding the White Horse Home
“Davidson executes Cowboy with intelligence, candor and humor. Her shot is true.”