Return of the Cowgirl
The Double E guest Ranch in southwestern New Mexico is 30,000 acres of scrub-covered hills and sandy creek-bottom land, broken here and there by steep ridges from which the landscape unrolls to the horizon in smoky vistas. But the scenery, at this particular moment, is lost on me, as I scramble to stay on the back of a horse named Buster, who has just shot several feet into the air.
Being on a bucking horse is profoundly disorienting. My field of vision collapses; the horizon swings back and forth, like a stormy sea seen through a porthole. The familiar polarity of head and tail vanishes. Suddenly, at a slapping trot, Buster recovers the earth, like a drummer emerging from a solo.
Preston Johnson, a 19-year-old ranch hand with a drooping mustache and sad, sky-blue eyes, materializes at my elbow. "Have you ever been on a bucking horse before?" he asks. He floats serenely in his saddle, regarding Buster and me with benevolent concern. "If that happens again," he says, "whatever you do, don't lean forward. Reach behind you and grab the back of the saddle." I look at my hands, in which I am clutching a snatch of Buster's auburn mane.
I have come to the Double E for a dose of the cowboy life. I first ventured out West a decade ago, from North Carolina. On a whim, I accepted a poorly paying job in Santa Fe, packed a suitcase and pointed my truck toward the Pacific. On the high desert plains of northern New Mexico, after four days of driving, I stopped on an incandescent stretch of grassland, and stepped out into a silence so broad and deep my ears rang. Beneath the atomic blue of the sky, my unfocused restlessness intensified, like a pinprick of light under a magnifying glass. This was cowboy country.
And so I discovered Johnny Cash, rode around in pickup trucks, wore big belt buckles and a red leather shirt. For a while, I lived in a teepee. At roadhouse bars on Saturday nights, I stomped around the dance floor with quiet men in tight jeans and pointy boots, unsure whether I wanted to be with a cowboy or simply be one, scraping out a living in exchange for the good loneliness and indisputable cachet of the cowboy life.
In the end, I went back East. I took a series of jobs in a series of cities. I learned about subway systems, "business casual" and cubicle etiquette. It wasn't boring, exactly. There was a soothing regimen to my days that crowded out peskier impulses. Still, I missed the West, so when I had a chance to spend a few days at a working cattle ranch, I leapt at it. This, I thought, dreaming over the dusty, sun-dappled trail-riders on the Double E's Web site, would deliver me to the true heart of the cowboy life.
I doubt that at this moment I much resemble a cowboy. I have arrived at the ranch during a rare rainy spell, and rather than risk getting us soaked on the trail, Preston has been shepherding me and several other guests around the ranch's big arena, which is sloppy with mud. Our horses are soggy and our boots spattered, and there is not a steer in sight.
Preston is a 2004 Silver City Team Roping Champion, as his belt buckle, a gleaming rococo platter, declares. He is trying to teach us the finer points of a sport called barrel-racing, a speed-and-agility rodeo event in which riders weave around a triangle of barrels in a loose cloverleaf, flogging their heaving steeds with the leathers, leaning into the turns like motocross riders, knees almost touching the ground.
But my nerves are rattled from the bucking, and Buster is twitching peevishly at the bit and dancing in place. Better that I walk him along the fence for a while, listening to Preston patiently explaining the routine. I shift in the saddle, trying to find a comfortable bone to perch on. Underneath me, Buster exhales wearily.
What kind of person takes a vacation on what is, essentially, a glorified farm? We are a motley bunch -- the horse-obsessed, the congenitally adventurous, the alpha athletes -- but we share a Mitty-esque infatuation with the cowboy life. Jerry Heck, who is here with his wife, Betty Anne, and has just returned from a stint as a civilian contractor in Iraq, trots endlessly in circles wearing a look of boyish delight. Through determined leg-flapping, he coaxes his horse into a higher gear and jiggles gamely through the barrel course in a pattern of his own devising. The man blistering by on a muscled palomino is Konrad Cartini, a German, who often stays on the ranch for months at a time. He is soft-spoken and bespectacled and rides like an outlaw: his shoulders hunched and his reins held high in front of him, like Jesse James overtaking a stagecoach.
After a while, Preston removes the barrels and sets up a line of orange poles, through which Buster and I execute a halting slalom, like a sot listing down a sidewalk. A woman from Illinois, through constant cajoling, urges her mount through a nimble run. "You almost knocked down that pole," her husband teases when she lopes up.
"Almost only counts in horseshoes," she retorts.